It’s Complicated: The Role of Situational and Dynamic Factors in Same Sex Identity and Relationships

By Aubyn Fulton
(Feel free to comment below, or email the author privately at: aubynfulton@gmail.com)

People who have negative and intolerant views of lesbian, gay and bisexual people (LGB) are likely to become more positive and tolerant if they come to believe that sexual orientation is biologically caused[1]. This appears to be mediated by the belief that, if something is biological, it cannot be changed, and that it is unfair to penalize people for things they have no control over. If LGB people are “born that way” then “it’s not their fault”. This effect has led advocates for social justice and LGB rights to emphasize the biological and immutable characteristics (what we can refer to as an “essentialist” view) of sexual orientation. While tactically understandable, this emphasis has been problematic, and increasingly advocates are starting to realize it is time for a course correction.

One problem with the tactic is simply principled – it is not a correct statement of our best understanding of the science. Our first obligation has to be to the truth. The same evidence that does strongly implicate a biological contribution to sexual orientation also implies non-biological contributions. Basing arguments for something as important as social justice on simplistic and exaggerated claims almost certainly will undermine the goal in the long run.

Biological theories regarding the origin of sexual orientation have been around since the late 19th century. However what has been translated into the modern popular culture as the “Born That Way” argument for lesbian, gay and bisexual identity really got jump started in 1991 when biologist Simon Levay published research showing that an area in the hypothalamus (the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus, or “INAH3” to be exact) was on average significantly larger in straight men than gay men. He concluded that this suggested: “sexual orientation has a biological substrate.”[2] I was in attendance at a scientific meeting a year later where Levay presented some additional evidence and background, and I remember him dramatically asking all journalists in the large hall to stand up, and then telling them forcefully and directly not to report that he had discovered “the gay brain”, or proven that homosexuality was genetic. Of course they ignored his plea and did just that. A year later, in a 1994 interview (and fifteen years before Lady Gaga would release what would become a stirring anthem to the contrary), Levay said: “It’s important to stress what I did not find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I did not show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work.”[3]

In the almost 25 years since Levay’s study, we have seen many more reliable scientific reports that strongly imply a biological contribution to sexual orientation; among which are:

  • Concordance rates for homosexuality in identical twins is significantly higher than would be expected if there were no genetic role
  • Gay men have more maternal gay uncles than straight men (implying some contribution from genes on the X chromosome)
  • The suprachiasmatic nucleus appears to be larger in gay men
  • Average ratios of the length of the index to ring finger are different in straight and gay people
  • Gay men and lesbian are more likely to be left-handed
  • Gay men are more likely to have counterclockwise hair whorls
  • Gay men have increased fingerprint ridge densities.

By now there is little doubt that biological factors, some genetic, play an important role in sexual orientation. Anyone who denies this is either being dishonest or is ignorant of the facts. But this is not the same thing as concluding that sexual orientation is completely, or even mostly, biological, and not even close to implying that it is unchanging. After all, if as it seems the concordance rate for homosexuality in identical twins is in the 30% to 50% range, that simultaneously suggests that 70% to 50% of the variability in sexual orientation is something other than genes. And lots of things that have a biological foundation can and do change over time.

I have been making these points about sexual orientation in my General Psychology course for the last two decades or so. Even so, I find that many students leave my course mostly focused on the evidence for biological contribution to sexual orientation, and ignore what I say about the non-biological contributions. I suspect this is partly because people tend to focus most on what is new to them, and many freshmen at a conservative Christian college were raised to believe that homosexuality was a choice made by bad people, or people influenced by bad environments. But it is also partly my own fault – while I have been able to list and explain in some detail the biological contributions, when it comes to the non-biological the most I have been able to say is “we don’t know what the non-biological factors are” (we still don’t) and “it’s complicated” (too complicated for General Psychology students).

This year, I am going to try to do more than that, starting with the groundbreaking work of the University of Utah psychologist Lisa Diamond, published in her 2008 book “Sexual Fluidity”[4]. At the heart of the book is a ten-year longitudinal study, using repeated in-depth interviews, of a sample of 89 young women who identified as having some degree of same-sex attraction (most initially identified as either lesbian or bisexual). Diamond found that sexuality was dynamic in this sample –– over the ten years more than two thirds of the women had changed their sexual identity labels at least once.

Does this mean that religious fundamentalists were right all along – that sexual orientation is a choice? Not at all. As Diamond points out, change does not equal choice. Most of the women who experienced change in sexual identity reported this was not a matter of choice – typical was one woman who initially identified as bisexual who wrote at the end of the study: “I was never interested in being straight, but unfortunately I didn’t actually get to pick”. This is not that surprising or hard to understand – human development is characterized by lots of phenomenon that change over time, but are not understood as voluntary choices. Crawling babies start to walk, early adolescents suddenly understand algebra, and conservatives become liberal (or vice versa). These changes are not seen as the result of voluntary choice, but as the expression of some development in underlying structures or processes, changes that are likely the result of complex interactions between maturing biology and certain kinds of environmental experiences. It should hardly come as a shock that something like sexuality, which has such obvious biological and social significance, would show similar dynamic and complex properties.

Diamond makes some helpful definitional distinctions that make it easier to make sense of this observed change. She reserves the term “sexual orientation” for patterns of sexual desire based on gender. The sexual orientation patterns of some people are marked by other-sex desire; for some by same-sex desire, and for some their pattern is marked by both same and other sex desire. The patterns that define sexual orientation are mostly stable over time. “Sexual identity” refers to a culturally organized self-concept – how people see and define themselves. While influenced by sexual orientation, this self-concept or identity is also independent of that. Three women who each experience 85% other-sex sexual desire may well identify in three different ways (one as straight, one as bisexual, the other as lesbian) depending on a complex, interacting set of cultural and personal variables.

“Sexual fluidity” refers to “situation-dependent flexibility in sexual responsiveness”. This should be seen as a trait – some people have more of it, others less. So some people, regardless of whether they have a heterosexual or homosexual orientation (or pattern of sexual desire) are relatively flexible (or fluid), and can, under certain circumstances and relationships, experience sexual desire that is not typical or usual for them. These are people most likely to be perceived as displaying change in their sexual orientation – though probably more accurately, their sexual orientation is pretty much stable, but their openness to the influences of specific kinds of contexts and experiences produces more change in their sexual behavior and relationships. Other people are less flexible (or fluid), and pretty much only engage in the sexual behavior and relationships that are consistent with their orientation. Critically, Diamond argues that sexual fluidity is more common in women than men (though at a recent psychological conference, and in a personal communication, she has indicated that while she still sees a significant gender difference, she is beginning to think that men may be substantially more fluid than previously thought). Fluid heterosexual women are capable of having one or two same-sex attractions or even long-term relationships, while fluid lesbian women are capable of the same with some men. In neither of these cases have the women changed their sexual orientation. Indeed, in Diamond’s sample, while about two-thirds changed their sexual identity at least once, and most indicated fluctuations in sexual desire, the overwhelming majority of those fluctuations left their underlying sexual orientation unchanged.

With these distinctions in mind, it is probably more accurate to say that sexual identity, behavior and relationships, can change over time (especially for more fluid people), while the underlying sexual orientation is more likely to be stable over time. Most of the women in Diamond’s study reported a non-heterosexual orientation at the start, and for the overwhelming majority this did not change over the ten years. At the same time, most of them reported at least one change in sexual identity (mostly from bisexual to lesbian, lesbian to bisexual, or lesbian or bisexual to “unlabeled” – more about this later) and many reported change in sexual behavior (from mostly other-sex to some same-sex, or mostly same-sex to other-sex, or from mostly even divided to focused on one sex or the other). But for most women, these changes in sexual behavior and identity were not large enough to constitute a change in underlying sexual orientation. This again is consistent with what most psychologists have understood and taught for a long time, even if the public, on both sides of the cultural Sexual Orientation battle lines, have not paid much attention.

For example, much of the reason why some religious fundamentalists were convinced for so long that sexual orientation change efforts were “successful” is that they were confusing sexual behavior for sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is about much more than behavior, and while behavior can be changed, orientation, in the vast majority of cases, probably cannot be. Some of the homosexual people who have undergone sexual orientation change efforts may have been sexually fluid to begin with, and were able to focus their sexual behavior on other sex targets – some of these may even be able to form healthy and satisfying other-sex relationships. If so, these people did not have their sexual orientation changed, they just were able to open themselves up to an existing part of the plurality of their sexual desires. But keep in mind that most of these so-called “change therapies” have focused on men, and men are probably much less fluid, so it is likely that most of the gay men who were perceived as having changed their sexual orientation actually only changed (usually only temporarily) their behavior and not really their desire. And the research suggests that these forced change attempts often have serious, negative consequences for their well-being [5]. In recent years, many of even the most conservative and passionate critics of same-sex relationships have acknowledged that sexual orientation change efforts are both unsuccessful and harmful.[6]

We may find one day that the capacity for fluidity is what is largely biologically determined. Perhaps inflexible people have very little constitutional “diathesis” or potential for sexual desire or behavior that differs from their long-term orientation, while flexible people are more sensitive to situational and relational cues in guiding their sexuality. There is some reason to suspect that women’s sexuality is more relationship and situationally influenced than men’s, and this may be the basis for a gender difference in fluidity. In any case, at this point it seems it is not so much wrong, as a gross and potentially disingenuous oversimplification, to claim that when it comes to sexuality we are “born this way”. Sexual desire, behavior and identity is complex and dialectically determined, and likely both biological and non-biological factors play a role. There is no evidence that the majority of people can consciously change their sexual desire, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that trying to force people to change it causes serious damage. But for some people, including a large fraction of women, sexual behavior, relationship and identity does appear to change within a meaningful range over the course of their lives.

Aside from the oversimplification and distortion of the best scientific data, there is another problem with the “Born that Way”, essentialist argument – it tends to create rigid dichotomies that in turn lead to harmful and unnecessary conflict and oppression. If sexual orientation is a matter of having a “gay brain” or a “gay gene”, then people tend to want to divide the population into two clear groups: Heterosexuals and Homosexuals. One of the costs of this simplistic, black and white thinking has been experienced within the LGB community itself – patterns of suspicion, recrimination and marginalization aimed particularly at those who identify as bisexual. One of the original motivations for Diamond’s study was to explore any possible empirical differences between what in the 1990s were often referred to as “authentic” lesbians and “political”, “experimental” or other versions of less genuine lesbians. Such distinctions, (along with similar, though in some ways different tensions in the gay male population) have been hurtful to many. In addition to being fetishized by straight men, bisexual women have been criticized by lesbians for not having the courage to fully identify with the lesbian community, for having residual self-hatred and internalized homophobia, and for being unreliable partners likely to betray their same-sex lovers whenever an advantageous male partner appears. Thus the triumph of biological essentialism has fed counterproductive internecine conflict within the LGB community. Diamond’s understanding of sexual fluidity offers the benefits of a framework that normalizes and makes sense of a full range of sexual identifications and desires. Some women have both a lesbian sexual orientation and sexual identity, and will only ever experience sexual desire for other women. Other women are lesbians in orientation and identity, but will still on occasion experience sexual desire for (and relationships with) men. Other women are bisexual in orientation, experiencing stable sexual desire for both men and women, but identify as, and understand themselves to be, lesbian. Other bisexual women will identify as bisexual, while still others will identify as heterosexual. And some women with heterosexual orientations and identities will, on occasion, experience sexual desire for other women – and may even participate in short or long term same sex relationships. In all of these examples, sexual orientation is stable (the predominate target of sexual desire is the same over time), but sexual identity and behavior may fluctuate. These fluctuations are not signs of political or personal betrayal, or psychological pathology. Nor are they really under voluntary control (any more than a straight male experiences attraction to first a blonde woman and then a brunette as being a matter of choice) even though they may change over time.

Many of the young women in Diamond’s study who had originally identified as either lesbian or bisexual began to identify as “unlabeled”. Writing in 2008 Diamond noted that more and more young non-straight women were opting for some kind of “unlabeled” sexual identity. Most of these were women who knew they did not have an exclusive sexual desire for women (and so a lesbian identity did not feel appropriate), but were also uncomfortable with the “bisexual” identity – though they gave various reasons for this. Some felt that “bisexual” implied more sexual desire for men than they really felt – it was not close to 50-50; others felt that “bisexual” still implied a role for gender in their sexual attraction that they did not really feel. These women reported feeling sexual desire for specific individuals, regardless of their perceived gender identity. Still other women opted for an unlabeled sexual identity because they experienced a disparity in their physical and emotional attractions that “bisexual” did not communicate – they may have been more likely to be physically attracted to men, but emotionally to women (or, in some cases, the reverse). An insistence on a simplistic categorical and exclusively biological conceptualization of sexuality creates the presumption that the only “real” or “genuine” sexual identities are heterosexual or homosexual, and anything else is the product of confusion, dishonesty or cowardice. It ignores what increasingly appears to be the very real, and very common experience of many women (and men) of a complex array of sexual identities and patterns of desire. Ignoring this complexity results in people being devalued, marginalized and oppressed, in both of the hypothetical categorically understood “straight” and “gay/lesbian” communities. This analysis can be similarly extended and complicated by careful attention to the non-categorical nature of gender itself, which increasingly is being recognized. What happens to notions of sexual orientation, identity and desire when the very idea of gender upon which these are based turns out to be fluid? Diamond addresses this question in a limited way, but it obviously urgently needs more in depth and systematic attention.

In addition to keeping faith with the data, and accurately representing the experience of those who do not identify as categorically straight or lesbian/gay, there is one more important problem with the reliance by LGB advocates on a simplistic “born this way” tactic. The logic of the argument is highly suspect from the perspective of advocates. It seems to grant the basic assumption of anti-LGB prejudice, which is that there is something fundamentally wrong with being LGB. Justice and equality for LGB people should not be based on the claim that, as disgusting as they are, they should not be penalized since they cannot help it. Justice and equality should be based on a recognition that LGB people are as deserving anyone else, regardless of the origin or stability of their identity.

It is still true that our sexuality is an intimate and profound element of who we are. When we experience attacks or discrimination based on our sexuality, a core part of our selves is being targeted – and these are parts of our selves that go far beyond mere behavior and are not, for the most part, under voluntary control. This truth is not altered or threatened by emerging understandings that our sexuality is shaped by both biological and non-biological factors, is far more complex and diverse than previously recognized, and, for many, is dynamic and may undergo various changes depending on time and situation. The integrity and utility of both our science and of our advocacy requires that we follow the best evidence as closely as we can. Sexuality is more complicated than what might be required for bumper stickers, but then, so is most everything else of any importance.

Footnotes
[1] Haslam, N., & Levy, S. R. (2006). Essentialist Beliefs About Homosexuality: Structure and Implications for Prejudice. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin,32(4), 471-485.
[2] LeVay S (1991). A difference in hypothalamic structure between homosexual and heterosexual men. Science, 253, 1034–1037.
[3] David Nimmons, “Sex and the Brain”, Discover Magazine, March 1994.
[4] Diamond, L. M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
[5] See, for example:  http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/therapeutic-response.pdf
[6]
See, for example: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/06/20/193922536/gay-therapy-ministry-shuts-down-says-weve-hurt-people

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