A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist famous for his championing of the idea that sexual orientation is determined by biological factors. He discussed his latest book, Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: the Science of Sexual Orientation, which reviews over 600 scientific studies that have been undertaken on the question of sexual orientation over the last two decades.

According to LeVay, these studies lead unambiguously to one conclusion: pre-phenomenological biological factors (such as genes, hormones, and brain structure) lead to different levels feminization or masculinization of the brain, which determine whether one is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. Unsurprisingly, gay and bisexual men are reported to have more feminine brain structures than straight men, while lesbian and bisexual women are alleged to be more masculine in that respect than heterosexual women.

Although LeVay provides a mass of evidence in support of this argument, I remain skeptical about theories purporting to explain human sexuality in biological terms.

Firstly, the studies that LeVay cites have focused on explaining sexual attraction to a particular gender – however, there is surely more to human sexuality than that! What about explaining attraction to specific body parts, forms of clothing or sexual practices – such as armpit fetishes, leather worship and BDSM? Most of the recent scientific studies completely ignore these kinds of phenomena, erasing from view diverse areas of human sexuality that are defined by more than just gender. Indeed, communities of desire have already been formed whose ideas about what is “sexy” supercede man-ness or woman-ness. Until biological studies provide explanations for the full diversity of human sexuality – for fetishes, kinks, and other all-too-common oddities – they will be inadequate.

Secondly, not only is there an empirical problem with this kind of research – it also ends up reinforcing the notion that what really matters in your sex life are your partner’s genitals. This obsession with which gender one is drawn to is a unique consequence of the homophobic society we live in. With attraction to men or women regarded as the most salient aspect of sexuality, the upholding of heterosexuality as an ideal (with homosexuality as a tolerable-but-stigmatized minority alternative) is greatly facilitated. If sexual and gender discourses in society prioritized other values, such as the maximization of pleasure or the development of deeper intra-communal connections, the classification of people according to which gender they are attracted to would diminish in importance. Therefore, biological studies of sexual orientation end up unwittingly supporting the heteronormative imperative to declare one’s desires in gendered terms.

Finally, the political implications of biological studies of sexuality are troubling. Bolstered by these scientific investigations, mainstream gay and lesbian movements in the West have based their arguments for sexual minority rights on the notion that homosexuality is an essentially un-chosen characteristic, akin to eye color. But this is a fundamentally conservative argument. To what extent can we really be positive about (homo)sexuality if we constantly insist on seeing it as un-chosen? I find it hard to believe that the stigma on homosexuality can be fully removed if the condition for legitimating it – legally, socially, and politically – is claiming that one has no agency in being gay. This implies that it would be profoundly wrong to choose to be homosexual, which in turn, suggests that there is something not quite right with homosexuality itself. Thus, the “no-choice” argument ends up maintaining a significant level of disgrace about homosexuality. It enables tolerance, on the basis of sympathy for a queer’s inadvertent lot in life, but it does not engender full-scale acceptance of homosexuality as a life-style that is positive in itself and even worth encouraging. In fact, it gives solace to those who would like homosexuality to remain a pitiable minority phenomenon, confined to the people whose brains have been “wrongly” masculinized or feminized. The revolution remains incomplete…

So if purely biological explanations of sexuality are deficient, for both empirical and political reasons, what are some alternative ways that sexuality could be conceptualized? How can we expose the profound influence of coercive societal pressures (patriarchy, heteronormativity, forced coupling/monogamy, capitalism etc…) on our sexual development, while also recognizing that there is a deeply personal, almost unconscious, aspect to our sexualities that is robustly resistant to social molding? How can we open possibilities for political agendas which have sexual freedom, the undoing of patriarchy, and the total de-stigmatization of sexual minorities as their goals, while remaining faithful to empirical evidence and people’s lived experiences?

The biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling provides an interesting alternative. In her book, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, she outlines a Systems Theory of human sexual development, which obliterates the distinction between the physical organism (our skin and bones, blood, tissue, hormones and genes) and its environment. According to Fausto-Sterling, our brain structures are fundamentally plastic: the newborn human being is by no means a “finished product,” and whatever bio-structural tendencies exist at that point, they are bound to be deeply affected by the social environment we live in – by its abuse of females and the feminine, by its homophobia, by the imperative to classify oneself as a man or a woman, by its obsession with monogamy and coupling, and by its fetishizing of money and profit. In fact, these social forces will undoubtably impact the way our brains work. It is therefore difficult – if not impossible – to tell what kind of human sexuality would be created if these social forces were removed. Perhaps we could evolve into a non-monogamous, non-patriarchal, multi-gendered, and polysexual species?

Similar possibilities can be found in Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Put simply, his model of human sexual development posits that everyone is born with “polymorphously perverse” sexual drives, which means that humans could be attracted to virtually anything, so long as it provides a level of somatic pleasure and erotic excitement. As children, for example, we live a “polymorphously perverse” existence, finding pleasure in potentially everything from breastfeeding to cutting our toenails. The role of our families – and the society of which they are a part – is to channel these sexual drives into a “heterosexual” and procreative direction, by intervening and negatively sanctioning instances of “perverse” sexuality. By the time we reach adulthood, many but not all of us will have been “appropriately” molded. Admittedly, Freud’s approach can be used for reactionary purposes: it could lead to increased tightening of familial and social control, with the goal of wiping out “perverse” sexuality. Or it could be used to raise consciousness about reclaiming the polymorphous sexual drive and undoing the processes that have molded people into a patriarchal, heteronormative, monogamous and two-gendered species. The choice is ours…

To conclude, the kinds of biological studies cited and promoted by Simon LeVay have three major flaws: (1) they ignore important aspects of human sexuality that are not necessarily gendered (fetishes, kinks etc…); (2) they reinforce the heteronormative view that the gender one is attracted to is the most salient aspect of sexuality, which greatly facilitates the promotion of heterosexuality as an ideal; and (3) they serve as the grounds for justifying homosexuality on a conservative basis, by portraying it as a minority alternative that people have no choice or control over, a phenomenon that can therefore never spread wider in society.

But perhaps more importantly, the idea that our sexualities are determined by pre-phenomenological biological processes significantly circumscribes the possibilities for any kind of fundamental change in the gender and sexual system. If we are homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual before we even know it, how is it possible to critique the obsession with the gender one is attracted to, or the gendered structure of sexual relations in society? How can we question the drive for coupling and monogamy – if we continue to believe that we are pre-programmed for it? And how can we criticize the distribution of gendered roles in society, if women’s and men’s biological differences on matters such as spatial skill, linguistic competence, and leadership ability are presumed? Fausto-Sterling and Freud offer alternative conceptualizations of sexuality that enable some of these questions to be answered, and it is my hope that the researchers and activists of the future will take their lead.

***For More Information***

If you would like to find out more about Simon LeVay's work and the biology of sexual orientation, sex, and gender, his website provides many useful resources. For a powerful critique of the biological approach to sexual orientation, see Janet Halley's article, "Sexual Orientation and the Politics of Biology: A Critique of the Argument from Immutability." Anne Fausto-Sterling has attempted (with much success, in my opinion) to combine biological and sociological research. You can explore her many articles and books via her personal website. Sigmund Freud has engendered much controversy among feminists and LGBT activists - you will find that this Wikipedia page provides a good introduction to his work. Finally, for more on conservative arguments for LGBT rights, please see this previous Below the Belt post.

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