Jul 29

Born This Way Or Not? What Does Science Say About Sexual Orientation?

With a presidential race that includes MANY conservative voices, we’ve already been hearing from the anti-gay and gay-confused on one of their ongoing political quandaries: is it a choice? are you born this way or not?

So, why don’t they ever turn to accepted authorities on the subject?

As pointed out by Professor April M. Herndon, Psychology Today, “…(M)ost people shape their beliefs about the origin of sexuality not on what the science says, but on what they have already come to believe about gay rights. In other words, many people go looking for evidence to support their pre-existing conclusions...”

What follows are some position statements based on actual research—quotable opinions if you happen to find yourself in a debate.

Tia Ghose, Live Science, weighs in on a related topic du jour, gay conversion therapy:

If being gay is truly a choice, then people who attempt to change their orientation should be able to do so. But most people who are gay describe it as a deeply ingrained attraction that can’t simply be shut off or redirected.
On that, studies are clear. Gay conversion therapy is ineffective, several studies have found, and the American Psychological Association now says such treatment is harmful and can worsen feelings of self-hatred.
…Women show greater levels of ‘erotic plasticity,’ meaning their levels of attraction are more significantly shaped by culture, experience and love than is the case for men. However, even women who switch from gay to straight lifestyles don’t stop being attracted to women, according to a 2012 study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Those results suggest that while people can change their behavior, they aren’t really changing their basic sexual attraction.

Speaking of The American Psychological Association:

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

And, the following excerpts are from Lisa Grossman‘s interview (New Scientist) with Professor Lisa Diamond, an expert on the matter of sexual fluidity and orientation (see previous post):

I think all the evidence suggests that we’re born with an underlying capacity, and then that capacity interacts with a whole bunch of other influences…

…(T)win studies show that there’s a genetic contribution to same-sex attraction – but that is not the only thing going on. There are so many interacting causes for sexual orientation that two different individuals can be gay for a different combinations of reasons…

It is time to just take the whole idea of sexuality as immutable, the born this way notion, and just come to a consensus as scientists and as legal scholars that we need to put it to rest. It’s unscientific, it’s unnecessary and it’s unjust. It doesn’t matter how we got to be this way. As a scientist, I think it’s one of the most fascinating questions out there and one that I will continue to investigate. As a lesbian and a progressive, I think it’s totally irrelevant and just politics.

Mar 25

“Sexual Fluidity” By Lisa Diamond: New Thoughts About Identity

It would be an amazing thing if a thirteen year old went into health class was told, “you are at the beginning of an incredible journey. I’m going to give you some tools and strategies for figuring out what you want and how to get it. But you are in the beginning of an adventure and it’s going to be great!” That would be a really profound transformation. Lisa Diamond, author of Sexual Fluidity

Is sexual fluidity pertinent to your life?  Might be, particularly if you’re female.

Psychology professor Lisa M. Diamond, PhD, has researched and written the book on this topic. It’s called Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire (2008). “Probably the most surprising finding of the study was how often women changed the way that they thought about their sexual identity over time,” she told Big Think. Rather than stability of identity, the norm was changeability of identity, often back and forth.

Sexuality counselor Ian Kerner lists on CNN Health the three main characteristics Diamond says are part of sexual fluidity:

– Non-exclusivity in attractions: can find either gender sexually attractive
– Changes in attractions: can suddenly find a man or woman sexually attractive after having been in a long-term relationship with the other
– Attraction to the person, not the gender

Although women aren’t alone in this, men are thought to have less of this capacity. More research is needed on this, though.

A basic breakdown of her argument, as described by the book publisher:

…(F)or some women, love and desire are not rigidly heterosexual or homosexual but fluid, changing as women move through the stages of life, various social groups, and, most important, different love relationships. This perspective clashes with traditional views of sexual orientation as a stable and fixed trait. But that view is based on research conducted almost entirely on men. Diamond is the first to study a large group of women over time. She has tracked one hundred women for more than ten years as they have emerged from adolescence into adulthood. She summarizes their experiences and reviews research ranging from the psychology of love to the biology of sex differences. 

Publishers Weekly notes that Diamond admits her sample wasn’t fully representative. This doesn’t mean, though, that her findings lack substance.

Sexual fluidity does not equal bisexuality, though there can be overlap. Diamond doesn’t even use the word “bisexual” because of the difficulty defining it in a way that is widely accepted and understood. She uses instead the term “non-exclusive attractions.”

It’s important to note here that sexual identity is a self-defined construct. Just as there are those who would identify as heterosexual or homosexual non-fluidly, there are those who would identify as bisexual non-fluidly. Alternatively, as was found by Diamond, many people with any of these three orientations might find themselves on the fluid spectrum.

There are so many possibilities. So, why label at all? Why not just be open to the journey? This is a question younger people in general are more likely to ask than older ones. At least figuratively speaking, give them boxes to check and they’ll often ignore them, make up their own, or show disdain.

Ritch C. Savin-Williams, author of The New Gay Teenager: “Diamond challenges both traditionalists and radicals—if you want to understand female sexuality, listen to what women say.”