In my “Rams in the Thicket” post I predicted that the “it’s in my genes, I can’t help it” argument could eventually backfire due to advances in understanding of the biological underpinnings of homosexuality. What happens, I wondered, when we learn enough about biology to change sexual orientation, or at least to ensure heterosexuality and prevent homosexuality from emerging? (For those who think it’s a non sequitur to claim that homosexuality is not biologically caused (for the most part) but heterosexuality can be, see my previous discussion of this apparent paradox called “Born Straight?”.)
That day may be closer than I thought. John Tierney, a New York Times science writer with a strong libertarian streak quotes a researcher who has successfully altered sexual orientation in fruit flies as saying it is not a question of if but when that we will be able to turn human heterosexuality on and off. (Note that Tierney seems to understand the important but subtle difference between biologically based heterosexuality and the more contingent emergence of homosexuality himself, as his post is titled “Turning Heterosexuality On and Off”)
He quotes David Featherstone, one of the researchers who did the work on fruit flies, as saying:
So the question is not if we will understand the biological basis of homosexuality enough to alter it, but when. And what people will choose to do with the knowledge. If there is a demand, I guarantee some pharmaceutical company will make the stuff.
I think Dr. Featherstone is a little too confident that human sexuality works the same way that fruit flies and mice sexuality does. He bases a lot of his confidence on the ability to alter response to pheromones, first in fruit flies, and now apparently in mice. Human sexuality is far more complex than that of mice and fruit flies, and the frequent citing of homosexual behavior in these and other species only confounds, rather than clarifies the issue, since we are talking about far more than homosexual behavior when we speak of sexual orientation in humans. Most people don’t believe that adolescent homosexual experimentation means you have a homosexual orientation, and the same goes for homosexual activity in prisons.
I seem to remember reading (though I cannot locate it now) research conducted that attempted to discover differences in how homosexual and heterosexual men respond to smells and pheromones and didn’t find any difference. If that is correct, then Dr. Featherstone is sniffing up the wrong tree.
But the larger questions still hold:
-Will there someday be a pharmaceutical treatment to induce or ensure heterosexuality?
-Is that a good thing?
-If we think it’s a bad thing, should we ban it? Is it even possible to ban it? Should we regulate its use? Should heterosexual parents be prevented from administering it to their children? Should gay parents be prevented from trying to stack the odds that their children will be gay? What about for sex offenders?
Tierney says that people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their sexuality, including changing it at will in either direction. If I want to be a heterosexual in the winter and homosexual in the spring, that’s my own business and nobody else’s.
I find all of this very troubling and I don’t think it will end up being as simple as Tierney says. I don’t pretend to have any answers. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with pharmaceutical treatments for heterosexuality, and especially if those are forced on people. But I do predict we’ll see an amusing reaction from many gay activists. After exaggerating and oversimplifying out-of-context pronouncements from biologists, geneticists, and neuroscientists for so long, I predict we will now see a violent and venomous about face. The gay activists will demand that science, having come this far, must now stop and go no further. There is a strong anti-science current in both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. But neither will be successful in stopping science or technology. But gay political activism, having lived by the genome, now risks dying by it. Can’t you see someone responding to a man demanding same-sex marriage rights, “Hey, if you want so much to get married, and you’re so unhappy being gay, why don’t you just take a probutcherone pill and marry a woman? Instead of asking society to change, why don’t you change?”
Thank the Lord we now have effective AIDS treatments. Can you imagine what would happen if we were better at changing sexual orientation than treating AIDS?