The “Poverty” of Sexual Orientation

In the grave new world of “male,” “female,” and fifty other Facebook “gender-identity” categories purportedly describing everything in between, maybe it’s time to ask once more, for context: Just what is sexual orientation?

For example, here I am, a man married for a quarter-century (yes, to a woman, just to be clear); we have eleven children. That should make me “straight,” right? But am I “straight” enough? Set aside the dizzying rabbit-hole of sexual identity for the moment. In contrast, it seems the only thing secular culture wants to consider regarding sexual attraction is whether I’m sexually attracted to men (I’m gay), women (I’m straight), or both (I’m bisexual). So, yes, I’m sexually attracted to some women, certainly, but not all women. This makes me “straight”?

If we can have fifty-something flavors of gender identity, why not more than the three categories describing sexual orientation? Shouldn’t the “orientation” label include the reasons why I’m attracted to some women but not all women? For example, I’m attracted to brunette women rather than blondes. Other preferences come to mind—a certain body type, a certain facial profile, a certain way of speaking, a certain sense of humor. Am I merely a “heterosexual” or am I really a “body-mass-index-specific, facio-centric, voco-determinative, humor-dependent brunette-erosexual”? Can “straight” adequately describe my “real” sexual orientation?

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Here is the problem: sexual orientation is merely a calculation derived from collecting data—data about our experience of sexual attraction toward other persons considered over a certain period of time.

To be clear, sexual attraction is supposed to be at the service of love (or the communion of persons), but it is not love itself—it’s an impulse or desire that we experience without willing it. Rather, we must respond to the impulse through the use of our intellect and will. Thus, sexual attraction is designed to lead to us loving a real human person.

This also means that sexual “orientation”—being an impersonal collection of information about sexual attraction—is not only farther removed from “love” than is sexual attraction, but it’s also a more clearly “reductive” or “impoverished” category because it actually removes the value of the human person by focusing squarely on the sexual “values” of a person and not the person himself. It’s an abstraction that treats the human person as an object, which we are not supposed to do.

At least my above “brunette-erosexual orientation” is less reductive than “straight” because it begins to point to “this” particular woman rather than simply “a” woman. Even so, sexual attraction does not exist so that we can objectify other persons by analyzing them to see whether I find their sexual values attractive or not. The “poverty” of sexual orientation is that it ultimately distracts us from treating persons as persons.

Sex Drive and the “Test-Drive”
Let’s use a fairly simple analogy to put this in perspective. Every time we experience an impulse of sexual attraction, it’s like we’ve been suddenly whisked away unwillingly and placed in the driver’s seat of a car that we can “test-drive”—the car is already running, but it’s in “park” and not “drive” (to put it in “drive” we have to choose or will to do so).

So, look around—what is it about this car that appeals to you? Should you actually drive the car or leave it in “park” and get out of the driver’s seat? You have to decide what to do next.

That’s how sexual attraction works: we experience it and then must choose what to do next with it. Every time. After enough “test-drive” opportunities, looking around to see how this or that car appeals to us, we even begin to collect enough data to create a “blueprint” that illustrates the kind of vehicle we always seem to end up sitting in. Each time we’re “whisked away,” there seems to be a pattern—the car’s always blue, it always has tilt-steering, power brakes, etc.

The generic car “blueprint” is like sexual orientation. It collects the data on all the cars, so you begin to have some sense of expectation as to what car you’ll end up in during each potential test-drive. Yet, the truth is that it’s not the blueprint that’s important or even essential—you can’t test-drive a blueprint. You can only test-drive a real car.

In other words, what’s “real” is sexual attraction (each car itself), not sexual orientation (the abstract blueprint that describes a collection of cars).

But this car analogy can take us further. During each test-drive (each experience of sexual desire), we have to decide first whether to put the already-running car in gear and take it somewhere. The problem is that not all destinations are equally safe. Where will this particular sexual attraction take us if we choose to put it in gear? Will it be a dead-end street, like pornography? Will it be a hit-and-run, like adultery or fornication? Or, will this test-drive in an attractive car also take us to the destination we desire—the experience of real love with a real person?

When we make the right choice, our sexual attraction, like the attractive car, can be the vehicle that transports us to a loving communion of persons. That’s what it’s meant to do. But, once this happens, something else unexpected happens to our magical “test-drives”—more and more, we only want to test-drive the car that brings us to our beloved, our spouse. Sure, sexual attraction often whisks us away—even when we’re married for 40 years—and tempts us with different “test-drives,” but only one car now takes us where we really should be going. So we leave those other running motors in “park” and get out of those driver’s seats, waiting for the one car.

True “Orientation Change”
Having said all this, here’s the real hinge upon which this analogy turns, and upon which we can vividly see the bankruptcy of sexual orientation when compared to sexual attraction.

Once we’ve found the one car (real spousal love), the sexual orientation “blueprint” remains not only “unreal” but it also gradually becomes increasingly inaccurate. In fact, with the passing of time, what we had once carefully put in our automotive blueprint (the data collected from our experience of sexual-attraction “test-drives”) no longer describes the vehicle we’re driving. We’re driving the one car—not the blueprint—and like all cars, they change with time. All those blueprint features of the appealing souped-up roadster of yesteryear begin showing their mileage.

Backing out of the analogy, in real terms, the blueprint of sexual orientation no longer “fits” the lived experience of sexual attraction one feels toward one’s spouse once time has changed the hair color from dark to gray, the body type from thin to not-so-thin, etc. For the longtime married couple, the sexual attraction that led to a loving spousal communion of persons so long ago can now be seen in its proper light. Rather than being sexually attracted to some generic-blueprint “her” because of certain youthful or pristine sexual values, the husband of 50 years remains sexually attracted to his wife of 50 years precisely because her uniquely personal sexual values belong only to her, the beloved—not because they still match some 50-year-old blueprint.

Simply put, sexual orientation is a concept that loses all of its meaning once sexual attraction actually does its intended job. Once you willingly subordinate each and every experience of sexual attraction to your love for your spouse, your “orientation” shifts to a specific one, not an abstract group. If you want to call something “orientation change,” this is it.

My sexual “orientation,” therefore, really isn’t “straight” or even “brunette-erosexual.” My real orientation actually is a unique person and has a name: so, in case you’re curious, my orientation is named “Sue.”

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)


  • Jim Russell

    Jim Russell lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He writes on a variety of topics related to the Catholic faith, including natural law, liturgy, theology of the body, and sexuality. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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