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The Science of Sexual Orientation And Identity

Quite an interesting article.

I’m a little disappointed that I’m just now seeing this article, but the timing is great – I just found out that I’ll be teaching Sexual Diversity in the fall! The article, a little long and slow to load, is well worth the read. It speaks to the ambivalence I believe many sexuality scholars, advocates, and just everyday people have about our understanding about the origins of sexual orientation. We have moved away from “sexual preference”, dismissing any allusions to choice, toward “sexual orientation”. We’ve all heard the anti-choice argument: “Why would anyone choose to be gay, putting up with all of the homophobia and other nonsense.” It’s a valid point: most of us are simply “oriented” toward certain people romantically and/or sexually.

However, there are some competing claims that we must reconcile. Sexuality is fluid. Sexuality is innate. Sexuality is socially constructed. Before the creation of the “homosexual” and “heterosexual” categories in the mid-19th century, homo-, bi-, and heterosexuality served as forms of sexual (and romantic, I would argue) behaviors and relationships. It was the creation of these categories that lead to sexual identities – understandings of sexual people, rather than sexual acts. This gives some weight to the social construction argument, but still, we must note the growing scholarship on biological influences on sexual orientation. Yet, we know from some research, including that of Lisa Diamond (a featured instructor at NSRC’s 2009 summer institute: http://nsrc.sfsu.edu/summerinstitute), that sexuality is fluid and contextual. How else do we make sense of lesbian-identified women who have male sexual (and/or romantic) partners and sex between men in prison and other single-sex environments?

I am weary of the biological arguments for three reasons, one in terms of research, another in terms of the practice of science, and the last in terms of politics. In the first, I must ask why we would suspect that a gene exists that would dictate that we are born to be attracted to X. Let’s say X is men, and I am born male. To say that I am born gay is to imply that something innate within me has dictated that I will find attractive what we have defined socially as male and masculine. That is, a great variety of bodies are captured within the supposedly-universal category of male, yet a certain male prototype exists: white, masculine, tall, muscular, penis, young. How could our genes determine attraction toward something that is socially created?

With respect to the practice of science, I find it ironic that prior to the mid-1970s, science was the enemy of LGBT people – yet now, we’re relying on science to make our case for equality. We were mentally ill in 1970, but now “we can’t help it, because we’re born this way.” In the social sciences, biological explanations for social phenomena are typically dismissed or heavily scrutinized. However, we willingly defer to biology to explain the origins of sexuality. Why? Why do we allow scientists to essentialize us with respect to our sexual desires, yet heavily police essentialist claims about gender, sex, race, and ethnicity?

This leads me to my third reason – politics. LGBT activists have relied on the gay-by-birth argument to make their case for equal rights. The underscoring claim is that legal protections are in order because we can’t help it. Do we not value personal freedom enough to argue for equal rights and protections even if sexuality were a choice? The as-biology argument sounds like a defense of our existence, rather than our claim to personal freedom. I note, however, that this is often the starting point in some arenas, and we’re sometimes met with the already formed conclusion that no rights are in order if sexuality is chosen.

I propose that we expand our notion of “sexual orientation”. I see our understanding as resting on the notion that we are innately attracted to a particular sex – female or male. This is problematic in that there are multiple sexes, given that sex itself is socially constructed. Beyond our attractions to particular sexed bodies, we also have attractions along the lines of gender (including identities, expressions, and presentations), race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body size and shape, nationality, language (e.g., accent), education, and occupation. Relying on the two-sex system for a moment, every female or male is not “fair game” if we’re attracted to one, the other, or both. We may find that Latino business men from New England are desirable, while never noticing the white immigrant construction workers in the US South. How do we make sense of our “types” that are raced, gendered, sexed, classed, sexualized, abled, aged, and shaped? Does biology dictate that we only find attractive bisexual Jewish women?

Furthermore, in our new, expanded notion of sexual orientation, we must reconcile the contextual influence. When our options are limited or shift, our desires change (e.g., the example of men in prison, or moving to a racially homogenous area from one that is racially diverse). For many of us, our attractions shift as we age – we don’t remain attracted to 18 year olds into our 80s or, alternatively, we no longer find 50 year olds to be “creepy” (which many aren’t). This leads me to my final thought – that we must think beyond sexual attraction, desire, and behavior. It may be that our attractions age as we age because we’re more emotionally and socially drawn to people closer to our age. This may suggest an interplay between our social, emotional, romantic, and sexual desires – a complex matrix that we miss in only talking about what gets our “juices flowing”.

As research advances and the US climate slowly becomes more LGBT-tolerant (not necessarily friendly), we need to consider the frames we use to advance our understanding of sexuality. This means detaching our reliance on scientific claims of the innateness of sexuality both in terms of research and activism. This is especially imperative given that science tends to slip back and forth between oppressive and liberating impact in society.


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