Sexual Orientation and Human Nature

Now that the Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage, I think it’s safe to say that the anti-gay side has lost this battle in the culture war. But that won’t stop them from portraying themselves as beautiful losers, those who speak truth to power.

The pro-gay side isn’t without its errors. Personally, I think claims like “all homosexuals were born that way” or “sexuality is inborn” shoot too far in terms of the evidence we currently have. Though, that doesn’t necessarily mean sexual orientation is NOT fixed at birth. The problem is we simply don’t know enough, as it stands.

So, given the lack of current knowledge, the anti-gay side also engages in error. If the pro-gay side fails to present sufficient evidence that sexuality is inborn or if evidence is presented that for some sexuality seems fluid, the anti-gay side concludes, erroneously that: 1.  “homosexuality is not genetic”; 2. “sexuality is not inborn”; 3. “sexuality is a choice”; and 4. “sexuality is fluid.”

Now, each of those statements might have some kind of truth to them. But each is still, by itself, without further elaboration, “erroneous,” at least not provably true. Why? These are asserted as though each universally applies to all within “the group” of the entire phenomenon under investigation.

I’m no professional philosopher or historian. I have JD, MBA, and LL.M. degrees, all from Temple University in Philadelphia, and passed the bars in both PA and NJ, making me an Esq. But I think I’m a pretty good “armchair” of both. You don’t need an English degree to be able to write well. On biology and genetics, my skills lack; but I can get by when needed by appealing to the authority (I know often a logical fallacy) of those who have the expertise.

So, the error I believe the anti-gay side makes in the above mentioned assertions 1-4 is what I call the fallacy of “what is true for one in or a subset of the group is true of the entire group.” Given I’m no professional philosopher, I don’t know the formal name, if one exists at all, for that fallacy. I do know, however, that it is a fallacy.

That would be like saying “person X is a light skinned black, therefore all blacks are light skinned.” Or “persons J through P are provably light skinned blacks” therefore all blacks are light skinned. You found fluid sexuality for one or more gay or bisexual folks? Great. You err if you then conclude “sexuality is fluid,” period, for everyone or even generally.

That you found one or more than one exception proves what? Not what you think it does.

We see, race and skin color exist on a continuum. Dr. Alfred Kinsey observed, likewise, the existence of a continuum of sexuality. Yes, given what Kinsey conducted in his research, folks claim his well has been poisoned (another logical fallacy). Still a broken clock is right twice a day. The continuum of sexuality exists.

Human nature, as far as we know, comes from the human brain, of which scientific empiricism can prove is merely a bag of chemicals. Not only the existence of “the soul,” but of “the mind” cannot be proven according to this method as something separate from the bag of the chemicals that make up “the human brain.”

So we look to folks who might know something about the brain and its biological makeup to prove points on human nature. Medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, biologists, geneticists, etc. I remember debating someone claiming to be a “neuro doctor” at The Volokh Conspiracy on the evidence of sexual orientation’s biological origin.

This person noted the paucity of evidence of sexuality orientation’s (at least of the non-exclusively hetero kind) genetic origin. Then what? I responded — as an armchair philosopher — with an analogy. Now, analogies can be tricky things as my friend professional philosopher John Corvino once put it. To make an analogy is to compare apples to oranges. If we compare apples to apples, we have duplicates, not analogies. Homosexuality is not race. It’s also not pedophilia. A is A, not B as Ayn Rand after Aristotle would observe. But to make an analogy is necessarily to compare A to B.

But analogies are still extremely useful things for higher level thinking, reasoning and understanding. The analogy I offered was to handedness. Regarding understanding the mystery of the etiology of sexual orientation and handedness, the chosenness and potential mutability of both (among other things), the analogy seems apt.

Who chooses their handedness? It’s natural to the person. Therefore, many would conclude, it’s inborn, genetic, born that way, etc. “Neurodoc,” riding this impulse like a wave, responded with the evidence s/he, an expert, had of left handedness’s genetic origin. Neurodoc said something on the lines of “most experts trace left handedness to gene ‘ex123@Qa$e'”; yes, I made up the name of the gene I put in quotations because I know little of how the experts categorize genes.

Likewise, experts who seek to trace homosexuality to genes can mumble likely ones (for instance, on the mother’s side) as the culprit for what causes homosexuality. So my analogy seemed quite apt. Indeed, I offered as evidence a book by Chandler Burr which recognizes the mystery of the origin of homosexuality and offers as a close analogy, left handedness (where I got the analogy).

Homosexuality is not “genetic” like eye or hair color. Identical twins always have the same of both, but are discordant when one twin turns out homosexual, the other not. However, there is similar discordance with handedness. When I pointed this out, “Neurodoc’s” response was to attack the expert authority of Burr (the genetic fallacy) and appeal to his or her own (as noted above, often a logical fallacy). Burr is, as a professional expert, a fragrancer, not a “doctor of neurology” as “Neurodoc” claimed to be.

Still, check out this article from the experts on left handedness’s etiology. How do we explain why some identical twins have the same handedness (either both left-handed, or both right-handed), but others do not? The article claims such things as “[t]here are two kinds of handedness: genetic and epigenetic.” The “epigentic” is when identical twins who share the same genes have different handedness. The genes are involved somehow. But something else triggers the expression of the gene where one identical twin gets the trait, the other doesn’t.

Is the destiny of the trait that emerges discordant in identical twins fixed at birth? Sometime thereafter? Who knows. (See this article too on the matter.) So when the anti-gay types provide evidence of discordant sexuality of identical twins and so conclude “you aren’t born with your sexual orientation, it’s a choice, etc.,” we see they assert a non-sequitur.

But remember A is A. Analogies always have their limitations. Sexuality is natural to the person and unchosen, like handedness? Sure. But “immutable”? How “immutable” is handedness? I was once told (I never verified in the expert literature) that if a right handed person has their right arm cut off, their left hand will over relatively short time adapt, and those changes will be evident in the brain.

Analogously, make of that what you can and will.

Ultimately, I think the handedness analogy is telling in the sense that there is nothing necessarily wrong with the underlying conduct of both: doing things with the “other” hand or “other” sex that would be acceptable if done with the “same.” It’s equally wrong to pull the trigger of a gun and murder someone whether using the left hand or right.

The nature of the orientation, therefore, can help us understand why folks might do what they do; but ultimately it’s the propriety of engaging in the underlying conduct that determines the morality of such. Why do birds choose to fly? Should we judge them for that “choice”? Pedophilia is wrong because it harms children; that aspect is entirely absent from homosexual relations between consenting adults. Even if we could prove there was an unchosen, natural pedophilia orientation, that  wouldn’t change why pedophilia is wrong.

So ultimately we are left with same sex conduct justified not because it’s an unchosen orientation but rather because it’s between consenting equals who harm no outside party. The “born that way” dynamic is irrelevant here. As John Corvino has noted, whether you are a natural blond (unchosen) or dye your hair (a choice) doesn’t detract from the fact that there is nothing wrong with having blond hair.

That many persons oriented towards same sex relations so pursue them because, out of necessity, their orientation seemingly leaves them with little or no choice (like a southpaw doing what comes natural) is MORE relevant to the propriety of a system that seeks to limit such expression. What kind of grief might a system that anathematizes left-handedness inflict on those so inclined?  Whatever you can imagine, it’s far worse for those same-sex inclined.

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30 thoughts on “Sexual Orientation and Human Nature

  1. Re: The fallacy

    It is funny how that only works in one direction though. Find one guy whose sexuality is fluid and suddenly EVERY gay guy must really just be choosing it. In doing so, ignore all the other guys whose sexuality is NOT fluid.

    Re: Fluidity

    The idea that people whose orientation is fluid really misunderstand what that means especially with regards to innateness. Fluid people are innately fluid in the way that others are innately whatever they are. They do not somehow break the innateness rule but rather represent just how many different innate orientations might exist. Sexuality is not a binary (gay/straight) or even three distinct buckets (gay/straight/bi*). Even the idea of it being a spectrum misses the market. Sexuality just is what it is. People are into what they’re into, are into who they’re into, with environment having a role to varying degrees on how that gets experienced and expressed. Why can’t we just leave it at that? Why so much desire to label it all?

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  2. The pro-gay side isn’t without its errors. Personally, I think claims like “all homosexuals were born that way” or “sexuality is inborn” shoot too far in terms of the evidence we currently have

    Why do you think that?

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    • I’d like to know to. The evidence seems pretty conclusive. The problem, as I note below, is people often think ‘sexual orientation’ is binary. That DOES confuse the issue. If you’re mostly attracted to men, but occasionally women, you can lead a perfectly straight or perfectly gay life. Or one that dates both sides.

      You probably won’t — but you could. Especially if, culturally, you’re rewarded for heterosexuality.

      But biologically, there’s no evidence that sexual orientation is a choice — what you DO with it (whether you date the very rare woman you’re interested in, or date one of the many, many men you find attractive) is, of course, a choice. And there’s quite a bit of evidence that, at the latest, your orientation is set in stone by the time you’re a toddler. At the latest.

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    • Chris: I think of the evidence of identical twins who have discordant sexualities, and evidence of fluidity of sexuality orientation in some. That evidence, as I’ve observed, does exist. However, such doesn’t lead properly to conclusions like “homosexuals are NOT born that way” and “sexuality is ‘NOT’ inborn.”

      On the other hand “all homosexuals are born that way” and “sexuality is inborn.” Those claims are likewise not (as far as I have seen) necessarily proven.

      It’s more complicated and there is, I conclude, current mystery in the “black box” sense.

      Such that for some (arguably the vast majority of?) homosexuals and heterosexuals their sexuality seems so fixed that if they weren’t “born that way” it’s like they were.

      But for others, there is fluidity. And there are varies degrees of bisexuality.

      And the existence of all of such happily together doesn’t (as some seem to erroneously conclude it must) contradict one another.

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      • As Morat notes, the heritability is really just part of the equation. Homosexuality is like handedness, moderately heritable but almost entirely innate (with some wiggle room and noise, because humans are noisy). I think the evidence for this is pretty strong, though I’m no expert on the subject. (Also, I stole the handedness analogy, I just don’t remember from whom.)

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  3. Eh. When it comes to sexuality, folks are imposing paradigms where the map and the land aren’t terribly well suited to each other. There are different braintypes for different sorts of people, but they don’t map into something like “Men” and “Women” or “Gay” or “Straight.”

    And a good deal of it is in neonatal development.

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  4. Part of the problem here is that people hear “genetic” and think of the simplest form — of dominant and recessive genes, perfect for doing Punnet Squares in high school. Only real life isn’t like that.

    You have stuff like penetrance (genes that exist but don’t always express — the penetrance being the general statistical likelihood of expression in a population of carriers), for instance. And then environmental factors (Epigenetics) that can turn genes on and off. (Environmental being everything from the womb onward…)

    Now take sexuality, which is fluid and subject to some degree of self-deception. There’s not necessarily a binary straight/gay switch (the Kinsey scale is useful enough to show that) — but there can be. But not always. And people can — and do — fake it one way or the other.

    In short: “Is sexuality genetic” is a really, really, really tough genetics problem. It’s not simple, like tall peas or short peas. It’s complex, almost certainly multi-site, and it’s expression subject to a whole host of environmental factors.

    That said: It’s actually fairly trivial to amass some solid evidence that sexuality is genetic in nature. HOW it’s genetic in nature is the tricky part. :)

    But a glance around the animal kingdom shows homosexuality popping up all over the place in mammals and birds, even in species that mate for life. Twin studies show a serious straight-up genetic component (but again, penetrance — if it’s 50%, for instance, twins with the allele will, statistically, show one straight, one gay) and there’s further evidence for epigenetics — birth order seems to play a key role.

    But by and large, if it wasn’t some innate biological thing, we wouldn’t see it in chimps, dolphins, swans, penguins……

    Again, the problem is people thinking of both sexual orientation as ‘binary’ (that’s not even getting INTO gender), and genetics as being limited to the simple examples taught to 16 year olds. Real life is considerably more complex, but the preponderance of evidence — a heavy preponderance, in fact — is that sexual orientation is innate.

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  5. Sexual response happens below the level of consciousness — that might be genetic, it might be developmental, it might be psychological, it might be cultural, it might be a lot of other things too.

    But it’s going to be pretty unusual for it to be an intentional, conscious choice.

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    • Not cultural. Cultural can only alter expression.

      That is, if you’re gay and your culture frowns on it — you might chose to be celibate. If you’re bisexual, or lean hetero but have some same-sex attraction, a more open culture might see you playing both sides. A less open culture might have you rigidly ignoring any same-sex attraction.

      Like I said, the vast preponderance of evidence is that it’s innate. Hard-wired in biologically. The actual debate is over mechanisms (which genes? How much penetrance? Which environmental factors trigger it? And by “environmental” I mean “womb”.)

      Like I said, if it wasn’t biological you wouldn’t find gay swans, gay chimps, and gay dolphins. It’s all up and down the mammals, which indicates it’s been locked into our genes a LONG way back.

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          • Morat20,
            no, they’re opposites. Situationally Homosexual is all the straight guys who have sex with men in prisons. Situationally Heterosexual is all the gay guys who have sex with women in “normal society” (aka in the closet).

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            • Oh, I thought you were referring more to the groups of people that’ll have same-sex relationships (mostly just the sex) on a whim.

              You know, the stereotypical married man that occasionally frequents a particular bathroom stall (since apparently using the freakin’ internet and finding a hook-up somewhere private is just impossible. Seriously, guys. If you’re gonna go have some same-sex fun, can you find a motel room?).

              Or probably more common, the guy that doesn’t consider oral from another guy ‘gay’. (Or the ‘college lesbian’ or whatever term you want to use for someone who is either experimenting or simply just open for some sex from either gender depending on their mood and, you know, situation).

              Since they’ll go either way depending on, you know, access and level of arousal.

              But if you’re talking just “Don’t have access to one entire gender” or “Would probably get killed/disowned” that’s different.

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  6. I’ve actually always wondered how much the idea of sexual attraction being a ‘choice’ is due to conservative men who are, uh, sorta bisexuals.

    Or, to explain it better, they see sex as power, and hence are sexually oriented towards domination. I don’t want to end up off in the weeds here, so everyone should understand I’m not saying *all* men think that way…but there’s a reason that ‘blowjobs in the airport restroom’ stereotype of ‘powerful straight men’ exist. The gender of the partner doesn’t matter so much as their position in society. There’s a *reason* that that sort of thing keeps happening.

    They would be perfectly happy, or almost as happy, with dominating women, and in fact most of them *are*. Dominating men is basically a kink.

    And, to get back to my point, for those men, homosexuality *is* a choice. Really a choice. And a good deal of them actually choose *not* to, or do it only rarely.

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  7. i am old enough that I remember my parents and other adults telling me that when they were children lefthandedness was very frowned upon, and that lefthanded children were forced to use their right hand, even using quasi brutal methods like tying the left hand behind their back. So there was a lefthandedness closet too.

    Later in life, I had a southpaw boss only a couple of years older than me. He wrote with his left hand, but used his right hand for things like, for instance, to handle the knife or the glasses at table. He told me his parents had forced him to use the right hand for these more “social” activities, though he was allowed to use the left hand for things, like writing, that required more dexterity (he could also write quite decently with his right hand too). However, when confronted with something new, he would instinctively use the left hand.

    He has other quirks, that might or might not be interrelated. He is truly very much like Sheldon Cooper. Not the least of his quirks is being gay, but, like Sheldon, very asexual. On the other hand, he once flew from America to Helsinki and back in one weekend in winter, just to go to a particular opera that was being showed there, for the first time in a century or something like that. I don’t think he slept at all during those 48 hours.

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  8. I was thinking it’s fallacy of composition, but Wikipedia says that relates to inferring truths about a thing from what’s true about some of its parts. It suggests it’s instead “fallacy of hasty generalization,” where essentially one uses an insufficient sample size to infer things about a group from what’s true of some of its members.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_composition
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasty_generalization

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  9. Well, one thing a lot of Asian (both South and East) families do, (or perhaps used to do; especially the more traditional ones) is train left-handed people to be right handed. Because the left hand was the hand people commonly associate with wiping one’s ass, it is considered disgusting or ill mannered (and sacriligeous for some) to eat with one’s left hand (sort of like picking and eating one’s nose-dirt). It is extremely rude to present or receive gifts and money with one’s left hand. And at least among Hindus, writing is considered sacred, so even writing with your left hand may be sacriligeous (for a Hindu to do). It seems that those who show signs of being left handed when young and were trained to use their right hand often ended up quite ambidextrous.

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    • In Anglo/Latin cultures, left-handedness (or more generally, “left” ness) was superstitiously thought to be unfavorable or unlucky. The word “sinister” is derived from/related to it. Amongst magic believers/practitioners, evil or black magic is said to be of the “left hand path”, while white or good magic is the right.

      As recently as my grandparents’ generation, lefty children were often forced to learn to use their right hands; to be a lefty was seen as shameful, evidence the child was somehow just plain “wrong”.

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      • My maternal grandfather, born in 1913, was one of those left handed children who was made to use his right hand when learning how to write. My mother was allowed to write with her write hand. Saul and I are both left handed and grew up learning how to use our left hand.

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  10. This is a conversation about men’s sexuality, no? Women, the cultural conventional wisdom seems to go, are more fluid, and that’s acceptable because most (hetero) dudes dream of doing it with two women.

    I suspect sexuality is fluid for everyone; it’s a spectrum, with most of us cultured to be male/female. I suspect sexual attraction is mostly chemical, and that with the right chemistry, even the folks on the extremes can find themselves attracted to persons who go against their norms.

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  11. My feeling is that even if sexuality is not strictly biological or heritable as a trait, it might be best for society to treat it as such. A necessary fiction for the greater good. Assuming that sexuality is something that is at least kind of a choice or something that could be controlled has been and could be used to justify nuttiness like conversion therapy or worse. If we operate under the assumption that sexual and gender identities are basically biological and innate in origins, it is easier to stop private or public attempts to control human sexuality and gender identity and hopefully leading to a more open and accepting society when it comes to sexuality and gender identity.

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  12. The whole discussion of whether sexuality is in-born or fluid seems to stem from the same place as “black people are genetically inferior”. It’s an attempt at finding a biological basis for a subjective moral choice, so that we can pretend that it’s actually objective after all. “You shouldn’t hate me for being gay”, says one person, “it’s not like I had any choice about it. So when you hate me for being gay it’s exactly like you said you hated me for having blue eyes or for being five-foot-four.” “You totally had a choice,” says the other, “and when you say you didn’t, it’s like you’re saying you had a genetic propensity to commit crimes.”

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    • That’s nice and all, but there seems to be a great deal of actual evidence that sexual orientation is innate.

      What you can control is, if you happen to have levels of attraction to both sexes, which you act upon. And of course you can always fake it.

      But that doesn’t make you less gay or straight or bisexual or X on the Kinsey scale.

      It’s nice to sneer at both sides, but the actual evidence is pretty solidly on ‘biology’ and not ‘socially’. Unless you think chimps, dolphins, swans, sheep and a whole host of other animals — including those that mate for life — have the sort of complex social structures that would create incentives to choose one sexual orientation over another. (Well, maybe bonobos. But swans?)

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      • This sort of dovetails with ‘s comment below and I think points to some of the flaws with our language and classification. I mean, we refer to “sexual orientation”. But what about emotion? What if someone is sexually attracted to people of the same sex but not emotionally? What if a guy likes to suck dick and eat pussy but only wants to have romantic relationships with women? Is he gay? Bi? Straight? What if a woman is only attracted to men, emotionally and physically, but likes to put on a strap on and penetrate her partner? What if her partner is similarly only interested in women but enjoys being penetrated? What matters more: What a person feels/wants? Or what they actually do?

        I had an interesting conversation with a guy who identified as bi. He was in a long-term committed relationship with a woman. But he enjoyed being penetrated anally both because of the physical sensation it brought him (something I have to assume is exclusively physiological but maybe can correct me) but also because of the act of submitting to his partner (male or female). So… where does that leave him? Again, he identified as bi but knew that many people would consider him straight because of his relationship with a woman.

        I know a guy who identifies as straight as an arrow but likes “having a digit dropped on him” (i.e., having his lady friend finger him anally). Does that make him less straight?

        Ultimately, none of this should really matter. Let people do their thing and so long as no one gets hurt, no problemo.

        And to bring it back to simgiran’s point, I listened to a recent podcast that discussed folks who had attractions/interest — sexual or otherwise — that were harmful to others. People who were attracted to children or who got off on acts of violence. We generally ignore these people unless/until they harm someone and then subject them to harsh, often lifelong, punishments that typically give them no real support to actually better control these desires. Imagine how much better off we’d be if someone could stand up and say, “I have a desire to be sexual with children,” or, “I get off on rape fantasies and am afraid I will act on them,” and we found a way to help them before they actually did harm.

        None of this is to conflate homosexuality (or heterosexuality!) with pedophilia or rape other than to say that sometimes the mind or body or heart wants what the mind or body or heart wants and if those desires can be met in a healthy way, more power to the person, and if they can’t, let’s try to help those folks out before harm is done.

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  13. More care is needed using the term pedophilia. It’s important to make a distinction between pedophilia and sexual contact with a children. Former is an orientation, latter is an act. Pedophilia itself does not harm children. It may be a motivating factor to acts that harm children, but that’s not the same. Furthermore, the harmfulness of sexual contacts with children is not dependent on the sexual orientation of the perpetrator. Not all people who engage in sexual activities with children are pedophiles and not all pedophiles engage in such activities.

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