Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gay brains again

Another week, another study on how men’s and women’s, and gay and straight people’s brains are oh so different….

According to this report, gay men and straight women apparently performed better at certain language tasks. Lesbians and straight men had better spatial awareness. Etc. There’s more about it on the link above.

Now then, now then…

It seems that what you make of this study (of 90 people, so of course it can be translated to everyone in the world?!?) depends on what you already believe. So: it might mean that, as evolutionary biologist Dr Qazi Rahman says on the BBC site “As far as I’m concerned, there is no argument any more – if you are gay, you are born gay.”

Well, I’m not an evolutionary biologist, or indeed any kind of scientist, but it seems to me that there are still plenty of arguments to be had. Indeed, that there are gaping holes in this kind of research.

Now, in the aftermath of plagiarist psychiatrist Raj Persaud, I would like to announce that I have not necessarily thought up all these ideas on my ownsome: they have come as a result of reading various sites and blogs, such as this and this.

Problem one is that people doing these studies have such a dichotomous view of sexuality – categorically and forever straight or categorically and forever gay (although may take some time to realise this) – that they overlook the many subtleties that even people who don’t like out and proud bisexuality can agree exist.

For instance:

* How do these researchers define straight or gay? Is it the relationship the person is in? Is it self-identification? Or what?

* Just say that you accept the idea that the brains of gay and straight people differ. Is this a cause or an effect of their being gay/straight? Might their brains change back again if they behave in ways that aren’t gay/straight? (Only partly a joke.)

* But of course my main objection to this sort of study is that they divide everyone absolutely definitely and forever into heterosexual or homosexual. The most casual glance around the world shows that many people are at least on some kind of continuum between straight and gay. What happens to those people who are gay when they are young and straight when they are older? Are “situationally gay” – say in prison?

* And of course, that’s not to mention all of us who actually ARE bisexual.

You picks your scientists, you takes your choice
Problem two. It is interesting to look at this research in the light of the study by US psychologist Lisa Diamond – whose book haven’t read yet but which is currently mentioned a lot on the internet as she’s been in a film I also haven’t seen called Bi the Way. She says that women’s sexuality (not all women; some) is fluid – meaning geared towards individuals, rather than men or women. She’s not the only one of course, Michael Bailey – mentioned disapprovingly elsewhere on this blog – did research showing something similar. So if the way straight and lesbian women feel desire is extremely similar (more Bailey’s view than Diamond’s and something I certainly don’t believe) then there’s an interesting conflict here: how do this other group of scientists decide which women are definitively straight or lesbian?

Butch and femme brains
Problem three. They also seem to be – I say seem, because I haven’t read the original document – to be conflating sexual orientation with gender expression here. Gay men = straight women. Lesbian woman = straight man. This reminds me of the old-fashioned and simply untrue view that if you are a camp or effeminate man, then you have to be gay.

There are lots of online “is your brain male or female” quizzes. I remember I did one and came out as having an absolutely androgynous brain. Well, I hope I am empathetic towards others but I’m not keen on endless phone chatting; like dressing up (stereotypically female) and am fairly “visually stimulated” – ie I like looking at attractive people like straight men seem to. Does this really mean I am born to be bi?

Of the two heterosexual men (my son and my partner) with whom I am in close contact, one loves ironing, the other loves chatting on the phone, and both shrieked with terror at a huge bee which I had to shoo out of an open window. I hate ironing and am quite good at map-reading. Perhaps I am “hard-wired” to be bisexual then?

Born which way?
When I have written about “gay brains” before, some people have commented on this site that they knew they were bi from a young age, that it felt natural to them, that therefore they were “born that way”. Nevertheless, just because something feels innate, doesn’t mean it is. It doesn’t mean it isn’t, either. Personally I don't think it matters in the least but many people strongly disagree.

Another scientific report was published today about cancer and how one man’s illness was treated using his own immune cells. The researchers there are “cautiously optimistic”. Why aren’t researchers into the “causes” of sexuality ever similarly cautious about their results?


Anonymous said...


I don't know if you read the comments on that post from my blog or not, but I got a little deeper into what I personally suspect this study suggests. I think we're going to learn a lot more about sexuality as it's studied concurrently with the differences between the genders than anything else.

Oh, did you see the OTHER study that came out this week? It's on my blog...somewhere. It's about genes.

Sue George said...

Yes, you made some interesting points in your comments - although I think you put more faith (right word) in neuroscience than I do. I think psychology is more valuable...
On the other hand, I do think your view that gender also comes on a continuum is interesting. But I don't see that, say, being gay (male or female) gives you a brain more or less like the "opposite" sex. I have met gay men and straight women who definitely seem to be very male in their attitudes / feelings / behaviour. And the reverse with lesbians and straight men.

Anonymous said...

I am a Bi man and did the BBC Brain Gender test.I came out at 0% (Neutral). I always wondered if there was a connexion.So I was interested in your comment that you to were neutral (androgynous)when you did a similar test.

In the full BBC survey / test the experiments authors did not seem to include a question re: self identified sexual orientation. Personally I would have been interested in an analyses of these results with respect to declared sexual orientation.

There seems to be a blind spot in the researchers world view - perhaps they do not feel confident in designing a test that allows for Bisexuality so concentrate on the simple Heterosexual or Homosexual binary.

Sue George said...

I might have done that BBC test myself - I can't remember now. Anyway, two of the issues I have with these gender tests are a) that certain traits are perceived to be intrinsically male or female what is considered male or female changes so much across history and cultures. b) that sexual orientation (fixed or otherwise) and gender orientation seem to be so closely tied together when I don't see that they are.
Nevertheless, I am interested that you came out as "neutral" like me and wonder if other bi people would too.

Anonymous said...

I thought you might be interested in this analysis:

Sue George said...

Very very interesting, Anon.

Anyone who's interested in the science behind this topic could do with taking a look.