By Rhys Southan
I met Liam when he came to Austin to perform at the SXSW music festival. The vegan co-op house I was living in agreed to take in a musician for some free wristbands that would get us into shows, and Liam was that musician. Some of us got lunch with him at Austin’s locally famous macrobiotic restaurant, Casa de Luz. We sat at a large round table together to eat brown rice, aduki beans, sunflower seed cheese, and greens — a meal that was a perfect balance of yin and yang — and when the conversation turned to masturbation and its inevitability as a teenage coming of age ritual, I felt compelled to complicate the discussion by defiantly pointing out I never masturbated until I was 21. Liam laughed loudly, and looked at me like he was thinking, “You’re weird and I like you.”
Liam later invited me to his performance at a club in Dallas called Trees, which has fake tree trunks coming out of the floors to hold up the ceiling. When he was on stage, playing his theremin and singing, I thought, “Liam may be the most beautiful boy I know.”
After the show, he gave me two free CDs and told me this was because he had a crush on me. Almost everyone else had left. There were three spotlights shining straight down on the all-but deserted floor, and he sat cross-legged in one of them. I sat in another. We shyly looked at each other and talked about music, presumably, and life, presumably — and even if both of us had leaned as far outside our spotlights as we could, we were too far apart to kiss.
The night felt magical to me, and almost romantic. “Almost” because there was a problem. This was not so much that my girlfriend was with us, sitting in the third spotlight. That did, however, hint at the problem. The night wasn’t as romantic as it should have been because I felt no sexual desire whatsoever for Liam. And this was because I am hopelessly embarrassingly unwillingly straight.
Later Liam asked if I wanted to make a music video for him. It’s time to confess, the only idea I had was about a hopelessly embarrassingly unwillingly straight guy watching Liam perform while fantasizing bitter-sweetly about being gay and having a life with him. “I better not tell Liam my music video idea,” I thought. Instead, I brainstormed ideas for a screenplay I never wrote called Chauncey’s Choice, about a straight high school student who tries to train himself to become gay so he can like the boy who likes him.
And of course nothing ever happened between me and Liam.
To say I wanted to want Liam, but didn’t want him, doesn’t do justice to the feeling I had. I could want to want absolutely anyone who is attracted to me, including people I feel nothing for whatsoever. If I’m single and lonely, why not? With Liam, I was already as close as I could get to wanting him; my orientation was the only thing in the way. I imagined that if I had been attracted to cis men — and single or polyamorous — I would have somersaulted into his spotlight and kissed him. I was so close to desiring him that I felt the loss of that absent desire.
I thought about “Liam” again last year when I read a draft of an upcoming book by Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu called Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships. It’s about the ethics of existing and potential drugs that can promote love for those who aren’t feeling “enough” of it, or alternatively diminish love for those who are feeling “too much.” In one chapter, Earp and Savulescu claim that eventually there could be effective methods for changing sexual orientation, making sexuality more fluid than it ever has been. They call it high-tech conversion therapy, or HTC, and it sounds good to me.
Asexuality strikes me as perfectly logical, and so do pan sexuality, bisexuality and omni-sexuality — sexual attractions that do not rule out anyone purely on the basis of sex or gender. It’s the narrow in-between orientations like my own that I find arbitrary and not at all reasonable. Without exception, so far, my attraction mechanism rules out males as possible subjects of sexual interest. It’s only if someone appears not to be male that sexual attraction might be possible for me.
This is clearly irrational. I don’t mean in a self-interested sense, even though that’s true too. What I mean is if we were to impose a logical consistency constraint on sexual attraction, my own would definitely fail. My orientation is pretty much entirely body-based. My gender expression preferences can mix things up a bit, though, as I am a fan of the tomboy aesthetic. So I have to ask my sexual orientation, why this rigidity? There is far more bodily overlap between male, female and intersex people than discontinuity. Female, intersex and male skin looks and feels the same. On average, males tend to have harrier torsos and longer bodies than females, but there are plenty of cis women with harrier torsos and longer bodies than mine whom I find attractive. There is no consistent difference between intersex, male, or female eyes, noses, lips, tongues, legs, arms, ears, hands, necks, asses, or hair textures or colors. If experience hadn’t taught me otherwise, I would think that even if my attraction mechanism were so dogmatic as to rule out sexual magnetism when other penises got involved, I should at least get turned on by putting my hands through male hair, kissing male lips, grabbing a male butt, or looking in male eyes. I haven’t tried all this, to be fair, but that’s because my attraction mechanism has already made itself pretty clear: “Sorry, there’s a penis on this person’s body, so you can’t like any of this.” And I think that’s silly and disappointing.
It could be that there’s an outrageously large number of metaphysically possible sexes and genders, and the disposition for attraction to many of these may be in most of us without them ever being activated or recognized, because only a few of all the possible sexes and genders have appeared on earth so far. So maybe our orientations aren’t as narrow as they might seem to many of us now. Someone who identifies as asexual, monosexual, or bisexual now might one day be attracted to gender and sex categories we can’t imagine.
Maybe. But that doesn’t help me now.
Anyway, the irrationality, or at least a-rationality, of my orientation doesn’t bother me so much as the orientation itself. Sometimes I would like to be sexually attracted to far more people than I am, and sometimes I would like to be sexually attracted to no one. But I don’t seem to be able to change my orientation by contemplating the absurdity of the peculiar limitation of only being sexually attracted to people who apparently have female bodies. To change that, I need HTC.
Not everyone thinks HTC is a good idea. The main worry I’ve seen discussed is that many queer people will be pressured to join the sexual conformists (“straight recruitment”), or the currently queer might eagerly convert to unqueerness because it’s rational in their own personal circumstances. The latter is seen as bad for potentially decimating queer communities, and increasing pressure and oppression against queer people who refuse to leave their natural orientations behind.
In “Sexual Reorientation in Ideal and Non-ideal Theory,” Candice Delmas and Sean Aas argue that for reasons like these, we should not develop HTC while queer people are still oppressed. Delmas and Aas do concede that if orientation conversion ever became possible, converting would not all be toward conformity. They point out that, like me, there would be people who would broaden their orientations out of interests in particular people, or more generally for transformative experiences. They conclude their paper with Kurt Cobain’s own desire to be queer. The lead singer of Nirvana called himself “gay in spirit” and wished he could be gay in reality so he could be closer to men, and also to “piss off homophobes.” Delmas and Aas write that Cobain’s oppression-fighting intention would have made it permissible for him to convert out of his straight jacket, but still insist that given our current unjust social context, the widespread availability of these neurointerventions would be more harmful than helpful.
The social effects of this technology, if it ever comes to exist, will be extremely complicated, with consequences we can’t foresee. But my own intuitions about some of the possible effects of widespread HTC suggest Delmas and Aas are wrong about the main trends. I think this technology would be largely beneficial, even if it were available now, because it would lead to there being more queer people, not fewer — and this would transform societies in mostly positive ways.
It’s easy to see how Delmas and Aas reached their conclusion. Queer people are subjected to hatred and oppression for the nature of their sexual attractions. Many queer people have been forced into fraudulent orientation conversion therapies that do nothing but cause pain and humiliation. Many queer people have desperately wished they could sexually conform, in order to escape oppression, or because they have beliefs that are at odds with their own orientations. There is little like this pushing non-queer people to become queer, nor have we heard many non-queer people announce their desire to be queer.
That near silence is, I think, misleading. Part of it probably has to do with a relative lack of urgency. I was sad for a while about not getting to pursue a romantic relationship with Liam, but I was not contending with a religion that wanted to ex-communicate me, a family that was abusing me and threatening to throw me on the streets, or strangers threatening me with suffering or death simply because of my attraction or lack thereof. My disappointment was frivolous in comparison, and I still had the option to date other people I was attracted to.
But I believe another significant reason for the cisheterosexual silence about converting is that reorientation therapy has been framed as something that supposedly changes people from being queer to being non-queer, and not the other way around. There are people who think orientation conversion is already possible, and pretty much everyone who thinks this is only interested in maximizing sexual conformity. Belief in a homophobic god probably has a lot to do with this. If your religion tells you being queer is wrong, and maybe even punishable by eternal suffering, it can be difficult to make sense of an omni-benevolent god that would create people who are inescapably queer. Either something is wrong with the religious beliefs, or their god is an asshole, or escape must be possible… so escape must be possible. People who don’t believe in a homophobic god typically don’t contemplate sexual orientation conversion for themselves, because they know it doesn’t work. If HTC were available, and if it could push us in any direction we pleased, it would no longer be just the promoters of cisheterosexuality contemplating conversion.
An important reason to think widespread HTC would lead to more queer people rather than fewer is that, to start with, there are far more non-queer people than queer people. Even a small percentage of straights converting could overwhelm the number of people going the other way. Of course that’s irrelevant if non-queer people have no reason to change, and if we should expect only queer people to convert. However, even in the absence of oppression for non-queer orientations, I see plenty of reasons for the straights to change.
I can think of at least one purely practical reason for many straights to convert. People who live somewhere with a significant sex or gender imbalance, and are part of the group that outnumbers the other groups, could benefit from being sexually attracted to each other. This could be helpful in sex-segregated universities, for instance, or in towns or countries that have significant gender imbalances. In general, broadening one’s orientation will often be a good idea for the lonely.
Changing orientations may also be an effective way to quickly recover from a devastating break-up. What better way to get over your ex than to not be sexually attracted to them at all? Last year I mentioned this idea to someone who told me that as she was going through a break-up with a man, she realized she was becoming sexually attracted to women and only women. She confirmed this did make the break-up much easier.
Some people may be more comfortable around others of their own sexes and genders. For them, it could make sense to have same-sex and same-gender attractions, although this also depends on whether the reason they are more comfortable is because of the lack of sexual attraction. Others may find that people of a particular sex or gender disproportionally express interest in them, and so would want to convert to create more mutual attractions.
A more odious version of this would be men who want to lose their attraction to women because they hate women. This would be a bad motive for conversion, or for anything else, but as far as consequences go, conversion in these cases may be best for all involved. Some unhappily celibate men claim that women owe them sex; why don’t these men convert and owe sex to each other? Women aren’t generally benefitted by having people who hate them be sexually attracted to them. Plus, it seems likely that some misogynistic men who altered their orientations could have a change in outlook that would make them question and eventually abandon their misogyny.
There are a lot of cheap, ignorant jokes about the dilemma of bisexuals who suffer from being interested in too many people, or the luck of bisexuals who have the great the advantage of discovering mutual attraction more easily. This bifurcation in bisexual joke genres hints at two slightly different ways of thinking about broader sexual orientations. Those who see the broadening of sexual orientation as a largely bad thing may be thinking about desire and unfulfillment. The more desires you have, the more unsatisfied aches of unfulfillment you’re likely to endure, and thus the narrower our sexualities, perhaps the better. In this way of looking at it, asexuality may be best — although this would be oversimplifying, because there are asexuals with romantic inclinations who find dating to be incredibly difficult, and experience loneliness because of their lack of desire.
Those who see the broadening of sexual orientation as largely a positive thing may be thinking about liking as opposed to desire. That is, their framing may be that broadening one’s sexual orientation increases the potential for enjoyable life experiences. If you live in a world where the only fruits are apples and pears, it’s easy to imagine that someone in this world who likes apples and pears has a better time than someone who only likes apples. But in a world of only apples, it would be better to desire only apples rather than apples and pears. To like just about everything and desire just about nothing may be close to an ideal. Then again, perhaps for those with Nietzschean inclinations — or some other beliefs that value complexity and difficulty — maybe that’s too easy.
Anyway. When it comes to expanding sexual orientation, my guess is that likings and desires would both tend to be increased, so as with everything, it would come with trade-offs and would not be the right choice for everyone. For some, swapping one narrow orientation for another, or moving from a broader orientation to a narrower one, would make more sense. People who want to take a temporary or permanent leave of absence from arguably the messiest and most complicated aspects of human life may wish to go asexual. It could be freeing to not need or want anyone romantically for a while. A friend who always found relationships challenging once told me that when he was on the ADHD drug Adderall, he had almost no sex drive at all, which allowed him to avoid sexual relationships and just spend all his time working. When he went off Adderall, that’s what he missed most.
For those who aren’t looking to stay in a sexual relationship, or to start a new one, there’s probably no reason to be sexually attracted to anyone, until someone comes along to change their mind. Taking a sexual relationship break doesn’t have to be tainted with misanthropy or cynicism. Someone might want to quell their sexual attraction to everyone so they can focus on deepening friendships or pursuing non-sexual romances, or just working on projects. I opened this article by describing a desire for a different orientation so I could deepen a relationship by making it sexual. But a lack of sexual attraction between people can lead to strengthened relationships as well — especially compared to relationships in which there is a non-mutual sexual attraction.
I suspect that if HTC became available, it would initially be women leading the stampede toward greater queerness. Earp and Savulescu mention political lesbians — women who believe abstaining from sex with men is essential for feminism — as one group of women who would sign up for actual lesbianism as quickly as possible. This certainly seems right, but is far from the only political reason for going queer. Someone told me a couple of years ago that if Roe v Wade were overturned, she would stop sleeping with men. Her bisexuality made this a relatively sacrifice-free possibility for her. I interpreted her intention as a mixture of protest and self-preservation measure — she really really did not want to get pregnant if abortions became even more difficult to receive. Women who do not want to get pregnant now, or ever, have at least one reason to not be sexually attracted to sperm producers. Abortion is increasingly under attack in the United States. In states where abortion laws are getting more restrictive, going queer could be an effective and powerful protest, along with being smart for personal reasons.
I saw a meme going around last year that went something like, “The fact that women are still attracted to men is proof sexual orientation is not a choice.” All the likes and loves and laughs it got suggested there was a good amount of truth to this joke. If it turns out to be a lot of truth, sexual orientation becoming a choice would almost certainly lead to more queer people rather than fewer. If enough straight cis women made this choice to no longer be sexually attracted to cis men, this would in turn push straight cis men to change their orientations as well.
Some politically motivated men might also be part of the initial wave out of heterosexual attraction, losing their desire for women in solidarity with them, and not just as a reaction to the ever more deafening cricket noises when they checked their apps for matches. One of their motives might be to avoid perpetuating relationships with women that involve harmful power dynamics — something that seems to be more difficult to avoid in sexual relationships between cis men and cis women, but which is of course not a problem exclusive to heterosexual relationships.
I speculated about this possibility with a friend who worried that this high-minded motive would remove men from the straight dating pool who actually care about not harming women — that in trying to avoid misogyny, they would make it worse. But if the dating pool of men who were attracted to women became even more unappealing because of well-meaning men converting to male-only attractions, this would just convince even more women to either expand their attractions to women, or lose their attraction to men. More women using HTC to lose their attraction to males would in turn push more males to lose their attraction to women, or to expand their attraction to men, and pretty quickly the sexual orientation landscape would start to look very different from today’s. As the number of queer people grew, it would likely be the nouveau queer people demanding to know of non-queer people, “Are you really going to stay that way?”
I’m imagining this shift toward greater queerness happening because individuals would be making decisions that are better for them, or which seem like the right thing to do. But there would also be some unintended side effects — both personal and social.
Orientation becoming like a switch you can flip in multiple directions might either make individuals’ sexual orientations a less important or more important feature of their identities. Which one it is could in part depend on how established one is in their current orientation before HTC is available. Someone whose initial orientation has infiltrated their identity pre-HTC might never see their original orientation as trivial, even if they convert to another one. But people growing up in a post-HTC world might never think of their orientation as an important part of themselves. Instead it could seem like an arbitrary default setting that everyone starts with, but which doesn’t mean anything. And yet, choosing one’s orientation could add importance to the orientation or orientations one eventually does settle on, as this may be more expressive of oneself than if everyone is stuck with whatever orientation they started with.
Our default orientations may be arbitrary, but for now, growing up with a particular orientation typically does shape our personalities and lives in significant ways. Converting to that orientation later in life would do the same, but belatedly, and perhaps less thoroughly. And so I would expect there to be some division between the converts and “the naturals” of a particular orientation. Delmas and Aas worry that queer communities would become ghost towns if HTC were available, but the opposite problem strikes me as more likely: an influx of relatively clueless newcomers suddenly overwhelming queer communities, and norms struggling to keep up with all the new issues this brings.
While HTC could expand the sexual relationships available to most of us, it could add to our anxieties as well. Those who naturally default to a particular orientation might be wary of dating converts who don’t. New standard dating questions would become common: “Have you always had this orientation?” “How long have you had it?” “Have you slept with anyone while on this orientation before?” Someone’s recently converting could be a red flag. So would someone’s frequent flipping between orientations. Perhaps the convert is an orientation tourist looking to satisfy their curiosity before resetting to their default, leaving their flings feeling manipulated and heartbroken. New stresses could arise in longer term relationships as well. Someone not being in the mood for sex for a while might provoke vague fears that somehow their conversion isn’t working right. A couple of days after an argument with a partner who is a convert, you find yourself checking your partner’s HTC pills to make sure they haven’t started skipping doses in revenge.
Someone’s having changed their orientation a while back, and then never wavering, would be reassuring. If there were orientation implants that could be used as a more permanent alternative to pills, using those would signal stability.
But imagine the awkwardness of changing your orientation for someone you think you want to be with, and finding that you still aren’t sexually attracted to them even once you have the necessary orientation. This would lead to painful conversations, or worse — some people might feel guilted into sleeping with the still undesired person, or even starting a serious relationship with them. Either way, someone would get badly hurt.
Because of all this, people who have always had their current orientation might be more comfortable dating other people who have always had a compatible orientation, both due to the shared experiences that can go along with having an orientation for a long time, but also for peace of mind.
Strife between converts and naturals could be reduced if people used HTC with the feelings of others in mind. Motives for conversion would matter as well. I suspect that women converting to try to reduce their interactions with straight men for whatever reason would be accepted by queer communities, and my guess is there would be acceptance for those who convert for a particular person, or out of an informed appreciation for queer culture. If Delmas and Aas are right that the introduction of HTC would increase pressure on queer people to join the cisheterosexual norm, I expect many straights would become queer primarily to join the fight against this oppression. As long as they were actually helpful, I could imagine these political converts being welcomed, though of course that’s not for me to decide. In contrast, people turning queer because they want to write a think piece about their adventures “on the other side,” or because they just think it’s corny to be straight — and cool to be queer — might be seen as ignorant, obnoxious, and disrespectful at best. But again, like much of this article, this is just speculation.
There do seem to be plenty of cisheterosexual people who are embarrassed by their own non-queerness. They might be eager to convert because they think being queer better fits with how they see themselves: progressive, radical, and generally not boring cornballs like straights are stereotyped to be. Of course there are plenty of queer people as well who think of themselves as naturally milquetoast and conservative, save for this inconveniently non-mainstream fact about whom they are attracted to. For them, it could be more consistent with their identities to give up their queerness if cisheterosexualism remains the standard orientation even after HTC is adopted. This would lead to some conversions away from being queer, even for queer people who did not feel particularly oppressed. One person I’m thinking of is a pro-Trump woman I met who hates being queer because she despises the left-leaning tendency of queer politics. This suggests that HTC could lead to orientation being selected in large part based on political views, and that HTC could deepen political and social divides in this way — assuming sexual orientation still has political connotations by the time HTC is available.
If I’m right that HTC would lead to more queer people rather than fewer, and fewer cishet people rather than more — and if we can assume that effective harm-reducing norms would develop as we adjusted to the new world of flexible orientations — then it seems as if the benefits of HTC would outweigh the harms. For this to be false, there would have to be some important advantage to the dominance of cisheterosexualism. Is there one?
The best argument I can think to make for the population at large being sexually attracted only to people of sexes and genders that are different from their own is that this encourages mixing of people who might otherwise not interact quite as much. In other words, it forces men and women together, hopefully to learn from each other’s different perspectives and to grow. Aww! I bounced that defense of heterosexualism off a philosopher I know. She deadpanned, “Yeah, and look how well that’s working out.” (We were dating at the time, and in retrospect, I’m not sure if she was musing about the situation generally, or about us in particular.)
Unfortunately, her comeback may say it all. I’m not suggesting HTC is good because it would promote male/female separatism. Men and women would of course still interact even if many of them stopped sleeping with each other. In fact, a decrease in sexual attraction between them might mitigate an aspect of male/female relations that often turns toxic. Men and women may often do a better job of learning from each other when sexual desire isn’t shackling them together.
But should we be worried about fundamental changes in how families are organized and children are raised? HTC could lead to a greater number of “elective co-parenting” style families. These are families that are sometimes more about raising kids than about sexual chemistry between everyone who is raising the kids—though sexual chemistry between some of the co-parents is often a feature of these.
It’s hard for me to see the problem here. What does sex really have to do with parenting? In other words, what exactly is the advantage of parenting partnerships that are largely sexual in nature, or that start off that way? The main reason for people who are raising kids together to also have each other as sexual partners seems to be to create the children in the first place (in the case of fertile heterosexual pairings), and also because parents are typically expected to spend a lot of time together, and so sleeping with each other can be more convenient than finding other people to have sex with. This convenience of co-parent as sexual partner doesn’t seem like a powerful enough reason to avoid creating HTC out of fear that it could lead to less cisheterosexuality and thus more non-traditional and non-sexual parenting partnerships. Co-parents don’t need to sleep with each other any more than co-authors do.
In fact, increasing non-traditional parenting partnerships strikes me as yet another potential advantage of HTC. One’s preferred sexual partner may not always be their preferred co-parent. Parents who are sleeping with each other often lose their attraction to each other, or grow tired of each other, or angry with each other , and when this happens, it often leads to breakups. This can be destabilizing to children who are used to their parents being together. Parenting partnerships that are centered more on the goal of raising children potentially have fewer moving parts that can spin out of control. So if HTC promoting more queer orientations can facilitate that, all the better.
I agree with Delmas and Aas that if we should expect HTC to lead to even more sexual conformity, we should resist it. But this suggests that if HTC were to instead decrease sexual conformity, we should support it. This strikes me as the much more plausible development. If handled thoughtfully, with concern for others, the swelling of queer numbers would be good for queer people and queer communities. Rather than amplify already existing injustice, HTC could hasten its demise.
And on a personal note, I wouldn’t have to be straight anymore.