Sex, Adolescence, and the Power of Desire

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the most common arguments used to advance the cause of gay rights is the thought that individuals do not choose their own sexualities. Some people are naturally disposed to be gay, some to be straight, some somewhere in between. The argument goes that we ought not to blame individuals for behaviors that arise from desires they do not choose, at least insofar as those desires do not result in harm being done to others (the desire in pedophiles to have sex with children also arises naturally, but pedophilia harms children, while homosexuality is not in and of itself harmful). I’m not here today to contest this argument–I broadly agree with it–I’m here to explore the possibility that it might have significant moral, legal, and philosophical implications outside the LGBT issue. What other desires arise in the same way the sexual desire does?

We tend to think about sexuality differently from other desires because we all can remember a time in our lives in which the sexual desire was absent, or, at the very least, quite different in intensity or nature. At some point in adolescence, human beings develop the sexual desire in its recognizable form. We do not choose to enter adolescence. Given the character of adolescence in modern western societies, what rational person would? During adolescence, we are plagued with a variety of strong thoughts, emotions, and desires that are fundamentally distinct from those we experienced as children. We often find ourselves fighting with our parents over issues that previously were of no importance at all to us, we find ourselves relating to our peers very differently, and so on. We do not choose these changes, but we nonetheless find our behavior changing, and we are shockingly powerless to resist. While there are many immature adults, no adult well and truly maintains the psychology he had as a child.

These changes in desire are produced by changes in our biology that we do not initiate. These biological changes interact with a changing environment, in which our peers and parents also seek to relate to us differently from the way they did when we were 8. To the extent that we change and our relationships change during adolescence, we can ascribe two primary causes:

  1. Biological Change–changes in body chemistry and in the brain itself
  2. Sociological Change–changes in our environment and in the social and cultural norms we are expected to follow when interacting with that environment

There is no room in here for free will or agency of any kind. We come into adolescence one person, we come out another, and the set of forces that bring this about are entirely outside our power. No one can retain the personality he had as an 8 year old no matter how committed he may be. As adults, it is impossible to choose to be eight again. Childhood is a thing lost irrevocably, a thing that is taken from us, in a sense, whether we wish it or not.

The way these changes act on us is clear to us precisely because we remember distinctly the period of our lives before they took effect, and we can distinctly recall our own powerlessness as they took place. But might it be the case that many, perhaps all, of our other desires are similarly generated? We can freely acknowledge that this is true of the basic necessities. The desire for food, water, or sleep is a desire we recognize we do not govern. Indeed, these desires govern us–when we reach a certain threshold of hunger, we are compelled to eat, regardless of what other activities we might have been participating in. As I write this blog post, there is a desire in me to get up and eat something. Given time, this desire will grow until I cannot resist it and am compelled to interrupt my writing process in its name. I may be enjoying the writing just as much as I am now, but my hunger will be overriding. In an important sense, I am slowly coming under the domination of my hunger. It will soon quite literally dictate my behavior.

But what about desires that are not universal and not born out of any acute biological necessity? We tend to see these as hallmarks of our individualism, of what makes us people.  I like to write and do so regularly. Most of us would say that I choose to write, that when I write I exercise my free will or autonomy. But why do I like writing? When I was a kid, I happened to try writing and found that I was good at it and enjoyed it. However, many other kids try writing at right around the same time and find either that they aren’t very good at it, that they don’t enjoy it, or both (usually both). They do not choose to be disinterested writers–our education system requires so much writing as to make any conscious decision not to enjoy or be good at writing an irrational one. By the same token, when I found myself not interested in or particularly good at higher math in high school, I was not actively choosing to be a mediocre math student. There is no class for which I had more homework than my math class–if it were within my power, I would have loved to love my math homework. I’d be crazy not to want to, but my mere wish did not make it so, nor did spending lots of time working on math. Indeed, the more time I spent with the subject, the more I discovered I didn’t really like it.

From time to time, I get an idea for a blog post. These ideas just pop into my head. I am incapable of explaining how they come about. All I know is that once I have an idea for a blog post, I feel a compulsion to drop whatever I’m doing and write it, because when I have something meaningful to write, my desire to write supersedes all competing desires and compels me to do so. I am only physically capable of resisting this compulsion insofar as I have some competing desire that is stronger. That desire could be inevitably unavoidable, like the need to eat something (which continues to interfere with my writing this piece) or it could be another desire that is a factor of my nature and the environmental circumstances I find myself in, like the need to complete a pending assignment for grad school in order to avoid failing to achieve the life I find myself desiring. Is even that life really freely chosen by me? I doubt it.

When push comes to shove, we never really choose anything. Our desires compete within our heads for attention, and the stronger ones win. A person we conventionally think of as “good” is merely a person whose psychology is such that his strong desires have good consequences. I happen to want to write these blog posts. I happen to not care about smoking crack. I am fortunate that these desires are not reversed, but it is mere genetic and environmental luck that this is so. It is not to my credit that I desire to write, nor is to my credit that I don’t care about smoking crack.

Too often, we think of people with mental problems as fundamentally distinct from us. Obsessive compulsive people, drug addicts, schizophrenics, all are thought to be disabled in some way that we just aren’t. Unlike them, we think ourselves to be autonomous, free individuals, but we are wrong. The mentally ill just have different desires from ours. They merely march to the orders of different, less benign masters. When we observe ourselves, we find that in every case, our behavior is ultimately reducible either to some desire we did not choose or to randomness we cannot comprehend. When we’re well and truly honest about it, it can be maddening. Our actions seem to arise out of the ether, driven by a system we did not design to ends that are familiar to us yet not well and truly our own.

And yet, for all of that, our society continues to operate morally and legally as though we decide to behave as we do, as though there is a sharp dividing line between the insane and the rest of us. Our masters may be different in character, but everyone answers to desire.

I’ve got to stop here. I have to eat.