The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants

For better or for worse, I have been heavily influenced by Daniel Kahneman’s characterization of System 1 vs System 2 thinking. Thus I tend to model my brain as a “lizard brain” (emotional, sublogical, fast at pattern matching) vs a “logical brain” (capable of logic and reason, although more often used to rationalize bad decisions made by my lizard brain). I do not know whether this model is correct, but I find it useful in thinking about sexual attraction.

To put it briefly, I believe that the heart wants what the heart wants. Sexual desire is much more a function of our lizard brain than our logical one, and the ability of our logical brains to reshape those desires is limited. Otherwise, conversion therapy would work better than it does. I think that sometimes sexual attraction can be reshaped, but I am not sure it is because we rationally convince ourselves to change.

I also believe that somehow we imprint on the things we find sexually desireable. Maybe we have some choice in this and maybe we don’t. I believe the objects of our sexual attractions can (and often are) culturally determined. I am confident that there are people in the world who have imprinted on Sleestaks, from Land of the Lost. But Sleestaks did not exist before 1974. Consider the people who would have otherwise been attracted to Sleestaks, but came of age before 1974. What did they find attractive? Nothing? Or did they imprint on something else?

If you agree that the heart wants what the heart wants, then blaming people for having the wrong sexual preferences is kind of stupid, because that attraction sits in the subrational lizard brain, and there is little that people can do to change it.

Unfortunately, this causes all kinds of awkwardness, because we live in a society where we expect logical brains to prevail. People get hurt when others don’t find them attractive, and that makes our logical brains upset.

This is as good a point at any for Shocking Disclosure of Sexual Perversion #2: secondary sex characteristics. I tend to find guys who exhibit lots of secondary sex characteristics — body hair, facial hair, big muscles, broad shoulders, deep resonant voices, even male pattern balding — sexually attractive. If Tumblr is to be believed, I am not the only one with this perversion.

The dark side of this is: “straight-acting”. On the whole gay men who are “straight-acting” are prized more highly than gay men who are not, and many people express this preference in their dating profiles (“no femmes!”). It is a common criticism that gay men who gravitate towards “straight-acting” are expressing internal homophobia, and that gay men who are well-adjusted are attracted to less masculine men. In recent times this criticism has been extended to transmen (“Transmen are men, so if you are attracted to cis men but not transmen then you are transphobic.”)

The irony, of course, is that lots of homosexuals (myself included) are not particularly “straight-acting”. So a lot of people who are looking for love get rejected a lot because they cannot fit somebody else’s masculine ideal, and a lot of perfectly innocent straight men have to deal with the discomfort of being lusted after by homosexuals.

Is it true that the heart wants what the heart wants? Should we accept that the widespread preference for “straight-acting” men a function of our subrational lizard brains? Or should we accept that this preference is hurtful, and that gay men who prefer “straight-acting” men sometimes end up falling in love with effeminate gay men instead, that this preference for “straight-acting” men is harmful and not okay and needs to be moderated? And isn’t it funny that many of those who are most vehemently against conversion therapy are those who are most adamant that being attracted to “straight-acting” men is homophobic and unacceptable?

I don’t think I am presenting a false dichotomy. There is a genuine tension here. But it also seems that both sides of this argument are true to some degree. Disentangling these sides is the difficult part.

12 thoughts on “The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants

  1. I love this new generation (the enlightened ones) who don’t like labels and refuse to slot themselves into straight, gay, bi, etc. I´m pretty certain I am not straight-acting, although by comparison to some other gay men, I am. Does that make me better? I know that in the past I would feel uncomfortable in public with my more flamboyant friends. Definitely internalized homophobia — AND fear. As for sexual attraction, although I identify as gay — in my generation (that sounds old) it was almost required that you ¨pick one,¨ I know now that it´s not as simple as all that. I can find anyone sexually attractive, although I´m much more gay (on that old Kinsey scale).


    1. Excellent observations. I was not even thinking about the way some of us don’t associate with more flamboyant gays, independent of our sexual desire for them. I agree that refusal to associate is likely homophobia.


  2. I have to agree with a lot of what Mitchell above has said. But unlike him, I’m more in the middle, was a twinkie in my early twenties, now classified as a pretty boy, even now in my late thirties. I have never had issues with being around the gayest of gay in a crowd, and your right on… the heart wants what the heart wants. For some reason, I attract a lot of straight guys and have had relations with many of them, but they have told me they don’t label themselves. They want what they want. Which I think it pretty cool. I can find anyone sexually attractive as well, but too, identify more as the gayest!!! As much as I love a good pair of jabooies, I’m not about to titty fuck a woman. An interesting topic… are on to something. Your definitely not presenting a false dichotomy.


  3. If you had grown up in a different culture and had an arranged marriage to a woman, would you have gotten by? My suspicion is yes.

    You are more courageous than I for dating straight guys. Mama always said that straight guys will break your heart.


    1. “If you had grown up in a different culture and had an arranged marriage to a woman, would you have gotten by? My suspicion is yes.” You could be right, but I probably would be having sex with men on the side like crazy. When people meet me, I think their pretty sure I’m gay. And having done drag for years, I have no problem embracing my fem side. Now when I have entertained straight guys, it was only because I didn’t want any chance of anything developing- except sex. I wasn’t in the mood for any gay hang ups. Seems when I go through a split, there always seemed to be a straight guy right behind it.


    1. Oy. My mother would not be happy to hear that. Fortunately, I do not think she needs to worry yet; that study doesn’t go very far in establishing the link. I have heard of other evidence that the propensity for male homosexuality is transmitted maternally. As far as I know nobody has isolated a “gay gene”, though.

      There was another article on the site which intrigued me: . That might make for interesting blog fodder.


      1. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be told by ones parents who to marry. I’ve known two woman who have successful arranged marriages. One was from Pakistan and the other from India. Both very educated and leading successful middleclass lives in Sydney. I was astonished they could be happy with the set up. Their up bringing was so different to mine. I can’t imagine their children in Australia being happy with arranged marriages. I doubt their parents would try.

        Being in a long-term, intimate relationship with any person who you don’t love seems heinous to me.


  4. Great post! You are so right when you say that the heart wants what the heart wants. Maybe there will be a day when people won’t have to deal with being labeled. I am afraid it won’t be in my life time though….


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