Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sexual Orientation And Its Discontents

A couple of months ago I wrote here that there might be “a flaw in the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ that needs to be thought about some more.” The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that my gentle suggestion was a riot of understatement.

I’ve been critical for a long time of what is called “sexual orientation research.” Some years ago I was invited to review a book called Gay Science (Columbia, 1999) by Timothy F. Murphy, a Professor of Philosophy in the Biomedical Sciences, Department of Medical Education, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago. I never finished the review for some reason, but among other problems I noticed that although Professor Murphy recognized that “sexual orientation research” was a broad category that covered many different kinds of study, including Evelyn Hooker’s classic 1950s study comparing the psychological adjustment of gay and straight men, he was really only interested in research on the biological causes of sexual orientation, mainly homosexuality. (Many people forget that heterosexuality is a sexual orientation too, just as they forget that men are a “gender” and whites an “ethnic group.”) He was not much concerned about possible negative social effects of such investigation, that might lead to attempts to eliminate gay people from the population. (Abortion of “pre-gay” fetuses, genetic manipulation to prevent our conception, “sexual reorientation” therapy for those of us who escaped earlier eugenic interventions, etc.) What worried him was that “sexual orientation research” might be suppressed by people concerned about such negative effects. Even though Murphy recognized many of the fundamental flaws in the research, he always wrote as though abandoning any specific thread of “sexual orientation research” amounted to suppression of the whole field, and was a threat to Science itself.

This is the kind of scientific fundamentalism that makes me want to issue mischievous satirical calls against science, but not just now. What I want to point out now is that there is not, as far as I can tell, any research actually being done on the causes of “sexual orientation.” As the American Psychological Association explains it,

Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectional attraction toward others. It is easily distinguished from other components of sexuality including biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and the social gender role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior).

But all of the current research on “sexual orientation” that I’m aware of is actually about biological sex and gender identity. I’d go so far as to say that it was meant to eliminate the concept of sexual orientation altogether, if it weren’t so obvious that the scientists involved are completely unaware of the distinction: they simply assume that “sexual orientation” equals biological sex. This can be seen in the infamous research of the gay neurologist Simon LeVay, who found that gay men have the hypothalamus of a woman in the body of a man. (I almost wrote “straight woman” there, but LeVay evidently assumed heterosexuality as the baseline.) Since LeVay’s research was published, to great publicity, other studies have purported to find that lesbians have masculine ring fingers, that gay men and straight women respond similarly to male body odor, and so on. Michael Bailey, the even more controversial professor of psychology at Northwestern University, told CBS News in 2006 that “feminizing of the brain” was involved in the genesis of gay men (and “masculinizing” in lesbians). He attributed this to hormones, not to the genes.

Which brings me to Marc Breedlove, also a participant in the CBS News report. Breedlove, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Michigan State University,

explained that male rats, including one he showed [Leslie] Stahl called “Romeo,” will mount any rat that comes their way. In the mating process, the female performs something called lordosis, where she lifts her head and rump.

If Romeo goes after a male, Dr. Breedlove says the male will seem profoundly indifferent.

But Breedlove says he can change all that. He gave a female rat a single shot of the male sex hormone testosterone at birth. Now grown up, she will never perform lordosis.

But a male rat did. He was castrated at birth, depriving him of testosterone.

"So you created a gay rat?" Stahl asked.

"I wouldn't say that these are gay rats. But I will say that these are genetic male rats who are showing much more feminine behavior," he explained.

It’s big of Professor Breedlove to point out that his lordotic rats are not gay. But a few other things need to be pointed out. One is that none of this is new. Researchers have been playing around with rats’ hormone levels since at least the 1930s. That work was summarized and discussed as long ago as 1951, when Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach published Patterns of Sexual Behavior (Harper & Brothers). (There’s a good recent account of this in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body [Basic Books, 2000], especially Chapter 8, “The Rodent’s Tale.”)

But the underlying notion of receptive males as female-like is even older. In his book Roman Homosexualities (Oxford, 1999), Craig Williams retells a fable by a first-century Roman poet called Phaedrus. As Williams translates it (page 211),

The other man asked what principle it was that had brought tribads and soft men into being. The old man explained, “That same Prometheus, the creator of the pottery race that is broken as soon as it comes up against its fate, had spent a whole day fashioning the private parts that modesty hides under clothes, making them separately so that he could later attach them to the appropriate bodies. After receiving an unexpected invitation to dinner from the wine-god Liber, and having flooded his veins with a good deal of nectar, he stumbled home late at night and in a drunken stupor attached the maiden's organ to the male sex and male organs to women. And so it is that lust now enjoys its depraved pleasure.”

For some reason Williams (who’s evidently as confused as his scientific counterparts) comments that “Phaedrus’ soft males … were mistakenly given a pseudo-vagina by Prometheus.” In the fable, they were given a real vagina, and the anus (which both males and females have) is not a “pseudo-vagina.” The hormonal theory of sexual receptivity in males is basically just an updated version of Phaedrus’ fable.

Lordosis is not part of the human behavioral repertoire anyhow: excited human females do not try to shove their rumps into the faces of males with whom they want to copulate. (Imagine what a pop concert would look like if this were the case.) Nor do gay men. Yet pushers of “sexual orientation research” keep bringing it up, probably because it’s visually striking and fits the stereotype of gay men as feminized.

A more important point is that this behavior has nothing to do with “sexual orientation,” if that term refers to a pattern of sexual desire for persons of one sex or the other. Feminized male rats will permit mounting by females or other males, and “normal” male rats, as Breedlove says, “will mount any rat that comes their way” regardless of its sex.

In an article published in the Journal of Homosexuality in 1997, neuroanatomist and psychiatrist William S. Byne pointed out (page 75) that

In the paradigm of the neuroendocrine laboratory, the male rat that shows lordosis when mounted by another male is considered the homosexual. But it is important to note that lordosis is little more than a reflex, and that the male that displays lordosis when mounted by another male will also display the posture if its back is stroked by a researcher. We cannot infer much about the sexual motivation of the male that exhibits this posture. Ironically, however, the animal that does display sexual motivation – the male that mounts another male [Breedlove’s “Romeo”, for instance] – escapes scientific scrutiny and labeling as does the female that displays lordosis when mounted by another female.

Suppose, though, that it were proven that some human males had been exposed to “female” hormones, causing them to want to be penetrated by other men. These would be the men explained by the research of LeVay, Breedlove, Bailey, and others. But what about the men who have sex with these receptive men, particularly men who prefer to penetrate men instead of women? Contemporary researchers not only can’t explain them, they don’t even seem to be aware that they exist. According to their model, there are no homosexuals or heterosexuals, just tops (penetrators, assumed to be male) and bottoms (the penetrated, presumed to be female). “Straight” men should know that they can penetrate as many men as they wish without becoming gay – they only need to be alert to any emergent desire to present their bottoms to anyone, male or female. But woe betide any penetrator who feels those stirrings in his rear end – he may have a “predisposition” to be gay. Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee wrote in The DNA Mystique (Freeman, 1995, page 136),

A claim about predisposition after the fact … has the rhetorical advantage of being both unfalsifiable and irrefutable. No experiment could disprove the existence of such a predisposition, for the outcome of “proof” of its own cause. By employing this sort of circular argument, genetic predisposition can be invoked to explain any behavior ….
These researchers have often been criticized for making assumptions about the sexual orientations of their subjects, but what can they do? There is no way to measure “sexual orientation.” Some of the researchers have fallen back on inviting their subjects to rate themselves on the Kinsey scale, which is like classifying subjects’ intelligence by asking them to guess their IQs. Some administer a version of Kinsey’s sexual history interview (which is interesting, considering how often I’ve heard that Kinsey’s protocol is obsolete and no one nowadays knows how to take a history by his method). But a sexual history is not a “sexual orientation.” LeVay, whose subjects were all dead, assumed that any male whose records said he had contracted AIDS through sexual contact must be homosexual, and that any male whose records showed that he had contracted AIDS through drug use must be heterosexual. Again, it’s hard to say what else he could have done, but it doesn’t speak well for “sexual orientation research” that such work passed peer review.

So there you have it: “sexual orientation research” is not about sexual orientation at all, but about one’s role in sexual activity. These researchers have a revealingly crude and mechanistic conception of human sexuality that reduces males to plugs and females to jacks. Their work has no bearing on the love and desire for people of their own sex that many gay people confidently claim they were born with – about that we’re as ignorant as ever. Strangest of all to me is that the GLBTQ+π supporters of this research, who in my experience are desperately insistent that we are “normal” except for what we do in bed, and are eager to appease bigots by condemning gender nonconformity among gay people, have bought into a scientific model which asserts that we are essentially and by nature gender non-conformists. A gay man in drag, a lesbian with cigar and tuxedo, are according to the LeVays and Baileys simply acting as Nature wants them to. But not to worry. The internal contradictions of the scientific model ensure that it’s unlikely to go anywhere.