Mak­ing sense of sex­ual swings

Is your sex­ual pref­er­ence only a re­sult of your genes or do en­vi­ron­ment and cul­ture also in­flu­ence it?

Down to Earth - - COLUMN -

IS SEX­UAL idio­syn­crasy—whether you are straight, gay, bi­sex­ual or any of the many shades of grey in be­tween—an im­pres­sion of your genes, sug­gest­ing you are born that way, or is it an ex­pres­sion of your free will, re­gard­less of the body’s wit­ness? It’s a prickly is­sue.

Sci­ence, need­less to say, has been a key ref­eree in this na­ture vs cul­ture quar­rel over the ori­gins of sex­ual iden­tity. In the Jan­uary edi­tion of Ar­chives of Sex­ual Be­hav­ior, Cana­dian sci­en­tists from the Uni­ver­sity of Lethbridge in Al­berta pre­sented ev­i­dence that strongly sug­gests a link be­tween genes and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, more so as it cuts across cul­tures.

The re­searchers found that a class of Mex­i­can gay men, called muxes, dis­played far greater lev­els of sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety—suf­fer­ing caused by sep­a­ra­tion from a beloved par­ent or trusted guardian dur­ing child­hood—as compared to their straight coun­ter­parts, a par­al­lel also found in gay men in Canada and fa’afafine—per­sons born as male who ex­hibit both mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine traits—in Samoa is­lands in Poly­ne­sia. They ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity that cul­ture may have shaped this dif­fer­ence as stud­ies have shown that anx­i­ety is more likely in­her­ited rather than learned.

On the other hand, the re­searchers root for the bi­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­ment as there is some ev­i­dence that male ba­bies exposed to fe­male hor­mones like pro­ges­terone in the mother’s womb may turn out to be sex­u­ally am­bigu­ous, which, in turn, may in­flu­ence their sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety thresh­olds. Be­sides, some stud­ies have also found that a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the X chro­mo­some plays a role in the ex­pres­sion of both anx­i­ety and same-sex at­trac­tion among men.

This isn’t the first time that sci­ence has backed the rain­bow colours of lgbt (les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der) as nat­u­ral. In 1990, neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist, Si­mon LeVay, found that the size of a group of cells in the hypothalamus was smaller in gay men than in straight men, sug­gest­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity might have some­thing to do with genes. Even though LeVay dis­avowed any causal link, his find­ings had a tri­umphal­ist vibe for the gay rights move­ment. Three years later, when ge­neti­cist Dean Hamer pub­lished re­search sug­gest­ing there might be a gay gene, gay ac­tivists ex­ag­ger­ated it as proof that be­ing gay wasn’t af­ter all their “fault”.

The trou­ble is that al­most all hu­man traits, in­clud­ing gay­ness, are an out­come of the in­ter­play be­tween genes, en­vi­ron­ment and so­cial mi­lieu. To claim that there is such thing as a gay gene would be disin­gen­u­ous. Yet, gay rights ac­tivists have per­sisted, in tacit col­lu­sion with sci­en­tists and schol­ars, with this sci­en­tific fic­tion, as it has yielded im­pres­sive re­sults, in­clud­ing the re­cent US de­ci­sion to sanc­tion same-sex mar­riage.

De­spite its flaws, gay ac­tivists find the “born this way” ar­gu­ment po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent be­cause it in­stantly washes away the mud of un­nat­u­ral­ness or im­moral­ity slung at them by the pu­ri­tans. They be­lieve that the free choice ar­gu­ment is dan­ger­ous as it not only makes it dif­fi­cult to counter the con­ser­va­tive of­fen­sive, but it also puts them in the same bas­ket as per­verts like pae­dophiles.

Gay rights move­ments have turned bi­o­log­i­cal de­ter­min­ism into a ral­ly­ing cry, but it is a dou­ble-edged sword that has been abused by all man­ner of re­gres­sive move­ments and regimes to vil­ify and op­press women, blacks and gyp­sies, among other sub­al­terns.

Some schol­ars of­fer so­cial con­struc­tion­ism—the idea that who we are and what we do is of­ten shaped less by free choice and more by the val­ues and ideas of the so­ci­ety we live in—as an hon­or­able exit out of this em­bar­rass­ing predica­ment.

If we can make con­ser­va­tives ac­cept that while de­sire is bi­o­log­i­cal, it is nev­er­the­less shaped by cul­ture, then, so we hope, it might be eas­ier for them to ac­cept the greys of sex­u­al­ity as no dif­fer­ent from their own. But hav­ing won so many bat­tles on the rhetoric of “bi­ol­ogy is des­tiny”, can the gay rights move­ment af­ford this course cor­rec­tion?

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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