Is Pansexuality Obligatory?
by Robert Gressis
Wikipedia defines pansexuality as follows: “Pansexuality, or omnisexuality, is the sexual, romantic or emotional attraction towards people regardless of their sex or gender identity.” You might think of pansexuality as of little interest: most people are either hetero-, homo-, or bi-sexual, with very few people identifying as pansexual. Consequently, why talk about it?
One reason to talk about it is provided by the following analogy: imagine that it was socially acceptable to say, “I don’t find black women attractive” or “I don’t find Asian men attractive.” Were this socially acceptable (and it may be, actually, in most of the country), then black women and Asian men would find themselves at a disadvantage in the dating market, so it would be bad for them. But in addition, the thought goes, not being attracted to black women or Asian men is probably a malleable preference, one that may exist due to negative and unfair stereotypes about black women and Asian men. Consequently, trying to convince people that such preferences are unacceptable would improve the fortunes not only of black women and Asian men, but also of people who were depriving themselves of opportunities to find suitable partners.
The same thing is supposed to go for pansexuality. To insist that you’re just not attracted to people with vaginas (as gay men and straight women claim) or people with penises (as straight men and gay women claim) is supposed to be problematic, not only because it deprives trans people of sexual opportunities and relationship-satisfaction, but also because it does the same thing for cis-gendered people. Consequently, just like we should sanction people who claim to have a preference for non-black women or non-Asian men, so too should we sanction people who claim to have a preference for cis-gendered men or cis-gendered women. Moreover, we should also encourage people to work on developing a pansexual orientation. Call this view – that we should sanction non-pansexual orientations and promote pansexual orientations – uncompromising pansexualism.
Now, the obvious response to uncompromising pansexualism is to attack the analogy that motives it: while there isn’t much reason to think that a strong preference for people of a certain race is genetically hardwired, there is very good reason to think that at least a strong heterosexual sexual preference is. After all, there’s a pretty straightforward story for why it would be evolutionarily important for most men to have a strong sexual preference for women, and why it would be evolutionary useful for most women to have a strong sexual preference for men. The survival of the species kind of depends on it.
Though I agree with this response, it’s limited. First of all, the pansexual could note that if most men prefer to have sex with people who have vaginas, then they shouldn’t have a problem having sex with someone who identifies as male but who has a vagina. Similarly, most women shouldn’t have a problem having sex with people who identify as female but who have penises. And yet, they tend to have such problems. So, those problems are probably a result of how sexual desire is socially constructed.
Second, even if it’s true that most men natively have strong desires to have sex with people who have vaginas, it doesn’t follow from this that they can’t ever develop desires, perhaps even strong ones, to have sex with people who have penises (and the same goes for women). Such a preference may have to be one you’d have to work to develop (unlike, say, the desire for sugar, which comes naturally), but that would simply make it the sexual equivalent of scotch: an acquired taste.
Against the first point: it’s quite reductionist to think of straight men (or, for that matter, lesbians) as sexually attracted to just vaginas. While genitals are part of the object of sexual desire, I suspect other bodily features matter a great deal too (compare: when it comes to food, sweetness is important, but it doesn’t follow from that that everyone is completely indifferent to texture). To what extent attraction to other bodily features besides genitals is “hard-wired” is unclear to me, but I’m highly suspicious of the idea that sexual desire is entirely socially constructed, and I’m almost as suspicious of the idea that the only part of sexual desire that is not socially constructed is the attraction-to-genitals part.
Against the second point: though scotch can be an acquired taste for some, it doesn’t follow that it can be for everyone. For all I know, some people may not be able to develop a taste for scotch at all. (I’m fairly confident that it’s too late in my life for me to develop a taste for kaestur hakarl, for example.) Similarly, even if it’s true that many straight men could develop desires for gay men or transpeople, it doesn’t follow that most men are that way.
This forces me to venture into the choppy waters of the social construction of desire. If I had grown up in Iceland, I think it’s probable I would like kaestur hakarl today; if I had grown up in the 19th century, my straight sexual desires may have been more (or less) circumscribed; if I had grown up in the 2010’s, I’d probably be more open to having gay sexual experiences.
Maybe not, though. Take the Kinsey Scale: as I understand it, this is supposed to be a measure of the nature of sexual desires you have; the scale runs from 0 to 6. Someone who scores a 0 will have exclusively heterosexual desires and no homosexual desires. As you increase, though, the exclusivity of the desire changes. A 1 is “predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual”, a 2 is “predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual”, and a 3 is “equally heterosexual and homosexual” (I take these quotes from the Wikipedia article on the subject).
I bring this up because I think it shows that, even if you acknowledge that sexual desires are socially constructed, this social conditioning only goes so far. I bet some people – perhaps 0’s – couldn’t develop any homosexual desires, no matter how they were culturally conditioned (barring very extreme interventions, like highly futuristic brain-surgery). And I expect that 6’s probably couldn’t develop heterosexual desires, no matter how they were conditioned. I mean, look: there are some societies that execute people for having gay sex; in other words, some people know that having gay sex could get them executed, and yet they go ahead and do it anyway. Though this doesn’t show that anyone has an exclusively homosexual orientation, it’s evidence that some people have quite powerful gay desires and are very unhappy if permitted to sexually express themselves only via heterosexual sex. And this in turn suggests that if you tried to make them pansexual instead of homosexual, they would end up very unhappy and try to be exclusively homosexual, even if some future LGBesTapo from a conservative fever dream threatened them with permanent solitary confinement in woke prison.
So, my main objection to uncompromising pansexualism is this: pansexuality can’t be obligatory for everyone because sexuality is just not that malleable. To sanction 0’s and 6’s for not being pansexual, and to pressure them into being pansexual, is just as bad as condemning homosexuals for not being heterosexual and pressuring them into being heterosexual.
But this objection establishes at most that pansexuality is not obligatory for everyone. There’s still the following, weaker view: pansexuality is something that most people should be. If you sincerely try to be pansexual but can’t, then you’re off the hook. But we should at least pressure everyone to try. Call this view compromising pansexualism.
I offer two objections against compromising pansexualism. First, it stinks of the worst kind of social engineering. It’s one thing to tell schoolchildren that they shouldn’t be mean to their gay or trans classmates. It’s quite another to tell them that they shouldn’t be mean to their gay or trans classmates, and, by the way, not being willing to have sex with them is being mean to them.
I’m not against all social engineering, and I’m not even against social engineering in the realm of human romantic relationships – the fact that some countries are trying to encourage their citizens to have more children does not creep me out, though I can see what’s creepy about it. But just because some social engineering may be permissible, it doesn’t follow that every kind is. This, to me, is the really bad kind of social engineering.
But this criticism isn’t the main one I want to pursue here. Instead, I want to offer a second criticism, against what I think is the underlying position of a lot of discourse around sexuality. This is the idea that you should love people for who they are, not for what they look like. Taken to its logical conclusion, this position should condemn, not only heterosexuality or homosexuality, but also preferences for thinness, youthfulness, able-bodiedness, and so on.
Let me unpack this view a bit. On this view, a person’s physical features should be considered romantically or erotically irrelevant. Instead, you should base your romantic relationship decisions on a person’s character-traits: her honesty, his kindness, etc. Those are really the things you should love. Call this position “Mind Over Body” (MOB).
Why should I accept MOB? Don’t get me wrong, I’m attracted or repelled by a person’s character traits. But I’m also attracted or repelled by a person’s physical features too. And they’re part of people, too.
I mean, let’s imagine a different position: “Body Over Mind” (BOM). According to this position, a person’s character-traits should be considered romantically or erotically irrelevant. After all, what a person is like is not in their control; I mean, shouldn’t rude, self-centered, racist assholes get love too? By contrast, a person has a fair degree of control over his body: he can lose weight, he can exercise, he can put on make-up, he can have surgery, etc. And what really gets our motors running, when it comes to having sex, anyway, is physical stuff: you can’t willingly, enjoyably have sex with someone unless he or she arouses you.
BOM is obviously an absurd position; it’s perfectly acceptable to not want to have a relationship with someone who’s rude or self-centered. But why isn’t it acceptable to not want to have a relationship with someone whom you don’t find to be physically attractive? Body and mind, they’re all part of the package, and it’s OK to find some bodies or minds more attractive than others. So, my second objection to compromising pansexualism is simply that it rests on the idea that it’s permissible to love people only for who they are, not what they look like. And I think that’s false, about as false as the view that it’s permissible to love people only for what they look like, and not for who they are.
Does this mean that any and every basis on which you find a person attractive is permissible? Not necessarily; there are some limits on this (obviously, finding children sexually attractive is something to which we may legitimately object, even if it’s a deeply felt desire). Determining those limits is difficult, and I’m sure is something some people are working on and have worked on. But my general instinct is that I’m loathe to tell people whom they should and shouldn’t find attractive. Though it’s prima facie plausible that casting your net wider than your current sexual preferences will make it easier to find someone to love, I think what’s likelier to happen is that you’ll waste a lot of time trying to be with people whom you end up not that happy with. It’s difficult enough to find a good life-partner. We shouldn’t make it harder.
Robert Gressis is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Northridge, where he has been teaching since 2008. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2007. His areas of research cover Kant’s ethics and philosophy of religion, Hume’s philosophy of religion, the philosophy of education, metaphilosophy, and the epistemology of disagreement.