This image comes from an ad campaign mounted by the regional government of Tuscany in Italy. People sometimes accuse me of exaggerating when I say lots of people erroneously believe sexual orientation is fixed, unchangeable, and biologically determined from birth. Here is some proof that I am not just arguing against an exaggerated straw man.
The copy in Italian says, “sexual orientation is not a choice,” which I don’t disagree with. But sexual behavior in humans certainly is a choice.
There is an idea I just touched on in passing before that I wanted to return to specifically here, spurred by Tito’s post of an article about the fluidity of sexuality. That article touches on some interesting concepts but doesn’t explore some of the science behind it (which wasn’t its purpose. It was, after all, an advice column). And that is, if you look at the biological basis of sexual orientation, something curious emerges. That is, the biological contribution to homosexuality is pretty weak, but the biological contribution to heterosexuality is pretty strong. In other words, people may not be born gay, but they do appear to be born straight.
How can this be? Whenever data don’t make sense, there is a good chance there’s a problem with our mental categories. A lot of people have talked about how sexual behavior and orientation is socially constructed, or culturally influenced. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I think it’s undeniable that the modern conception of homosexuality would be unrecognizable to the Greeks, the Persians, Arabs, or the Sambia of New Guinea. All of those societies had relatively prevalent homosexual activity, but their ideas about what homosexuality was (as an ‘orientation’–if that made any sense at all) differ markedly from our own.
Is our conception correct, or more correct than theirs? The social constructionists would reject the question out of hand. There is no such thing as correct, or more correct. There is no “truth” but what we create and attach credence to. I have more sympathy with the enlightenment idea that there are fixed, unchangeable laws which are discoverable, testable and repeatable.
If you’re a social constructionist, you can stop reading now, since there’s no point in further inquiry. But if you sympathize with me, then before we continue I need to pause to define two scientific terms.
The first scientific concept is reliability. This means, “Does what you measure give the same result the next time you measure it?” For instance, I can come up with a very reliable IQ test. I count all your fingers. If I count 10 fingers this year, in ten years, if I count your fingers again, I’ll probably come up with 10 again. Very reliable. If you had 10 fingers when you were born, it is overwhelmingly likely you still have 10 fingers today, and will for your entire life. (If you have a problem with me using fingers to measure IQ, then you’re complaining about the validity of my test. Good catch! We’ll talk about that problem next.) I could also measure IQ by measuring height. This wouldn’t be a very reliable scale, however, because until we got to adulthood it would keep changing. (Still not a very valid measure of IQ, though you might be surprised to learn that IQ is slightly correlated with height.)
The second important concept is validity. In science, this basically means, “are you measuring what you think you’re measuring?” Or, “have you carefully defined your terms and what you’re measuring, so that people coming after you are sure to measure the same thing?” If we were doing a drug study measuring a particular drug’s effect on depression, it would be important that we correctly diagnose depression. If one of us measured depression as the number of frowny-faces a person showed, and another of us measured serontonin levels in the urine, the same person might not be diagnosed with depression in both cases. The drug might work better on serontinin-deprived people and less well on frowny-faced ones. The harder you think about it, the more you can wonder, do we really know what depression is? Does it really exist, and how do we tell it from other things, like just being sad? Can we always clearly diagnose depression, or are there borderline cases? A lot of concepts in psychology in particular end up being really hard to define. Fortunately, there are ways to test if a concept is valid in the scientific sense. But when comparing results across different studies, you have to pay especially careful attention to how the study’s authors define what they are measuring, because they aren’t always the same. We have been talking a lot about twins studies, for example, but each of them define and measure the prevalence of homosexuality in slightly different ways. And in a relatively rare trait like homosexuality, those slight differences can result in very large differences in the results. (Those who want to study the idea further can also investigate internal validity, external validity, construct validity–which is what I’m really talking about here, predictive validity, concurrent validity, and convergent validity. Turns out there’s a lot of kinds of validity!)
The problem comes with measuring things that naturally change. It’s a problem because you need reliability before you can know for sure if you have validity. If we are measuring depression, but the same people get depressed, then un-depressed, and later re-depressed, we won’t know for sure how much we’re measuring is depression and how much it’s a problem with how we’re measuring depression.
So when we talk about validity in the context of homosexuality, we have to ask, does something like ‘homosexual orientation’ make sense? Does it really exist, or could it be defined more precisely? The Greeks, for instance, would not consider the receptive partner in a homosexual coupling to be in the same category as the dominant partner. Modern gay culture is aware of this distinction, but I think they would both still be considered ‘gay’. The Sambia consider certain homosexual acts to be appropriate during certain ages, but they are not considered appropriate later. Homosexual behavior for them would be a phase, it wouldn’t make sense to talk about a homosexual orientation that stays throughout life for them. Some partso of Black American culture have men having sex with other men on the “downlow.” These men don’t consider themselves gay, but heterosexual men who enjoy the occasional sex with a man. Most of us laugh at this idea would probably label a man like that a confused closet case. But it would make a great deal of sense to the Ancient Greeks, I think. Add to these the other ideas surrounding homosexuality, whose validity we often do not question but which are also strongly bound up in our culture. What is normal, what is deviant, the notion of diversity, moral categories of right and wrong, virtue and vice. The concept of disease and health. If we say homosexuality is a disease, many cultures don’t recognize disease the way we do. I’m not saying ours is necessarily wrong on any of these points, only that we have to step outside of our culture to really be able to examine the question objectively and get at a more timeless truth. And also examine how we define homosexuality, and how we judge it may not be the most correct way to think of it.
So, is sexual orientation a valid and reliable concept? When it comes to heterosexuality, the answer appears to be largely yes. About 80% of the population exhibits lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality. They have always and forever been heterosexual. This lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality also appears to have a strong genetic and biological component.
So what about homosexuality? If heterosexuality is stable and valid, then its opposite, homosexuality, should be as well, right? That may make logical sense, but it’s wrong. Cohort studies like Kinsey or the NORC study show that the older you get, the less likely you are to both consider yourself, and behave, homosexual. And while the biological basis of heterosexuality, though not very well understood at all, does show a very strong biological basis, the biological basis of homosexuality is much weaker. And homosexuality is not just slightly unstable, either. The number of people who at one point considered themselves homosexual, and/or participated in homosexual activity, but who now aren’t, is larger (by about 50%) than those who continue to consider themselves and/or continue to participate in homosexual activity.
We always hear about cases in our culture where heterosexually married gay men can’t take it anymore and leave their wives and children and now are pursuing a homosexual relationship. We hear these stories so commonly that most people think they’re inevitable. Any woman would be crazy to marry a gay man because he’s going to cheat on her and leave her. I don’t want to rehash those arguments here, though let’s stipulate that this is an important decision not to be taken lightly or naively by either party. And certainly not as a solution to your homosexual problem. A woman is never, ever, going to “make you straight.”
Men leaving their wives for another man certain happens. It’s a real phenomenon. But let’s put it in perspective. What is the big picture? The population studies (the kind of study least vulnerable to sample bias though they are also prohibitively expensive) actually show the arrow overwhelmingly goes in the other direction. If you are a man living with a man, it is more likely that your man will leave you for a woman than a man living with a woman will leave that woman for a man! I’m waiting for Oprah to do an episode on that. (Jerry Springer, to his (dis)credit, already has.)
I admit this doesn’t at first make sense. How can lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality be stable, but homosexuality not be? If the one is true, shouldn’t the opposite also be true? You’ll be confused by this result until you wrap your head around an important, and not very intuitive (at least in our current culture) idea. Homosexuality is not the opposite of lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality. The opposite of lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality is best described, for lack of a better word, as non-heterosexuality. Non-heterosexuality would include homosexuality, but also bisexuality, transexuality, as well as various other paraphilias. And what we see is that these categories are somewhat fluid. People move among them more than they stay within any of them. At least half of them, probably more, become heterosexual and maintain a fair amount of functioning in that role. It is always possible to question those who change from one identity to the other, how sincere they are, their motives, and the durability of the switch. But to be fair, we ought to question equally the once-heterosexual who now identifies as homosexual as the once-homosexual who now identifies as heterosexual. Yet in today’s world the suspicion is all one and never on the other.
So if homosexuality isn’t biologically based, is non-heterosexuality? Maybe a little, but not a lot. But doesn’t it have to be? If lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality is stable and biologically based, shouldn’t non-lifetime exclusive heterosexuality be as well? Not necessarily. Let’s go back to my finger-counting example. If we looked at the state of having 10 fingers, we would find it has a strong biological component. But what about those with fewer than 10 fingers? There would be a slight contribution due to diabetes, heart disease, as these are genetically-linked disorders that often cause circulatory problems that might force amputations. But most people with 9 or less fingers are the result of accidents. Ten fingers can be genetic while less than that isn’t, for the most part. This is what Whitehead is trying to say when he says homosexuality is an accident.
Sharp-eyed readers will also realize I’m cheating a little bit. Notice how I keep sticking “lifetime-stable” in front of heterosexuality? I’m confining the notion of heterosexuality in such a way that it has to be reliable. By definition, lifetime-exclusive heterosexuals stay heterosexual. My definition ensures a reliable result. Fair enough. But a reliable result also allows us to test validity, and the model I am proposing (though I didn’t invent it) comports with the data in a more valid way than the traditional cultural model.
Could there be something we could call lifetime-exclusive homosexuality? And could that have a basis in biology so strong that we could slap a label on that baby in the picture above and be justified? I think that’s quite possible, but this would require a different diagnostic test (or label) for homosexuality than ones heretofore used, because of all the people we’ve ever labeled as homosexual at one point or another in their lives don’t stay that way. I can be confident in this because if there were such a thing as biologically-based lifetime-exclusive homosexuality and it comprised the majority of homosexuality (the way lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality comprises the majority of heterosexuality), we’d see stronger signals in the biological and genetic data than we have so far. It would look more like the biological evidence we have underpinning lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality.
When I describe all this, I’m not saying I understand it or it makes very much sense to me either. Blog posts are supposed to be freewheeling and speculative, and this one is certainly both of those. More than trying to advocate any point of view, I’m trying to encourage people to look at fundamental, but usually unquestioned, assumptions around notions of sexual orientation.
I do believe a careful look at all the hard data, and what it really shows, and worked deductively and inductively back from that, we would generate more interesting and useful knowledge and research areas than the currently politically-driven and culturally mandated concepts around sexual orientation. Right now, most people formulate what they think homosexuality and heterosexuality should be, and study that. They need to see what categories shake out from the data and statistics. I am thinking of something like Hans Eysenck did with factor analysis. Eysenck used psychometrics to design and administer personality tests and then applied statistical tests to them to see what factors shook out. Only then did he attempt to label them, reasoning inductively as to what they would be. But he always cautioned that though the statistical data were solid, the labels themselves were always suspect. There was always a possibility the label described more or less than the underlying trait you had discovered. Yet it was a clever way to solve the construct validity problem–Eysenck basically avoided it altogether. He tried to find reliable measures of certain unnamed traits and then studied them in a variety of ways. He didn’t try to understand what to call what personality trait he had discovered, at least as first, but he found a way to reliably discover people who exhibited those traits and then he could work backwards and see what they did. Only then did he attempt to label them. Others dispute the labels and came up with different frameworks, but he pioneered a whole new way to study personality. Factor analysis was very hard when he first started doing it in 1947 but now with computers it’s very easy.
My suggestion in this long-winded blog post is that lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality and non-lifetime-exclusive heterosexuality are better categories to study than gay and straight.
From a gospel perspective, there is a final point I’d make that is perhaps the most important one of all. I say this to the lifetime-exclusive heterosexuals. Don’t pat yourself on the back because you’re straight. You didn’t choose it and can’t take any credit for it through your life choices. You were born that way, and it doesn’t look like there’s any way you could change, even if you wanted to. We earn blessings when we resist our natural man. Those born heterosexual don’t need to resist any homosexual impulses. You aren’t necessarily better than him, and certainly not solely on the basis of not having homosexual attractions, even if he isn’t always successful in his strivings to keep his covenants. Every day he lives his covenants and surrenders his desires to what he knows and loves even more is a further day he’s ahead of you, if allow yourself to be deceived by the dominant culture which encourages or excuses heterosexual lust. God, I believe, rewards our choices, not our inclinations.
UPDATE: I have some graphs which illustrate some of what I am saying more clearly. A commenter asked for some references below, so I have attached them here. These graphs are from Neil Whitehead’s My Genes Made Me Do It! and the chapter these graphs came from is available here.