Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Nothing natural?

In the Independent newspaper today, they had a long and involved piece entitled Scientists discover way to reverse loss of memory.
Briefly, a man whose brain was operated on to try to suppress his appetite suddenly recovered very vivid memories from 30 years ago. The more research is done on the brain, the more scientists find that manipulating it in some way alters how people act, think, feel and so on.

Another piece from the New York magazine forwarded to me by the New York Area Bisexual Network looked at various sorts of research that has been done by scientists from different fields looking at the so-called causes of homosexuality – length of fingers, chromosomes and so on and so forth. It also suggested that various stereotypical traits of lesbians and gay men might be biologically based, which to me beggars belief – it’s ahistorical and ignores cultural and geographical differences. I remember, for instance, when men having long hair was considered to be a sign of homosexuality. Who would that even occur to now?

“They’re born that way” seems to be the notion du jour – of this and pretty much every other age - and popular opinion likes to go down the common sense track, where if it seems to be true – because of repetition and stereotype, then it must be true. So male hairdressers are gay and female footballers are lesbian. Perhaps bisexuals are footballing hairdressers then?

So is that it then? We are all born gay or straight (or bisexual – although no one seems to be researching that). And we’re all man/woman, male/female, masculine/feminine and that’s that? Isn’t that just a tad simplistic? I think so.

In short, there’s a massive gulf between people who think sexuality is constructed in society - that we end up as we do because of our individual experiences in this particular space and time – and those that think our sexuality is a result what is going on in our brains / with our chromosomes bla de bla.

Science or queer theory?

I am particularly struck by this now as I’ve been reading queer theory for the first time in my life. I’ve always known it existed, but never having been schooled in it I was a bit intimidated, to be honest. But if you start from the beginning, say here it’s not as scary as all that even if it is a bit hard to pin down and define.
Anyway, while thinking that gender is formed in society, that gender is not glued to biological sex (what is that anyway?), and that sexuality is simply a role you play might be all very well to some readers of this blog, it wouldn’t really play in Peoria (do people still say that?)!

Now, I’m well aware that I don’t know enough about science on the one hand, or queer theory on the other, to have a properly informed opinion but that never stopped anyone in this debate. In any case, if you know a lot about one you are not likely to know a lot about the other.

It has always seemed to me, though, that the way people experience and express their sexuality varies so terribly much between cultures, both historically and geographically, that it has to be nonsense to say anyone is born to be gay/bi/whatever.

But hey – I’m a both/and type of bisexual. Do we have to throw out the born that way baby with the biological bathwater? Many people feel that their sexuality is such a deep and profound part of themselves that it is “natural”. They don’t feel that it is a role they can put on and take off. But are they right? What role does biology and neuroscience have to play in sexuality? Answers on a rather large postcard please.


Julie for WOW! said...

Very thought provoking...could it also be partly because some people are just more "sexual" than others. Therefore, the more sexual you are, the more you are compelled to look beyond stereotypical norms where others would not be inclined to venture...Julie for WOW!

RickCHou said...

Every gay/lesbian/bisexual person I've asked (including myself) has felt that their sexuality was repressed by society until they were old enough / strong enough / had enough to say, "This is who I am, like it or not."
In fact, when my step-daughter was 6 years old, I told her mom that she would grow up to be bisexual. It seemed obvious to me by the way she treated her male and female friends alike, and by the way she felt equally at home in traditionally masculine and feminine activities.
She first identified herself as bisexual whn she was 14, and was shocked to learn that we knew it 8 years earlier.
This is not a scientific study, by any means - just a personal observation.
By the way, my first bisexual experience was 20 years ago, but I'm 42 - and my mom and sister don't have a clue, but I told my wife when we first started dating 13 years ago...another example of conforming to society's expectations on one hand, while being up front as a basis for a solid interpersonal relationship whatever the consequences on the other.
Just my two cents - make of it what you will.

Rick C.

Anonymous said...

I'm taking a class in Lesbian and Bisexual Lives and reading some very interesting theory articles. If you can get your hands on it, I suggest reading Deborah C. Stearns, “Gendered Sexuality: The Privileging of Sex and Gender in Sexual Orientation.” It adds a few layers to the idea of sexual identity. So many more I could add but that one stayed with me after reading it.

The essentialist vs constructionist view of sexual identity formation is an ongoing debate. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, in my opinion, a combination of biological and social factors. You are so right that no one is really studying bisexuals yet. I guess because we are so invisible.

Anyway...just found your blog and wanted to leave you a comment.

Just me...Marissa

Jacks said...

"It has always seemed to me, though, that the way people experience and express their sexuality varies so terribly much between cultures, both historically and geographically, that it has to be nonsense to say anyone is born to be gay/bi/whatever."

I agree with your premise; but not your conclusion. I think there is so much variation in expression and experience due to the level of acceptance of a particular culture.

We are led to believe that San Francisco has more gay people than other places. Is that because the culture creates gay people or is it that the culture is more accepting, thus allowing gay people to express themselves freely?
It could be that Salt Lake City has more gay people; but nobody knows because the culture won't allow them to be visible.
There's no evidence to support that a culture causes homosexuality. Cultures do affect the quality of life of those who identify as homosexual.

I honestly think it all depends on the person. There probably are some people who went through some experiences (maybe traumatic) that caused them to have an attraction towards the same sex. There are probably some people who are born that way.

The problem with the nurture/environment argument is that it's not substantiated. People have done various studies trying to find out what environmental factor could cause homosexuality. They can't find anything conclusive. Children who have been abused are not more likely to be gay. Children with absent fathers and overbearing mothers are not more likely to be gay. They haven't found a detergent, television show, metal, or allergen that would cause a person to be gay.
There are people who have been treated the same as their straight siblings and peers and still ended up gay.

On the other hand, there is not enough evidence that will convince society that homosexuality is biological/genetic. I've done some crude studies on hormones and it seems obvious to me that homosexuality is biological. But that's just me.

There's also the idea of biological predisposition vs. predestination. Many people think genes hardwire a person's characteristics. There's nothing anyone can do, outside of medication or surgery, that will change their path.
Predisposition means that a person's genes only map out the possibilities. Then it is up to the world to shape the person into what they will become.

In the instance of predisposition, there are men who have the ability to be attracted to other men. It remains to be seen if this will be nurtured and they will become homosexual or bi. There are other men, that no matter how hard they tried, they are not going to be attracted to men in any way.

I do think you may need to make more of a distinction between gender identity and sexuality. If you are just talking about gender identity then I completely agree with you. Culture is the authority in what is defined as male and female behavior. If you're talking about sexuality, then I have to dissent.

I don't know if any human behavior has been pinned down to nature or nurture. I think the endeavor is too hard for science to grapple. Humans are tricky test subjects. Contrary to popular belief, we are not all created equal. We are all very unique creatures that can really screw up a data set.