Jeffrey Thayne

woman with hunger pang
When we feel that familiar pang of hunger in our stomach, we usually desire food. But is that the only thing it can mean to us?

What it means to be an embodied agent is a very perplexing philosophical question, particularly in our age of mechanical/scientific reductionism. Because we often envision physical events as being the inevitable product of impersonal scientific laws and forces, it is difficult to formulate how a physical being can experience genuine moral agency. For example, when a chemist mixes two particular chemicals together, he is usually able to predict beforehand precisely what the results will be. Few people would attribute any kind of moral agency to the chemical process. Also, the behavior of electrical signals can be predicted with such accuracy that engineers have been able to design and built the very computer that I am using while writing this. Again, few people would attribute any kind of moral agency to this computer.

Psychologists typically treat and explain human behavior as though it is the product of impersonal chemical/biological/electrical activities in the brain. The brain is so incredibly complex that it is difficult for them to predict what a person will do based upon the physical state of the brain. However, psychologists and neuroscientists tend to believe that, with enough research, they will be able to unravel and comprehend the complex bio-chemical operations of the brain and, by doing so, access and manipulate the mind itself. I believe that this philosophical framework obviates the possibility and reality of moral agency, because it turns the sum of human thought and behavior into the inevitable product of biochemical interactions.

The central question is this: are our thoughts really the sole product of bio-chemical reactions inside our head? Most Latter-day Saints would say no … at least, not all of our thoughts. Within a genetic paradigm of same-sex attraction, however, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at least some of our thoughts are the product of our biology (particularly, those thoughts that relate to sexual attraction). This may be true; however, there is presently no satisfactory way to explain or describe how a mental/social experience such as a thought or a “desire for something” can arise out of a chemical phenomenon. Also, if some of our thoughts are the product of our genes, which ones aren’t? It is difficult to answer this question at this point using anything more than arbitrary criteria.

A Comparison

Rather than claim that our biology exerts a causal influence on our thoughts and desires, I would like to explore an alternative way to discuss the relationship between our thoughts/desires and our biology and how this relates to human sexuality. To describe this alternative, I would like to embark on a short but extremely relevant tangent.

When I am thirsty, I experience a dry sensation in my mouth. When this happens, I usually think of orange juice. This is because I am in the habit of drinking orange juice when I am thirsty, and it is therefore the first thing that comes to mind when I experience a dry sensation in my mouth. My roommate, however, is in the habit of drinking milk. Milk, therefore, is the first thing that comes to his mind when he experiences a dry sensation in his mouth. I also enjoy milk (thought not as much as orange juice), and I will sometimes drink milk when orange juice is not available. Although not my first choice of beverage, it will quench my thirst just as well.

Sometimes, when I am thirsty, I will say, “I am thirsty for orange juice.” I sometimes talk as though orange juice is the object of my thirst. This means, in essence, that I am experiencing a dry sensation in my mouth and am thinking of orange juice in response. Let’s consider, however: does the dry sensation in my mouth really have an object before I give it one? Or have I simply learned through experience that orange juice will, in a pleasant way, soothe the discomfort I experience? I am inclined to think that, in this case, the very real biological phenomenon known as thirst has no inherent object, and that I interpret that experience as a craving for orange juice.

Jeffrey Robinson uses a similar example. “I experience hunger as a pain right here in my stomach,” he said, “[a] very unpleasant sensation. I don’t like it.” He claims that what that sensation means to him, however, is a matter of interpretation. He continues (forgive the lengthy quote):

For me, that sensation happens to be very similar, if not identical, to the sensation that I feel when I’m nervous. … There have been a number of times in my life when I have said to my wife, “Oh, I am so nervous about something. Something—I don’t know what I’m so nervous about—something’s just eating me up.” And she has said to me, “Have you eaten today?” And I’ll say, “Well, no, I haven’t had time.” And she’ll say, “Oh, sit down.” And so I’ll sit down, she’ll feed me, and it goes away.

Interesting. I had a physical sensation in my stomach, but in and of itself it had no meaning until I put meaning on it, till I interpreted it, till I decided what it meant, till I told a story about it.

I might have that sensation, and I might think about Mexican food, or I might think about all kinds of different things pop into my mind when I think about hunger or feel hungry. I might also feel that sensation and think, “I am fasting. This pain in my stomach represents a spiritual endeavor, to become closer to my Heavenly Father.” I might think when I feel that pain in my stomach, “I’m dieting. This represents an effort to lose wait.” I might think, “I’m on a hunger strike. It represents defiance and anger.” I might also tell a story that would go something like this if it was told out loud: “My life is completely out of control and hopeless. I have no control over anything, and I am in constant depression and anguish. The only thing I can really control in my life is what I eat, and I will lose weight. In fact, when I feel anxious and out of control, I can feel that sensation in my stomach, and it soothes me. It gives me a sense of control in my life until it reduces my anxiety and I literally become addicted to that feeling in my stomach, until I can starve myself to death.” Happens all the time: anorexia.

From this perspective, although we often describe the very real sensation of hunger as a craving or a desiring for something, it doesn’t become such until we interpret the experience in a meaningful or, most often, a mundane way. Another example is an itch. Very few biological sensations demand a person’s attention as immediately as a strong itch on the tip of his or her nose, but the person may scratch that itch in any number of ways. The itch itself does not demand that be scratched with any particular object.

Interpreting Sexual Attraction

Because sexuality (particularly homosexuality) is such an emotionally and politically charged issue, it is sometimes difficult to present alternative ways of making sense of the issue. Dr. Robinson, however, compassionately suggests that we explore the possibility that sexual attraction is an interpreted experience. He continues:

I use [the example of anorexia] because when I talk about things regarding [sexuality being] interpretations, stories, or meaning, people are sometimes offended and think, “No, this is very real.” But the meaning and the interpretations that we put on things in our world are incredibly powerful. They are the means by which we interpret all of our experiences, who we are, and what we are. When we talk about hunger this way, it feels a lot less like some innate, physical drive and more like an experience of meaning-making, of interpretation. Now the same thing is true when it comes to sexuality, except now instead of having an unpleasant physical sensation, we have the ability to become strongly sexually aroused, an incredibly pleasant sensation. But I believe that that sensation in and of itself has no meaning until we interpret it, till we place meaning upon it.

In a similar way, there is historical and anthropological evidence that the attributes that people find sexually attractive has not remained consistent. Of course, the research is not particularly conclusive. However, Robinson continues,

African woman with disc in lower lip
What people find attractive can vary immensely. The questions is, where does that variation stem from?

Let’s say that I grew up in the South Pacific a hundred years ago in some island in the South Pacific; what kind of women might I be attracted to then? Heavy women. Why? Because being heavy meant that women were healthy and well-off. In fact, the same thing is true today: there are places in Africa where beauty queens can pay money and go to gain weight so they can be heavier for beauty pageants, because in places in Africa, being heavy means that you are healthy and well-off.

In our own culture, if I took a beauty queen of today and entered her into a beauty contest in 1930, what would people say about her? She would literally be comic relief; they would just hoot and holler and slap their knees. It would be the funniest thing they’d seen. She would be so incredibly tall and gangly, she’s look like a beanpole; so skinny that she’d look sickly; and tanned like a common field laborer, like a lower class person. She’d have no chance at all.

In other cultures, men might be attracted, however, to women who stretch their necks out with brass rings or stretch their earlobes down to their lips or who shave their heads or knock their front teeth out. And men in those cultures find those attributes to be erotic. When we talk about sexuality that way, it sounds a lot less like some innate physical drive and a lot more like an interpretation, a way of viewing things, a way of understanding things.

Indeed, I believe that it is important that we recognize this alternative way of understanding our relationship with our biology. If we continue to think of ourselves, our thoughts, and our actions as victims of our genetics, we risk diminishing the reality of genuine moral agency and meaning-making in human experience. Is sexual arousal a desire that has a built-in object, or is it a physical sensation which becomes a desire as we interpret it? I believe that we cannot dismiss outright either possibility; however, I presently see a stronger case for the claim that it is an interpreted experience.

For example, the very existence of masturbation leads me to believe that sexual arousal is a biological sensation that in and of itself doesn’t care what satisfies it (much like an itch, or the dry sensation in the mouth). In other words, if it has to be man or a women that satisfies our sexual urges, how could we ever experience sexual pleasure in the absence of both? However, being such a morally and socially relevant subject, the manner in which we satisfy our sexual urges is incredibly important to us. Thus, while the biological sensation itself doesn’t differentiate between what satisfies it, we do. The “desire for y” is our interpretation of the “biological sensation x.” This doesn’t make the “desire for y” any less real. It simply shifts the source of that desire from our biology to the world of social, mental, and relational phenomena. For example, from this perspective, the question of why some men think of and desire other men when they are aroused is not a biological question.

Caution Necessary

In the first post of this series, I claimed that we need an account of same-sex attraction that both (1) preserves agency, and (2) does not dismiss the very real experiences of those who struggle with it. It is easy to see that Robinson’s thoughts invite us not only to reconsider the way we think about same-sex attraction, but also about sexual attraction in general, including heterosexual attraction. If we believe that sexual attraction is an interpreted experience, this preserves moral agency in the process. However, how does it meet the second qualification?

I am attracted to members of the opposite sex, but I do not remember choosing to be that way, and most people who struggle with same-sex attraction do not recollect any choice to be involved in that struggle. Certainly there is more to the picture than simply a conscious act to interpret sexual arousal as a desire for either men or women, because this is not the way most people experience the phenomenon. It would be tragedy to conclude that same-sex attraction is no different than a preference for Mexican food or orange juice. The food/drink comparison made above is simply to illustrate the fact that physical sensations can be interpreted in different ways, that there are different ways to scratch the same itch.

Without caution, these comparisons can easily trivialize the experiences of those who struggle with same-sex attraction. Why do a significant minority of men and women experience and interpret their sexual arousals as a desire for members of the same sex? Why, if it is an interpretation of a biological sensation, do they experience it as something they did not choose, and cannot help but experience? These are serious questions that Robinson cautiously proposes an answer to. In my next post I will detail the way Robinson accounts for the development of both homosexuality and heterosexuality.