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When people debate about topics such as same sex marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell” the discussion inevitably turns to whether being a homosexual is a matter of choice or not.
When discussing the matter of choice, it is important to distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. Laying aside the broader metaphysical question of choice, sexual behavior seems to be primarily a matter of choice. That is, the sort of sexual activities a person actually engages in are (with notable exceptions such as being the victim of rape) are consciously selected by that person.
Interestingly enough, a distinction can be drawn between those who chose to engage in homosexual behavior and those who are homosexuals. As one example, it has been claimed that some men in prison who have sex with other men still regard themselves as heterosexual. To use an analogy, perhaps this is comparable to someone who sees herself as a vegetarian, but eats meat when that is the only food available. As another example, apparently some allegedly straight men participate in gay pornography because of the better pay. To use an analogy, this would be somewhat like a painter who decides to take a job as a graphic designer because he can make more money that way (yet who still remains a painter in his heart).
It must be said, however, that it might seem a bit odd for a man who has sex with men to claim that he is still straight. After all, one might argue, that would seem to be what it means for a man to be a homosexual. To use an analogy, if someone claims to be a baseball player, yet plays football rather than baseball, it would be rather odd for that person to make that claim. But, the analogy might not hold in this case.
While there is some debate about this, there are also hom0sexuals who chose to not engage in homosexual behavior, yet still think of themselves as homosexual. For example, a person might see himself as gay yet also decide to practice abstinence. This does seem to make sense. After all, if a person can be a heterosexual and practice abstinence, then the same should be true of homosexuals.
A person might also decide to engage in heterosexual behavior to meet social expectations or to avoid being persecuted for being a homosexual. In such cases, the person would still be gay but would be acting straight. While it might be argued that to act straight is to be straight, people can behave in a certain way while actually not being that way. The obvious short term example is acting: an actor playing the role of a scientist might have no interest in or knowledge of science. A more long term example would be a spy or an undercover police officer. As such, a person could behavior one way sexually and yet not actually be that way. Of course, the question remains as to what it means to be that way.
One easy and obvious way to look at sexual orientation is in terms of preferences. A person who is a heterosexual would prefer to have sex with someone of the opposite sex. A person who is a homosexual prefers those of the same sex. Naturally, preference can be a complicated and nuanced matter. For example, a person might think of himself as heterosexual in that he would prefer sex with attractive woman, but he might prefer an extremely handsome man over a very ugly woman. Of course, some might be inclined to say that if there is any scenario in which a person would prefer sex with someone of the same sex over someone of the opposite sex, then this would make them homosexual. If this is the case, then I suspect that many people would be classified as homosexuals.
Fortunately, I do not need a precise definition of homosexuality for this essay. This is because the issue being addressed is the matter of choice rather than an attempt to sort out what it is to be gay or straight. All that is really needed at this point is that orientation is primarily a matter of preference. As such, the question at hand is whether this preference is a matter of choice or not.
One possibility is that it is not a matter of choice. On the face of it, this seems to be a plausible view. As one stock intuition argument goes, most people do not seem to recall ever making such a choice. While this does not prove that it is not a choice, the fact that people seem unable to point to making such a choice does provide support for the claim that it is not a matter of choice.
In my own case, I have no awareness that I chose to be straight. I also have no awareness of selecting my preferences in regards to the type of women I prefer. For example, I have a general preference towards woman with dark hair. However, that does not seem to be something I selected-I cannot think of consciously deciding that I would find dark hair somewhat more appealing than lighter hair. As such, this preference seems to be similar to that of food preferences: I did not decide that I would like pie, I just do.
A second argument is based on the fact that if preference is a choice, then people should be able to change their preference (although this might involve some effort). So, a straight person should be able to chose to be gay and vice versa. A person can, obviously enough, test this by trying to switch his orientation. This, as was argued above, is different from changing behavior. This would require not merely behaving a different way but actually changing one’s preference in the matter. As such, if you think it is a matter of choice, give it a try and see how that works out.
A third argument builds on the second. If sexual preference is a matter of choice, it seems odd that people would not decide to be heterosexual when people were (and are) persecuted and even killed for being homosexuals. It would make no sense to endure such treatment when a person could simply decide to not be that way. Of course, this argument is not decisive. After all, people do make choices that they know will result in harm or even death. For example, people will use drugs even though they put their health at risk and risk being arrested.
Another possibility is that it is a matter of choice. Clearly, it is not a simple choice like deciding between having a Coke or a Pepsi. Nor is it easy, like setting a preference in a computer program (“click the straight button to stop being gay”). However, it could still be a matter of choice. To steal a bit from Aristotle, we become what we do. So, if a person makes choices that leads to a preference for the same sex, than that person can be said to have chosen to be a homosexual. Naturally, there might be factors that incline a person one way or another (experiences, genetics, etc.) but this is true of anything involving choice. Provided that these factors are not overwhelming, then it would seem that orientation could be a matter of choice.
If this is the case, then people could change their orientation through such means. Consider an analogy to food. When I was a kid, I hated green peppers. Or so I thought. When I actually decided to try them and made a conscious effort, I found that I liked them.
Of course, there have been foods that I did try to like and failed (like plantains), So perhaps orientation is more like that. Or perhaps food analogies are a poor choice.