Jesi Egan in Slate:
[L]ast month, the religious journal First Things published a controversial essay by Michael W. Hannon called “Against Heterosexuality,” which offers an ultra-conservative take on the issue of whether our sexual orientations are natural conditions or chosen constructs. Hannon’s piece is just the latest in a number of recent articles in the “choice wars.” Brandon Ambrosino, writing for the New Republic, set off a small firestorm in January when he described his homosexuality as a choice, not a biological fact. His article provoked vitriolic responses from, among others, Gabriel Arana and Slate’s own Mark Joseph Stern. Clearly, the biology vs. choice (or nature vs. culture) debate remains a point of serious contention within the LGBTQ community and beyond.
But does “construct” mean what these new adopters think it does? Though Hannon and Ambrosino have different political endgames, they both invoke a very unlikely ally: Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who’s known as the grandfather of queer theory and a central architect of the “construct” conception of sexuality. Though Foucault died in 1984, his History of Sexuality, Volume I is still mandatory reading in LGBTQ studies courses. His theories about where sexuality comes from have been hugely influential in academia for decades. But Foucault is also responsible for a lot of the confusion surrounding the biology vs. choice debate—largely because his work been taken out of context by liberals and social conservatives alike. While Hannon’s essay is a particularly disturbing piece of work (see Stern’s scathing take-down for more), all of these popular misinterpretations tend to muddy the political waters, and risk obscuring Foucault’s most important contributions to our understanding of sexuality.
Let’s start with a quick primer. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault writes that Western society’s views on sex have undergone a major shift over the past few centuries. It’s not that same-sex relationships or desires didn’t exist before—they definitely did. What’s relatively new, though, is 1) the idea that our desires reveal some fundamental truth about who we are, and 2) the conviction that we have an obligation to seek out that truth and express it.
Within this framework, sex isn’t just something you do. Instead, the kind of sex you have (or want to have) becomes a symptom of something else: your sexuality.