This is one of Oprah Winfrey’s favourite themes in all its aspects from the virginity of nuns to polygamy, homosexuality, bisexuality, incest and abuse. Heterosexuality is taken for granted; at least I cannot remember any shows on it, probably because it is generally accepted as normal and natural.

With gay liberation came the insistence on homosexuality as natural; this was in reaction to religious and conventional views of homosexuality as unnatural and deviant. Though people accepted sex and sexual attraction as natural, they could not accept that these were not confined solely to conventional man-woman relationships. So homosexuality was considered deviant. Religion and social convention, through the ages, in attempting and failing to eradicate homosexuality, have demonstrated that sex and sexual attraction, being natural, cannot be confined to interest only in the opposite sex. Today this has been acknowledged and though there still is prejudice against gay people, homosexuality has been decriminalised in most of the western world and in South Africa, the constitution recognises gay rights.

The acceptance of homosexuality as natural has had an unexpected consequence; heterosexuals are beginning to question their taken for granted sexuality. In recent times, heterosexual couples have come on the Oprah show to declare that they are really gay. And they were asked the usual question, ‘when did you know?’ a question to reinforce homosexuality as natural.

And that made me wonder why no one questions the ‘naturalness’ of heterosexuality. Is heterosexuality natural? When you think about it, you realize that most of us take it for granted because we have the example of our parents, a heterosexual couple. And we grow up believing that it is natural. But is it completely natural? Is it not part of our social conditioning?

Our development as human beings required social conditioning to wean us away from destructive natural impulses so that we could live secure in communities. And as our ancestors promoted heterosexuality, other forms of sexuality were marginalised. So we came to believe that heterosexuality was natural and other forms deviant; and among other sexual taboos, that attraction to the same sex was wrong. Such feelings led to a sense of shame and were repressed. And repudiation of homosexuality became a social convention. As societal beings, we were steered in the direction of heterosexuality which became so deeply ingrained that we came to believe that it is natural. But heterosexuality is a social convention, and social conventions are learned behaviours, not entirely natural. Heterosexuality, therefore, is more normal (i.e., embracing norms accepted in society) than natural. Homosexuality, which is completely natural, became abnormal.

In our determination to protect and secure our societies, we may go too far in our effort to control, and excessive control manifests in various forms of prejudice among other things. And our vigilance can be misdirected, as it has been in the case of gays. In the modern world, however, the acceptance of bisexuality and homosexuality as natural, is a marker of evolving individual freedom and expanding democracy. The new sexual freedom is an indicator of transformation from industrial society conventions to new understandings of freedom of expression.

Transformations, however, are always ambiguous. New freedoms apply equally to law abiding citizens as well as to criminals and the immature who exploit it for self-serving ends. The use of sex to dominate and abuse is apparent in the growing numbers of rape, abduction, child molestation, human trafficking, pornography and sex-related murder. These are obvious forms but the most common form of abuse, which seems to have become a social norm and therefore escapes the attention it deserves, is abuse in heterosexual relationships. Why do men, (abusers are usually men) beat up their wives and girlfriends and even murder them? Is it because they were programmed to accept monogamy and heterosexuality and forced to suppress natural impulses that veer in other directions?   Is misogyny an indication of entrapment in a socially correct but privately dishonest relationship? Or does it spring from other natural impulses?

We tend to think of natural only in positive terms; as pure and genuine. And, in general, we regard instincts and impulses in this way. But natural is not necessarily good. If it were, we would still be living in the state of nature and would not have opted for civilization. To become civilized, we learned to control destructive natural instincts so that we could relate to one another in positive ways. If we had followed only our natural impulses, which are self-serving, we would have had total freedom and we would be totally uncivilized because total freedom is negative freedom. When we live in society we learn to serve others as well as ourselves. Living in society gives us the opportunity to interact, examine our circumstances, evolve and develop. So we give up a little of our freedom in order to gain so much more freedom.   People who cannot and will not control negative natural impulses tend to become criminals.

As we live in a karmic world, our actions are always ambiguous; we have always to be aware of both negative as well as positive implications of what we espouse and do.