Continous or discrete?

Been having a big time discussion stimulated by the post just previous to this one regarding the nature of sexual orientation and change. I want to thank those who have been posting. The posts are worth the read. I want to keep it going with a more focused question. Is human sexual orientation a discrete or continuous variable/trait?

11 thoughts on “Continous or discrete?”

  1. I’m not sure Voltaire was afraid of many things — to declare the Holy Roman Empire as neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire (one of my fav. bon mots) and then spend half your life crossing the dessicated bones of it…

    And no need to labour the point — we have personal friend’s who’ve been/are both. That is not something we don’t already realise.

    I’ve also rejected a requirement that self-labeling occur before someone is really bi. That’s what I mean by objective, particularly as you go on to talk about the subjective nature of self-labeling.

    If self-labeling is subjective, as I would say it is, then it cannot be part of an objective assessment.

  2. “Yes, objectively he is bisexual. Whether he might punch you in the nose for saying that to his face is another issue.”

    What is an “objective” bisexual? I’m going strictly by the terminology referenced in my last post. According to the agreed upon definition of bisexuality, being bisexual involves more than just the objective arousal fantasy patterns (I discussed that in the previous post at length–review it if needed). It would be more correct to say that objectively, he has attraction to some women. But as for whether or not that makes him Bi, and depends on if he fullfills the other criteria. Remember, those are criteria for a fully formed bisexual identity.

    The way I look at it is this…everybody has an objective set of fantasy and arousal patterns. For some people, those patterns are rigidly set. For others, they may fluctuate as much as the weather (to paraphrase Dr. John DeCecco). How we choose to integrate these patterns into our identity is entirely up to us. That’s why two 80/20 gay men may choose two different sexual orientation labels without violating any Iron Law. The first guy may choose the gay label because he feels that he’s pretty much close to being totally gay. The other guy may choose the label of bisexual because he feels he’d be missing out if he were to close the doors on future heterosexual liasons. It becomes entirely subjective (sorry about using the term again)

    Once we integrate the objective arousal/fantasy patterns into our lives, our identity changes, we develop a deeply rooted identity and self concept as gay, bi, straight, etc.

    In fact, this identity is so strong that even when a man’s objective arousal patterns happen to change for whatever reason*, he may be very loathe to give up the gay identity label. Yet, to the casual onlooker, he declares that he is gay, and gay to the bones, and that nothing can change him.

    *I will track down the link, but there is a recent story about a dyed in the wool gay man falling in love and marrying a dyed in the wool lesbian. The two of them have since pissed off their respective communities, as they were leaders and prominent speakers within them. Not totally sure, but they may have changed their labels to bi.

    The obvious question then is: “were these people bi to begin with, or was there actual fluctuation of arousal/romantic patterns?”

    The answer totally depends on one’s worldview and philosophical outlook.


    PS: HMMM…is Voltaire distinguishing between those who have a true inclination and those who are just experimenting? Perhaps he was afraid that too many future “lavender-experiments” may turn him gay (?).

  3. Did you two just agree with my objections to the “E vs C” polarity without actually saying so…????? I need my smelling salts, quickly!

    I am perfectly happy talking about the affectional, behavioural, social elements both of themself AND in how they interact (or are blocked for interacting) with each other.


    Nathan said:

    (a) the capacity for sexual arousal by members of both sexes,
    (b) sexual activity or sexual desire for sexual contact with both men and women, and
    (c) self-identification as being bisexual.

    You may define an apparent gay man as as bisexual simply because he has the capacity to have great sex with a girl, yet if he has no 1) desire to actually act on his heterosexual attractions, 2) nor does he call himself a bisexual, could he still be said to be bisexual?

    Yes, objectively he is bisexual. Whether he might punch you in the nose for saying that to his face is another issue.

    Are “abstinence pledgers” heterosexual? Even though B) is missing? Yes, objectively they are heterosexual.

    Is the Pope heterosexual?

    I’m most definately, I assure you, not being B) at the moment (coding a database will take the edge of most things…), but I also know my sexual orientation has not altered.


    Onto subjective labels…

    Homosexual, Gay or Queer?

    While each might be resonant for the person who uses them to describe themself, objectively they are synonyms.

    3 guys, same attractions, same ambitions for their sexuality, same behaviours — so objectively the same — but 3 different labels used, so subjectively not the same.

    And let’s not forget what “objective” and “subjective” mean. The first is apparent to an outsider. The second is not.

    I’m not about to get sucked into a wanky early 90’s “discussion” about the merits of calling oneself gay or queer. I rolled my eyes through such conversations at the time.

    And I’m certainly going to have Nicolosi decide that “gay” means something politically different to “homosexual” and accept that definition. He has his own motives for doing that, and none of his reasoning matches what we see in real life.

    Even John Paulk will call himself “gay” in the right environnment (like a divey bar in Washington) … but not, I assume, at a FoF recruitment drive.


    Latent sexuality.

    Why would I think there would be an ulterior motive? I raised this very subject on the other post string!!! :0

    Very many bisexuals prefer not to advertise the fact because, rightly or wrongly, knowing a person is also attracted to whatever you cannot be does freak a lot of partners out. There is, of course, no reason why a bisexual cannot be as trusted not to go searching “for a little bit of something else” as any other man or woman, but that’s the reputation.

    There’s also the “little” issue with the amount of venom one can expect from many if you are functionally (even experientially) bisexual but have a same-sex partner. The fact that this other actual guy is far more important to you than any theoretical, potential woman doesn’t seem to temper the “you should not be gay” crowd by much.


    Got to get back to that revolting database, but I will leave you with something to ponder.

    Voltaire (and I think) a Swedish attache to the French Court decided on a mutual agreed experiment — a roll in the hay together.

    Voltaire was rather indifferent to the whole business. But a week or so later the attache was able to regale him with further information about many additional “scientific experiments”. Voltaire patiently listened him out, then archly replied:

    “Once, a philosopher. Twice, a sodomite.”

    What do you think Voltaire was distinguishing between?

    (Actually that may have been the Prussian Court, not an important detail I suppose.)

  4. Warren,

    Check out

    There is an article about gay-identified men who experience latent opposite gender attraction, and how they manage it.

    Some even go into therapy (!)
    Some experience bigotry and hatred from other gays, who label them as traitors to the cause.

    I suggest you read it. Very illuminating.


    PS: Grantdale, I have no ulterior motive in providing the above link. I just feel that it fits in nicely with the discussion regarding sexual orientation, sexual identity, labelling, attractions and all that jazz.

  5. “I think it might more productive to talk about erotic attractions, emotional attachment, behavioral intention, and fantasies separately.”

    Thanks Warren. It is more productive to talk about individual components that comprise the sexual orientation construct. Speaking from my own case, my erotic attractions and emotional attachments have increased in a heterosexual fashion, behavioral intention has definitely changed, and as for fantasies, I used to fantasize mainly about men, and only sometimes about women. Now it is the reverse.

    Grantdale: The most widely used definition of a bisexual orientation was given by Zinik (1985). He defined the bisexual person as having:

    (a) the capacity for sexual arousal by members of both sexes,
    (b) sexual activity or sexual desire for sexual contact with both men and women, and
    (c) self-identification as being bisexual.

    So if components B and C are missing from above, is a person still bisexual? Not according to this definition.

    This was what I was getting at. You may define an apparent gay man as as bisexual simply because he has the capacity to have great sex with a girl, yet if he has no 1) desire to actually act on his heterosexual attractions, 2) nor does he call himself a bisexual, could he still be said to be bisexual? Does it matter that objectively, girls are more than capable of making his penis hard?

    Lastly, is there a difference between a) a bisexual and b) a gay man that enjoys a woman only once in awhile? Where is the line drawn? Ultimately, it appears that there is a strong subjective element to sexual self labelling. Any person will tell you that in the end, its how you “feel” about yourself that determines what orientation-label you choose. In the final analysis, only you know what you are in the end. A man who only wants sweaty man-sex, and is repulsed by naked women, may choose to say that he has a homosexual orientation, but then again, to say he has a gay orientation only serves to DESCRIBE what his subjective preferences are, however strong or weak they may be.

    Sexual orientation to me, is a metaphor (adjective) for describing a complex human being’s thought patterns and behavior, and how they go together in the context of sex/romance. It can’t be said to describe ONLY behavior, nor can it only be said to describe thought.

    The way that a person’s subjective self-concept interact with his objective arousal patterns will determine what orientation label he chooses to best describe himself. And it is not a simple matter of the objective arousal patterns always having an upper hand.

    However, some may argue that objective arousal patterns IS your sexual orientation. However, again, in reality, this would be much too simplistic in the context of a living, breathing complex human being.

    For example, why do many gay men who experience some opposite gender attraction do not identify as bisexual, but instead rigidly hold onto their gay identity as if it were a life preserver? The same goes for many straights with some same sex attraction who rigidly hold on to their identity.

    So when we talk about the orientations of the above men, the term orientation should be seen as a metaphor, and not so much as an essential, murky element of some kind.

    So again, why wouldn’t the bisexual orientation metaphor be a good descriptor for the gay man with some attraction (however large or small) to women?

    Simple: because he doesn’t act on his attraction, and this doesn’t cause significant intrapsychic conflict. Furthermore, his subjective self concept is anything but bisexual. Thus, to say he has a homosexual orientation would be more correct then to say he’s bi.


  6. SO can be considered continuous for a group of people (K0 – K6) but discrete for an individual (one may be K2 and never budge). I think there may be people who never budge and those who budge a lot.

    This discussion leads me to why I am not sure how the concept of sexual orientation helps us, at least as a unidimensional construct. The question is not can sexual orientation change but rather can all, some or any dimensions of sexual orientation change?

    I think it might more productive to talk about erotic attractions, emotional attachment, behavioral intention, and fantasies separately.

  7. I agree with Nathan — we could be working with our own notions about what is and is not SO (the core attraction? the behaviour? the self label or how others would see you? blah blah blah).

    And the reason I don’t buy the polarity of a essentialist – constructionist (henceforth “E-C”) is because it is only useful when talking about component aspects of sexuality; not SO itself.

    Take pregnancy (please).

    One can very easily argue for “E” — an overall biological “need” for any species to produce offspring. The How and Why can wait, for now.

    But, how useful is that when talking about an individual within a species? It’s not. Now we’re starting to look at “C”, perhaps.

    (Or, to put it into a Catholic religious framework “When god commanded mankind to go populate the earth, he wasn’t demanding this of each and every individual”.) It’s the standard let out clause that permits them to take one position on contraception, and another on priestly celibacy :-). Within those few words is accomodation for both “E” and “C”.

    I am also going to ask that you “explain” bisexuality in any framework you use — not just the 50/50, and certainly not just the 0/100 or 100/0 ends of the scale. Likewise for deliberate celibacy. If you cannot come up with a unified theory, then you still have work to do…

    And I am only too well aware of social presure on people to hide or deny. It’s why “straight”, married pillars-of-their-church get arrested in parks every other minute (or, so many exgays…). It’s why some gay men prefer not to mention a minor part of their capacity to respond, either because (as with straight men) it would make their partner insecure, or bacause it will invite unwelcome demands that they “change”.

    Are we talking about SO here? Or merely ways that people respond to their SO?

    “C” or “E”?

    That explains why I will not adopt such a narrow framework. You simply cannot talk about SO as whole nor individuals nor aspects of sexuality that arise from SO within such a system.

    (And I assume we’re keeping within a rational scientific methodology. Hence, the REQUIREMENT that any theory be unified and usefully predictive.)

  8. Warren,

    Just what IS a sexual orientation? There is all this talk about whether or not it can change, yet not one person has bothered to define it.

    Until we are absolutely clear about what we are talking about, there is bound to be misunderstanding and “cross talk.”


  9. Is sexual orientation best conceptualized as a variable like temperature (a matter of degrees)or like the state of being pregnant (you either are or you are not)?

    I do not think we can have certainty on this point for a host of reasons, but many arguments about the matter reflect the assumptions one has about the trait.

    I tend to see SO as continuous and do not get worked up over whether water has been turned to wine (gay has become straight or vice versa). If someone says they have moved from pretty much favoring one gender for intimacies to pretty much favoring the other, I think that is worth listening to and viewing as important.

    At random, I am remembering David Benkof (Q syndicate founder) saying that he was discouraged from talking about his opposite sex attractions by other gay men because it was considered disloyal.

    You may not buy the essentialist – constructionist debate, but it is the framework for most theorizing on this issue that I have seen from Stein to Fausto-Sterling to Laumann. I think Stein does an interesting analysis of the problems with both views.

  10. Also, I’m not buying the “essentialist or constructionist” polarity. Other people decided they were a convenient shorthand for a whole other debate, not me.

  11. Warren,

    Please explain what you mean by those — others may not use them the same way (me, for one… “discrete” is not an antonym of “continuous”). Do you mean “unchanging or varying trait”?

    Ditto sexual orientation… Especially as you just said it’s not open to measurement (QED it doesn’t exist) 🙂

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