What Do We Actually Know about Sexual Orientation? Part 1

What Do We Actually Know about Sexual Orientation? Part 1
August 9, 2018

The short answer is: a lot less than we think we do.


I often hear people use terms like gay, straight, or bisexual as if these categories are neatly defined. Or I’ll hear people say things like, since some people are born gay, then it’s wrong to say they shouldn’t be who they are. The assumption is that same-sex orientation is an innate, inborn, fixed category that’s etched into one’s humanity like the color of their eyes. As we’ll see, it’s not that simple. Not even close.


But before we tease this out, we need to be clear on one thing—people don’t choose their sexual attractions. We choose how we want to identify, and, of course, we chose our behaviors. We may even choose certain identities and behaviors that shape or nurture our attractions. But we don’t simply choose our sexual attractions. People don’t choose to be gay, even if they choose to identify as gay.


But what do we actually know about orientation? Are some people simply born gay? 


If by “simply” we mean that same-sex attraction is 100% biological, then no, people are not simply born gay. Even though the “born that way” myth is wide-spread in pop-culture, actual scientists—pro-LGBTQ scientists—do not believe this. For instance, the American Psychological Association (APA) says:


[N]o 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.


Please note: The APA does say that biology (or nature) plays a role—and sometimes a very significant one—in shaping one’s sexual attractions. Again, gay people don’t choose their attractions any more than straight people choose theirs. What the science says is that sexual orientation can’t be completely reduced to nature—a simple by-product of biology (or divine creation) with no environmental influence. Both nature and nurture play complex roles and the nature/nurture dynamic differs from person to person. 

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And despite what you may have heard, most scientists agree that sexual orientation can’t be reduced to biological fiat. For instance, lesbian psychologist Lisa Diamond considers the strict “born that way” theory to be an older, outdated, and disproven scientific theory. [i] Sari van Anders, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, says: “The science of whether sexual orientation is biological is pretty sparse and full of disparate, mixed and replicated findings.” The title of her article is apt: “‘Born that Way?’ It’s Way More Complicated Than That.” Amassive survey was recently performed by Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer, a renowned epidemiologist trained in psychiatry, and Dr. Paul R. McHugh, a distinguished former professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (I’m well aware that this survey has been written off by some people since it was done by conservatives.) After examining more than 150 scientific studies that examined the cause of same-sex orientation, they conclude: “there are no compelling causal biological explanations for human sexual orientation…the idea that people are ‘born that way’…is not supported by scientific evidence.”[ii] Francis Collins, one of America’s leading geneticists and the director of the Human Genome Project, states: “sexual orientation is genetically influenced but not hardwired by DNA, and what whatever genes are involved represent predispositions, not predeterminations.”[iii] Hanne Blank, a historian of sexuality,  goes even further to question the scientific credibility of the thing we call sexual orientation: “The truth is that we still don’t know whether ‘sexual orientation’ and its subtypes can actually be said to exist from the perspective of science.”[iv]


Again, just because something isn’t 100 percent biologically determined doesn’t therefore mean it’s a choice. I wasn’t born speaking English, and yet I didn’t wake up one day and choose to be an English speaker. It sure feels innate, and I can’t not speak English. But this doesn’t mean I was created by God in the womb as an English speaker. I wasn’t “born that way.”


Sexual orientation is much more complex than we realize. Rebecca Jordan-Young is a sociomedical scientist and assistant professor at Columbia University, and she examines dozens of studies on sexual orientation in her provocative book Brainstorm. Her findings show that we know a lot less about sexual orientation than we think we do. The scientific literature is filled with unreplicated, contradictory, and overstated theories. “Sexual orientation,” she says, “is a great example of a ‘commonsense’ concept that seems fairly transparent, but turns out to be complicated and slippery when you try to pin it down.”[v]


One piece of that complexity is the question: how wedetermine whether someone is gay, straight, or bisexual? Some say, well, you just ask them. But any psychologist worth her salt knows the many dangers of self-reporting, and there’s plenty of evidence that supports this psychological truism (as we’ll see below). There are actually several different categories and questions people ask when determining sexual orientation. Who are you sexually attracted to? Who are you emotionally attracted to? (These are not always the same.) Are you sexually active, and with whom? How do you identify? What kind of fantasies do you have? What kind of porn do you watch? What fills your imagination when you masturbate? Some studies have supplemented these subjective questions with more invasive things like measuring blood flow to the penis or vagina while the person watches gay or straight porn.


That last one is a bit crude, but reveals some interesting facts. Some people say they’re gay or straight or bisexual, even though their physiological response (objective arousal) doesn’t line up so neatly with their identity. According to one study, self-identified straight women were shown videos of a man and woman having sex, then two women having sex, then two men having sex. When asked which videos were the most sexually arousing, they said the one with a man and a woman. But based on the objective measures of sexual arousal, these women were equally aroused by all three videos.[vi] What about lesbian women who were shown the same videos? Lesbians did show a slighter higher response to watching two women having sex than a man and a woman having sex, but the difference were slight. (Gay and straight men didn’t reveal the same level of flexibility in the same study.)


I’m not arguing that we should determine one’s sexual orientation simply by measuring blood flow to the genitals. For many different reasons, I’m not really into that. I also don’t want to suggest that sexual orientation is only about a desire for sex. It’s not. Sexual response might be one aspect of orientation, but orientation can’t be reduced to one’s sexual response. What I am saying is that there is no one clear way to measure orientation and when we examine all the different ways (and the various studies that explore these different ways), we find out that sexual orientation is a very messy, complicated, hard-to-pin-down theory that resists “the earth is round and not flat” type answers in the name of science.


Sexual behavior is another way scientists measure orientation. If sexual orientation was a fixed, immutable thing, we’d expect straight people to be having straight sex and gay people having gay sex—among those who are having sex, of course. Any anomalies would be just that: statistical anomalies. But the data suggests otherwise. The fact is, gay men are having sex with women, straight women are having sex with women, straight men are having sex with other men, lesbians are having sex with men—all with much more frequency than most people think.  


For instance, lesbian teens are getting pregnant at a much higher rate than straight teens. Specifically, 6.6% of lesbian teens get pregnant, while only 1.5% of straight teens do. Even if you add up all the caveats (some lesbians were raped; some were not really lesbians; etc.), sexual behavior appears to be more malleable than one’s identity. This is seen in straight women as well. According to a recent study by Lisa Diamond, 50% of self-identified straight women reported some level of same-sex attraction and 35% said they masturbated to same-sex fantasy in the previous year. It’s no wonder that 33% of straight college women have publicly made out with another woman, hence the popular acronym LUG—lesbian until graduation.


These are not anomalies. They’re simply part of the messy reality that challenges a simplistic categorization of people as gay, straight, or bisexual.


Now, it’s widely known that women are much more sexually fluid than men—a point we’ll return to in the next blog. But what about men? Men certainly don’t cross orientation boundaries, do they?


Actually, they do. Jane Ward, associate professor of Women’s Studies at UC Riverside, has revealed some quite shocking and challenging details in her aptly titled book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. As the title suggests, there are various social communities such as biker gangs, college fraternities, and the Navy, where men who are truly attracted to women and identify as straight engage in same-sex sexual behavior. Call it curiosity, call it hazing, call it an experiment, call it too much alcohol, or call it “heterflexibility”—the sociological term of choice. Whatever you call it, sex between straight men (and not just closeted gay men pretending to be straight) defies simple categories. According to psychologist Joe Kort, “a straight person” can have “more gay sex than a gay person” and yet still be straight. “For gay people,” says Kort, who is also gay, “it’s about spirituality, psychology, emotionality, romance, and it includes sex.”[vii]


So, how do you determine whether someone is gay or straight? We cannot just go on self-report, or how they identify, and apparently we can’t go on sexual behavior, since straight people have gay sex and gay people have straight sex with far more frequency than people realize. What about attraction? Perhaps same-sex orientation should be based on one’s attraction to the same sex regardless of whether they are having sex or identifying as LGB. This may be a better route to go, though it still raises several questions like: do we mean sexual attraction, or emotional attraction, or romantic attraction, or all three, or at least two out of three? And how much same sex (sexual or emotional or romantic) attraction needs to be present for someone to be gay? And what if that sexual/emotional/romantic attraction shifts over time, as we now know is a common phenomenon especially among women? How much shift needs to happen for someone to no longer be gay? Where do you draw the line between gay and straight, and what does it take to cross that line?


We’ll explore these questions in the next post when we look at sexual fluidity—the shifts and changes to one’s sexual attraction. As we’ll see, once again, it’s not so simple. Perhaps our rigid concepts of gay or straight are better seen as shifting points on a spectrum than essential categories of human nature.

Continue to Part 2 

[i] Diamond, Sexual Fluidity, see 19-34, 71, 74, 228-229, 231, 235-237, 239-240.

[iii] Collins, The Language of God, 260, cited in Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body, 157.

[iv] Straight, 65

[v] Jordan-Young, Brainstorm, 148.

[vi] Meredith Chivers, J. Michael Bailey, et al. “A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal,” Psychological Science, 15 (2004), 736-744.

[vii] Cited in Ward, Not Gay, 94.