The worldwide Women’s Marches earlier this year brought to the fore once more the tangled morass of arguments and battles about sexuality launched in the 1960s. Marchers interviewed by the news media were eager to assert that the marches were not just about women’s rights per se, but about justice in all matters pertaining to freedom of choice and equality of opportunity. They did not want anybody’s identity to be determined by anything other than each person’s self-definition. There is certainly some common sense to the principle of equal opportunity and not being defined by incidental characteristics. Indeed, as Christians we are taught that we are all one before God, to be valued by each other as each of us is by God, without regard to race, gender, or socio-economic standing. But the current militant arguments on gender turn back on themselves and involve unrealized—or at least unacknowledged—contradictions, because their proponents are sometimes zealots for radical free will and at other times fervent determinists.
The early 20th century granting of voting rights for women gave women a formal voice in the shaping of social and political policy, a privilege which was used to protest against all other forms of discrimination against women. Western women had their boundaries of activity in society further expanded by being called to work in factories during two world wars in the 20th century. Added to that, WW I signaled the deliverance of women from the stereotyped image of sexual innocence promoted by the Victorians, and the “Roaring Twenties” brought much license in women’s public appearance and behavior. After a brief re-emphasis on the domesticated female in the fifties, the baby boomers of the sixties took full advantage of the availability of “the pill” to promote sexual freedom, which enabled women to experience full sexual expression without the “threat” of being taken out of circulation by pregnancy. With the reproductive handicap removed, feminists at this point were able to argue that traditional sexual roles are not biologically determined, but are merely the cultural constructs of self-interested and self-perpetuating patriarchal power. And if the biology of sexual identity is incidental rather than essential, people are free to decide for themselves how their sexual roles are to be defined. Sexual identity is determined by what one wills it to be, not by biology at birth.
It’s obviously a short and seemingly logical step from this position to what we have seen in the latest stages of this sexual revolution: if one’s sexual orientation or desire is contrary to his/her biological identity, what of it? Biology is incidental, so if I choose to follow an inclination to be other than what my biology implies, and I decide to form a sexual union with someone of my own gender, or even to change my gender, it is my right to follow my own willed sexual path. The irony of ending up here, of course, is that homosexual militants insist that they are born with the sexual orientation that they identify with, so they should be allowed to accept the way they were born and not be told that it ought to be otherwise. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the same deterministic principle doesn’t apply to one’s biological sexual identity?) Which is it to be, choice and willed action, or submission to destiny and predetermining influences?
The most recent militant push for self-defined sexual identity, the supposed right of individuals to decide their proper gender for themselves, abandons even the pretense of logic. This project assumes that it is an individual’s right to force other people to act toward them in complete acceptance of a self-defined, counter-physical gender identity, so that they are allowed to mix with the biologically opposite sex in the most intimate of public places, the restrooms. (Those who have gone through medical gender-change are a different matter, practically speaking, although their situation still involves moral questions to be dealt with.)
Ironically, all of this sophistry, by seeking to erode common-sense methods of determining gender, threatens to destroy true liberty rather than to expand it. If there is any real “freedom to choose” in human beings, it does not consist merely of an anarchy of possibilities that creates infinite islands of individuality. Rather, the power of choice enables meaningful directions of the will toward participation in a world ordered by both natural and moral law. Just as the scientist works in the context of a natural order that sets boundaries to what he concludes from his research, so are there necessary boundaries to defining who we are and deciding how we ought to conduct ourselves. Desire and preference are not self-validating reasons for rejecting those boundaries, nor will they change the disruptive consequences of non-bounded choices.