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  • « A gay ol' time at the Magic Queendom | Main | Sunday Survey: gay vs. lesbian »

    April 14, 2007

    Is gay different from lesbian?

    Posted by: Chris

    Nytimesgenes Controversial sex researcher J. Michael Bailey is back, and this time it's the lesbians who'll be steamed.  The Northwestern University psychologist has already rankled many transgender activists, bisexuals and, to some extent, gay men.  It was only a matter of time until he took on our preconceptions about lesbian identity as well.

    Bailey's forum this time, as once before, is the New York Times, which published an article by science writer Nicholas Wade this week headlined, "Pas de Deux of Sexuality is Written in the Genes." The report wades through what research has to say about the genetic or biological reasons for sexual desire and the evolutionary reason for being the way we are.

    The article's thesis is that "the male brain is sexually oriented toward women as an object of desire," while male homosexuality is "evolutionary maladaptive," meaning "only" that "genes favoring homosexuality cannot be favored by evolution if fewer such genes reach the next generation." Bailey argues that the "masculinization of the brain shapes some neural circuit that makes women desirable."  The report continues:

    If so, this circuitry is wired differently in gay men. In experiments in which subjects are shown photographs of desirable men or women, straight men are aroused by women, gay men by men. Such experiments do not show the same clear divide with women.

    Whether women describe themselves as straight or lesbian, “Their sexual arousal seems to be relatively indiscriminate — they get aroused by both male and female images,” Dr. Bailey said. “I’m not even sure females have a sexual orientation. But they have sexual preferences. Women are very picky, and most choose to have sex with men.”

    Dr. Bailey believes that the systems for sexual orientation and arousal make men go out and find people to have sex with, whereas women are more focused on accepting or rejecting those who seek sex with them.

    Stop, drop and roll, Dr. Bailey. I think you may have started another fire. The gay rights movement has a few core beliefs and among these is that our sexual desire is an "orientation," not a "preference" that we can change at will. Once again, Bailey is challenging that assumption.

    Bailey The last time he did was in another New York Times report, in July 2005, provocatively headlined "Gay, Straight or Lying: Bisexuality Revisited." That article reported Bailey's research findings based on penis reaction to pornographic stimulus, that of 100 men who self-identify as bisexual, 75 percent were attracted only to gay porn, and 25 percent only to straight porn. They were all "lying" about their sexual desire, he concluded.

    The report unleashed a storm of criticism from bisexual activists and lots of quiet nodding from many gay men, many of whom self-identified as bisexual on the road to accepting they were full-fledged homosexuals. There was also criticism of his selection methods, and the idea that penis response is the end-all, be-all of sexuality, leaving out the romantic and emotional connection.

    This week's Times report cites one other researcher who agrees with Bailey, the aptly named Marc Breedlove from Michigan State University:

    “Most males are quite stubborn in their ideas about which sex they want to pursue, while women seem more flexible,” [Breedlove] said.

    Sexual orientation, at least for men, seems to be settled before birth. “I think most of the scientists working on these questions are convinced that the antecedents of sexual orientation in males are happening early in life, probably before birth,” Dr. Breedlove said, “whereas for females, some are probably born to become gay, but clearly some get there quite late in life.”

    Of course, many women who self-identify as lesbians could just as easily be described as bisexual, at least in terms of their sexual history and desire, if not in their regular gender choices in partners. We're certainly aware of high profile "lesbians" like Anne Heche and Julie Cypher who left their high profile partners (Ellen DeGeneres and Melissa Etheridge, respectively) for relationships with men.

    We also know that there are many, many more self-identified gay men — at least within the "gay community" — than there are lesbians, and perhaps this could provide a scientific explanation. If most women are bisexual, then it's not surprising that most would choose a male partner, given the societal treatment of gay people generally, not to mention the ease of starting a family.

    None of this makes being a lesbian, or a bisexual women, less "legitimate" than being a gay male. The claim for legal equality based on sexual orientation has to do with treating people's relationships equally, and fighting public and private discrimination that attempts to enforce one person's moral or religious beliefs on another.

    Those of us who lack the scientific background will have to leave it to the experts to battle out the legitimacy of the research by Bailey and Breedlove, as well as the "pro-gay" work by gay scientists Dean Hamer and Simon LeVay. In the meantime, we should let down our political guard long enough to be open to what science may teach us, lest we become fundamentalists of a different but no less intolerant sort.

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    Comments

    1. Erin on Apr 14, 2007 6:00:24 PM:

      The conclusions of both of these studies could just as easily be that women generally react differently to porn than men. Instead the result of his work is decidedly that all women are bisexual, and that no men are (apparently Bailey isn't a fan of any classical Greek literature.) Furthermore, after reading the NY Times article, it seemed like the focus of Bailey's research was on male biology anyway, and that his female studies were merely an afterthought.

      In any case, isn't all successful coupling (for people of all sexual orientations) dependent upon a combination of sexual attraction, romantic attraction, and personal interest? Or is that just my girly, pansexual libertine brain talking? Hmm?

    1. David C on Apr 16, 2007 4:14:17 AM:

      "The article's thesis is that "the male brain is sexually oriented toward women as an object of desire," while male homosexuality is "evolutionary maladaptive," meaning "only" that "genes favoring homosexuality cannot be favored by evolution if fewer such genes reach the next generation." "

      I love how scientists assume they understand everything about how biological evolution works. Well, actually I don't.

      Bailey is also assuming that male homosexuality is mainly genetically influenced and that said genes would be found almost exclusively in male homosexuals.

      I'd say he assumes too much that is not in evidence to make his opinions of any interest.

    1. ted on Apr 17, 2007 12:19:32 PM:

      Bailey gets in trouble because of the tone of his analysis--he says bisexuals are "lying" and he says that homosexuality is "maladaptive." His science is actually very good (which is more than you can say for LeVay's famous hypothalamus study, which has a lot of problems with it) but his analysis could easily have gone another way.

      Based on his research, you could also conclude that bisexual men could be capable of mixing and matching physical and emotional attraction in seemingly contradictory ways, while gay and straight men can't. Maybe bisexual men are not restricted to their laboratory-based penile responses; they can be sexually and emotionally satisfied in all sorts of other ways.

      Similarly, the homosexuality could actually be adaptive, and probably is, considering that it's still around and not going away. The best theory is the "helper at the nest" theory, which is based on birds. In some species, there is the occasional male bird that doesn't like females and is unable to produce anything with another male. So, he sticks around his mother and helps feed and protect his younger brothers and sisters--meaning that everyone's genes will stick around longer. Clearly: Adaptive. While gays and lesbians may not always be nest-helpers, that is mostly due to how culture has reacted to homosexuality--not due to genetic wackiness. And there's an interesting rub; the more kids you have, the greater the likelihood the next one will be gay, or seen another way, the greater the likelihood that there will be a helper at the nest.

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