July 5, 2021 - 10:45am

For those growing up in a world where much of social life happens via online avatars, freedom of self-preservation is increasingly viewed as a natural extension of civil rights. For this group, the self is an immaterial substance with an innate, self-defining essence, and everyone has the right to remodel their own body at will.

This manifests in some startling ways, such as individuals who undergo ‘nullification’ surgery to reduce or remove their sexed physical characteristics. Such bizarre practices are generally seen as a form of extreme body modification, akin to getting your tongue split or your eyeballs tattooed, and broadly (if sometimes grudgingly) sanctioned under liberal bodily autonomy.

But this gets political at the point where the claim to absolute self-definition comes with a demand that the self-defining person be recognised on their own terms. And this doesn’t get any more personal, or inflammatory, than when it collides with the equally politicised domain of sexual orientation.

It’s long been a core contention of the gay liberation movement that sexual attraction is involuntary, unconscious and innate. But this meshes uncomfortably with the idea that inner essence takes precedence over physiology.

The result has been a discourse that aims to reframe sexual orientation as a matter of ‘social construction’ and as such subject to problematisation, deconstruction and ideologically-inflected remodelling. In this rubric, sexual orientation becomes ‘genital preference’, a problematic bias that must be critically interrogated.

Here, a young woman, who self-describes as a lesbian, recounts how she changed her youthful view that “genitals and gender were very linked”. Instead, she now believes “genitals do not equal gender and any gender can have any genitals and they are valid”. As a result of ‘working through’ her ‘genital preference’, she found, “I was able to think about dick in isolation, not related to men”.

It’s common among ‘anti-woke’ commentators to point at inconsistencies in the ideology they oppose as though these represent flaws. It’s often more edifying to treat such glitches not as incoherence but as a game of hierarchy. A brief glance at which group finds itself most commonly on the receiving end of arguments about ‘genital preference’ serves to illustrate this fact.

By far the most common target of arguments about overcoming ‘genital preference’ are lesbians. In old money, then, this is a case of males seeking to persuade females to grant sexual access — a dynamic as old as the hills.

In even older pre-feminist money, being a horndog was understood as a standard male trait. Twentieth-century liberal feminism sought to reframe this behaviour not as innate, but rather an ideological vector for patriarchal oppression. As such it was (in theory) amenable to cure if only we could smash sexist stereotypes.

This has now been succeeded by a post-feminist effort to deconstruct sexual orientation along the same lines, an argument that has in turn been captured by male-bodied people in the interests of horndoggery itself. Under all these efforts to dismantle and reimagine sex relations, the same dynamic keeps recurring: men trying every trick in the book to get into women’s knickers. Perhaps the post-post-feminist effort to defend women against such incursions needs to return full circle to the idea that some sex differences are, in fact, not socially constructed after all.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.