This is the third post in a series responding to people who answered this previous post by saying ‘if this account of gender you attack is so bad, what’s your account of it?’ Rather than trying to give a completed and systematic answer, I’ve been focused on resolving some of the seeming tensions that people saw among different ideas I had committed myself to. The first post was about membership criteria – who counts as what gender? The second post, yesterday, was about the idea of an individual gender identity, and how I could consistently think both that gender is socially constructed and that gender identities might (sometimes) be innate.
In this post I’m going to talk about gender and sexual attraction. People standardly talk about sexual attraction in terms of being either ‘into women’ or ‘into men’ or both, and there’s sometimes controversy about what exactly this means. If a monosexual (i.e. straight or gay) person is exclusively ‘into men’, does that mean they’re attracted to members of a biological ‘sex’, or members of a social ‘gender’, or what?
Now, I don’t want to legislate the meaning of words, and the empirical facts of human attraction are probably very messy and complicated, so my aim is not to lay down some rule about who qualifies as ‘straight man’ or a ‘gay woman’ or whatever. There are a lot of fuzzy boundaries here and people should navigate those boundaries for themselves. But I do think there’s a tension in the sort of view I’ve been defending, which it would be useful for me to address, just to try and say ‘here is one consistent position that is available.’
The tension as I see it is between two ideas: on the one hand, the class to which a monosexual person’s desire is oriented might be a gender class, including cis and trans people of the same gender; on the other hand, desire is in large part responsive to concrete physical features of a person – it matters how someone looks, sounds, moves (maybe smells?), etc. The tension is that what connects cis and trans people of the same gender, on my view, is their gender identity, a psychological rather than physical trait, so it can be hard to see how gender in and of itself could be what, so to speak, gets the motor running.