Running Along the Cliff: The Plateau Phase

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life, in some detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, please don’t. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

This is about finding a silver lining in a cloud.

Actually, it’s about finding a big, fat vein of silver in a cloud.

In recent years, as I’ve gotten older and my body has changed, I’ve been having a harder time coming. I sometimes get stuck in the pre-orgasmic “plateau” phase of sexual arousal, and it’s harder than it used to be to push out of that and push my body over the cliff and into freefall. It always happens eventually — with the help of my trusty vibrator if nothing else — but it often takes longer than it used to, and it’s rather less reliable. I never know when it’s going to come easily, and when it’s going to kick up a fuss.

This has been, as you might expect, a source of some irritation. For many years, coming was easy as pie for me. Given a reasonably attentive partner, I could generally come within a few minutes of feeling it on the horizon. And when I was my own partner, “a few minutes” was more like “a few seconds.” If I wanted to draw a sexual experience out (alone or accompanied) and delay my orgasm to make it more intense, I had to make a conscious effort. So over the years, I got very used to being able to come more or less on demand. And when orgasms started becoming more elusive, it was a little frustrating: partly because I liked thinking of myself as easy to please, and partly for the obvious reasons.

I’ve come up with a number of strategies for dealing with this. Among other things, I’ve been exploring different kinds of sensation, re-discovering what my changing body does and doesn’t like. But there’s one strategy in particular that I’m finding especially compelling. And since I know I’m not the only person — especially the only woman — who’s dealing with this situation, I thought I’d share it with the rest of the class.

It’s the strategy of not worrying about it.

If I’m having a hard time coming, I’ll sometimes just let go of that particular goal for a while. I’ll let myself enjoy the pre-orgasmic “plateau” phase. Savor it. If I feel like I’m stuck on the edge of the cliff, I’ll let myself run alongside it for a while, and experience it for what it is.

There’s sometimes a very annoying paradox with orgasms: the harder you strain to have them, the more elusive they can become. So if I’m stuck in that loop, where trying to bring on the orgasm is just chasing it away and the effort is becoming more frustrating than pleasant, I’m learning to cut the Gordian knot. I stop tensing up and striving, and just relax; I take long, deep breaths instead of short panting ones; I stop moaning and squirming, and stay more quiet and still. I quit trying to come, and just let myself savor that “intensely turned on but not yet coming” plateau thing.

And in doing so, I’ve been finding a whole new realm of sexual pleasure.

The plateau phase is awesome. If I really sink into it, if I really let it be and lose myself in it, staying in plateau for a long time is almost like a whole other kind of climax. Like a climax in a parallel universe. It’s overwhelming in a different way: less like being hit by a wave, and more like sinking into a hot bath. Or getting a first-rate massage. Or lingering over a long, lavish, exquisitely- prepared meal. It’s a state of heightened awareness that is at once intensely focused and thoroughly relaxed.

Outstretched hand
Letting myself stay in the plateau phase also dovetails nicely into this thing I’ve been working on lately: a quasi-Zen practice of being more present in the world, being in the moment and letting things be what they are, noticing the world and loving it and letting it flow through me, instead of tuning it all out and living in the bubble of my plans and anxieties and fantasies and memories. Lingering in the plateau phase is very much a part of all this. It can create an intense and unique sense of connection, both with my partner and with myself. Instead of struggling to get from Point A to Point B, we’re letting each moment rise and fall, and thoroughly experiencing it… and then letting it go, to make room for the next one.

And the thing about the plateau phase? It can last for freaking ever. I don’t know how long — it’s not like I have a stopwatch in my bedside table — but it sure is longer than an orgasm. And because it can last so long, I can explore the emotions and sensations of it much more patiently, and much more thoroughly, than I can with an orgasm. Which contributes both to the “be here now” quasi-Zen thing and to the “overwhelming in a different way” thing. The drawn-out quality lets me be patient and present with what I’m experiencing… and it gives me time to sink into the experience, richly and deeply and all-consumingly.

And the funny thing? Doing this is actually a pretty good technique for bringing on an orgasm. The reverse of the Annoying Orgasm Paradox is also true: yes, trying to force an orgasm will often chase it away, but if you relax and stop trying to make yourself come, it’s more likely to sneak up on you. And if I’ve lingered in the plateau phase for a really long time, the orgasms I eventually have are usually way more intense.

But I can’t make that the point. Making that the point would defeat the purpose, and would catapult me straight back into the Annoying Orgasm Paradox. And anyway, I don’t want to make that the point. I want to let the plateau be its own point. The point is that the cliff is beautiful, and I want to spend some time exploring that beauty, instead of just looking for ways to hurl myself off of it.

Running Along the Cliff: The Plateau Phase

Greta Speaking at Skepticon 3, Nov. 19-21 – and Skepticon Pin-Up Calendars Now Available!


Just a reminder, y’all: I’m going to be speaking at Skepticon — the totally awesome, free- of- charge atheism/ skepticism conference, happening November 19-21 in Springfield, Missouri. I’ll be speaking on Saturday, November 20, at 10:30 am, on Atheism and Sexuality. (“The sexual morality of traditional religion tends to be based, not on solid ethical principles, but on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn’t want people to have. And while the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it still often frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience. What are some atheist alternatives to these views? How can atheists view sexual ethics without a belief in God? And how can atheists view sexual transcendence without a belief in the supernatural?”)

Hosted by the MSU Chapter of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Skepticon 3 is happening Friday November 19 through Sunday November 21, at the Springfield Expo Center in Springfield, Missouri. Other speakers include PZ Myers, Amanda Marcotte, James Randi, Debbie Goddard, Dan Barker, D.J. Grothe, Rebecca Watson, Victor Stenger, Joe Nickell, Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, John Corvino, J.T. Eberhard, and Brother Sam Singleton. I am so freaking proud to be on that list and in that company, I can’t even tell you.

And yes, the conference is free — I mentioned that, right? You have to cover your travel and hotel expenses (or else hitchhike and sleep in the park or something), but the conference itself is entirely free of charge. You are advised to register in advance, since it may be a full house. There’s pretty cheap lodging available as well, in the Holiday Inn Express right near the conference center, at the special Skeptical Rate of just $89 a night, or $104 for suites at the University Plaza (also right at the conference center). In case you don’t want to sleep in the park.

So come to the buckle of the bible belt, and raise some non-existent hell with me and your fellow non-believers! And if you’re there, be sure to find me and say howdy!

What’s more: Skepticon’s fundraising pin-up calendars, the Skepchick and Skepdude calendars for 2011, are now available! Chock-full of yummy photos of scrumptious skeptics of both genders (intelligence is so sexy!), nearly nude but for strategically-placed clothing and bits of iconography (or what PZ refers to as “Feng Shy”), the Skepchick and Skepdude calendars make a tasty and tasteful way to express both your skepticism and your pervery. As a fence-sitting bisexual, my only problem is that I can’t decide which one to get. (Clearly I should just get both…) And you’ll be helping fund the Skepticon conference… which, as I mentioned, is being put on entirely free of charge, to make it accessible to folks who normally can’t go to these sorts of conferences. If you think that’s a worthy cause — or if you just want a hot pin-up calendar with smart sexy near-naked skeptics on it — be sure to get yours today! Here are some images to tempt you. Drool….

Womens - APR Medium

Men - JAN Medium

Womens - DEC Medium

Men - DEC Medium

Womens - FEB Medium

Men - JUN Medium

Womens - AUG Medium

Men - NOV Medium

So help keep Skepticon going, and buy your Skepchick and/or Skepdude calendar today. Order both and get $2.00 off!

Greta Speaking at Skepticon 3, Nov. 19-21 – and Skepticon Pin-Up Calendars Now Available!

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheist Activism Is Not A Waste of Time

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheist activism is not a waste of time. Rates of non-belief are going up at an astonishing rate, around the country and around the world. In fact, in every state in the U.S., the fastest-growing religious affiliation is “none.” Those of us trying to get atheist ideas out into the world are clearly doing something right. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheist Activism Is Not A Waste of Time

Atheist Meme of the Day: Religion Can Be Criticized Like Any Other Idea

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Religion is an idea about how the world works — and it’s just as valid to criticize it in public forums as it is to criticize any other idea. If you think it’s okay to criticize ideas about politics, science, medicine, art, philosophy, food, and so on… why should religion be treated any differently? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Religion Can Be Criticized Like Any Other Idea

Bad Boys and "Mad Men": What Do Women Want?

This piece was originally published on CarnalNation.

Mad men
Why do smart, strong, feminist women get hot for rogues and Lotharios, sexy but selfish bad boys who use women and throw them away?

The fourth season of “Mad Men” has just concluded: the brilliant, beautiful, painful, inspiring, fascinating TV series on AMC about a New York ad agency in the early 1960s, and the screwed-up, rapidly- changing- but- not- rapidly- enough world of gender and race and sex during that place and time.

And it’s reminding me of a rant I’ve been wanting to rant for a little while now:

Why are so many women hot for Don Draper?

The lying, philandering, self-absorbed, work-obsessed, emotionally warped, goes- through- mistresses- like- cigarettes, sexist prick of a lead character, Don Draper?

Via Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon, we have this charming article in the New York Observer, speculating on why Don Draper is inspiring so much lust in so many women. The gist of the article is that feminism has been too successful — and women aren’t happy with it. We’ve gotten our equal partners, men who share housework and child-care, men who express their emotions and support us in our careers, men who treat women with respect and value home and family more than work… and it’s letting us down. What we really want is Don Draper. And we’re hypocrites for expecting men to be more feminist… while fantasizing about sexist bad boys who treat women like dirt.

Speaking as someone with a mild Don Draper fetish (although Joan Holloway is the “Mad Men” character I really crave): This is just silly and wrong. It’s silly and wrong for so many reasons, I can’t even begin to outline them all. (Although I’m certainly going to try.)

Don draper 1
For one thing: Don Draper isn’t a standard Bad Boy. He’s not a conventional Lothario, chasing tail indiscriminately, purely for his own sexual and ego satisfaction, with no interest in women as people, and no recognition of their equal humanity. For starters, he has more than a kernel of genuine respect for women — certainly way more than any other male character on the show. He’s the one who recognized Peggy Olson’s talents as a copywriter, and who helped her repeatedly in her pioneering climb up the Sterling Cooper ladder. (Help that often came in complicated and ambiguous ways, to be sure — but help nonetheless.) Not to mention his singular, impassioned, entirely necessary support of Peggy during her time of terrible need. That was an act of pure human compassion and friendship… one that transcended gender.

Rachel menken
And look at his taste in women. Every woman Don cheats on his wife with is intelligent, independent, unconventional, and in some way defiant of traditional gender roles. Proto-feminists, one might even call them. (In fact, I’m wondering now if part of the Don Draper fantasy has to do with wanting to be one of the strong, edgy, fascinating women he gets the hots for.) What’s more, he has a genuine emotional connection with these women, a connection he’s largely lacking with his wife, Betty… and a connection that seems to be a major part of why he pursues these affairs. And this taste in women is, I think, a huge part of the attraction. It’s not about him being a sexist throwback to a time when Men Were Men. It’s about him being a complicated man who’s drawn to strong, interesting women.

Especially given the context of his time. I think this is something that gets overlooked in this “women really want sexist manly-men” analysis of “Mad Men.” It’s not like “sexist” versus “feminist” are all- or- nothing categories, with everyone falling into one or the other. It’s a spectrum. So yes, in the context of 2011, Don Draper falls squarely into the “sexist philanderer who uses women and discards them” end of that spectrum. But in the context of the early 1960s, in the context of the other men all around him in the Manhattan ad agency world? He’s Gloria Freaking Steinem. Which makes you start to wonder: if he was this forward- thinking about women and gender in 1961, what would he be like today? Which makes him interesting… and attractive.

Pete campbell
(It’s worth noting that, while Don Draper has throngs of admiring female fans, Pete Campbell — who’s way more unambiguously sexist and overtly misogynist than Don has ever been — does not. Hey, actor Vincent Kartheiser is a hottie, too… but as far as I know, women aren’t wetting their panties en masse over Pete. They’re running for the exits whenever he comes on screen. He’s a complex character, one who inspires pity and compassion as well as revulsion… but he’s not inspiring hordes of modern women to join the Pete Campbell, Please Fuck Me Now Fan Club, the way Don Draper is.)

And, as Amanda Marcotte pointed out (in a Tweet, which I now of course can’t find): Maybe just a little, bitty, teensy weensy part of the Don Draper appeal might have to do with the fact that actor Jon Hamm is so eminently fuckable. Maybe the attraction is just marginally related to the fact that Jon Hamm is ten pounds of gorgeous in a five pound bag, one of the tastiest snack treats to come out of the media world in a good long time, and women would want to fuck him if he played Phil Donahue. It’s possible that the tiniest sliver of the Don Draper fantasy is really about wanting to spread Jon Hamm on a biscuit and eat him up for breakfast. Maybe just a skosh. [end sarcasm] As Marcotte pointed out: Do we really think women all over the country would be drooling over Don Draper if he was played by Ron Howard?

But while all this is important, I think it’s missing the most important crux of the matter:

What we fantasize about, and what we want in our real lives, are not necessarily the same thing.

It’s a huge mistake to assume that what people fantasize about is the thing they most sincerely want. People can be very happy and satisfied in their lives, and still fantasize about a life that’s different. People can be happy in fairly settled, stable lives, and still fantasize about danger and adventure. People can be happy in unstructured lives with a lot of travel and unpredictability, and still fantasize about a life of calm, peaceful contemplation. People who’ve happily chosen job satisfaction over money can fantasize about winning the lottery. Happy urban dwellers can fantasize about bucolic tranquility. Happy parents can fantasize about quiet and cleanliness.

Ultimate guide to sexual fantasy
And that’s especially true for sexual fantasies. People fantasize about all kinds of sexual things that they don’t really want to do. People fantasize about — to pick the most obvious example — force or coercion or rape, without actually wanting to be forced or coerced or raped. (Or wanting to force or coerce or rape someone else.) Some people even want to consensually act out these rape fantasies… but that’s not the same thing as wanting to be raped in reality. And many people who have rape fantasies don’t even want to act them out consensually. They want to keep them strictly as fantasies.

So to ask women, “How can you be hot for Don Draper and still say you want men to treat you with respect?” is like asking women, “How can you have rape fantasies and still say you want rape crisis centers?”

I do think fantasies can offer a clue about our desires. If there’s a fantasy I’m having very consistently, it’s often a clue to what’s missing in my life. I have more fantasies about submission when my life is feeling overly managed and scheduled. I have more fantasies about being sexually powerful and dominant when my life is feeling out of control. I have more fantasies about men when I’m mostly having sex with women, and vice versa. It’s even true of my non-sexual fantasies. I have fantasies of peaceful retreat when my life is becoming too harried; I have fantastical, grandiose, Mary Sue-esque fanfic fantasies when I’m feeling like life is too ordinary, too much of what a friend described as “the quotidian march to the grave.” Fantasies can be a clue about what we don’t have in our lives: a portrait drawn in negative space, a signpost to the road not taken.

But the road not taken isn’t necessarily the road that ought to be taken. Or even the road that we most sincerely and secretly want to take. Every choice means giving up a different choice, and we can be happy and at peace with our choices, while still recognizing that other choices have their pleasures to offer… and while still enjoying fantasies about where those choices might have taken us.

And, of course, one of the most crucial things about fantasies is that they always turn out exactly the way we want them. This is something that most sane adults understand, and that Observer writer Irina Aleksander seems to have overlooked. When we fantasize about bucolic retreat, it’s never suffocating or tedious; when we fantasize about adventure and danger, it’s never uncomfortable or terrifying. And when women fantasize about bad boy rogues who treat women like dirt, the bad boys almost never treat us badly. They’re fascinated with us. They find us hauntingly compelling: so hauntingly compelling that, even though they usually use women and toss them aside, they somehow can’t tear themselves away from us. (Boy, is it embarrassing to admit that.) I think that’s something people forget about bad-boy fantasies. Much of the time, they’re not about bad boys. They’re about bad boys going good because of us. They’re not about wanting to be mistreated. They’re about wanting to be special.

And it’s entirely possible to enjoy idealized fantasies of being special, so special that we inspire the dangerous, callous, villainous bad boy to change his ways (while retaining his dangerous edge, of course)… and still, in our real lives, recognize these bad boys as the self-absorbed jackasses they are. It’s possible to recognize that the reality of bad boys is nowhere near as much fun as the fantasy.

Xander harris
I once took a silly test in a celebrity gossip magazine, testing which male hero in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” you’d want to be involved with: Riley, Xander, or Spike. (Angel, for some reason, was not on the list.) At the time, I had a huge clit-on for the dangerous, unpredictable, amoral, bad-boy Spike; he occupied an embarrassingly large portion of my fantasy life, and I whacked off to him more often than I care to admit. And yet, when tested on what kind of man I might actually want to be in a relationship with, my answers pointed, with startling consistency, to the funny, good-hearted, down- to- earth Xander.

Which was absolutely correct. Not about Xander — I’m definitely a Willow or Giles girl — but about preferring funny, good-hearted, and down- to- earth over dangerous, unpredictable, and amoral.

Sometimes, obviously, fantasies really are a sign of what we want. The years-long persistence of my lesbian fantasies was a big freaking clue to the fact that I’m a dyke. Ditto the years-long persistence of my kinky fantasies. And that’s worth paying attention to. Sometimes, fantasies do tell us what we truly want and are not getting.

But sometimes, they really don’t.

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And it’s ridiculous to call women hypocrites for daydreaming about one thing, while wanting something entirely different, something better, something far more richly and seriously satisfying, when we’re back on earth.

Bad Boys and "Mad Men": What Do Women Want?

Atheist Meme of the Day: We're Not Lumping All Religions Together

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Criticizing religion is not the same as “lumping all religions together.” Most atheists understand that different religions are different, and that some do more harm than others. We still don’t think any of them are right. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: We're Not Lumping All Religions Together

Atheist Meme of the Day: There Is No God-Shaped Hole in Our Hearts

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists do not have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. People evolved to yearn: to explore, to be curious, to search for more than what we already experience and know. We don’t have a God-shaped hole in our hearts — we have a hole-shaped hole in our hearts. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: There Is No God-Shaped Hole in Our Hearts

News about Lydia

Lydia on back of sofa

Hi, folks. If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging much in the last few weeks. There are a number of reasons for this — an intense travel/ speaking tour schedule, the Head Cold of Despair and Disillusionment that flattened me last week — but one of the main reasons is that we’ve been dealing with a medical situation with our cat, Lydia. I wanted to fill you all in about it, and try to give a sense of how it’s likely to affect my blogging in the coming weeks.

A few weeks ago, our cat Lydia was diagnosed with cancer. We didn’t know at first whether the cancer was fast- growing or slow-growing, so we held off on telling all but a few people about it until we had more information and a more accurate prognosis. It now looks like it’s probably the slower form of cancer, and it looks like there’s a decent chance that it’s treatable. But the cancer is being complicated by additional medical problems she’s having with her appetite and digestion. We’ve had to put the cancer treatment on hold for the most part until we can get her digestive problems under control, and it’s looking like the digestive problems may require surgery.

Dealing with this is taking a fair amount of our time, as well as a fair amount of our mental and emotional energy (particularly of the “having to make difficult decisions with limited information” variety). This is even more the case since our other cat, Violet, also has an ongoing medical condition: she’s in good health for a cat of her age, but she needs meds and a special diet, so she and Lydia now have to be fed separately, which makes feeding time at the zoo rather complicated. And we’ve had a number of “having to drop everything and rush Lydia to the veterinary emergency room” situations in the past few weeks: we hope we’re done with those for a while, but of course we can’t know that for sure.

The upshot is that… well, that this is taking a fair amount of my time, and a fair amount of my mental and emotional energy. Plus I still have my day job, speaking engagements to prepare for, something resembling a life to lead, and so on. So in the next few weeks, I may not be blogging as often as I normally do, and I may have to interrupt my schedule (including the Atheist Meme of the Day schedule) without much warning. Please accept my apologies. I’ll be back on track as soon soon as I can. And please send Lydia your prayers healing white light best wishes for a speedy recovery. We’ll pass them on to her in the form of chin skritches and belly rubs. Thanks.

News about Lydia

Is Atheism A Belief?

Is atheism a belief?


I really wish I could just leave it at that. Maybe post a funny story about Einstein instead, or show you some cute pictures of our cats.

But I suppose I can’t just leave it at that.

Here’s the thing. One of the most common accusations aimed at atheists is that atheism is an article of faith, a belief just like religion. Because atheism can’t be proven with absolute 100-percent certainty, the accusation goes, therefore not believing in God means taking a leap of faith — a leap of faith that’s every bit as irrational and unjustified as religion.

It’s a little odd to have this accusation hurled in such an accusatory manner by people who supposedly respect and value faith. But that’s a puzzle for another time. Today, I want to talk about a different puzzle — the puzzle of what atheism really is, and how it gets so misunderstood.


Thus begins my new piece on AlterNet, Is Atheism A Belief? To find out more about why, exactly, atheism is not a belief — and about how the muddy definition of the whole concept of “belief” turns this topic into a complicated, slippery mess — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Is Atheism A Belief?

Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines

On Sunday, AOL news — perhaps not the best source of science reporting on this beautiful green earth — reported on a study supposedly showing that gay parents are more likely to have gay kids. Unfortunately, some of the responses I’ve seen from the LGBT community have focused, less on whether the science in question is sound (it seems likely that it’s not), but on whether the conclusions of this study are likely to hurt our cause. So it seemed like a good time to revive this piece from the archives, on the dangers of criticizing science simply because it reaches conclusions we don’t like.

When I first came out into the gay community, one of the most common party lines going around was, “Gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids than straight parents.” Some of the big political battles being fought at the time had to do with gay parenting, and the community was trying to reassure/ convince the straight world that it was “safe” for gay people to have and raise kids, that our kids wouldn’t be any more likely to be gay than anyone else’s. (Of course, many of us personally thought, “So what if our kids turn out gay? There’s nothing wrong with being gay, so why does it matter?” But we knew the straight world didn’t feel that way. Hence, the line.)

Not too long after that, I started hearing the party line, “Being gay isn’t a choice — we’re born that way.” Again, this was used in political discussions and debates, as a way of putting anti-gay discrimination in the same civil rights camp as racist or sexist discrimination… and as a way of gaining sympathy. Now, this would seem to be in direct contradiction with the “Gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids” line. If people are born gay, doesn’t that mean it’s genetic, and doesn’t that mean gay parents are more likely to have gay kids? But in fact, these two party lines overlapped. I heard them both at the same time for quite a while… and I never heard a good explanation for why they weren’t contradictory. (Please see addendum at the end of this post for clarification of this point.)

Then I started hearing the strict constructionist line. “Sexual orientation is a social construct,” it said. “Our sexuality is formed by our culture. All that ‘we’re born that way’ stuff — that’s biological determinism, rigid, limiting, a denial of the fluid nature of sexuality and sexual identity.” (I am embarrassed to admit that I bought and sold this line myself for quite some time, in a pretty hard-line way… solely because I liked the idea.)

And now… well, now it’s kind of a mess. Some in the queer community say, “it’s genetic,” and argue that this is a core foundation of our fight for acceptance. Others fear that the “genetic” argument will lead to eugenics, parents aborting their gay fetuses, the genocide of our community. The constructionist line about rigidity and determinism still gets a fair amount of play. And more and more I’m starting to hear the combination theory: sexual orientation is shaped partly by genetics, partly by environment, and may be shaped differently for different people.

And in all of these debates and party lines, here’s what I never heard very much of:

Evidence to support the theory.

Or, to be more precise: Solid evidence to support the theory. Carefully gathered evidence. Evidence that wasn’t just anecdotal, that wasn’t just personal experience.

The line of the day — and the debates in our community surrounding it — always seemed to be based primarily on personal feeling and political expedience. I’d occasionally hear mention of twin studies or gay sheep or something… but that was the exception, not the rule. And the line has shifted around over the years, based not on new evidence, but on shifting political needs, and shifting ways that our community has defined itself.

I am profoundly disturbed by the ease with which many in the queer community are willing to dismiss the emerging science behind this question. Yes, of course, scientists are biased, and the research they do often reflects their biases. But flawed as it is, science is still the best method we have for getting at the truth of this question (and any other question about physical reality). Double-blinding, control groups, randomization of samples, replication of experiments, peer review: all of this has one purpose. The scientific method is deliberately designed to filter out bias and preconception, as much as is humanly possible.

It’s far from perfect. No reputable scientist would tell you otherwise. Among other things, it often takes time for this filtering process to happen. And it completely sucks when the filtering process is happening on your back: when you’re the one being put in a mental institution, for instance, because scientists haven’t yet figured out that homosexuality isn’t a mental illness. But when you look at the history of science over time, you see a consistent pattern of culturally biased science eventually being dropped in the face of a preponderance of evidence.

And if you’re concerned about bias affecting science, I think it’s important to remember that many of the scientists researching this question are themselves gay or gay-positive. We can no longer assume that scientists are “them,” malevolent or ignorant straight people examining us like freakish specimens. Many of them are us… and if they’re not, they’re our allies. Yes, science often reflects current cultural biases… but right now, the current cultural biases are a lot more gay-positive than they used to be. And that’s even more true among highly educated groups such as the scientific community.

But more to the point: What other options are being offered? How else do we propose to answer this question? Or any other question about the possible causes of human behavior? If answering it based on science is subject to bias, then isn’t answering it based on our own feelings and instincts even more subject to bias? How can we accuse scientists of bias in their attempts to answer this question — and use that accusation as a reason to dismiss the science — when our own responses to the question have been so thinly based on evidence, and so heavily based on personal preference and political expedience?

Unless you’re going to go with the hard-core deconstructionist argument that there is no reality and all of our perceptions and experiences are 100% socially constructed, then you have to accept that the question, “Is sexual orientation genetically determined, learned, or a combination of both — and if a combination, how much of each, and how do they work together?”… well, it’s a question with an answer. It’s not a matter of opinion. And it’s exactly the kind of question that science is designed to answer: a question of cause and effect in the physical world.

I’m not a scientist myself. But I’ve been following this question in the science blogs for a little while now. And as best I can tell, here’s the current scientific thinking on this question:

1) Sexual orientation is probably determined by some combination of genetics and environment (with in utero environment being another possible factor). (Here, btw, is a good summary of the current scientific research on this topic, and how it evolved.)

2) We really don’t know yet. The research is in the early stages. It’s probably a combination of genetics and environment… but we really don’t know that for sure, and we don’t know which factor is more influential, or how they work together, or whether different people are shaped more by one factor and others by the other. We just don’t know.

But I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: We should not be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer we would like to be true. We should not be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer we find most politically useful. We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is true. We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is best supported by the evidence.

If we don’t, then we are no better than the creationists, refusing to accept evolution because it screws up their view of the world. We are no better than the 17th century Catholic Church, refusing to accept that the Earth revolves around the Sun because it contradicted their theology. We are no better than the Bush administration, refusing to recognize clear warnings about Iraq and Katrina and global warming because it got in the way of their ideological happy thoughts. We are no better than the “Biology for Christian Schools” textbook, which states on Page 1 that, “If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”

If we expect the straight world to accept the reality of our community, the reality that our lives and relationships and families are as healthy and stable as any other, then we ourselves need to be a committed part of the reality-based community. And we therefore need to accept the reality of the causes of our orientation… whatever that reality turns out to be.

So why don’t we try a different angle for a while. Maybe something like this:

“We don’t really know what causes sexual orientation. And we don’t think it matters. It’s probably a combination of genetics and environment, but until more research is done, we don’t really know for sure. And we don’t think it matters. It’s an interesting question, one many people are curious about — but it doesn’t really matter. Homosexuality doesn’t harm anybody, and it doesn’t harm society, and our relationships are as healthy and stable and valid as anybody else’s… and it isn’t anybody’s business but our own.

“We deserve rights and recognition because we are human beings and citizens: as much as racial minorities, whose skin color is inborn, and as much as religious minorities, whose religion or lack thereof is learned. The ‘born versus learned’ question is a fascinating one, with many possible implications about human consciousness generally. But it has absolutely no bearing on questions like job discrimination, or adoption of children by same-sex couples, or whether we should be able to marry. We don’t yet know the answer to this question… but for any practical, political, social, or moral purposes, it absolutely does not matter.”


Addendum: As several commenters to the original post pointed out, it is actually possible for a trait (such as sexual orientation) to be genetically caused or influenced, and still not be any more likely for parents with that trait to have kids with it than parents without it. Fair point, and worth knowing. But I think my basic point about party lines, and the prioritization of political expedience over scientific evidence,still stands. After all, we didn’t know that in the early ’90s. Geneticists may have known it, I don’t know — but lay people in the queer community definitely didn’t. And yet we were still willing to repeat both tropes: the “we’re born that way” trope and the “gay parents aren’t any more likely than straight parents to have gay kids” trope.

Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines