Episode 106: Your Sexual Orientation – How Did It Develop?

MichaelBiopsychology, Gender/Sexuality18 Comments

How did you get to be heterosexual? Homosexual? Bisexual? Was it nature or nurture (or both?). Pink v Blue is always a popular topic. In this episode I present the most recent scientific research on the topic of how we develop our sexual preference. You’ll find out whether heterosexual men have more testosterone than homosexual men, how most people know their sexual orientation when they are as young as 10 years old (blame your adrenal gland), how your third interstitial nucleus might be playing a role and finally, could it have something to do with the length of your fingers? Find out in this episode of The Psych Files.

“…we should…be asking ourselves why we as a society are so emotionally invested in this research. Will it – or should it – make any difference in the way we perceive ourselves and others or how we live our lives and allow others to live theirs? – William Byne: The Biological Evidence Challenged (1994, Scientific American)

Correction: In the first version of this episode I incorrectly estimated the number of homosexuals in the US. Assuming a US population of about 260 million with about 1/2 female and 1/2 male, then 2% (females) and 3% (males) of 260 million would equal about 6 and a half million total. I updated the audio file to include this corrected information.

Resources on Sexual Orientation

  • Having older brothers increases men’s likelihood of being gay
  • If you would like to see the concept map I used to hold my notes for this episode click here: sexual orientation.

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18 Comments on “Episode 106: Your Sexual Orientation – How Did It Develop?”

  1. Fascinating show – well presented, scientific and neutral on a sometimes-controversial topic. Since I know you are dedicated to presenting evidence-based observations, I hope you will appreciate some comments regarding the observations of homosexual behavior among animals. In this forum, I hope I won’t need to explain that my comments are meant in the same neutral and scientific tone you adopted, pursuing the scientific truth regardless of whether the outcome is consistent with my preconceptions.

    Cow Mounting Behavior
    I grew up on a farm, and we all knew that when one cow (female) started mounting another cow, it was because the second cow was in heat (ready for breeding). No one thought this behavior was homosexual or positioned anywhere along a straight-homosexual continuum. I guess I didn’t reflect on it much at the time, but, from an evolutionary perspective, I would categorize this mounting behavior it as some sort of harmless adaptive misfire. After all, under evolution, lots of adaptations arise that are not necessarily beneficial. Of course, if anyone can suggest a reason why this quasi-homosexual behavior could be explained as beneficial, I’d be open to it, if supported by evidence.

    Homosexual to the Point of Missing Reproductive Opportunities?
    So, in a related vein, I wonder if you have found any examples in the scientific literature whereby animals exhibit homosexual behavior to the degree that they forgo breeding opportunities. From an evolutionary perspective, passing on one’s genes is not just top priority; it is practically the only thing that matters.

    Is Human Homosexuality Significantly Different than Animal?
    Unlike animals, it is apparent that many humans homosexuals regularly forgo breeding opportunities. This seems to be a fundamental difference between human behavior and that behavior exhibited by other animals. I’d love to hear what Dr. Buss has to say about this.

    My Evolutionary Hypothesis for Homosexuality
    One potential explanation is that homosexual behavior is somehow beneficial one’s nieces and nephews. Under this conjecture, homosexuals don’t pass on their genes directly, but contribute to the success of their sibling’s offspring to make them more successful and thus more likely to survive and pass on their genes. For this to be plausible, they would have to contribute a huge advantage to their nephews and nieces, since the genes that are being passed are not that closely related (you share half your genes with your siblings, and your niece shares only one fourth your genes); the upshot is that your children share twice as many of your genes as your nephews, so by one measure, you would need to make your sibling’s offspring twice as likely to survive.

    One Way to Test the Conjecture
    In order for my conjecture to be true, homosexual behavior in animals should be strongly linked to cooperative social animals, for example, lion prides, wherein some sisters cooperate to the point of actually nursing their sister’s offspring.

    Homosexual Geese?
    From what I know about geese behavior, I don’t think such cooperative behavior exists. So, with regard to the evidence of homosexuality in geese, I suspect that this is an exaptation or adaptive misfire rather than beneficial behavior.

    Reverse Causality
    On a different topic, I enjoyed your discussion of reverse causality with regard to Freud’s ideas on over-protective mother and distant fathers. I wonder if any of that kind of thinking could somehow apply to the correlation between left-handedness and homosexuality. I have heard it claimed that left-handed people have fundamentally different ways of thinking compared to right-handed folks; perhaps there could be some hidden causal link related to that way of thinking, similar to the one you proposed to counter Freud’s theories.

  2. Dude, 3% of males and 2% of females does not equal 5% of the total population!

  3. Actual Randy: interesting comment. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Not having grown up on a farm, I can’t say that I’ve seen this female cow behavior. I suppose it could be, as you say, a harmless adaptive misfire, but how about this – the behavior could have an evolutionary advantage if it served to signal to the male cows that the female is ready to breed. That’s my only thought on that matter.
    I like your challenge to find a homosexual behavior that an animal engages in “to the degree that they forgo breeding opportunities”. That would be very interesting to find. I don’t know of any such research, but I will, as always, keep my eye open for it.

    Good question for Dr. Buss. I hope to interview him again so I copied your comment over to my notes for that interview.

    Again thanks for your comment. And as for Isabel’s comment – you are right about the miscalculation in the stats. I corrected this and updated the audio (which only people who download the episode now will hear – oh well).

  4. You didn’t actually say what percentage of identical twins raised in different environments are both homosexual. If this is less than 50%, which I think it is, then this suggests that non-genetic factors play a greater role in sexuality than genetics.

    With twin studies there’s a tendency for us to grasp on to any evidence of genetic influence, even when this less than 50%. At the same time, there’s a tendency to not notice how large the non-genetic influence is.

  5. Hi Michael,

    Again, you’ve done a wonderful job of addressing a potentially controversial topic (not that I consider it as such, personally). I really appreciate you addressing some of these topics that rest a little closer to home for most of us. I think it’s really important that research is done on not only what’s not controversial but also on stuff that can be considered taboo by some.

    Out of interest, will you be considering an episode on gender and libido in the future? Although potentially controversial again, I think a lot of people might get a lot of benefit from it.

    As an aside, an entertaining book on sex research I found was called “Bonk” by Mary Roach (though I think the title might be different in America, but I can’t remember what it was called). Very interesting and very amusingly written.

  6. LeVay’s critics have been addressed over and over, and most of what was thrown at him was entirely baseless and driven by veiled (and not so veiled) homophobia. I really wish you’d have gone into more detail there, rather than simply saying that people criticized it. That sends the message that people should disregard his research, when truthfully it was very well carried out, and he was extremely careful not to overstate his findings. (He also got death threats after its publication, by the way.)

    Your comment about his “subjects” might have been in regard to the fact that many of the brains of gay males had been from people who died from complications due to AIDS. That is true, and was trumpeted as a major flaw since the HIV virus can affect brain structure (although it’s never been shown to affect the hypothalamus in that way); however, LeVay also compare those measurements to the brains of the heterosexuals in the study who also had died from AIDS, and, although that left him with an extremely small sample size, he found the SAME results. Critics never seem to mention that.

    The saddest part of this is that this is such a hot-button topic (after all, gays are the last group that religious groups can openly denigrate and support disenfranchisement of) that researchers in psychology and related sciences are reluctant to get involved. Even those who do often show themselves to be affected by homophobia. Michael Bailey, for instance, recently confirmed for me via email that he would support a couple’s decision to abort a child known to be homosexual if such a screening test ever became available. This is a horrific statement, and something I think most people would be shocked by if we were discussing something like eye color, handedness, or another equally non-controversial aspect of human variation. I lost a hero in that conversation.

  7. Wow! I just listened a bit further, and I’m boiling! You just talked about one of the most important findings (finger length), and then completely disregarded it, saying, “I’m not sure what it means,” and “I just think we need to be careful…” What?! Do you say that when you discuss other topics and their findings? I doubt it.

    What it MEANS (when you look at all of these things in the aggregate) is that prenatal hormone exposure is strongly involved in sexual orientation. Left-handedness, finger length, INAH-3 size, hair swirl patterns, The Older Brother Effect, and just about every other important finding regarding sexual orientation can be directly connected (in a predictable pattern) to the amount of masculinizing hormone the developing child is exposed to prenatally. Like millions of other topics in the sciences, there’s a relatively small effect size (probably due to other variations in biology that leave some of us more sensitive to this hormone exposure than others), but the patterns are undeniable. I’m not sure why you’re soft pedaling so much on this topic, but it’s uncharacteristic considering the other podcasts I’ve listened to on your site.

  8. Sheldon: guess I didn’t make myself clear in the episode when I said “I’m not sure what it means”. Here’s what I was thinking: it could mean what you mention above – prenatal hormone exposure influencing sexual orientation, but why would hormones affect finger length? What’s the connection to fingers? Why not toes? I was wondering whether this finger-length finding is spurious – I think only one study has found this. So it’s interesting, but again – why would hormones affect the length of only one finger? What’s the theory to explain this?

  9. Hi Michael
    Happy to listen to your research.
    I think sexual orientation is also influenced by the living environment he or she lives in. I don’t think gene makes any influence.

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  12. I really do believe that it is something biological, something related to brain; maybe hypothalamus. I don’t believe society and nurture make a person homosexual. 🙂

  13. gender identity disorder provides a very compelling explanation of the etiology of homosexuality….i know that many gay men state that they did not have the experiences the theory requires to acquire homosexual orientation, but the self is very good at deception. i believe that this theory should be more extensively explored to contribute to a fuller understanding of sexual orientation.

  14. Just to answer a previous question… male penguins have been known to mate homosexually to the point of foregoing reproduction opportunities. Two male penguins will sometimes pair up for years, build a nest together, and nurture a stone instead of an egg. Black swans are also known for homosexual behavior, but they tend to find ways to reproduce despite. Two males will mate, and sometimes either form a temporary three-way with a female (only to drive her away once she lays her eggs), or steal the nest of a female who has just laid her eggs. They will then raise the chicks as their own.

    There are a number of other animals, including dolphins, insects, bonobos, giraffes, elephants, etc, that are known to engage in homosexual behavior- though I am not sure to what extent they will forego opportunities for heterosexual reproduction.

  15. It seems silly to me to be so invested, politically, with linking heritability estimates with some sort of moral issue. Yes, homosexuality’s h-value is far less than 100% So, incidentally, is the h-value for personality. But this has no bearing on the morality of a behavior or inclination…

    As an example, suppose genetic factors are found important in criminal behaviour. This doesn’t mean criminal behaviour is not to be dealt with, or criminals are not to be rehabilitated. Equally, the lack of strong genetic influence on a trait does not make it `bad’. Likewise, the appeal to animal studies misses the point that nature has good and bad aspects. The way male lions destroy the current offspring of female members of the species would hardly be seen as providing a good human model of conduct!

    If basic homosexuality is morally neutral (as I happen to believe), the results of behavior genetics are unimportant as regards our ethics. Nobody would presumably claim a low heritability for touch-typing ability would imply it is somehow socially `unnatural’. Likewise, if a serial killer were victim of a bad birth and unfortunate DNA, we presumably wouldn’t say their actions should just be tolerated (though we might have to re-think the idea of free-will). We also `interfere’ with the natural course of events every time a child is given an unusual diet to help counter the PKU gene. So what?

    I doubt that many people choose to be gay (or straight, or bisexual). However, even if somebody felt their orientation was a choice – would it matter? I don’t personally choose my current eye-colour, but with the right contact lens I could do so. Is it moral to have genetically mediated blue-eyes, but not if it were a stylistic choice?

    Let’s take a controversial example….. we do a study that finds serious paraphillias have a high heritability. Then again, suppose the opposite were true. If a behavior is dangerous then it needs modification, if it is trivial it doesn’t. Incidentally, how common the behaviour or disposition is – to me at least – is also not the issue. Retardation and superior IQ are both, practically by definition, somewhat rare. Yet one we see as a treatment issue, the other we see as a bit of good fortune.

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