Sexual Orientation and Human Nature


Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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30 Responses

  1. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Re: The fallacy

    It is funny how that only works in one direction though. Find one guy whose sexuality is fluid and suddenly EVERY gay guy must really just be choosing it. In doing so, ignore all the other guys whose sexuality is NOT fluid.

    Re: Fluidity

    The idea that people whose orientation is fluid really misunderstand what that means especially with regards to innateness. Fluid people are innately fluid in the way that others are innately whatever they are. They do not somehow break the innateness rule but rather represent just how many different innate orientations might exist. Sexuality is not a binary (gay/straight) or even three distinct buckets (gay/straight/bi*). Even the idea of it being a spectrum misses the market. Sexuality just is what it is. People are into what they’re into, are into who they’re into, with environment having a role to varying degrees on how that gets experienced and expressed. Why can’t we just leave it at that? Why so much desire to label it all?Report

  2. Avatar Chris says:

    The pro-gay side isn’t without its errors. Personally, I think claims like “all homosexuals were born that way” or “sexuality is inborn” shoot too far in terms of the evidence we currently have

    Why do you think that?Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to Chris says:

      I’d like to know to. The evidence seems pretty conclusive. The problem, as I note below, is people often think ‘sexual orientation’ is binary. That DOES confuse the issue. If you’re mostly attracted to men, but occasionally women, you can lead a perfectly straight or perfectly gay life. Or one that dates both sides.

      You probably won’t — but you could. Especially if, culturally, you’re rewarded for heterosexuality.

      But biologically, there’s no evidence that sexual orientation is a choice — what you DO with it (whether you date the very rare woman you’re interested in, or date one of the many, many men you find attractive) is, of course, a choice. And there’s quite a bit of evidence that, at the latest, your orientation is set in stone by the time you’re a toddler. At the latest.Report

    • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to Chris says:

      Chris: I think of the evidence of identical twins who have discordant sexualities, and evidence of fluidity of sexuality orientation in some. That evidence, as I’ve observed, does exist. However, such doesn’t lead properly to conclusions like “homosexuals are NOT born that way” and “sexuality is ‘NOT’ inborn.”

      On the other hand “all homosexuals are born that way” and “sexuality is inborn.” Those claims are likewise not (as far as I have seen) necessarily proven.

      It’s more complicated and there is, I conclude, current mystery in the “black box” sense.

      Such that for some (arguably the vast majority of?) homosexuals and heterosexuals their sexuality seems so fixed that if they weren’t “born that way” it’s like they were.

      But for others, there is fluidity. And there are varies degrees of bisexuality.

      And the existence of all of such happily together doesn’t (as some seem to erroneously conclude it must) contradict one another.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Jon Rowe says:

        As Morat notes, the heritability is really just part of the equation. Homosexuality is like handedness, moderately heritable but almost entirely innate (with some wiggle room and noise, because humans are noisy). I think the evidence for this is pretty strong, though I’m no expert on the subject. (Also, I stole the handedness analogy, I just don’t remember from whom.)Report

        • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to Chris says:

          I think maybe you stole the handedness analogy from me and therefore from Chandler Burr. LOL.Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Jon Rowe says:

            Hah… I might have stolen it from Burr, but I’ve used it for at least the last decade. It was a common metaphor on the topic when the heritability stuff was still being worked out.Report

  3. Avatar Kim says:

    Eh. When it comes to sexuality, folks are imposing paradigms where the map and the land aren’t terribly well suited to each other. There are different braintypes for different sorts of people, but they don’t map into something like “Men” and “Women” or “Gay” or “Straight.”

    And a good deal of it is in neonatal development.Report

  4. Avatar morat20 says:

    Part of the problem here is that people hear “genetic” and think of the simplest form — of dominant and recessive genes, perfect for doing Punnet Squares in high school. Only real life isn’t like that.

    You have stuff like penetrance (genes that exist but don’t always express — the penetrance being the general statistical likelihood of expression in a population of carriers), for instance. And then environmental factors (Epigenetics) that can turn genes on and off. (Environmental being everything from the womb onward…)

    Now take sexuality, which is fluid and subject to some degree of self-deception. There’s not necessarily a binary straight/gay switch (the Kinsey scale is useful enough to show that) — but there can be. But not always. And people can — and do — fake it one way or the other.

    In short: “Is sexuality genetic” is a really, really, really tough genetics problem. It’s not simple, like tall peas or short peas. It’s complex, almost certainly multi-site, and it’s expression subject to a whole host of environmental factors.

    That said: It’s actually fairly trivial to amass some solid evidence that sexuality is genetic in nature. HOW it’s genetic in nature is the tricky part. 🙂

    But a glance around the animal kingdom shows homosexuality popping up all over the place in mammals and birds, even in species that mate for life. Twin studies show a serious straight-up genetic component (but again, penetrance — if it’s 50%, for instance, twins with the allele will, statistically, show one straight, one gay) and there’s further evidence for epigenetics — birth order seems to play a key role.

    But by and large, if it wasn’t some innate biological thing, we wouldn’t see it in chimps, dolphins, swans, penguins……

    Again, the problem is people thinking of both sexual orientation as ‘binary’ (that’s not even getting INTO gender), and genetics as being limited to the simple examples taught to 16 year olds. Real life is considerably more complex, but the preponderance of evidence — a heavy preponderance, in fact — is that sexual orientation is innate.Report

  5. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Sexual response happens below the level of consciousness — that might be genetic, it might be developmental, it might be psychological, it might be cultural, it might be a lot of other things too.

    But it’s going to be pretty unusual for it to be an intentional, conscious choice.Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Not cultural. Cultural can only alter expression.

      That is, if you’re gay and your culture frowns on it — you might chose to be celibate. If you’re bisexual, or lean hetero but have some same-sex attraction, a more open culture might see you playing both sides. A less open culture might have you rigidly ignoring any same-sex attraction.

      Like I said, the vast preponderance of evidence is that it’s innate. Hard-wired in biologically. The actual debate is over mechanisms (which genes? How much penetrance? Which environmental factors trigger it? And by “environmental” I mean “womb”.)

      Like I said, if it wasn’t biological you wouldn’t find gay swans, gay chimps, and gay dolphins. It’s all up and down the mammals, which indicates it’s been locked into our genes a LONG way back.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to morat20 says:

        We have a LOOONG list of people who are… what’s the word… situationally homosexual. I don’t see much reason that folks couldn’t be situationally heterosexual as well.Report

        • Avatar morat20 in reply to Kim says:

          If you’re situationally homosexual, doesn’t that — be simple logic — make you also situationally heterosexually?Report

          • Avatar Glyph in reply to morat20 says:

            It depends on the situation. Did your parents go away on a week’s vacation?Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to morat20 says:

            no, they’re opposites. Situationally Homosexual is all the straight guys who have sex with men in prisons. Situationally Heterosexual is all the gay guys who have sex with women in “normal society” (aka in the closet).Report

            • Avatar morat20 in reply to Kim says:

              Oh, I thought you were referring more to the groups of people that’ll have same-sex relationships (mostly just the sex) on a whim.

              You know, the stereotypical married man that occasionally frequents a particular bathroom stall (since apparently using the freakin’ internet and finding a hook-up somewhere private is just impossible. Seriously, guys. If you’re gonna go have some same-sex fun, can you find a motel room?).

              Or probably more common, the guy that doesn’t consider oral from another guy ‘gay’. (Or the ‘college lesbian’ or whatever term you want to use for someone who is either experimenting or simply just open for some sex from either gender depending on their mood and, you know, situation).

              Since they’ll go either way depending on, you know, access and level of arousal.

              But if you’re talking just “Don’t have access to one entire gender” or “Would probably get killed/disowned” that’s different.Report

  6. Avatar DavidTC says:

    I’ve actually always wondered how much the idea of sexual attraction being a ‘choice’ is due to conservative men who are, uh, sorta bisexuals.

    Or, to explain it better, they see sex as power, and hence are sexually oriented towards domination. I don’t want to end up off in the weeds here, so everyone should understand I’m not saying *all* men think that way…but there’s a reason that ‘blowjobs in the airport restroom’ stereotype of ‘powerful straight men’ exist. The gender of the partner doesn’t matter so much as their position in society. There’s a *reason* that that sort of thing keeps happening.

    They would be perfectly happy, or almost as happy, with dominating women, and in fact most of them *are*. Dominating men is basically a kink.

    And, to get back to my point, for those men, homosexuality *is* a choice. Really a choice. And a good deal of them actually choose *not* to, or do it only rarely.Report

  7. Avatar J_A says:

    i am old enough that I remember my parents and other adults telling me that when they were children lefthandedness was very frowned upon, and that lefthanded children were forced to use their right hand, even using quasi brutal methods like tying the left hand behind their back. So there was a lefthandedness closet too.

    Later in life, I had a southpaw boss only a couple of years older than me. He wrote with his left hand, but used his right hand for things like, for instance, to handle the knife or the glasses at table. He told me his parents had forced him to use the right hand for these more “social” activities, though he was allowed to use the left hand for things, like writing, that required more dexterity (he could also write quite decently with his right hand too). However, when confronted with something new, he would instinctively use the left hand.

    He has other quirks, that might or might not be interrelated. He is truly very much like Sheldon Cooper. Not the least of his quirks is being gay, but, like Sheldon, very asexual. On the other hand, he once flew from America to Helsinki and back in one weekend in winter, just to go to a particular opera that was being showed there, for the first time in a century or something like that. I don’t think he slept at all during those 48 hours.Report

  8. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I was thinking it’s fallacy of composition, but Wikipedia says that relates to inferring truths about a thing from what’s true about some of its parts. It suggests it’s instead “fallacy of hasty generalization,” where essentially one uses an insufficient sample size to infer things about a group from what’s true of some of its members.

  9. Avatar Murali says:

    Well, one thing a lot of Asian (both South and East) families do, (or perhaps used to do; especially the more traditional ones) is train left-handed people to be right handed. Because the left hand was the hand people commonly associate with wiping one’s ass, it is considered disgusting or ill mannered (and sacriligeous for some) to eat with one’s left hand (sort of like picking and eating one’s nose-dirt). It is extremely rude to present or receive gifts and money with one’s left hand. And at least among Hindus, writing is considered sacred, so even writing with your left hand may be sacriligeous (for a Hindu to do). It seems that those who show signs of being left handed when young and were trained to use their right hand often ended up quite ambidextrous.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Murali says:

      In Anglo/Latin cultures, left-handedness (or more generally, “left” ness) was superstitiously thought to be unfavorable or unlucky. The word “sinister” is derived from/related to it. Amongst magic believers/practitioners, evil or black magic is said to be of the “left hand path”, while white or good magic is the right.

      As recently as my grandparents’ generation, lefty children were often forced to learn to use their right hands; to be a lefty was seen as shameful, evidence the child was somehow just plain “wrong”.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Glyph says:

        My maternal grandfather, born in 1913, was one of those left handed children who was made to use his right hand when learning how to write. My mother was allowed to write with her write hand. Saul and I are both left handed and grew up learning how to use our left hand.Report

  10. Avatar zic says:

    This is a conversation about men’s sexuality, no? Women, the cultural conventional wisdom seems to go, are more fluid, and that’s acceptable because most (hetero) dudes dream of doing it with two women.

    I suspect sexuality is fluid for everyone; it’s a spectrum, with most of us cultured to be male/female. I suspect sexual attraction is mostly chemical, and that with the right chemistry, even the folks on the extremes can find themselves attracted to persons who go against their norms.Report

  11. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    My feeling is that even if sexuality is not strictly biological or heritable as a trait, it might be best for society to treat it as such. A necessary fiction for the greater good. Assuming that sexuality is something that is at least kind of a choice or something that could be controlled has been and could be used to justify nuttiness like conversion therapy or worse. If we operate under the assumption that sexual and gender identities are basically biological and innate in origins, it is easier to stop private or public attempts to control human sexuality and gender identity and hopefully leading to a more open and accepting society when it comes to sexuality and gender identity.Report

  12. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    The whole discussion of whether sexuality is in-born or fluid seems to stem from the same place as “black people are genetically inferior”. It’s an attempt at finding a biological basis for a subjective moral choice, so that we can pretend that it’s actually objective after all. “You shouldn’t hate me for being gay”, says one person, “it’s not like I had any choice about it. So when you hate me for being gay it’s exactly like you said you hated me for having blue eyes or for being five-foot-four.” “You totally had a choice,” says the other, “and when you say you didn’t, it’s like you’re saying you had a genetic propensity to commit crimes.”Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to DensityDuck says:

      That’s nice and all, but there seems to be a great deal of actual evidence that sexual orientation is innate.

      What you can control is, if you happen to have levels of attraction to both sexes, which you act upon. And of course you can always fake it.

      But that doesn’t make you less gay or straight or bisexual or X on the Kinsey scale.

      It’s nice to sneer at both sides, but the actual evidence is pretty solidly on ‘biology’ and not ‘socially’. Unless you think chimps, dolphins, swans, sheep and a whole host of other animals — including those that mate for life — have the sort of complex social structures that would create incentives to choose one sexual orientation over another. (Well, maybe bonobos. But swans?)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to morat20 says:

        This sort of dovetails with @simgiran ‘s comment below and I think points to some of the flaws with our language and classification. I mean, we refer to “sexual orientation”. But what about emotion? What if someone is sexually attracted to people of the same sex but not emotionally? What if a guy likes to suck dick and eat pussy but only wants to have romantic relationships with women? Is he gay? Bi? Straight? What if a woman is only attracted to men, emotionally and physically, but likes to put on a strap on and penetrate her partner? What if her partner is similarly only interested in women but enjoys being penetrated? What matters more: What a person feels/wants? Or what they actually do?

        I had an interesting conversation with a guy who identified as bi. He was in a long-term committed relationship with a woman. But he enjoyed being penetrated anally both because of the physical sensation it brought him (something I have to assume is exclusively physiological but maybe @chris can correct me) but also because of the act of submitting to his partner (male or female). So… where does that leave him? Again, he identified as bi but knew that many people would consider him straight because of his relationship with a woman.

        I know a guy who identifies as straight as an arrow but likes “having a digit dropped on him” (i.e., having his lady friend finger him anally). Does that make him less straight?

        Ultimately, none of this should really matter. Let people do their thing and so long as no one gets hurt, no problemo.

        And to bring it back to simgiran’s point, I listened to a recent podcast that discussed folks who had attractions/interest — sexual or otherwise — that were harmful to others. People who were attracted to children or who got off on acts of violence. We generally ignore these people unless/until they harm someone and then subject them to harsh, often lifelong, punishments that typically give them no real support to actually better control these desires. Imagine how much better off we’d be if someone could stand up and say, “I have a desire to be sexual with children,” or, “I get off on rape fantasies and am afraid I will act on them,” and we found a way to help them before they actually did harm.

        None of this is to conflate homosexuality (or heterosexuality!) with pedophilia or rape other than to say that sometimes the mind or body or heart wants what the mind or body or heart wants and if those desires can be met in a healthy way, more power to the person, and if they can’t, let’s try to help those folks out before harm is done.Report

  13. Avatar simgiran says:

    More care is needed using the term pedophilia. It’s important to make a distinction between pedophilia and sexual contact with a children. Former is an orientation, latter is an act. Pedophilia itself does not harm children. It may be a motivating factor to acts that harm children, but that’s not the same. Furthermore, the harmfulness of sexual contacts with children is not dependent on the sexual orientation of the perpetrator. Not all people who engage in sexual activities with children are pedophiles and not all pedophiles engage in such activities.Report