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.