Why it’s WEIRD to be straight

A woman (Christian) I know told me a few weeks ago that she objected to being asked to tick a box on equal opportunities forms that said ‘heterosexual’. Married for over twenty years, she felt that ticking that box implied that she had erotic desires for people other than her husband, people defined by a particular characteristic (being male); this was not her experience of her own sexuality, and she resented being forced to suggest that it was.

In the culture I live in this self-narration is deeply counter-cultural; but the culture I live in is weird, or better WEIRD, and that is extraordinarily important.

The ‘WEIRD’ acronym was coined by psychologists who realised, rather late in the day some of us might feel, that performing psychological experiments on sample groups who all shared a particular characteristic might distort the results quite badly. Many psychology sample groups are only students, or only people in contact with universities (I receive at least one invitation a week to take part in a psychology study via the university email list); more pointedly, a huge majority (95%+?) of psychological studies have been carried out by Western universities on Western people. Something like 12% of the current population of the planet lives in a classic Western society: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic’ (‘WEIRD’); 88% are not WEIRD, and so are normal. Historically, of course, the situation is even more lopsided: until the nineteenth century, no-one was WEIRD.

Now, psychological experiments show that we WEIRD people are, well, weird, in our reaction to all sorts of things. We are, of course, also weird in our construction of cultural norms. In the area of human sexuality, we have constructed a vision which is extremely unusual (this does not mean it is wrong, but it is extremely unusual). Since about 1900 – not much before – we have assumed that all people, or the vast majority of people, are erotically attracted to people of one sex only. Either they are heterosexual, and so attracted to members of the opposite sex, or they are homosexual (gay; lesbian) and attracted to members of the same sex.

At some point in the last thirty years we allowed a notion of bisexuality; we pay lip-service, but little more, to transsexuality as well; fundamentally, however, we assume that people (male or female) lust after only males or only females.

This is deeply WEIRD.

The briefest acquaintance with the anthropology of sexuality (NB, already a WEIRD category…) shows us that most people, in most cultures, across the world and down through history, have not fitted this pattern. Same-sex sexual activity is very common around the world and down through history, and opposite-sex sexual activity is at least common enough to ensure the continuation – indeed explosion – of the human population globally thus far. It is extraordinarily unusual to see these as exclusive options, however; to assume people are straight or gay/lesbian, and therefore can only lust after people of one sex, is WEIRD, not normal.

Now, as I said above, being WEIRD does not make something wrong. Democracy is WEIRD; human rights, including rights not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexuality or religion, are WEIRD; universal healthcare is WEIRD; I think all these things are great goods, in each case based on moral intuitions that I think are basically right. It may well be that all across the world, and all down through history, people have been either straight or gay/lesbian, and that cultural norms have imposed patterns of lust on them that were not natural to them; we cannot, and I do not, discount this possibility…

…but accepting this possibility already invites us to accept that our patterns of lusting, the shapes and directions of our sexual desires, are culturally malleable. Not, certainly, that individuals have any choice in the matter, but that cultures can create expectactions about patterns of lusting that individuals often successfully internalise. If we accept this possibility, we have to accept also the possibility that our WEIRD sexualities could equally be culturally constructed; if it is WEIRD to be straight, then maybe no-one is born straight, but WEIRD culture somehow inscribes straightness upon them.

It seems to me that most moral reasoning I hear – in every direction – assumes the rightness of WEIRD accounts of sexuality. Of course, this is because I live in a WEIRD culture, and so hear the WEIRD voices loudly; if moral reasoning in other cultures looks opaque to us, maybe it is because we have not adequately understood how WEIRD we are. I am not saying WEIRD accounts of sexuality are wrong, but I am saying they are not obviously or indubitably right. It is not normal to be straight, it is WEIRD; we really do need to take that seriously when we think about human sexuality – and I suspect our moral reasoning in this area will be done far better if it refuses normative status to WEIRD categories of straight, gay, or lesbian (whilst taking with complete seriousness the fact that most Western people – including me – have been succesfully inculturated into one of these identities, and so experience it as identity not as choice).

7 Comments

  1. Steve Weatherly-Barton
    Aug 22, 2014

    So the implication is perhaps that WEIRD Christians are interpreting the Bible through a WEIRD filter … and the task of the preacher is to remove that filter?

    • steve
      Aug 27, 2014

      I’m not sure we can remove the filter, or even should want to; being culturally-located is part of the way God has created us… I think we do need to be aware of our filters and cultural locations, and understand that they do not define ‘human’ or ‘normal’.

      • Rebecca
        Aug 28, 2014

        Thank you for the lovely response to the always eloquent and logical Alastair. I felt like you understand that the curses of Adam and Eve are over…you might even remember that Christ sent a woman to the disciples to tell them He is risen.
        As a very devoted egalitarian wife and life long musician in church, these issues and the abuse around them in my life and others is beyond infuriating. I have skin in this game so of course I would care about the outcome more than A. Words like his, mostly enforced by brutality, have pained so many women, I can’t even count them. Absolute power has corrupted ego driven ministers and cruel fathers. Reading these old answers reminds me of insistence on racial separation when I was a little girl in South US. All make me feel I’ll, truly ill.
        I would like to offer myself as a servant of Christ. I would like my offer to be accepted based on something less than a spiritual hunger games.

  2. David Kerrigan
    Aug 22, 2014

    This is really interesting Steve, so as always, thanks for the stimulation. Of course, instead of conserving my mental strength by going to bed early and focusing on my need to decorate a dining room over the next few days, instead you’ve set my mind racing on the theological, ethical and hermeneutical implications of what you’ve written.

  3. Alastair Roberts
    Aug 23, 2014

    Some thoughts, not particularly connected to each other:

    1. I presume that you have read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. He has some interesting and perceptive things to say about WEIRD modes of thinking, especially in the area of morality.

    2. When psychology does spread its net wider, some fascinating things can turn up. For instance, the voices that schizophrenics in India hear tell them rather different sorts of things than those of schizophrenics in the US (culture-specific syndromes can also be a fascinating rabbit hole to explore).

    3. The way that, even in our academic disciplines, we tend to see non-Western societies as deviations from our norm is interesting. For instance, the distinction between the disciplines of sociology and anthropology is worth pondering: one of these sciences seems to be focused on WEIRD societies and the other on non-WEIRD ones. Why? What beliefs about ourselves and non-WEIRD societies are implicit in this division of fields and their respective methodologies?

    4. A number of years ago, I read David Greenberg’s tome, The Construction of Homosexuality, which is a detailed exploration of some of the different forms that same-sex sexual activity has taken in various cultures over history. There are cultures where every male participates in ritualized activities that we would consider as ‘homosexual’ for a number of years (the Sambia people, for instance), before entering into relations with women (such activities also are not necessarily culturally regarded as ‘sexual’ in the way that we perceive them). The role played by pederastic relations in ancient Greece are also interesting in this area, as are the ways that some exogamous tribes have instituted homosexual relations to bolster group allegiances. There are also cultures where same-sex sexual acts are unknown and don’t fit into the cultural model of sexuality at all (even as something forbidden or taboo). The Aka people are a famous example of this. Our cultural concept of ‘sexuality’ doesn’t really account for these sorts of cultural phenomena very well.

    5. You may or may not be aware of the research of Lisa Diamond on sexual fluidity. If you aren’t, I suspect that you will find it eye-opening. It makes clear that non-exclusive attraction, far being bizarre and unusual, is considerably more common than exclusive same-sex attraction and that, even those who claim to be exclusively attracted to one sex will often exhibit movement towards or from non-exclusivity in attractions, identity, or behaviours over time. In short, our categories don’t do justice to our reality.

    6. I am not sure that the notion of exclusive orientation is the really WEIRD thing. Rather, the notions of ‘orientation’ or sexual identity, as they function in our social imaginary, are the really WEIRD things (similar things could be said about gender). While there are analogues to these in other societies (Joan Cadden’s recent work might be interesting for medieval notions on this, for example), they don’t bear the same weight. The expectation that the contemporary ‘buffered’ self must bear or produce its own meaning and quest for an authentic identity leads to ‘sexuality’ functioning in a very distinct way. The intensity of our cultural need for coincidence between an inner and private identity and external expression/presentation—a coincidence that is seldom as secure and clear as we need it to be—would be less keen in a more sociocentric society, in which the individual self wasn’t so disengaged and, rather than the murkiness of subjective states of desire and identification, external institutions and cultural structures of meaning were our guides.

    7. The choice isn’t a straightforward one between culture and birth. Nature presses us at many points, from within, without, and ‘between’, directly and indirectly. Nor does culture somehow stand distinct from nature—nature is always ‘cultured’. For instance, recognizing their particular social importance and potential for transcendence—through procreation, the movement between the generations, the realization of our sexed identities, unity with the sexually other, etc.—cultures will typically adumbrate naturally procreative relations with legal, institutional, social, religious, and other cultural norms. Thus culture reinforces nature, establishing cultural thoroughfares where nature first drove her ruts.

    8. It seems to me that it is probably better to think of ourselves as ‘pre-wired,’ rather than ‘hardwired’—there is more flexibility than we might think, though often not a flexibility accessible to our personal choice. There is plenty of queer theory this explores the contingencies and inconstancies of our categories of sexuality and sex/gender. I think that there is a danger of overstating the (very significant) power of inculturation, though. Attending to the experience of gay and transgender persons can be illuminating here, I think. Such persons have typically received very extensive socialization into their sex, their gender, and into heterosexuality. Yet, for various reasons, this socialization doesn’t work, and often doesn’t work in an extremely pronounced way. To me, this suggests that the effectiveness of socialization shouldn’t be taken for granted (cases like David Reimer’s also weigh against tabula rasa assumptions). Merely being bombarded with cultural messages doesn’t determine our response to those messages. It also suggests that the ‘success’ of masculine messages for boys, feminine messages for girls, and heterosexual messages for both in the overwhelming majority of cases merits closer examination.

    • steve
      Aug 27, 2014

      Sorry only to reply to this now, Alistair. I agree with most of what you’ve said there, yes.

  4. Ruthg
    Aug 23, 2014

    Thank you. I have been arguing this for years. So many of our assumptions about all manner of things are too small because of our lack of historical awareness

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