The Only Good Binary Is an Exploded Binary


There’s been a ruffling of feathers in England over the results of a recent British survey, which asked a bunch of respondents to plot their sexuality somewhere along the Kinsey scale. Less than half the respondents — 46%, to be precise — between the ages of 18 and 24 defined themselves as exclusively heterosexual, leading to hand-wringing headlines proclaiming that “1 in 2 young Britons say they aren’t heterosexual.”

This is welcome news, of course. But it also makes one think about exactly how we define sexuality in the first place, because perhaps the more interesting response to the survey was that, as the Guardian notes here, “people of all ages now accept the idea that ‘sexual orientation exists along a continuum rather than a binary choice.’ The results showed that 60% of heterosexuals and 73% of homosexuals rejected the notion that sexuality is something that is fixed.”

The key phrase there is “a binary choice,” and you don’t have to be a poststructuralist to notice just how much of our society functions around the notion of binaries. Male, female. Straight, gay. Black, white. Rich, poor. 0, 1. On, off. Left, right. Up, down. We seem to have an instinctive need to group people into Us and Them. Cat people, dog people. Summer people, winter people.

The thing is — and again, you don’t need to be Derrida to notice this — most of these binaries are false. How many people do you know who LOVE dogs but HATE cats? However many it is, surely you know many more people who maybe kinda like cats but are perfectly OK with dogs, or who love both, or who hate animals in general, or who have a strange and inexplicable preference for raccoons.

As humans, we tend to think we have an instinctive desire to bring order to the complicated nature of the world. We build in straight lines and right angles, not curves. We’re good at pattern recognition, which is in itself a sort of imposition of order onto the otherwise chaotic. We like the laws of physics and the standard model and the elegant logic of mathematics (and, as Amir Alexander’s fascinating book Infinitesimal narrates, ideas that undermine the notion of a universal order have, for much of history, gone down very badly indeed). We are creatures that like to present knowledge in simple terms.

Binaries are an instinctively appealing way to do this. What’s easier than putting things into one of two boxes? It’s the most simple and fundamental way of representing difference, a Boolean method of saying, “Is” or “Is not.” Them or us. Like us or different from us. Plants and animals. Land and sea. American, not American.

But obviously, this method of categorization works for very few things. If you’re a smart kid, you probably notice this early on, and you might look at what we’re presented as binaries and think, “OK, what these really are is polarities.” They’re extremes that define opposite ends of a range. If black and white are the extremes, then what’s in between is shades of gray. If rich is one extreme and poor is the other, then what’s between is the middle class. They’re not so much yes/no propositions as they are scales, and their usefulness is in describing how a given situation relates to one extremity or the other.

Sometimes, these scales work perfectly well on their own. If you’re trying to take a photograph, having a scale that starts with total darkness and ends with blinding light is great for working out what exposure you need. Others we use in concert, putting several polarities together to describe reality. We perceive the entire world as a combination of three Cartesian polarities, the three dimensions of space: obviously very few things are directly to the left or right of any position you might be standing in, or directly ahead of you or behind you, or directly above or below you, but having those terms of reference nevertheless allows you to describe where a given object is. (“A little to the left, a few yards ahead, up on that hill.”)

It’s important to remember, though, that even these scales, while superficially appealing, are almost inevitably poorly suited for the representation of reality. Shades of gray are fine for describing, well, shades of gray, but clearly, we also have colors. We’ve thus developed various multidimensional ways of describing color (RGB, HLS, CMYK, etc.), all of which place a given color at a point along the visible spectrum. But there are plenty of animals that can see down into the infra-reds and up into the ultra-violets, none of which fit our neat conception of the visible spectrum. And the whole idea of naming colors breaks down when it’s examined deeply, because in reality there’s an infinite number of hues and shades — we can point at something and say that it’s “green” or “blue,” but we really have no way of looking at the G and the B on a spectrum and identifying exactly where the former ends and the latter begins.

Even with these failings, in the cases above, the polarities we’ve chosen at least make some sort of sense — our conceptions of color and space, for instance, are generally fine for describing the world as we see it. They’re not perfect — color suffers from the failings we’ve discussed, and spatial dimensions break down when we get to quantum scales. But very few of us have to examine the minutiae of color, and very few of us have to work with quantum mechanics on a regular basis. So these polarities work.

Because they work, we tend to accept them as faits accomplis. But it’s important to remember that even the most functional polarity is still an arbitrary one. Look, for instance, at temperature — America uses a completely different scale to measure how hot it is than almost the entire rest of the world. As an Australian, if I tell someone in America that it’s 40º outside and stinking hot, they look at me like I’m crazy. There’s no reason that my 40º and your 40º should coincide, though. They’re entirely arbitrary numbers, given meaning only by the notion of everyone accepting the same scale.

And here’s the thing: the way in which you define that scale is hugely important. If we’re discussing temperature, the worst that can happen is me still looking blankly at my girlfriend when she tells me it’s 90º outside. But more generally, by drawing a line between Point A and Point B, we define our view of reality as having to fall between those two points. We limit our conception of what is and what can be.

And here’s the point: the specification of those limits is almost invariably a political act. It is, one might argue, the most political act, because it frames the nature of any discussion or debate that can take place. Let’s take, for instance, perhaps the most prominent example in today’s world: race. The most cursory examination of the idea of representing race as a polarity of black and white quickly reveals how inadequate the idea is — literally no one’s skin is either black or white, and even if we accept that the former refers to, say, the darkest-skinned Africans and the latter to Icelanders, the polarity is still entirely inadequate for describing what people look like.

More importantly, though, it places the darkest of the dark and the lightest of the light in opposition. It makes one an “us” and the other a “them.” And it’s arbitrary. We might just as easily define colors of the skin on a scale of pinkness to yellowness, or on a multidimensional scale like we do with any other color. We might also just not define it at all — there are many other ways in which you can describe a person’s appearance than by the color of their skin. But we don’t. We say they’re black, or white, or mixed race. Even if we do make reference to other features — describing someone as looking Asian, for instance — we do so in a way that locates them somewhere on this artificial polarity of race.

All of which brings us back to sexuality. I remember when in my teens, I had the sudden revelation that hey, maybe sexuality wasn’t a strict binary, that you could be something apart from between 100% gay and 100% straight. Even then, though, the notion of bisexuality was part of… a trinary, I guess you’d say: you could be gay, or straight, or bi. That seemed to cover all the options. -1, 0, 1.

And even when I developed a more sophisticated understanding — that sexuality was fluid, that you weren’t necessarily at the same point on the line all the time, etc. — I did so within the framework of human sexuality being defined by the Kinsey scale, a polarity that had “100% gay” at one end and “100% straight” at the other. It’s a surprisingly difficult leap of intuition to realize that, wait, why does it have to be that way at all? If — if — we have to put human sexuality on some sort of a scale, we might do so in any number of other ways. Why is one’s choice of partner the only criterion? Why the obsession with who we do it with? Why are “same sex” and “opposite sex” the poles?

The answer, of course, is that it’s political. Like many other binaries, the gay/straight one was imposed upon us as a means of control. Like many binaries, it was created as a way to define us and them, and thus control the “us” by defining them in opposition to the “them.” It’s been a favorite trick of demagogues and bigots for millennia. Look at the rhetoric for the upcoming election: how many binaries do you see? Citizens and non-citizens. Believers and unbelievers. Conservatives and liberals. Patriots and, um, liberals. All of them arbitrary, all of them simplistic, and all of them saying, “Hey, be on our side of the fence.”

And if the YouGov survey teaches us one thing, it’s this: this is not a “natural” or “instinctive” human desire. If you let people grow up in an environment where the gay/straight binary isn’t drilled into their head from birth, then they grow up defining their sexuality in a way that makes no reference at all to that binary, or at least in a way that seems to regard that binary as quaint and simplistic. It’s not so much that these kids are suggesting that very few people are 100% straight or 100% gay — it’s that they’re suggesting that this entire way of framing sexuality is wrong. Which, of course, it is.

When it comes to sexuality, we certainly don’t exist as a Boolean binary, but neither do we exist as a point somewhere along a linear scale. There might be a multidimensional way of categorizing sexuality, in which one’s choice of partner is only one variable among many — but honestly, why bother? Gender is bullshit. Sexuality is bullshit. Go and fuck whoever you want, however you want. So long as everyone’s enjoying themselves, there are no limits at all.