Monthly Archives: August 2019

Is There an Authentic Sexuality?

Recently, something I heard raised a question about what is authentic in terms of sexuality. This essay is the result of my contemplation of this question about sexuality and authenticity. To begin I want to make clear what I refer to by the term “sexuality.” In my view, one’s introceptively perceived states, feelings, thoughts and impulses are generally the basis for what becomes one’s sexual identity. Further, these states, feelings, thoughts and impulses can vary in clarity and intensity. As I’ve made clear in another piece on this site, I think that sex, sexuality, sexual orientation and gender are four separate variables that have a range of independent outcomes. The speaker that I heard made it clear that authenticity should be conferred only when all four of these variables were consistent with one another relative to one of the two biological sexes.

I have framed the essay in the language of dualism largely because the dominant worldview and the structure of language make it difficult to do otherwise. I have broken the phenomenon of sexuality up into categories and given them labels, for the same reasons just stated. I also suspect most readers are likely to be dualistic thinkers and subscribe to materialism and naive realism as their ontology or worldview. Personally, I subscribe to a nondual worldview in which the entire universe is an organic whole. The universe, as I see it, is an indivisible ecology that includes humanity. Most people, especially in the west, see the universe as a vast collection of separate, independent and at times interdependent parts that include living organisms such as ourselves. Nondualism in Western philosophy is known as monistic idealism. Links to the work of a contemporary advocate for monistic idealism can be found here.

As I considered the question raised, my thoughts went back to the early history of life on this planet when sex evolved as a reproductive strategy. Biological evolution, as a process, produced two reproductively distinct sexes. The strategy has endured because it improved the odds of successful reproduction of viable members of any species using it. Sexes exist for a biologically functional purpose and only for that reason. Remove the biological advantages from sexual reproduction and sexes never would have evolved. Any fundamental differences between the two reproductive sexes, whether in anatomy, physiology, affect, cognition or behavior appear of necessity to be tied to reproductive functions.

Therefore, a male is capable of successfully fulfilling one part of the two-part process of reproduction and a female is capable of successfully fulfilling the other part of the reproductive process. To meet this criterion, one must not only have the requisite biological characteristics but must be either of an age suitable for reproduction or to have been able to meet it when of a suitable age. This describes in its most fundamental sense male and female or functional sexes (FS). The majority of individuals are male or female in the functional meaning of the labels. I think the speaker alluded to above would argue that this and only this is natural and therefore authentic. However, anything that is a product of nature is natural. There are a number of variations on the functional theme described above. These variations to a greater or lesser degree are socially influenced.

How might one understand the labels “boy/man” and “girl/woman”? Here it is necessary to shift focus from a functional biological frame-of-reference to a sociocultural frame-of-reference. Man and woman are labels applied in a sociocultural context and are typically based largely on observable characteristics related to physical appearance and behavior. Behavior characteristics are more closely related to gendered dress, speech, affect, language, attitudes, and mannerisms, etc. These characteristics are grouped to socioculturally (SC) define men and women. Any characteristic attributed to the SC categories of man or woman said to have a biological rather than a social basis must be shown to be linked to characteristics required by functional reproduction. The defining characteristics of men and women have varied somewhat both across cultures and history. Thus, there appears to be some purely sociocultural dimension to such definitions. While there is a high probability that a sociocultural classification (SC) of boy/man or girl/woman will prove to be strongly correlated with matching FS classifications of male or female, it is not a one-to-one correlation.

For example, a child who at birth is labeled as a girl and who identifies as a girl and is socialized as a girl can, as an adult, be classified as a woman. She will be so recognized in the sociocultural context as a girl/woman though she might not meet the definition for a FS classification. Under this analysis, for example, a person who is genetically XY and has Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) could be socially classified as a woman. In such a case, the individual looks female, has been socialized in the feminine gender role and identifies as a woman. However, she would not be functionally female under the reproductive definition. This analysis could also be argued to apply to someone who is genetically XX but congenitally sterile for whatever reason.

Evolution is not an invariant process and a minority of births result in atypical outcomes. Some atypical outcomes are more easily identified than others. There are variations in anatomical outcomes such as in the structure of the genitalia. There are also physiological variations such as CAIS, mentioned earlier, which result in a female-appearing individual who internally has no female reproductive organs. There also appear to be a range of atypical outcomes, possibly related to physiological processes, that aren’t well understood. These are usually only identifiable through overt behavior and/or reports of covert psychological states such as thoughts, feelings and behavioral impulses arising in awareness, which may or may not be overtly acted upon. These, for example, can be outcomes such as variations in sexual orientation, e.g., homosexuality and/or sexual identity, e.g., cross-sex identification. These atypical variations can be manifest to varying degrees and will be stronger and more intense in some individuals than in others. There also exists the possibility that some individuals might adopt what I’ve referred to as atypical sexuality by choice. Probably, a choice influenced by temperament, personality and experience. I suspect that if such individuals exist, they comprise a very small portion of the atypical population.

The most ambiguous group of outcomes are generally thought to arise from variations in physiology, such as atypical hormone exposure during development that is hypothesized to occur at the wrong time or persist for too long or too brief of a period or to involve the wrong hormone altogether. There exists some evidence in support of this hypothesis, but the actual mechanisms have not been clearly identified and verified as the cause of these outcomes. Such individuals, strictly speaking, are classifiable as FS if they are capable of carrying out the reproductive function for which their body type evolved. Even a person with a strong sense of being in a wrongly sexed body but who has not undergone alteration of physiology and anatomy and is capable of reproduction could still be classified as FS. If they do reproduce, they are clearly FS.

A person may have engaged in reproductive behavior and produced progeny in the past and then undertaken physiological and/or anatomical alterations that now prevent carrying out a reproductive function. Such an individual has, in effect, chosen to remove her/himself from their previous FS classification. However, removing yourself from one FS classification (e.g., female) does not and cannot qualify you for the alternate FS classification (e.g., male). Such an individual now presents as a man or woman and lives through a masculine or feminine gender role. Clearly, on the basis of the above argument, they are not what has been termed female or male and have no FS status. I would also suggest that they are not what has been socially defined as a man or a woman and usually don’t achieve a SC status. Of course, the labels trans man or trans woman claim neither functional status nor sociocultural status but make a claim to have transitioned to a cross-sex status. This appears to constitutes a third category; i.e., transsexual (TS), which could also be argued to be a variant on the SC category.

A TS person has altered their body and adopted the social role that contrasts with the body they were born into and the gender role into which they were socialized. Thus, we have persons who have undergone a cross-sex transition and identify as trans women or trans men. Also, in recent years, there have been children who cross identify and are socialized in that cross role and make an early transition through hormone therapy and later surgical alteration. These children become trans women and trans men, though they may in some respects be more difficult to classify. They will usually represent a close approximation to someone in a SC classification. It could be argued that they should be classified in the SC category under the same reasoning that someone with CAIS can be classified as SC; i.e., for all practical purposes they are indistinguishable from SC men and women.

It could be argued that transsexualism as described above is not natural on the grounds that it requires human intervention through medical procedures. However, the underlying impetus for the medical procedures appears to occur as a natural variation of reproductive biology. Such individuals have existed and lived cross sexed lives long before there were any medical interventions available. Thus, the ability to reconfigure the body didn’t create TS individuals but merely gave them an option that wasn’t previously available. In other words, radical reconfiguration of the body has become possible through the evolution of human culture, especially through the expansion of medical science during the past one hundred years or so.

In my opinion, gender is part of a socially constructed role. I think that we can legitimately talk about feminine gender and masculine gender in terms of a range of presentations, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and so forth. All of these can be and probably are commonly learned through developmental socialization. One could acquire such gender characteristics through more formal learning methods later in life, but they may not be as complete or as deeply programmed as when acquired developmentally through socialization. Some would argue that gender characteristics are biologically based but my opinion is that many of them arise from social convention and for social purposes. Making a biological connection for a gender characteristic requires showing a derivative relationship to a reproductive function. While gender is often employed as a stereotype, there is actually a fair amount of variability within a gender role in any given sociocultural context. In other words, it is possible for there to be some overlap in gender characteristics, so they aren’t as exclusive as some stereotypes seem to suggest.

There are many individuals with atypical sexuality who are not transsexuals in the sense of having reconfigured their bodies to conform in appearance to the anatomy of a man or woman. Such an individual may conform partially, e.g., is only on hormone therapy. It could be argued that partial conformity should qualify as TS and perhaps it should. It seems to me, however, that there should be a significant degree of irreversibility in whatever modifications are used to so qualify as TS.

Cross-identified individuals, who forego the option of body reconfiguration, simply limit their modification to cosmetic efforts. An individual who is not TS but is cross-gendered may identify with and learn the cross-gender role and socially present through cosmetic changes combined with gender role behaviors. Any individual who makes an effort to change their social presentation to that of a man or a woman and live through that gender role but who is not transsexual, as defined earlier, I would classify as cross-gendered (CG). Thus, providing a fourth category, which also could be argued to be a variation of the SC category. Cross-gender must also be considered as natural, if one accepts, as I do, that CG is highly likely to have its origins in developmental biology.

There still remains the possibility of someone who identifies, at least in part, with a gender role different from the one in which they were socialized but who continues to conduct their life through the role in which they were socialized. These individuals have not transitioned physically and socially nor do they make a social transition. I do not count, as social transitions, social presentations such as limited events like costume parties, special interest club events and presentations limited to the home. I would not classify such individuals as CG. However, I think for most such individuals their decision not to transition is due to a weaker impetus, though in some cases it may simply be social pressures that prevent them from transitioning. Nevertheless, I would again suggest that the impetus likely has its roots in developmental biology and is therefore natural.

I suppose one could think of these non-transitioning individuals as gender explorers (GE). A GE can be as limited as someone who sometimes engages in cross-gender fantasies and/or sometimes identifies with cross-gender characters in novels, television programs, movies, public personalities or acquaintances. A GE can further make a study of and learn parts of a cross-gender presentation such as dress, speech, mannerisms and so on. This group too could be argued to be a variation on the SC category since gender role appears to be heavily influenced by sociocultural factors.

However, the sociocultural factors in SC, as initially defined, are more fundamental and widespread in their application and acceptance for that classification relative to those classifications that follow it in this discussion. I am aware that there are many who would disagree with my choice of labels and their definition, but they make sense to me. I also tend to think about the “categories” described above as positions along a spectrum or dimension that represents a range of natural diversity. In another piece on this site, I have argued that male and female represent a complimentary pair that anchor the points at either end of a spectrum lying between the pair.

Based on the line of thought above, I would argue that all variations of sexual identity are natural and, if natural, must be authentic. The remarks made by the individual mentioned at the beginning of this piece expressed the opinion that most of the variations described above are not natural but are choices made by persons who suffer from psychological disorders. I have heard a number of such people expound this opinion and find in them two common characteristics. First, they live from a narrative about how the world should be or, as someone else has said, “are lost in their minds.” These people can’t or won’t make a distinction between their mental narrative about the world and reality as it presents to those who have eyes with which to see clearly. Second, the mental constructs from which their narrative is built are impervious to change and seldom susceptible to explanations or evidence that contradict their beliefs. In short, they tend to have rigid personalities and a need for certainty even if they are certainly wrong.

I would further argue that authenticity is a concept and not a part of the natural world. Concepts are the brick and mortar from which narratives are constructed. Thus, when an argument is made about someone not being authentic, what the argument entails is comparing the individual to an idea or set of ideas forming a belief integral to a narrative and finding them wanting. To put the matter differently, it is as if I were to compare someone to a fictional hero in a novel and find them unauthentic because they don’t meet the ideal set by the fictional hero. The concept of authenticity might be useful as in determining that a painting is an authentic Dali but it is useless for judging the inherent characteristics of people.

To fully understand human sexuality requires that one not focus on the end points but also take into account all the transitions along the spectrum, which no doubt are more varied than it was possible to cover in this piece. True understanding comes not from the parts but from the whole. I have also argued in another piece on this site that identifying fully with either end point limits one’s ability to gain an understanding of the whole. Those who fall onto the spectrum between the anchors are in the best position to blend the duality into an understanding of the whole. This, however, is only possible if one can rise above the motivation to make oneself conform as close as possible to one of the dimensional anchor points.

One way to approach the task of “rising above” is to consider the task from the point of view of monistic idealism. If asked who you are, you mostly likely will begin with a litany of role descriptions; e.g., I am a woman, a wife, a teacher, a Swede, an amateur athlete and so on. This is not who you are. This is a shorthand account of the narrative that you have created to establish an identity. You are not your identity. Your identity in and of itself does nothing and knows nothing. It is just a story, a story that depends entirely upon the conceptual mind and memory. This is not to say that an identity doesn’t have its uses especially as an interface with the web of the world.

What I mean by the mind is that scaffold of mental constructs that might be called ideas, concepts, beliefs, information, language, etc. The mind, in my view, might be thought of as a cognitive structure existing within awareness. By way of illustration, imagine a large grassy field (awareness) with a complex set of “monkey” bars (mind) set up on part of it. Most of us spend most of our time “playing” on the monkey bars and give scant attention to the field (awareness). When an experience occurs, we usually interpret it through the structures comprising the mind. This is what is known as top-down perception. Looking at an experience from the perspective of the field and excluding the monkey bars is called bottom-up perception and is typical of young children.

Our experiences are encoded through images and language and are therefore linked to the scaffold. The development of mind is supported by the experiences of the body in the physical world. Experience is a critical contributor to the development of mind. The complimentary pairs mentioned earlier exist because they make experience possible through the tensions produced by the contrast between the anchor points – if no contrasts, then no experience and no mind.

In nondual philosophy, the body exists to support our individuated awareness, which is but one “frequency” of awareness. Your frequency is generated by the Source field of awareness, which is the ground of all being. Think of Source as a carpet and your personal awareness is like a single thread running through the carpet. Further, the body comes equipped with many basic programs that drive its functions, and these are added to, expanded and extended through experience. Many of these programs are what I have called in other pieces on this site APs or automatic programs. These programs run outside of awareness and make a huge contribution to what you do both covertly and overtly. In fact, many of the beliefs that we hold are acquired as a means of explaining some of the automatic outcomes from our APs. In short, we spend a lot of time making up explanations for why we think, feel and behave in certain ways. This gives us the illusion of being causal actors in the world when in fact we may be much more like zombies than we’re willing to admit.

Thus, the body/mind moves us through the world according to its own programs and patterns. If you think that you are your thoughts, memories, impulses, feelings, sensations, etc., just sit quietly and experience them arising and subsiding (one objective of meditation). Are they coming and going of their own accord? Are you making them come and go? If you think that they are part of you and you are instigating them, I suggest you command them to stop and see what happens. If, as I suspect, you have little success in giving effective commands, consider this question: who is doing the observing of the body/mind and its activities? I would suggest that you consider that observer to be the much neglected and scaffold-free awareness. In other words, the large, flat, green field that you give little or no attention to as you swing happily through the maze of monkey bars.

I suggest that you adopt the perspective that you are pure awareness (what I’ve called the natural mind in another piece on this site) and not the body/mind. This is not as easy as it might seem because you have a great deal of practice in identifying with the body/mind. If you succeed in making this perceptual shift, you will find that identifying with pure awareness puts everything in a different light. Be aware  that a perceptual shift is not the same thing as understanding a new concept but is rather a direct, intuitive knowing. One difference you will perceive is that pure awareness has no sex, sexuality, sexual orientation or gender. It is unencumbered being. You will have risen above the duality of sex (among other things) and are now in a position to understand the whole without being confused by attachment to some part of the whole.

This expansion in perspective does not remove you from planet earth. You still have a body/mind and you still have to get along in the everyday dualistic world (a.k.a. living life). You still need a body and you still need to take care of it. However, you will come to see and treat your body as a vehicle that has a lot of useful features, not unlike your car. You don’t confuse your identity with your car and should not confuse your identity with your body. The same applies to your mind, which can be a very useful tool, but one must be careful not to get so engrossed in thinking and thoughts that you become lost in your memories, stories about them, explanatory narratives and imagined future events. More on the above can be learned from various teachers and guides. A partial list of teachers is located at this link.

The late Franklin Merrill-Wolff was an American mystic who lived from awareness. There is a short piece on Merrell-Wolff on this site. He described his perspective as “the high indifference.” He was not using the word “indifference” in its common meaning of not caring. What he was trying to indicate was that one deals with life and the world as needed and with as much loving kindness as possible. In doing this, one acts without attachment to the outcome of the action. This requires avoiding emotional entanglement in the endless flux of the world of human creation or what I have called, in another piece on this site, “the web of the world.” Thus, one lives and acts from high indifference. From the perspective of pure awareness, a question about authenticity never arises.

Further Ruminations

Several years ago I wrote a poem titled “Rumination.” In some manner, I sense that I am returning to that earlier poem. Pretty clearly the underlying theme of that poem was a quandary about purpose and meaning in the universe and therefore in human life. The key question is, does the universe have a purpose? If so, then life has meaning to the extent that it contributes to that purpose. If not, how could life have meaning? One attempt to answer the last question is the proposal that our meaning derives from context. In other words, we create meaning from our social context, which narrowly includes family and friends. More broadly it includes work and engagement with social networks. In short, meaning is contextual and the context is the world created by culture — the web of the world. Contextual meaning is a distraction from the larger issue. A distraction that some can lose themselves in but others find unsatisfying.

For those who find contextual meaning unsatisfying there are two basic paths that can be followed in the quest for meaning. One path is that of contemporary science. While there are scientific strays loose in the world, mainstream science declares that the universe arose out of randomness and has no purpose. Further, that the life that evolved in this random universe also arose out of randomness and has no purpose beyond perpetuating itself. Life that is intelligent and self-reflective is devoid of underlying purpose and meaning and therefore pointless. Why should such a being care whether or not a life without purpose or meaning is perpetuated? Its only possible justification is contextual, and if that is sufficient to sustain it for a few decades, then its biological programs will do their best to drive it into reproducing. Regardless, it will shortly unwind as a living community of cells and slide back into the oblivion that it arose from.

Oblivion is a fate that most such beings fear, for they recognize it as a permanent loss of awareness. Once recognized, a common antidote is denial coupled with immersion in the distraction of context. Those for whom this proves not sufficient are often observed to suffer from existential angst. Symptoms of existential angst often manifest as despair and depression or rage and violence. The former may attempt to find solace in addictions and the latter may seek release through acting-out. So, if you follow the path offered by mainstream science, you can lose yourself in the temporary world of the mind, suffer despair or embrace rage.

The second path open to the quest for meaning is spiritual in nature. One branch along this path is exoteric religion. The exoteric form of religion is the public face of the religion and is directed at the masses, e.g., Islam or Judaism. Most, if not all, exoteric religions address the issue of purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, religions tend to become social institutions, and while they may provide some support for purpose and meaning, they usually end up simply becoming an option in the contextual search for meaning. All too often, they become a toxic option as evidenced by religious authoritarianism and religious terrorism. There are, however, other branches along the spiritual path. The esoteric form of religion is private, individual and typically pursued by a small minority, e.g., Sufism or Kabbalism. Often, this is a minority oppressed by the exoteric institution. In other cases, a private, individual path is pursued independently of any religion. It is primarily this latter case that holds some promise..

For those people who are on the independent, esoteric path, lineages of teachers often become more prominent than religious institutions, especially in the east, e.g., India. Transmission moves from teacher to student, where the student often becomes a teacher to other students and so on. These lineages have their roots in mystical experiences in which the experiencer comes to a direct knowing that is purely a private, personal experience. It is not something that can be given to another but it can be pointed at as a form of guidance. The delusion that anyone on this path must be careful to avoid is that of mistaking the pointing with the thing in itself.

What mystics frequently offer when willing to talk about their experiential knowing is that the universe arises from a creative, intelligent Source that serves as the ground state from which everything arises. The fundamental characteristics of this ground state are awareness and unconditional acceptance of all that is. Some of these mystics suggest that we and the physical universe exist as specialized manifestations of this Source. The purpose for the universe is to support life and the purpose of life is to support individuated states of awareness. Individuated awareness exists to interact with other states of individuated awareness within the context of physicality. The purpose of these interactions is for Source to explore its potential and to evolve in understanding of that potential. Thus, the universe has a purpose and we have a role in that purpose and therein lies our grasp on true meaning.

Following the spiritual path in search of meaning requires that one seek to directly know, through merging one’s own awareness with Source. This is a phenomenological knowing of the truth of the underlying reality that the above description is merely pointing at with words and concepts. Belief in the description and holding it to be true out of faith is falling into the delusion warned against. Such an act is how religions come to be and devolve into a mere source of contextual meaning.

Standing On the Side of Love

The title above is a phrase describing a position voiced by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). I find it somewhat puzzling. I am no theologian, but to my thinking there appears to be an implicit theology in their name. Unitarian obviously derives from unitary or one. Since this church began as a Christian church, I assume that, at least in its origins, it held a belief in God. Thus, Unitarian implies that God is One. I would also suggest that the One God would be all inclusive. If God is all inclusive, then everything that exists is a manifestation of God, which includes every living thing. All is in God. In other words, panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism) to use a religious term or nondualism or monistic idealism to use more philosophic terms. It is also possible that the position that God is One is not a nondual position but simply a refutation of the Trinity commonly advocated in Christian theology.

I checked my interpretation with someone knowledgeable about UU theology, a professor of religion who is also a UU minister. I was assured that my nondual interpretation was correct. Further, my alternate hypothesis that one God was simply a refutation of the Trinity was also correct. I will now turn to the word Universalism. My take on this word’s contribution to the UUA’s historic theology is that it further reinforces the pervasive or all-encompassing nature of God. Everything is an expression of God and thus inclusive in the One. The concepts of Heaven and Hell, and God and Satan, clearly mark Christianity as dualistic and out of step with the One. It doesn’t matter if one is Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist or what have you. God is all inclusive and embraces all people everywhere. Thus, if Jesus was a God realized man through whom God was truly expressed, then it would be highly unlikely that Jesus would espouse any position contrary to the One. Clearly Christianity isn’t a nondual religion, which gives one pause.

So, back to the title. If all is One, how can there be sides in unity, or how can One be two? To be on the side of love implies that there is another side, which would appear to be hate. This clearly suggests dualistic thinking. Its a position that we have seen enough of in religions. We’re the good guys on our way to Heaven and you’re the bad guys on your way to Hell. This divisive and dualistic approach serves only to stimulate contention. From a nondual perspective, supporting the duality of love and hate actually serves to perpetuate it. I recall reading somewhere that “you cannot be in the light while holding another in darkness.” Isn’t this exactly what the UUA’s position is attempting to do? Might it better be served by taking a position grounded in non-dualistic thinking such as “Love reaching out to Love” or “All is Love” or “Love is the Source.” To quote the legendary philosophical group — the Beatles — love, love, love is all you need.