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A sexual orientation symbol created by AnonMoos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What is Sexual Orientation?

If you want to study sexual behavior, choose the fruit fly. Its behavior is not nearly as obvious as you might think, and you aren’t likely to raise a storm of protest from opponents of sex research or from advocates of the fruit fly.

If you want to study human sexuality, though, watch out. Just about every aspect of sexuality evokes powerful beliefs and prejudices, causing people to scrutinize research findings through the prisms of their own sexual behavior, their political and social ideologies, and wishful thinking. Add to this Congress’s antediluvian attitudes toward sex and sex research (Congress apparently acts on the theory that “if we don’t study it, no one will do it”), and no wonder it’s so difficult for science and skepticism to even get their foot in the bedroom door. And if your interest is sexual orientation —its causes, expression, variations, development— you’ll have to steer a course between the Scylla of conservatives who know that same-sex orientation is a sinful, psychologically determined “life-style choice” and the Charybdis of liberals who know that it is biologically determined and no more “chosen” than eye color.

The view that sexual orientation is biologically determined through the action of genes or hormones was an important weapon in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. But what if it’s more complicated than that? What if that causal dichotomy (“biological v. learned”) is oversimplified? And so what, anyway? If sexual orientation proves to be far more complex and varied than we thought, why should that have anything at all do with extending rights to any group? If a person wants to be mono-sexual, bisexual, or, hell, trisexual, whose business is it? As the great screenwriter William Goldman famously said about filmmaking in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.” When it comes to understanding sexual orientation, that’s a pretty close assessment. Consider this fascinating array of controversies and findings:

Is sexual orientation a matter of categories—straight, gay, bi—or is it a continuum?

Eminent sexologists differ. In their extensive review of the research for the eminent journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, J. Michael Bailey and his colleagues argue for the category view.1 But sexologist Ritch Savin- Williams holds with Alfred Kinsey’s original assertion that “Males do not represent two distinct populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats.” Savin-Williams, drawing on a study of some 71,000 men and 118,000 women, argues for a five-point continuum that includes … exclusively straight, mostly straight, bisexual, mostly gay or lesbian, and exclusively gay or lesbian.2

What exactly is sexual orientation?

Researchers (and the rest of us) disagree on how to define it, given that at least four components are involved: sexual behavior; sexual identity (does a person identify as straight, gay, bi, or other); degree of sexual attraction to the same or other sex; and physiological arousal to men, women, or both. Some researchers, such as Bailey’s group, use “attraction to members of the same sex, both sexes, or the other sex” as their primary definition of sexual orientation. Others think that sexual behavior is a better criterion, although it will get a person who has had only one same-sex experience—or “opportunistic” same sex experiences, as in prison or boarding school—into a category with those who have had many. Savin-Williams points out that these components of orientation and behavior are “imperfectly correlated and inconsistently predictive of each other,” which is the reason that depending on which element you use to define orientation, the prevalence rate of homosexuality ranges from 1 to 11% to even 21%. Thus, across large-scale surveys, about 2% to 4% of the populations of Western nations identify as exclusively gay, lesbian, or bisexual. However, if you ask people if they have ever had “any homosexual feelings,” those numbers jump. But what does “homosexual feelings” mean? In a study that yielded 11% reporting homosexual feelings, only 3.3% said they were as attracted to the same sex as to the other. An inherent shortcoming of all such selfreport data is that we do not know what people are thinking (let alone doing) when they check a box. To make matters even more complicated, most people who are attracted to their own sex and engage in same-sex behavior do not identify as homosexual,3 and there are far more people who have “incidental” homosexual feelings and occasional contacts than who have persistent, strong same sex feelings and frequent same-sex experiences.

Understandably, prevalence statistics are often furiously disputed, with those opposing lesbian and gay rights favoring lower figures and advocates favoring numbers that show a higher prevalence. But this dispute is senseless, say Bailey and his coauthors. Jews make up 2.2% of the American population, but anti-Semitism would be wrong no matter how many Jews there are.

What does it mean to say that sexual orientation is “biological” or “chosen”?

These words are handy descriptors for many laypeople, but to scientists both terms are vague, ill-defined, and oversimplified. There are many things that adults do, many preferences that we have, many habits we have acquired, and many beliefs we hold, that we don’t feel we can change; they feel “innate,” “part of us,” but they are a result of years of experience, perceptions, and reinforcers. There’s no gene or hormone for the attraction or revulsion people feel about sex with fat people, old people, blond people, big- or small-breasted women, or soft or muscular men—let alone that can account for all the variations in sameand other-sex behavior and fantasy. “The issue of whether sexual orientation is chosen,” Bailey and his coinvestigators write, “represents intellectual confusion, and no scientific finding will illuminate this issue in any interesting way. Although clumsy reasoning may advantage a particular political position in the short term, in the long term, clear thinking is best for everyone.” What skeptic would disagree with a call for clear thinking? Of course, let’s not be naïve: The belief that sexual orientation is not “chosen” has fueled the gay rights movement to astonishingly rapid successes. And yet, interestingly, it may be that those very successes have now paved the way to a more nuanced approach to sexuality.

What factors are related to sexual orientation?

“No causal theory of sexual orientation has yet gained widespread support,” Bailey and his colleagues conclude, though the evidence does support “nonsocial” causes: across cultures, adult homosexuality is strongly related to gender nonconformity in childhood; same-sex behavior is found in many other species; twin studies find support for moderate genetic influences; when infant boys are surgically changed into girls, they remain sexually attracted to females; the rate of same-sex attraction has not varied much across time and place, and there is no good evidence that it increases “as a result of contagion and social influence.” In other words, they add, the success of gayrights movements has not “made more people gay,” though in tolerant environments people may become more likely to act on homosexual desires or, even lacking such desires, be willing to experiment. And be politically correct: The college-age son of a friend of mine told her he is bisexual, though he is not attracted to males nor has he had samesex encounters. But, he said, he thinks he should identify as bi, “just in case” and to show solidarity with gay friends.

What does bisexuality mean?

Bailey and colleagues report that “a nontrivial proportion” of straight people call themselves bisexual. Some identify as bisexual on their way to coming out as gay (“transitional” bisexuality). Some, like my friend’s son, identify as bisexual but have patterns of arousal and behavior that are predominantly gay or straight—and, conversely, some people who identify as gay or straight have bisexual patterns of arousal. The muchreported greater sexual fluidity of women—their inclination to have sex with the person they love, regardless of that person’s gender—may soon come to describe men as well.

Skeptic magazine 21.3

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 21.3 (2016)

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So what?

Bailey and his colleagues took on this contentious topic knowing full well that scientific findings have been used both to support and to attack gay rights. But the basic question of why some people are attracted to men and others to women (and still others to both) is, they say, just plain intrinsically interesting, and in the final analysis, they argue, justice and science alike are best served by good data and clear thinking.

By 2015, 118 nations had decriminalized homosexual behavior, but it remains illegal in 75 countries. Eleven countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East still retain the death penalty for gay men and lesbians. Hate crimes in the U.S. persist, most recently the heinous massacre at the gay bar in Orlando. At present, it seems that “science and justice” would also be served by focusing less on homosexuality than on homophobia. END

About the Author

Dr. Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). She writes “The Gadfly” column quarterly in Skeptic magazine.

  1. Bailey, J. Michael, et al. 2016. “Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 17, No. 2, 45–101.
  2. Savin-Williams, Ritch. C. 2006. “Who’s Gay? Does It Matter?” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 15, No. 1, 40–44.
  3. Laumann, Ed, et al. 1994. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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