The science of sexuality
If I ever want to talk about the science of sexuality, then Dr Qazi Rahman from King’s College is my go-to man. He’s up-to-date with the latest research, and he’s able to explain what it all means.
Following media reports of some new research from the University of Essex, I caught up with Dr Rahman for an update on all things science.
A recent study from the University of Essex suggested that finger-length measurements could be an indicator in identifying the sexuality of women. Are there any other physical characteristics that could potentially be used to identify LGBTQ people?
Finger length ratios, an indicator of levels of male sex hormone testosterone a person was exposed to in the womb, is related to sexuality in women. Lesbian women tend to have more masculine finger length ratio patterns, indicating they may have been exposed to more testosterone early in fetal development.
However, we can’t use finger length ratios or any other physical characteristics to tell what sexual orientation someone is. In other words, you can’t predict someone’s sexual orientation from these sorts of things because the differences are small, and there are more differences within a group.
There are many physical traits that differ at the group level between straight and gay people — studies really are only in gay, lesbian, and some bisexual people, not in trans, queer, or other identified groups — such as height, weight, and some puberty markers. But again, the differences are small and not predictive.
If someone asked you — Why are some guys gay? How would you explain that?
Big question, but the short answer is — Because of non-social and biological factors.
We know genetic factors are important in male sexual orientation. About a third of the differences in male sexual orientation are due to genetics. But genes aren’t the whole story. Two thirds of the differences in people’s sexual orientation is to due other biological factors — most likely sex hormones during life in the womb. Girls born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which results in naturally increased levels of male sex hormones during early life in the womb, show high rates of same-sex attractions as adults. Genetic males who undergo sex reassignment procedures and are reared as girls — because of conditions which mean they were born without male genitalia — are typically attracted to women as adults. The fact that you cannot make a genetic male sexually attracted to another male by raising him as a girl makes any social theory of sexuality very weak indeed. Family environment on the other hand, is not at all important. Your parents can’t make you gay by the way they raised you.
The evidence for social causes of homosexuality — sexual recruitment by other homosexual adults, disordered patterns of parenting, or social tolerance — is very weak or non-existent. Gay people have same-sex desires before they act on their desires by many years. So, same-sex desires come before same-sex sexual behaviour — that means that having gay sex can’t make you gay. The children of gay and lesbian parents are no more likely to be gay than the population base rates. Gay men report being somewhat distant from their fathers, but when you account for the fact that gay men are gender non-conforming as children, this link disappears — parents may respond negatively to gender non-conforming behaviour in their kids. Gender non-conformity is also genetically influenced.
People in gender studies, queer theory, and social sciences might argue that sexuality is a social construction, or claim that homosexuality is a word that the Victorians invented in the 1860s. This is false. The historical record from different cultures shows that gay people defined by their same-sex attractions — as a “type of person” — existed well before 1800s. Typologies for same-sex attracted individuals can be traced back to ancient times. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes describes gay and lesbian lovers. Ancient Indian medical texts from the 1st century contain descriptions of same-sex attracted people, as do texts from the medieval period. Same-sex attracted people have existed throughout history and in many cultures across the world. This near-universal expression goes against any social construction argument.
The short answer is that there’s more evidence for non-social causes of sexual orientation than social ones.
Is the science around sexuality still evolving?
The work on genetic influences has ground to a halt. There’s a big study about to come out, but the findings are a bit mixed and it’s not at all clear what they mean, e.g., whether the potential genes directly influence sexuality development.
Another issue is, what does all this mean and is it even important? Sexual orientation is a pattern of desire, not of behaviour or sexual acts. It’s not a simple act of will or a performance. There’s no ‘choice’ in sexual orientation. Of course, behaviour — which sex you have sex with — and sexual identity labels such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or pansexual, are socially influenced. But desires aren’t, and it’s desires that constitute the core component of sexuality
Should the causes of sexuality influence how we view sexual minority identities? No. The causes of a trait should not influence how we see it. But we could argue that biological research authenticates gay people, it puts biology at the heart of who we are and how we came to be.
In the context of marriage equality, one of the things that we’ve discussed previously is a Massachusetts study that demonstrated the health benefits of marriage equality. Your view was that the linkage between marriage equality and health benefits was an example of Minority Stress Syndrome. Has there been any further research done in this area, or any update in relation to the health benefits of marriage equality?
That study has now been questioned because other researchers couldn’t replicate the findings, so I would take that with a large pinch of salt. However, the general principle of minority stress — that gay people are exposed to stigma and discrimination from society which cascades into poorer mental health — is getting growing support from scientific research.
I suspect that structural factors, like marriage equality and other equality legislation is important, but not as much as the discrimination experiences that gay people encounter through the life course. In some senses, marriage equality is a “far-off thing” — you don’t care about marriage equality if you’re being beaten up in the streets for being gay.
Mental health and well-being is a major issue facing people within the LGBTQ community. Have health policy makers in places like the US and the UK been able to get to grips with the implications of Minority Stress Syndrome?
No, they haven’t — and where they have, they’re influenced by lobby groups and not by the actual scientific research. If we care about social justice in this area, we have to actually find out what’s happening — what the facts are! We can’t rely on hearsay and politically dubious lobbying. We need more scientific research.
But, funding for research in this area is dire — we get no funding for our work despite putting in multiple applications. Either funders aren’t interested, or there’s subtle discrimination — funding decisions are neither transparent or free from all kinds of conflicting interests from scientists, universities, and stakeholders — or they’re worried that linking sexuality with mental health will further stigmatise LGBTQ people.
We need well-funded research into the causes of these mental health disparities so we can design interventions to help reduce the burden of mental health upon gay people.
What are some of the areas of scientific study in relation to sexuality that we should be keeping an eye on?
Keep an eye on genetics, brain differences, and the various new forms of sexual identity expression. Also, gender expression and nonconformity is another big area.