Thursday, May 6, 2010

Studying LesBians: Are we born lesbians or do we choose to be?

Studying LesBians is a monthly column about current and not so current research about lesbians and bisexual women. This month I want to talk about genetic and social influences on sexual orientation.

One of those things that always seems to come up whenever people (read: straight people) discuss sexual orientation is the question whether sexual orientation is something genetic, that you are born with or something that happens because of certain experiences or influences in your life.

These two points of view are usually (wrongly) interpreted as meaning you can either not help it (It was in your genes!) or you can (You chose to be this way!).

In psychology we call these two influences nature (when something is because of your genetic make up) and nurture (when something is due to upbringing and life experiences). Psychologists (and probably many others as well) would never say the former means it's a certain given that cannot be changed or you cannot be held responsible for. In the same way, they would never interpret something non-genetic as implying that you have a choice in the matter. 

In fact, researchers in psychology hardly ever speak of something being completely a matter of nurture or nature. Their favourite answer to most questions about nurture-nature is to say that it is probably a combination of both.

We are all born with a unique genetic blueprint that makes us susceptible to a whole range of positive and negative things, from diseases and disorders, to music and intellectual ability.

However, when something's in your genes it doesn't mean it will happen to you, just that you have the potential. Whether something actually manifests is often a matter of what happens to you in your life and the influences you are susceptible to. 

For example, you might have a risk of becoming depressed, but because of your positive life experiences and loving family it never manifests itself. Or because you are so interested in learning a new language because your foreign love interest, you overcome your lack of feeling for language.

I do not mean to imply that this works the same way for sexual orientation, just that with many things it is often not a black and white thing.

There are many studies showing there is indeed a genetic basis for sexual orientation. This ranges from stuff like homosexual men and women who have always known they were gay since they were very little, before it was even possible to be influenced by society. Research has also shown that brains of homosexual men often look more like female brains than that of straight men.

Then there's the research involving finger length, testosterone and sexual orientation. Even though the evidence is not that clear cut, there is some indication that finger length (in particular a longer ring finger than index finger) is more common among lesbians than straight women. A long ring finger is typically a sign of the amount of testosterone in one's body. Besides finger length, it's also true that more lesbians than straight women are left handed.

Homosexuality is also something that appears more often in some families than in others. You can probably all think of someone who also has a gay brother, sister, cousin etc. Of course, one could still argue that this is nurture, not nature, but when you get into the topic of nurture influences on sexual orientation, it quickly becomes rather Freudian and, well, stupid really.

With stupid I mean people who claim that when mothers and fathers are not feminine/masculine enough or too much, or when they are absent, this makes people queer because they lack nice heterosexual role models. There's many other examples, which you probably know better than me, so I won't go on. Of course, sexual orientation can be influenced by experience.

Even though it's a bad stereotype, it is true that some women do "become" lesbians because of negative experiences with men. Or more likely, they might have had the tendency for bisexuality all along and their experiences just made them lean more towards their queer side.

Another example is that you might never have realised your feelings towards women until you have a certain experience, like a crush on your best friend. If you hadn't had such a cute best friend, you might have continued to lead a "straight" life.

Some people are of the opinion that sexuality is fluent, and we either all start out as bisexual or our experiences can shape and alter who we are attracted to. There is not much research to back this up, even though it has been shown that women tend to be more fluent in their sexual orientation than men.

Regardless of sexual orientation and self-measures of arousal, it was found that women get physically aroused by sexy images, regardless of whether they are of men or women.

Of course, this type of research quickly gets you into the muddy waters of distinguishing between sexual orientation, sexual arousal and sexual experiences, which is way beyond the scope of this column.

My main point is that things are often not that black and white, and while there is scientific evidence for a genetic basis for sexual orientation, it is often, just as with everything else, dependent on your life experiences and life choices how something manifests itself.

Rather than trying to find out whether sexual orientation is a matter of nurture of nature, I want to pose the question: Does it really matter?

I believe that we are who we are and there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a lesbian or bisexual. So why should it matter so much whether sexual orientation is in our genes, because of our life experiences or a combination of both?


For more information about the scientific basis for the nurture-nature debate on sexual orientation, check out the great website

This post was first published on eurout.

1 comment:

Holly said...

Really some very informative information on the subject. is gray. Still influences do have to count for something. So many things for a person to have to deal and cope with in their journey through life. I think we all evolve as well from relationships, too.

I was reading the latest biography of Talented Mr. Ripley's Patricia Highsmith. About how she always felt she was male trapped in a woman's body. Of course, she had a way of taunting so much from her many lovers that she must have been the bitch from hell, too. Yet, all that drama she created..she could re-create in her fiction too.