Print journal: Why We Should Be Skeptical of the Science of Sexuality

By: Hannah LeBlanc, writing for The Science in Society Review

In the past decade or so, several efforts to uncover the science of homosexuality have been published and received great media attention. From reports of “gay” animals to searches for the “gay gene” to the differences between “gay” and “straight” brains, there have been many reports in the popular media about the science of sexuality. Many gay rights advocates have found these studies useful in supporting a broader effort to demonstrate that homosexuality is natural, as opposed to a “choice.” However, there is good reason for skepticism.  Many scholars have criticized the methodological and theoretical flaws of this work. Additionally, some LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning) rights activists have condemned its underlying assumptions—namely, that homosexuality requires biological justification. Furthermore, this science is predicated on a “nature versus nurture” paradigm that underestimates the mutual dependence of the social and biological aspects of human bodies, sexuality, and behavior. To overcome the problematic nature of current and past efforts in the science of sexuality, we need to radically transform the way we think about and research sexuality and the body to focus on the ways in which social and biological aspects of human bodies, behavior, and sexuality are always intertwined.

brain coloredSome gay rights activists seek a biological basis of homosexuality as part of a larger political strategy that responds to accusations that homosexuality is a (bad) “choice” that represents a kind of morally lax “lifestyle.” They claim that queer people are “born this way” to appeal to the notion that rights cannot be denied based on a biological difference [1]. Though this strategy is not the only approach used by LGBTQ rights movements, it has become a highly visible paradigm for questions around gay rights, and the science of sexuality is central to both sides of contemporary debate [2]. The science of sexuality is thus seen to have increasingly high stakes for debates around LGBTQ rights.

Flawed Science

The science of sexuality deserves a bit more skepticism than it often receives. Closer inspection reveals that the foundation of these studies is far less secure than it would initially appear. Queer theory scholar and activist Nancy Ordover, for instance, provides scorching critiques of some of the most prominent studies’ methodologies. For example, neuroscientist Simon LeVay’s famous study claimed to find differences in the size of a hypothalamic nucleus in the brains of gay and straight men, but it is wracked with problems in the way the researchers selected subjects and measured the hypothalamus [1,3]. Another famous study by Dean Hamer claimed there was strong evidence to support the existence of a “gay gene” [6]. Ordover again points out many glaring methodological problems with Hamer’s study, including the incredibly narrow selection criteria and the elimination of families he viewed as inconsistent with a genetic basis for homosexuality [1]. Moreover, as Ordover notes, “most studies that contradict or fail to confirm a genetic basis for homosexuality go unpublished” [1].

The science of sexuality has deeper theoretical flaws as well. These problems are thoroughly and convincingly critiqued by Barnard sociomedical scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young in her book Brain Storm [4]. Jordan-Young closely examines the scientific publications that are said to support a wider formulation of sexuality, called Brain Organization Theory, to see how well they “fit together” to form a cogent whole [4]. Brain Organization Theory, perhaps the most accepted and familiar scientific notion of gender and sexuality, contends that the brain, like the genitals, is first “organized” by gonadal (commonly referred to as “sex”) hormones during fetal development and then “activated” by the later resurgence of these hormones during puberty, leading to sexually dimorphic brains and bodies. Jordan-Young’s detailed analysis reveals that the studies that claim to support Brain Organization Theory are often entirely contradictory, individual methodological problems aside [4]. For example, the criteria for who counts as homosexual or heterosexual vary widely across studies. In Jordan-Young’s words, “one scientist’s homosexuals are another scientist’s heterosexuals” [4]. Futhermore, these studies assume a clear sexual binary, but sociological evidence suggests that self-identification, fantasies, and behaviors are often a mix of hetero- and homo-sexual [4].This example is but one of the many theoretical and methodological problems that plague Brain Organization Theory and have led Jordan-Young to conclude that there is little scientific basis to its claims.

Homosexuality as Pathology

Beyond flaws in the science, “born-this-way” politics are also problematic because they rest on the notion that queer sexuality requires justification [5].As Nancy Ordover argues, biological causation theories of homosexuality are easily interpreted as disease instead of benign variation. Historically, medical belief in the biological bases of homosexuality has led to cruel “cures” rather than to acceptance [1]. While the “born-this-way” approach has been effective in many arenas, claiming that homosexuality is based in biology does not fundamentally change the status of homosexuality in American culture and assumes that queer people need to justify their sexual desires and behavior in a way that heterosexual people do not.

In fact, this homosexuality-as-pathology bias seems to be built into the assumptions underlying the science of sexuality. In Brain Organization Theory, sex (male or female) naturally gives rise to certain gendered behavior and identification (man or woman), which gives rise to or includes certain sexual desires, practices, and attitudes (desiring and having sex with women or men, being aggressive and dominant or passive and receptive). Any non-alignment of these three categories is seen as an error in the normal pathway. Thus these studies that claim to support homosexuality as biologically grounded presuppose that heterosexuality (and certain kinds of gendered behavior) are the natural “default” position. Furthermore, the rigidity of all of these binaries closes off possibilities for people whose gender or sexual behavior, or even sex organs themselves, do not fit well into this either/or paradigm.

Nature Versus Nurture?

These theoretical and political problems with the science of sexuality emerge from a more profound issue of viewing human behavior in a “nature versus nurture” paradigm, which has implications not only for the science of sexuality but also for questions regarding race and gender. These studies work under the assumption that the social and the biological are separate spheres: homosexuality is either a choice or it is natural. This formulation exaggerates the extent to which the biological is fixed and deterministic, deeply underestimates the power of the social, and entirely ignores the way the biological and the social are always intertwined. Biology has many models for how one’s social experience literally changes one’s body, on both small and large time scales [7, 8, 9, 10]. Furthermore, the social sciences and humanities have an enormous body of work demonstrating the ways that naturalized categories like race, sex, and sexuality have been constructed and maintained through specific historical and cultural circumstances [11, 12, 13]. The science of sexuality demonstrates a profound miscommunication between scientific and social ways of viewing human bodies and behavior.

Thus, the main problem here is not that the science of sexuality is scientifically flawed and politically problematic – though it is both of these things – but that it reinforces the common belief that biology is fixed and outside the influence of social and historical forces. This essentialist viewpoint is dangerous not only for those who support LGBTQ rights, but to anyone who is interested in sexual, gender-based, and racial justice because it assumes that complex contemporary social categories are instead self-evident, fixed over time, and biologically deterministic. We need to stop thinking in terms of “nature versus nurture” and start thinking, and researching, the way the social and the biological are mutually constructing. This way of thinking goes beyond the notion that human bodies and behaviors are affected by both biological and social causes – nature and nurture – but instead suggests that social and biological forces are highly entangled. Rather than being “born this way,” we are at the center of a multidimensional network of mutually informing social, historical, and biological processes.  Too bad it doesn’t roll off the tongue.

References

  1. Ordover N. Science as Savior. American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism. City: Univ Of Minnesota Press; 2003. p. 59–69.
  2. Hamer D. OP-ED: Is It A Choice? A Scientist’s View. Advocate.com. 2011 Jul 14;1.1.
  3. LeVay S. A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men. Science. 1991 Aug 30; 253(5023):1034–7.
  4. Jordan-Young RM. Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 2010.
  5. Bruni F. Gay Won’t Go Away, Genetic or Not. The New York Times [Internet]. 2012 Jan 28 [cited 2012 Mar 12]; Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/opinion/sunday/bruni-gay-wont-go-away-genetic-or-not.html
  6. Hamer DH, Hu S, Magnuson VL, Pattatucci AM, Hu N. A linkage between DNA markers on the X chromosome and male sexual orientation. Science. 1993 Jul 16; 261(5119):321–7.
  7. Bear MF, Connors BW, Paradiso MA. Molecular Mechanisms of Learning and Memory. In: Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2007. p.761-791.
  8. Fausto-Sterling A. The Bare Bones of Race. Social Studies of Science. 2008 Oct 1; 38(5):657-694.
  9. Issa JP, Just W. Preface: Epigenetics. FEBS Letters, 2011 Jul 7; 585(13): 1993.
  10. Burzynski SR. Aging: Gene silencing or gene activation?. Medical Hypotheses, 2004 Aug 12 ;64(1):201-208.
  11. Omi M, Winant H. Racial Formation in the United States : from the 1960s to the 1980s. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  12. Fausto-Sterling A. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
  13. Foucault M. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans Hurley R. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
  14. Butler J. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  15. Image credit (public domain): Pushing the Envelope on Cutting-Edge Technology [Internet]. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. 2012 [cited 2012 Apr 20]. Available from: http://www.nibib.nih.gov/Research/Highlights/Connectome

This is an excerpt of an article that was originally published in The Science in Society Review, a sister publication of The Triple Helix Online. Hannah LeBlanc is a student at Brown University. Contact us to read the original article, and follow us on Facebook.