Genes and hormones alone cannot explain the complexity of human sexuality.
Sexual orientation is largely or entirely determined by our genes and hormonal influences in the womb. It is an innate given, fixed at birth. Forget Freudian theory and all the other psycho babble. Biology is destiny.
This is the central thesis of Born Gay. I disagree. But this book is still fascinating, informative and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the many complexities of sexual orientation formation.
The writers are respected, authoritative academics. Glenn Wilson is a Reader at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and Qazi Rahman is a lecturer in psychobiology at the University of East London.
Their book brings together wide-ranging evidence from dozens of scientific studies on homosexuality. They conclude that sexual orientation is overwhelmingly innate. Social or family influences have little or no impact. Blaming parents and childhood upbringing for a child’s gayness is mistaken and unfair. The idea that people become gay by seduction or choice is, they say, not supported by scientific research.
I agree. No one sits down one day and decides to be gay – or straight. Most queers say they felt “different” from a very young age, long before any awareness of sexual desire. While this suggests that sexuality is formed unconsciously by early childhood at the latest, it does not necessarily mean we are born with a pre-fixed sexual orientation.
The authors are right. Biological factors play a role. Studies of identical twin brothers show that in 52% of cases where one twin is gay the other twin is also gay. This is a much higher concordance than the 2% to 10% distribution of gay people in the general population, as recorded by various sex surveys. It suggests a significant genetic component in the causality of homosexuality.
Wilson and Rahman argue the other determinant of sexual orientation is hormonal exposure during pregnancy. They document studies showing differences between gay and straight people with respect to a number of physiological traits that are associated with hormonal influences. These include physique, hearing, brain structure, finger lengths, penis size (gay men tend to be better endowed than straight men), and the age of puberty (on average lesbians mature later than straight women, and gay men earlier than heterosexual men).
This is convincing stuff, but not entirely so. If genes determine our sexual orientation we would expect that in cases of identical twins where one was gay the other would be gay too – in every case. But, in fact, in only just over half the cases are both twins gay. The same lack of complete concordance is found in hormone-associated physical attributes. Not all gay men, for example, have a larger than average penis.
My conclusion? While genes and hormones predispose a person to a particular sexual orientation, they do not determine it. They are significant influences, not the sole cause. Other factors are also at work. Social expectation, cultural values and peer pressure, for instance, push us towards heterosexuality. Without these pro-straight influences, more people might be lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Wilson’s and Rahman’s biological determinist thesis has another major flaw. If we are all born either gay or straight, how do they explain people who switch in mid-life from happy heterosexuality to happy homosexuality (and vice versa)?
The singer Tom Robinson was a happy out gay man who, to his own surprise, fell in love with a woman. He is now equally happy in his straight relationship as he was previously happy in his gay relationship. If he was hard-wired at birth to desire men, how can he now desire women?
The authors have no credible explanation for bisexuality; claiming it barely exists. Some research measuring sexual arousal shows that men who claim to be bisexual are predominantly turned on by other men, not women. But this is highly suspect. Swapping gossip with the girlfriend of a guy who was also my long-term lover, we agree he was definitely aroused by both the male and female form; equally delighted and sexually voracious with a cock or a cunt.
Among women, however, Wilson and Rahman acknowledge there is evidence of a significant degree of genuine bisexuality. Phew!
Much as I would love to go along with the emerging ‘born gay’ consensus, I can’t. The evidence does not support the idea that sexuality is a fixed biological given.
Wilson and Rahman inadvertently reinforce my doubts. As evidence that people do not become gay by seduction, they cite the example of the Sambia tribe in New Guinea. Cultural expectations dictate that for most of their teenage years all young men have sex with an older warrior as part of their rite of passage to manhood. Once their initiation is completed, they become warriors and initiate the next generation of male youths. Then they become straight and marry.
If sexuality was predetermined at birth by genes and hormones, it would be impossible for young Sambian males to switch to homosexuality and then back to heterosexuality with such apparent ease. This suggests there is an element of flexibility in sexual orientation, and that cultural traditions and social mores are also influential factors. In an enlightened, gay-affirming society, more people might be inclined to explore same-sex desire.
Born gay? No. Human sexuality is too varied and complex to be reduced to a simple equation of genes plus hormones.
BORN GAY – The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation. By Glenn Wilson and Qazi Rahman (Peter Owen, £13.95).