The Future: Where Sexual Orientations Get Kind of Confusing

By Kyle Munkittrick | December 19, 2011 9:21 am

Sex, a biological function of reproduction, should be simple. We need to perpetuate the species, we have sex, babies are born, we raise them , they have sex, repeat. Simple, however, is one thing sex most certainly is not. And it’s only getting more complex by the day.

For those who are fans of human exceptionalism, it might be worth considering that the trait which differentiates us from all other animals is that we over-complicate everything. Sex, and its various accoutrements of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, libido, and even how many partners one may have, contains a multitude.

Recently some psychologists have said that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, the erotic predilection that drives people like former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky to do what he allegedly did. This idea came to twitter and incited a minor firestorm over whether “sexual orientation” should really be applied to pedophilia. Nature editor Noah Gray used the term in a neutral sense, as in, “an attraction to a specific category of individuals”; io9’s Charlie Jane Anders and Boing Boing blogger Xeni Jardin pointed out the queer community’s long campaign to define sexual orientation only as an ethically acceptable preference for any category of consenting adults. Given that willful troglodytes like Rick Santorum regularly conflate homosexuality with pedophilia and zoophilia, you can see where the frustration around loose use of the term might arise.

Santorum aside, how should we classify pedophilia if not a “sexual orientation?” Why should that term include should one unchosen, inborn form of sexual attraction, but exclude another unchosen, inborn form of sexual attraction?

While we may have ready answers for these questions now, technological and social changes on the horizon will once again challenge our definitions and beliefs about sex. We can imagine a time when we have artificial intelligence (to at least some degree), or super-intelligent animals, or maybe we’ll even become a spacefaring species and encounter other alien intelligences. Without a doubt, people will start discovering that they are primarily attracted to something that isn’t the good ol’ Homo sapiens. Sex and sexuality will increase in complexity by powers of ten. If some person is attracted to a sexy cyborg, or a genetically enhanced dolphin, how will we know if it is ethical to act upon those desires?

The key question here is: why is pedophilia or zoophilia not ethically equatable with homosexuality? The straightforward answer is that neither a minor nor an animal can consent. It isn’t that a child can’t produce the word, “yes,” or an animal can’t, um, enjoy the act of sex, but that those facts don’t make the encounter ethical. An inability to consent is not about being able to verbalize the word yes or no, but to understand and rationally decide whether or not to allow sex to happen. Neither an animal nor a minor can do that, whereas an adult person can. In short, pedophilia and zoophilia are sexual orientations, but they can never be acted upon without harming someone.

Therefore, we should re-categorize these sexual orientations that should never be acted upon as “sexual orientation disorders,” and they should be treated as such. If pedophiliac or zoophiliac urges are indeed as biological and unchosen as hetero- or homosexuality, then we need to rethink our understanding of adults attracted to children as evil people. Do not mistake me, any person who acts on a sexual orientation disorder has, by definition, harmed someone and justice is necessary. But we need to understand that not finding a way to deal with—or, best of all, to cure—sexual orientation disorders condemns people to a lifetime of suffering.

This bright-line distinction between actionable and non-actionable sexual orientations will also help as we move forward into the brave new world of xenosexuality, or sexuality beyond our species. It’s not unbelievable to imagine responses to someone being sexually attracted to robots. And some cranky person with a large talk-radio audience will talk about how unnatural and bizarre and destructive that sexual orientation is. Instead of having the same fight for rights and acceptance over and over, it would be better to use the idea of informed consent to make a consistent definition to distinguish ethically permissible sexual orientations from harmful sexual orientation disorders. Heterosexuality doesn’t quite seem to capture the sexual orientation of a human who is attracted to an artificial intelligence construct. But to say, “I’m a heterosexual xenosexual” tells you that I like non-humans of the opposite gender of me (if the A.I.’s in fact come with genders).

Let’s say a genetically enhanced dolphin with a cybernetic voice box is capable of communicating “yes” or “no,” understands what an adult human is and what sex means (both definition and culturally), and groks the relationship implications of its decision (you live in the sea, I live on land, etc.). That super-intelligent cyborg-dolphin would meet the standards of personhood and the criteria of being able to meaningfully consent and reciprocate an adult human’s attraction. That means any consensual sexual relations would be ethical. Therefore, being attracted to uplifted cyborg-dolphins is indeed a sexual orientation.

I encourage you to use consent as a litmus-test against the permissibility of sexual orientations with which you are uncomfortable. How does it apply to polyamorous individuals? What about fetishes? How about incest? Unlike gut reactions or religious dogma, ethics demands we explain why something is wrong. Our future relationships depend on our ability to reason our way to what is right.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

  • Terry

    I imagine that we aren’t going to find a way to dance around social constructs by mapping sexual tendencies to the categories of “biological and unchosen”. You know how Thomas could not ground the appropriateness of sexual tendencies in the law of nature. Rather he had to appeal to revealed theology.

    Similarly if we believe that the appropriateness of sexual tendencies is a function of the ability to consent, “to understand and rationally decide” haven’t we rendered categorization of sexual tendencies as “biological and unchosen” irrelevant?

  • Tim Martin

    In short, pedophilia and zoophilia are sexual orientations, but they can never be acted upon without harming someone.

    This seems patently absurd on the face of it. An animal is always harmed by the experience of coming to orgasm through stimulation induced by a human? (Of course this makes research on animal reproduction unethical, since animals are often stimulated to orgasm as part of the research.) It seems to me that a dog that has an orgasm through intercourse with a woman is, if anything, better off (assuming no diseases were transmitted, etc.) Is there any evidence whatsoever to support the truth of the statement I put in italics above? Furthermore, if a male dog gets aroused and mounts a female human, is he not consenting in the only way it is possible for him to? What more would you want? Speech? That’s quite an odd metric to hold a dog to. While I have no doubt that many people have a aversive emotional reaction to zoophilia, the arguments you’re making to support that reaction seem to have little basis in logic or science.

  • CRR

    I agree with tbe comments of both Terry and Tim above. While the line of thinking begun by this article is essential for moving us away from our hidebound, essentialist notions of sexuality.

  • Chris

    What is it with you and the dolphins? 😛

  • Chris

    As one of my friends once said “If there is an opening, there is at least one guy who will try and stick his thing in there.”

  • Bobby LaVesh

    It is hard to scientifically quantify something so emotive- and societally based.

    I would say that a 12 or 13 year old (even much younger) is perfectly capable of reason- however, we don’t allow them “consent”. The reason is- they lack the worldiness, experience, and maturity to make a correct decision. One could quickly tell a 13 year old the pros and cons- and they could “reason” a decision- however it is unlikely to be one that an adult would call a correct decision.

    Robotics? I don’t think there is any question- machines are not sapient, nor even sentient. It is no different to any device. Should they become so- we need to consider much, such as- do they express emotions? If not- why should it matter.

    Regarding incest- we all know the negative impacts of in-breeding- but if two siblings had full consent and one or both were sterile- would it be a problem? There is an “eccch” factor- but really, to each there own.

    Animals are questionable- dolphins for example have been shown to have developed the ability to communicate- their own rudimentry grammar- ability to reason, and understand future consequences.

    If an animal instigates- and is not hurt- as disgusting as it may sounds- I see no reason why that should be illegal or considered immoral.

  • floodmouse

    The first words of the post are: “Sex, a biological function of reproduction.” Regardless of ethics and consent, religious fundamentalists are likely to continue defining “right” and “wrong” based on the possibility of procreation. In other words, they would say it is “wrong” to have intercourse with an AI inhabiting a robot body, or a (gulp) super-intelligent cyborg dolphin (yuck!) because the union could not produce viable offspring. (I know, I know . . . some genetic engineer will come up with a way around that problem, but maybe not right away.

    I think the ethical argument is more relevant than the procreative argument. However, I think the ethical argument could be expanded to include the social as well as individual harm resulting from a “sexual orientation disorder.”

    Lastly: I think there should be some kind of prize for coining the phrase “willful troglodyte.” 😉

  • Terry

    If we aren’t going to be Thomists about the matter then the neutral “an attraction to a specific category of individuals” seem to be all that we have. Santorum might be a troglodyte, but there still remains a question of what could be a non evaluative, naturalistic reason to consider sexual interest outside the Thomstically approved categories to be somehow objectionable.

  • J-Doug

    I’m not convinced the analogy is appropriate. How convinced are we that zoophilia and pedophilia are inborn? Is the research on this subject as rock solid as the evidence of the inborn nature of homo/heterosexuality? This isn’t my field, but it’s my instinct that it is not.

    But if it is, how valid is the research methodology?

    Seems like scientists and amateurs may be jumping to conclusions here.

  • Kirk

    I total agree with J-Doug here. I think there is an enormous body of research which would suggest that the development of pedophilia is often a response to childhood emotional trauma. I think it is possible to argue that this would make this a form of sexual attraction that is “unchosen” by you make a leap of logic that is completely unjustified when you suggest that it is an “inborn form of sexual attraction”

  • Naumadd

    It’s quite right that pedophilia or zoophilia are sexual orientations insofar as we’re discussing it without an ethical context. Are they disorders? Again, if we consider the two prime motives behind sex – sex for pleasure and sex for reproduction – although both are sex for pleasure, and thus not dysfunctional in that context, if one’s intent is sex for reproduction then, yes, they are dysfunctional as is homosexuality. One’s intent and ultimate goal is critical to judging the ethical value of every act. If one’s intent and goal in one’s sexual act is pain and injury, but that act produces neither, you have acted unethically within those parameters. If your intent is pleasure and happiness and, again, no genuine pleasure is experienced and no happiness achieved, again, you have behaved unethically according to what you value, your intent and your ultimate goal. Whether your act is ethical to others also depends on their individual value set, their individual intentions, their individual goals.

  • morgan

    Animals cant consent? Last tiem i checked animals have sex all the time, if none of them consents then how does it happen, sex demands that at least one of the two involved consent.

    Furthermore why does an animal need to consent, why do we hold animals too the same standards as humans when it comes to sex.
    I mean its considered morally permisable to kill animals for food even thought they obviously do not consent to that and even if they did we wouldnt consider it to be okay to do that to a human being even if he or she consents to being eaten.

    We also think its morally permisable to capture animals and hold them as slaves for company their whole lives, we are permitted to own animals, we are not permitted to do the same with humans.

    So why all of a sudden is animals held as high as humans when it comes to sex? They cant just be mroally equivalent to a human-beign only when it comes to sex?

    Is it really a concern for the animals inability to consent that drives the dislike of zoophilia or is it rather just plain old sexual moralism disguised?

    If you are gonig to be against zoophilia you cannot be against it on grounds of consent you will have to admit that its jsut sexual moralism and nothing else.

  • Anno

    Why wouldnt it be? if homosexuality can be inborn then why cant zoopgilia and pedophilia be so? its just as useless for reproduction and just as pointless, if zoophilia and pedophilia is disorders then so is homosexuality because there is no real difeerence but the fact that pedophilia nad zoophilia is not socially acceptable to the same degree, that and the consent factor.

  • l

    kirk: people used to say the exact same thing about homosexuality

  • megan13o

    @Morgan – would consider you’re specious arguments if you took the time to spell check.
    Your argue makes more sense in the PETA view as to why do we kill and eat animals and jave them as pets and research subjects. Zoophilia is the pinnacle of an ethical argument concerning negative harmful interactions with other species. I always find it fascinating that beyond a doubt there is ALWAY A MAN/MALE arguing FOR f****** animals or children as ethically equivolent and no worse than consenting adult relationships expressing affection sexually. So true men will f*** anything they can stick it into and then try to justify it or make a religion demanding it as their holy right.

  • Baldur

    Oh wow! animals can’t consent to sex, but many are having sex with other animals! We must do something! I shudder at the thought of animals repeatedly abusing one another – and we know it’s abusive because animals do not have a rational mind and cannot consent to such acts.

    One question, though … if we stop animals from abusing each other (for their own good, of course) that will prevent new animals from being born, which in turn means that we will effectively be committing xenocide. Are we sure that’s ethical?

    Perhaps the “consent” standard is too high when it insists on informed consent rather than simple consent. After all, who is really informed? Clearly not the author (and yet they are better informed than most).

  • Baldur

    @Kirk: Pedophilia is definitely inborn in most cases. Although a few pedophiles report a late-in-life change in orientation, most report noticing their attraction to children of the appropriate sex during adolescence or earlier. The idea that this sexual orientation is caused by childhood trauma has been firmly debunked, although that belief continues to circulate.

  • scott

    so.. suppose that a few years from now a pedophile orders a sex robot from say “toys are us” and the robot looks to be about 8yrs of age. is this unethical? is it good for society in that it keeps him/her away from children? what if it looks like a dolphin?

    also take a look at the % of the internet dedicated to sex of one form or another, when we can produce and sell sexually appealing and functioning robots who will always be in their sexual prime.. look out!.

  • Bobby LaVesh

    Morgan, interesting points- however, whereas one is allowed to keep pets- there are laws against mistreating them.

  • Paul

    Let me suggest the aversion to zoophilia comes ultimately not from concern for the animals, but from issues of disease transmission. Food animals infected with human STDs can be another transmission vector, and the acts provide an avenue for transmission of zoonosis into humans.

  • Jazz

    First- there is NO definitive proof that homosexuality is genetic or inborn. Many of my gay friends want to believe it is, saying that they have always felt “that way”, but there is nothing yet definitive on the books, or the arguements about it would be moot. The one thing I have come across is that sexual feelings, like hair or eye colour, vary widely in the species. Morals and ethics were developed along the way, mostly by religion, and science, as we know, will have an uphill battle in that area.

    Second- anyone who cannot see the wrong in forcing sexual intercourse with any animal anywhere as perverse and unethical also needs to not be producing and trying to rear human young. We will be judged in the end by how we treat those lesser than ourselves- and sex between species is NOT part of the evolutionary plan. Jack off all you want to what’s in your head; learn that acting on it in real life has consequences your day drams have not considered.

  • morgan

    bobby: well yeah but its very iconsistent

    and psul: use a condom=problem solved

  • Chris
  • http://deleted jamie

    “…maybe we’ll even become a spacefaring species and encounter other alien intelligences. …people will start discovering that they are primarily attracted to something that isn’t …Homo sapiens.”

    Not impossible, but about a likely as having people who are primarily attracted to praying mantids, or starfish, or corn stalks, etc.

  • ohwilleke

    Cue Billy Currington: “I want you to love me like my dog.”, a song which, of course, is not really about what it sounds like it is about.

  • Pingback: Articles by mamc2501 - Pearltrees()

  • RAlazar

    (1) “An inability to consent is not about being able to verbalize the word yes or no, but to understand and rationally decide whether or not to allow sex to happen. Neither an animal nor a minor can do that, whereas an adult person can.”

    Can you prove that at least one adult person can?

    (2) “Unlike gut reactions or religious dogma, ethics demands we explain why something is wrong.”

    Oh, yes? Can you really explain why anything–pick the easiest thing you can imagine: perhaps murder, or rape–is wrong?

    (3) Let’s assume you can explain why we should care if a human consents, or even an animal. Why, apart from your declaration, should we care whether a robot consents?

  • Lial Sovietsakaya

    Sexual interaction with robots will be very popular. A robot designed for sex can give what a human can seldom can give, total compliance. I am not sure how men would react to have their partner penetrated by human looking machine. It does not seem the same as dildo. Women would probably have less objections than men because in many societies polygamy is accepted.

    From a religious perspective, Catholicism would see it as a sin because the purpose of sex for them is procreation. Well, if the robot has an artificial uterus with eggs from donors and procreation is possible would having sex with a robot be a sin even if procreation is a goal? It would be seen as sin if the robot has no will and therefore cannot consent or refuse. Sex with a robot could be accepted by the Church only for medical reasons that prevent normal conception through human partner. If a robot has will, then it poses another dilemma for all religions that believe in souls and spirits. Does a conscientiousness machine have a soul or spirit?

    I am uncertain about how Islam would see this. A Fatwa from a an Islamic Scholar who knows the Holy Qu’ran and the Hadith woulds be needed

    Same for Judaism, The religious authorities would need to review this issue. Same for all other religions

  • prentice

    The fact that science would even speak of pedophilia as being a sexual orentation, let alone publish it in a magazine for all the sexual perverts out there to read, proves some science is dead set against america and what it should stand for. This kind of wreckless behavior, from the very ones who are suppose to be doing their jobs for the betterment of humanity, can only aid in the destruction of the values in just and honest people in this country. So as I see it, it will only be a matter of time before the judicial system will allow pedofiles to do their dirty work leagally. I no longer say”what’s this country coming to” now I say “what has this country become”?Sad, very sad.

  • PL-LT Commonwealth

    I notice some people pointing out the flaws in the simple definition of “sex with beings capable of consent” as morally correct. To specify:

    Non-sapient beings can generally give consent to sexual intercourse with other non-sapient beings as the result of a mating ritual. This sexual pairing is therefore “morally correct” or “ethical”.

    Non-sapient beings cannot, however, give consent to sexual intercourse with sapient beings in the same way that sapient beings can. This pairing is unethical.

    Sapient beings can give consent to intercourse with sapient beings, but if the beings speak different languages, the instigator cannot communicate their intentions to the (tries to find a fitting word… receiver?) and the “receiver” cannot communicate consent to the instigator. This pairing is therefore unethical.

    Pre-adolescent sapients do not have the knowledge or understanding necessary to make a rational decision on whether or not they should give consent, so sexual intercourse with them is unethical.

    Adolescent sapients may be able to make a rational decision on the subject of sexual intercourse and assuming that they are prepared to deal with and/or prevent the potential consequences of the act and are not going through emotional turmoil, sexual intercourse between adolescents is ethical. However, puberty causes hormonal imbalance so adolescents can easily be manipulated by post-adolescent instigators – therefore post-adolescents instigating sexual intercourse with adolescents is morally wrong.

    People who are mentally impaired or under the influence of chemicals cannot be fully trusted with making a rational decision on the subject of sexual consent either, so sex between them and someone who can be trusted to make a rational decision is considered unethical.

    Individuals of both opposite genders and identical genders can give consent, so both pairings are ethical.

    Polygamy is ethical as long as all individuals involved are aware of the situation, gave their consent for the relationship to be polygamous, can be trusted with making a rational decision on the subject and have equal opportunity for multiple partners (if a husband has multiple wives, each wife can have multiple husbands and vice versa).

    Fetishes are of personal opinion: again, consent is important if multiple parties are involved. Generally, if one has a fetish they are free to indulge in it as long as they do not inconvenience others as a result – though I view all kinkiness other than possibly alternative sexual positions (necessary for certain pairings) as overrated.

    Incest is not technically unethical as long as it is consensual, but it is widely considered taboo for a variety of reasons. First: inbreeding causes detrimental mutations. Second: this also restricts variation and can lead to a lack of potential for adaptation. Third: as a species we are both xenosexual and xenophilic, perhaps as an adaptation to counter the risks of the first two reasons.

    • PL-LT Commonwealth

      Also, necrophillia is a bit more complex. On the one hand, a corpse is an inanimate object. On the other, most cultures would consider that disrespectful and there are unfortunate implications to having sex with a non-responsive human body.


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