This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
The recent California judicial decision upholding Prop. 8 has inflamed very strong emotional reactions all along the socio-political spectrum regarding the relationship between civil liberties and the private realm of sexuality.
When civil liberties are legislatively abrogated based upon very private criteria such as sexual identity and preference, it is worthwhile to explore some of the psychological origins of the beliefs implicated.
The pervasiveness of sexual imagery in our acquisitive culture, commandeered by marketing strategies so routinely as to be utterly banal and nearly asexual, has done nothing to assuage our general anxiety about sexual matters. Paradoxically, while whitening toothpaste is purchased in order to increase sexual attractiveness, candid discussions of actual intimacy and human sexuality often provoke uneasy squirming. It appears that desire is only endurable generically and somewhat remotely. When it becomes personal, it grows dangerous fangs.
An examination of sexuality requires a functional vocabulary and an understanding of a few major concepts. Gender refers to the biologically determined structural and chromosomal characteristics of being male or female. Most babies are born with clearly identifiable features consistent with specific male-female biological markers, though some present with mixed features, making it difficult to ascribe definitive gender with certainty.
Gender identity refers to one’s subjective experience of gender that may conform comfortably to biological determinants, or it may not. It may fall somewhere along a continuum where some traits become more fully developed than others regardless of biological gender.
An individual who feels ill at ease with his or her respective gender is understood to have a gender identity disorder. This simply means that for some reason, an individual’s perception of his or her gender is not sympathetic with his or her biological-chromosomal structure.
Sexual orientation refers to attraction and object of desire, whether one prefers sexual engagement with men, women or both. Distinct from gender, it has less to do with personal identity and more with personal preference.
For example, a man married to a woman may come to feel as if he is really a woman entombed in a man’s body, all the while remaining sexually attracted to his wife. From the outside, he would appear to be a heterosexual who became a homosexual, yet he would actually have changed only his identified gender.
A woman who dates men throughout college may eventually fall in love and spend the rest of her life with a woman. Her identity as a woman remains stable while her sexual preferences may fluctuate.
Sexual variety and plasticity
Sexual orientation occurs fluidly along a continuum that is generally more protean than gender identity. Because of its nuanced variability, sexual orientation is complex and confounds convenient attempts to be discretely categorized. Sexual orientation, therefore, is ambiguous, and as such, is capable of producing strong feelings of anxiety among those who experience their own ambiguous impulses threatening, dangerous or perverse.
Though fluid sexual orientation has always been evident among human populations, the percentage remaining relatively stable over time, heterosexuality has usually been preferred arbitrarily over supple sexuality for socio-cultural reasons, much as boys were preferred over girls throughout history and still are in many cultures. Secular and religious laws governing sexuality were and are mostly about crowd control.
You may recall from junior high social studies that women were not permitted to vote in this country until as recently as 1921. Therefore, to better understand our current sexual polemics, psychological beliefs, collective mores and defensive stratagems must be examined.
From the moment we emerge from our mother’s body, squalling and utterly vulnerable, a curious admixture of far-flung family traits that make relatives smile and cry, we are sexual beings. Unaware of gender and its cultural ramifications, we are alive with erotic yearnings that initially insure our survival. This is best described as pan-sexuality.
At our core, sexuality is neither male nor female. A pre-genitally sexual state, early sexuality is simply an appreciation for erotic comforts, a full belly and clean diaper. Most importantly, it is the vehicle whereby we achieve human contact and initiate our first relationships. Desire fuels attachments.
Sexual development and childhood eroticism
Our very desires to breathe and suck nourishment are erotic. A nursing baby rests within the warm arms of a comforting and nurturing parent. Human contact insures survival and is soon linked with feelings of love. These infantile erotic feelings constitute the bedrock of future sexuality.
The sexual play between small children is generally exploratory, as children are learning about their own bodies and are intrigued by the bodies of others. Still immature, this behavior is not consciously directed toward genital gratification, but it is extremely erotic. A form of pan-sexuality, it is what might be considered all-sexual.
Long before a child has clarified his or her sexual identity and orientation or is developmentally ready for genitally sexual encounters, he or she experiences intensely erotic relationships. The same-sex friendships cultivated by elementary aged girls and boys are intensely erotic, even though they are not usually genitally sexual.
The jealousies and envies experienced by girls and boys are intense because they are erotic. Two girls playing nicely together will erupt into fury when a third threatens their calm dyad, and they often react in ways that suggest adults confronting infidelity.
Eventually, sexual orientation acquires definition and clarity, though sexual maturity takes time even for the most stalwartly identified heterosexual. Though a large percentage of boys and girls come to desire one another in culturally normative ways, the memories of early pan-sexual impulses and encounters remain embedded in conscious and unconscious memory.
In a culture that marginalizes homosexuality, these early erotic experiences can be very disconcerting to someone who perceives him or herself as absolutely heterosexual and may produce a great deal of emotional and cognitive dissonance or conflict. In fact, the memories of these intense childhood relationships may later serve to fuel homophobia.
Sexual ambiguity provokes anxiety
Most of us prefer consistency over unpredictability, and discrepancies stir anxiety and fear, particularly among adolescents and young adults who are still emotionally and developmentally fragile. An adolescent boy happily dating girls may begin to fear the intensity of an old friendship with a male childhood friend and, subsequently, sever the connection, unconsciously confusing childhood eroticism with homosexuality. Or, perhaps he is experiencing homosexual impulses along with heterosexual ones and simply doesn’t know how to handle his conflicted feelings.
I’ve treated many adolescents of both genders who are confused by the fluidity of their emotional states and uncertain sexual orientation, leaving them to wonder whether they “like” girls or boys. I explain that sexual orientation is not necessarily absolute and that they will learn more about themselves as they mature. Accepting and even appreciating uncertainty facilitates healthy development, opening up a viable space in which individual growth may occur unimpeded. As a result, adolescents become better positioned to manage ambiguity in the future.
The compassionate parent of one young patient remarked once in the waiting room that he had also experienced similar confusion during his youth, and that while he knew how his own life had turned out, he wasn’t sure how or what his child would ultimately feel about his own sexual orientation. He did, however, permit his child the necessary freedom to discover his own true nature, and eventually he did.
Defensive dynamics and homophobia
Not everyone is equally comfortable with uncertainty, particularly when it pertains to sexuality. Individuals who are uncomfortable with their pan-sexual core must tackle the unenviable task of defending themselves against their most primary layer of erotic being and have few viable options to rid themselves of their emotional discomfort.
Dispatching psychological dilemmas without actually resolving them often proves emotionally costly. Just as a body dumped in a lake will likely rise to the surface, permanent disposal of unwelcome feelings requires constant effort to keep them buried out of awareness.
Denial temporarily makes scary feelings disappear. As the existence of primary pan-sexuality is refuted, strong heterosexual traits and identifications might be cultivated in an effort to compensate. Adolescent boys frequently disdain fashionable clothing styles fearing they would look “gay.”
Others might suppress any vague impulse at variance with desired heterosexuality. This is denial’s cousin. A woman who notices another beautiful woman on the street might push her transient attraction out of awareness, unconsciously fearing that only lesbians have erotic responses to other women. The entire fashion industry might be construed as an admixture of envy and homoeroticism employed in the service of capitalism. This oscillating dynamic also fuels the cult-of-celebrity machine.
The last defense against the echoes of childhood pan-sexuality is simply to slice it off as if it never existed in the first place. The uncomfortable feelings are jettisoned away and located elsewhere where they are more comfortably managed externally. Rather than saying, “I feel uncomfortable,” this person says, “something is wrong with you.” Projection represents the most dangerous defense, because the hated part of the self is most frequently located and then attacked in an individual who embodies those hated traits, often a gay individual.
A young male patient who once had his face painted whimsically at a carnival along with his friends, was hurt and confused when his mother frowned at him and turned away in disgust. Apparently, she experienced his creative playfulness as sexually threatening and alarming. Her response was to project her own repressed sexual insecurities on a sexually neutral situation.
This last defensive stratagem embodies the origins and dynamics of homophobia. A despised part of the self is protectively and unconsciously converted into a deadly projectile. The greater the unconscious fear of pan-sexuality or sexual fluidity, the greater the homophobic reactivity and more hateful the subsequent assaults. The young man who was murdered and hung on a fence post several years ago illustrates the deadly outcome of such a vicious projective process.
While Prop. 8 was not a bloody coup, when examined psychoanalytically, it might be construed as a psychological assault against the civil rights of those whose sexuality was perceived as dangerous only because it stirred up uncomfortable, unmanageable feelings of early infantile pan-sexuality.
People who strive to integrate all the disparate parts of themselves, who grapple admirably with the socially esteemed characteristics along with the less likable or desirable traits, are not threatened by individuals who differ and ultimately have no need to disparage them in any way. As we mature and come to engage our own individual complexities with wisdom, so are we increasingly capable of graciously and empathetically appreciating those of others.
This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Contact Dr. Heller at 714/662-7975 or