Monday, September 22, 2008

A Little Too Fluid?

I’ve long admired and appreciated the writings of Catholic author and theologian Diarmuid O’Murchu (pictured at right). Indeed, in the past, I’ve contended that at the ecumenical council that’s long overdue for the development and articulation of a sexual theology that draws from and honors the broad and rich reality of human sexuality, O’Murchu’s perspective should definitely be included. However, his latest book has tempered my enthusiasm, and leaves me with more questions than answers.

In The Transformation of Desire: How Desire Became Corrupted – and How We Can Reclaim It, O’Murchu devotes one chapter to “Erotic Desire and the Homosexual Experience.” Yet strangely, the only “experience” he seems to draw from are of those of heterosexual folks he has counseled in “couples-counseling.” Accordingly, his conclusions about the homosexual orientation seem to be entirely drawn from heterosexual experience. This rather problematic shortcoming seems lost on O’Murchu, no doubt because he rejects, throughout his book, the “rigid divisions” between heterosexuality and homosexuality.

O’Murchu begins his chapter on erotic desire and the homosexual experience by positing the following thesis: “Sexual orientation suggests a sexual fluidity that can be embraced by wholesome desiring.” It soon becomes clear that O’Murchu’s understanding of “sexual fluidity” calls us to transcend those previously mentioned “rigid divisions” between heterosexuality and homosexuality.

Of course, it’s not the first time I’ve read about the “fluidity” of human sexuality, and I’ve long concluded that sexual orientation is indeed a spectrum – with most of us positioned somewhere along it. I also think that, by and large, once we discover where it is on this spectrum that we feel whole and integrated, we stay put.

Yet O’Murchu suggests that as “right relating” human beings we should all “entertain possibilities of being intimate with each other,” meaning, I take it, that we should all acknowledge (at the very least)
our potential bisexuality. Yet is he saying that bisexuality is ultimately superior to either heterosexuality or homosexuality? Of course, O’Murchu may well reject these labels on the grounds that all three are limiting and potentially divisive. Be that as it may, I still find his suggestion rather, er, challenging!

In the next part of his chapter on erotic desire and the homosexual experience, O’Murchu explores the “confusing evidence” that arises from the fact that “in the homosexual world, desire is often equated with sexualized behavior rather than with deeper psychological needs.” Sadly true.

And then there’s the “suppressed evidence” – real life stories “often consigned to internalized oppression.”
In exploring further such “suppressed evidence,” O’Murchu shares observations from his fifteen years as a couples-counselor, mainly with heterosexual couples. In this “experiential context,” O’Murchu has come to recognize that:

Sexual orientation is not a fixed, hormonally determined phenomenon. [Actually, most researchers conclude that hormones do play some role in determining sexual orientation. British researchers, for instance, have recently stated that: “It would appear that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of genetic factors and the early uterine environment.”] Over [the] years I met many [straight] married persons trying to make sense of feelings around same-sex desires. Some rashly jumped to the conclusion that they were truly homosexual and rapidly proceeded to break up an otherwise enriching marital relationship. [Question: If they weren’t “truly homosexual” how then would O’Murchu describe them?] More traumatic was the awareness of being a bisexual person, continuously taunted with the allegation of being sexually confused, leaving one feeling isolated and even rejected by significant others. [How does O’Murchu distinguish between those not “truly homosexual,” yet experiencing “feelings around same-sex desires,” and those who become aware of their bisexuality?]

In order to “honor our true selves, and especially our desiring as psychosexual people,” O’Murchu suggests the following be included in “a revamped psychosexual ethic.” I tend to agree with much of what he writes, but perhaps because of my bias as a self-identifying gay man, I find his discussion on the homosexual orientation rather limited. He also fails to follow through on some of this thoughts and ideas – which I find somewhat vexing.

· Sexual orientation is not a fixed commodity. Our sexuality is a form of erotic energy which is highly polymorphous – and has been for thousands of years of human evolution. [Why must it be either “fixed” or “polymorphous”? Can’t it be “both/and”? I think it’s experienced that way for most people. I’ve had sexual fantasies involving women, mainly when I was a teenager, yet I’m predominately drawn to men – sexually and, most importantly, relationally. Because of this I consider my sexual orientation to be homosexual. I view it not as a “fixture” but as a gift. Unwrapping our gifts can take time. (It can also be confusing and messy for some!) Yet once we recognize our gifts we should honor them accordingly.] For most people it seems to follow a heterosexual path of unfolding; this may be due to the fact that biological determinants point it in that direction, and as several evolutionary biologists claim, it may also be the fruit of evolutionary development, viewed within a Darwinian perspective.

· The rigid division between heterosexuality and homosexuality is the product of a culture addicted to dualistic clarity. [I think the key word here is “rigid.”] It is a clarity of the rational mind that fails to honor the developmental dynamics of the inner soul. For all of us the psychosexual life-journey probably carries elements of the bisexual space, and this is about a great deal more than biological preconditioning.

· While allowing for a preponderance of heterosexual culture, several people within that orientation, and many within long-term marital relationships, do experience a desire to connect homosexually. This seems a healthy and normal form of psychological growth, currently frowned upon by the dominant culture. [I know a man who regularly hooks up with other men for sex via the internet. He recently told me that he’s currently seeing four guys – all of whom are married to women. The “desire to connect homosexually” may be a “healthy and normal form of psychological growth,” but clearly the ways that such connecting takes place can be anything but healthy – psychologically and physically. Elsewhere in the chapter, O’Murchu laments the “toxic secrecy” that he has experienced in the relationships of the couples he has counseled. It’s truly tragic that this secrecy continues for some once they choose to start “connecting homosexually.” I’m curious as to how O’Murchu would suggest a supposedly straight man respond to his desire to “connect homosexually.” Unfortunately, O’Murchu does not explore such questions in his book.]

· Some people clearly identify with a homosexual condition as their life-long orientation. Human culture has known of gay and lesbian couples for several centuries and some of them have maintained life-long relationships. The allegation that homosexual relationships are more fickle and unreliable than heterosexual ones, is at least in part attributable to the hostility in the dominant culture towards any alternative mode of relating.

· Because of the cultural reluctance – and at times overt hostility – to view this polymorphous development in a more benign and enlightened way, abusive sexual behaviors flourish in our time. Sexual dysfunctionality is on the increase, taking a heavy toll on growing numbers of people, while sexually related addictions seem to be more widespread. We need a more holistic context if we hope to address these issues with greater insight and resolution. [I totally agree with this last sentence, but it seems clear to me that we’re still figuring out this “holistic context.”]

· What are frequently considered to be deviant sexual behaviors, e.g., transvestitism (cross-dressing), S & M, etc., may also carry cultural meanings that merit a more nuanced interpretation. One notes, for example, that several cultures exhibit such patterns of unconventional behavior: the native American berdache, the kathoey of Thailand, the xaniths of Oman, the hijras of India, the mahus of Polynesia, and the hsiang ku of China. In all cases, these are regarded with a certain kind of spiritual respect, commonly attributed to a person endowed with shamanic capabilities.

O’Murchu concludes his chapter on erotic desire and the homosexual experience by pointing us “towards a new mutuality.” He suggests that homosexuality is not about the physical behavior of two people of the same gender, but rather a cultural statement about each and every one of us. [Can’t it be both? Ah, there’s my Sufi-side coming through again!]

“Our human capacity to connect and love might be much better served if we adopt a less rigid view of sexual orientation,” writes O’Murchu. “When all of us can entertain possibilities of being intimate with each other, and society has transcended its voyeuristic capacity for judging and condemning us, then I guess we will not become more promiscuous but more caring and loving. I also suspect we will become more sexually mature and, as a consequence, more courageous and determined to bring about a world of right relating where maturity and justice can thrive.”

Again, I question if such a “world of right relating” is dependent on the universal embodiment of O’Murchu’s “highly polymorphous” understanding of erotic energy.

Do I need to lighten up or are my doubts and questions reasonable? I welcome my readers’ thoughts on this matter.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Remembering Alfred Kinsey’s Legacy of Liberation
Making Love, Giving Life
What Is It That Ails You?
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
Daniel Helminiak on the “Non-Negotiables of Human Sex”
Remembering Karl Heinrich Ulrichs


Anonymous said...

I've mentioned Kinsey's name in other posts, but once again, I suggest "Go read Kinsey." Not that his research should be uncritically received. But a zoological look at human behavior is highly informative. Incorporating that look into theological anthropology is another matter, but I'm digressing a little.

My point is "Human beings are capable and of and actually engage in a very wide range of behaviors. Of what theological import is that wide array of behaviors?" Some place the theological locus on acts, others on the actor's intent, still other's on 'quality of the relationship' within which acts occur and/or the actor participates.

I can't think of the citation, but an Eastern Orthodox theologian (I'll see if I can find the precise quote) I read said that a theology too informed by the social sciences results in a catalog of the unredeemed behavior of unredeemed persons. I don't know that I am quite that pessimistic, but I take the point made.

Donna said...

Interesting critical analysis.

Perhaps when O'Murchu talks about "being intimate with each other" he is not necessarily meaning in a sexual way, just in a caring and loving way.

I also don't think it's just in the "homosexual world" where "desire is often equated with sexualized behavior rather than with deeper psychological needs." This type of equating seems to me to be a predominately male thing - regardless of orientation.