Homosexuality: biologically or environmentally constructed

This research topic submitted by Thompson and Devine ( devineja@miavx1.miamioh.edu ) on 5/5/98 .


For years, the question of whether homosexuality is a biological or environmental construction has been the focus of many heated debates among scholars, scientists and socio-political activists who, for various reasons, have attempted to uncover the origins of homosexual behavior. Inquiry into the origin(s) of homosexuality has emerged recently, largely in part due to the rising political debates over whether or not homosexuality should be considered a socially immoral practice, and thus the major motive behind these debates have not been simply to uncover the scientific or social origins of homosexuality, but
to utilize the results as a means to either justify or condemn homosexual practices. These ulterior motives have hindered the effectiveness of such research, and have created huge debates as to how scientifically valid the results of such research have been.
Given the controversial nature of this project, it is necessary that we take a neutral position with respect to the moral and political agendas involved in order to refrain from biasing the research. The purpose of this project is not to prove whether homosexuality is right or wrong, but to establish a thorough and well-documented understanding about the
biological and/or social evolution of homosexuality. In this respect, we seek to identify and critique the major biological and social arguments relating to the origin of homosexuality in order to suggest a possible theory that would most effectively and thoroughly answer our questions regarding the origins of homosexuality.
We intend to suggest that homosexuality among humans is a biological construction which is found innately in some people and may be influenced, to certain degrees, by environmental factors such as family structure, parental interaction, siblings, peers and gender roles. Furthermore, we shall suggest that homosexuality is not a psychological
or biological error, nor is it a choice. Rather, it is a healthy biological form of sexual expression which in no way deviates from the natural evolutionary process of human sexuality.
According to many of the popular theories regarding socially constructed human sexuality, the following elements may contribute to the construction of sexual identity: childhood play patterns, early peer relations, differences in parental behavior toward male and female children, and gender constancy and stability. Much of the research regarding biology and sexuality is biased in that the researchers assume that all people are born heterosexual. Consequently, many of these theories imply that homosexual behavior is abnormal and is a result of some type of error in their socializing.
One of the first major studies conducted by American researchers on the nature of homosexuality began during the late 1930’s. The study was conducted by the Kinsey group at Indiana University and was done in order to accomplish two goals: 1) to identify how many males have engaged in homosexual behavior, and 2) to suggest possible theories as to what factors may influence an individual to be homosexual. The study, which ran between the years of 1938 and 1953, found that 37 percent of the males interviewed have shared in at least one homosexual experience resulting in orgasm for themselves or their partner. When looking specifically at males that were in college or
graduate school programs, the study found that 30 percent had engaged in a homosexual sexual activity. Interestingly, 16 percent of the males interviewed were found to have had no such activity since the age of fifteen. Of the remainder, an additional third (9 percent of the total) had experienced all of their homosexual acts either during adolescence or before they reached 20 years of age (Grellert et al. 1982). Thus, homosexual sexual experience, at least from this study, seems to be confined to adolescence and isolated experiences in the latter years.
One of the theories resulting from the Kinsey studies as well as from other studies suggest that homosexual behavior is influenced by family structure and its malfunctions. Irving Bieber (1962) conducted studies on a group of male homosexuals. He found that there was a large proportion who had mothers who were described as close binding and intimate, and fathers who were detached and hostile. This could be used to argue that the mothers have selected their child for special overprotection and seductive care. When combining this with Fruedian argument, the father is then alienated, becomes hostile towards the child, and fails to become a masculine role-figure for the child. There are complications arising from Bieber's theories in that the assumptions made suggest that there is a direct relationship between the development of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Social learning gives rise to gender identification early on in life. It is the parent's decision to raise the child as a male or female, and it is the most significant labeling experience the child will ever undergo. Thus, the belief in which gender role the child is will have permanent consequences for the child throughout life. Identity is defined by anatomy, the placement of one's genitals on the body. However, gender roles are not established simply by the doctor pronouncing "You have a girl (or boy)." The roles are learned over time, by experiences throughout childhood. Contributions to the development of the child as masculine or feminine are the frequency of father-child and mother-child interaction, tolerance of aggression in males and not females, and the vigor of play. It is commonly thought that gender role is set by the age of two, and attempts to change gender identification has negative psychic consequences on the child (Grellert et al. 1982). Green (1987) found that 80 percent of children by the age of two were able to correctly identify their gender. About two-thirds of young children understand that they cannot change sex (Green et al. 1987).
There is evidence that hormonal effects on the mother's nervous system during pregnancy may play a role in assigning gender identity. Those receiving lowered amounts of hormones from the parent may give rise to the child having problems identifying with their gender role. Normal amounts are thought to ready the child to receive the definitions and inputs on masculinity and femininity from the parents (Grellert et al. 1982). Thus, the gender role is a combination of both the biological and the social, rather than a product of one or the other.
It is in the period after infancy, when the child begins to develop language skills, until adulthood that the child begins to undergo very different processes. These processes are extremely culture-bound. It is through these processes that the child begins to organize how s/he will deal with the world. There are two experiences that dominant these
years. The first is the naming of the behaviors, and adult reactions to them, specifically the sexual. The second is the continued building of gender identities based on decisions made on the maleness or femaleness of the child by adults (parents, doctors, etc.).
A wealth of studies on families and twins show heredity accounting for between 30 and 70 percent of the variation in personality traits among people, leaving another 30 to 70 percent to be accounted for by the environment. Research shows that shared environmental factors (things siblings have in common), such as socioeconomic standing and what school
you attended, play only a small role in shaping basic personality traits. It is the environmental factors that siblings don't share, such as one's birth order in the family to a person's unique life experiences, that are the most influential in forging personality.
In a study by Hamer (http1), he linked male homosexuality to a stretch of genes on the X chromosome. A number of studies had shown that homosexuality is partly heritable, half of the identical twins of homosexual men are themselves homosexuals, proving such genes might exist. But the evidence also hinted that homosexuality is a complex trait, arising from the interaction of a number of genes and environmental factors. Hamer turned up the first evidence for what others would dub the "gay gene" in a study looking for the genes that caused certain people to be more susceptible to certain cancers. Hamer had gone fishing in the DNA of 40 pairs of homosexual brothers. His strategy was simple: siblings share, on average, half of their DNA. So if a particular gene did influence homosexuality, that gene would lie in the half of the DNA they have in common. With data from one pair of brothers, Hamer could narrow his search for a homosexuality gene from 100,000 genes to only 50,000 or so. With data from additional pairs of homosexual brothers, he could collect enough genetic information to close in on areas of overlap among them. In practice it wouldn't be so straightforward. It was unlikely, for instance, that every pair of brothers would share any one "gay" gene, given the earlier genetic studies that found no simple pattern of heritability. So Hamer would look instead for statistical anomaliesóbits of DNA that were shared by more pairs of brothers than would be expected by chance.
In a preliminary study, Hamer found that some male homosexuality is passed through the maternal side. The gay gene has stood up well. Hamer has replicated his findings, and no studies have yet contradicted them. Still, the gene itself remains at large, its function unknown. It might be involved in the development of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that has been shown to differ between homosexual and heterosexual men. He also looked for a comparable X-linked marker for sexual orientation in lesbians, but had little luck. Female homosexuality does run in families, but there's no clear indication that it is genetic. He suspects that women's sexual preferences may be less genetically programmed than men's. It appears that sexual preference is partly social and also genuinely biological (http1).
Many studies have also looked at the sexual preference in animals (http2). Several domestic and wild animals engage in sexual activity with members of both the same and the opposite sex; a smaller number have eyes only for their own sex. Some of these homosexual activities appear to boost reproduction. In other cases, same-sex affairs may help reproduction indirectly, by promoting the general fitness of a group or individual.
Researchers interested in animal behavior and sexual selection have long held that the main function of heterosexual endeavors is to ensure that one's genes get passed along. Recent studies indicate that homosexual behavior in some species may have much more to do with sexual gratification than with reproduction. Studies are also revealing biological differences between straight and gay animals. For the most part, homosexual behaviors in domestic animals are considered normal and helpful for the development of reproduction, although this is not always the case. The homosexual relationships also alter social structures. Sexual selection theory holds that animals pick partners that will increase their chances of passing on their genes, but this doesn't apply to homosexual animals. Although homosexual relations appear to have little reproductive value for some species, examples do exist of animals ingeniously partnering with the same sex to improve their chances of
passing along their genes. These findings may shed light on the possible roots of human homosexuality.
While much research is still being done to find the causes of homosexuality, there is still very little evidence that wholly supports any one argument. The correlation between biology and sexual orientation development is not yet fully understood, although the biological argument does offer a logical conclusion. The social factors which influence gender identity and gender roles may, in fact, influence the development of sexual orientation, however it is still uncertain as to what degree these social influences may affect sexual orientation. While it is impossible for us to completely uncover any one particular cause of homosexuality, we can evaluate and assess the degrees to which social factors influence individual’s understanding and development of sexual identity. Although the results may be relatively inconclusive, we can at least understand just how relevant social arguments are to the development of sexual orientation amongst our peers and subjects.
We hypothesize that sexuality is determined by biological, environmental, and social factors. Previously, it was believed that homosexuality was determined solely by social influences. It is not until recently (1970s) that it was proposed that genes and the environment played a strong role in determining a person’s sexuality. Very recently, controversial genetic evidence has been found, suggesting biological roots to sexuality.
We believe that sexuality is determined at birth; however an individual’s own understanding and development of his/her sexuality may be influenced by social and environmental factors. We wish to determine which social factors play a large role in determining a person’s sexuality.

Materials and Methods

Literature Review
We undertook a literature review to investigate previous studies carried out on people of many sexualities. The vast majority of these studies were twin studies, studies carried out on twins that were separated at birth. Many of these studies found that sexuality was influenced by environmental factors, such as parental bonding, peers, and gender identity, and by biological factors, such as genes. It was very difficult to determine which of these factors played the larger role in determining sexuality, and thus twins were used as they share identical genetic makeup.

Survey study
In order to gain a better idea of some of the studies carried out in the literature we were reviewing, we decided to undertake our own study. We set out to survey a sample of the Miami University students. A sample of the survey is included as appendix A. The questions on this survey are similar to those asked in previous studies (Green 1987, Hamer and Copeland 1994). The questions asked in previous studies were designed to assess to what degree social influences and factors affected the development of sexual orientation.
To measure a trait such as sexuality is a challenge. Sexuality encompasses many different aspects of a person’s physical, mental, and emotional makeup. Sexuality is also complicated by the fact that these aspects are not rigidly fixed. For example, a person’s desires can change within a period of a few days or hours. Yet a third complication of sexuality is morality, which is defined differently by each individual.
This survey was designed to determine which factors affected the development of sexuality in those who took part in the study. We tested the results of several factors on sexuality: which parent the child bonded to; toys and games the child played; literature read by the child; Halloween costumes; what gender their first crushes were; and whether or not the child was encouraged to play rougn-n-tumbe games. We hypothesized that the gender of the child would play a large role in parental guidance in these factors, and that this would then play a large role in the sexual development of the individual.


We found that the type of costumes a child dressed in reflected that child’s sexual orientation (marginal significant effect) (table 3) A small percentage of males dressed in female-type costumes (5%), this included dressing as princesses, divas, and witches. The males that dressed in female costumes were all homosexual. A large percentage of females dressed in gender neutral costumes (83%), this included ghosts and droids from Star Wars. These females were representative of all sexualities.
Toys that a child was given had a significant effect on their sexuality (p < 0.0001) (table 2). No heterosexual men were given female toys such as dolls; however, many were given stuffed animals. Females were typically given female-type toys; however, there was a small percentage who received both female- and male- type toys (4%). Of the homosexual men, none indicated that they were given army figures, guns, etc. Four percent of the homosexual men received dolls, most (89%) received stuffed toys. Of the homosexual women, almost all (91%) received female-type toys; however, most indicated that barbies were not given. Most of the lesbians did not receive stereotypically “girly-girl” toys, but rather toys which approached gender neutral such as hula-hoops, jacks, bicycles, and sticker albums.
We also found a person’s first crush was a marginally significant indicator of their sexuality today (table 1). No one that was heterosexual had first, or any, crushes on their same sex. There was a small percentage of gay people (19%) whose first crushes were on the opposite sex. We were unable to determine if this was a result of social pressure (unbeknownst to the subjects at the time).
None of the other factors we tested (parental bond, games, literature, or encouragement to play rough-n-tumble games) had any significant effect on an individuals sexuality. We were surprised to find insignificant results when looking at the effect parental bond had on sexuality. We did find a tendency for homosexual men to have closer bonds to their mothers, and homosexual females to be closer to their fathers. However, the majority of both heterosexual men and women formed closer bonds to their mother. This could be due to most families today being single parent families; we did not ask this in our survey. The type of games the subjects played were typically gender neutral; only 9% played games respective to their gender. The type of literature read ranged from gender neutral to gender “appropriate;” however all subjects read some type of gender neutral literature. Eight percent of the homosexual men were not encouraged to play rough-n-tumble games, everyone else played rough-n-tumble games without fear of being reprimanded.


The type of costume a child wore was an indicator of their sexual preference. Judith Butler (1994) found a strong correlation between cross-dressing and homosexual identity. Her studies also found a strong correlation between transsexual identity and cross-dressing, but transsexualism is beyond the scope of this paper. All drag queens studied had cross dressed at some time in their childhood/adolescence, but not all homosexual males cross-dressed. Bell (1981) found more homosexual men than heterosexual preferred to dress in female costumes and pretending to be female on occasions other than Halloween (37 versus 11 percent). It is difficult to determine the sexuality of females since it is more socially acceptable for females to don “male” clothing (jeans, T-shirts, boots, baseball caps). It is less acceptable for males to dress in sequins and stilettos (although in the opinion of these researchers, some look fabulous in them).
The type of toys a child was given had a significant effect on the development of their sexual identity. According to Green (1987), most gay males preferred playing with female toys, while most straight males preferred playing with conventional male toys. In his study, 77% of homosexual males reported having no male friends, having avoided male games, and having played predominantly with females.
In a study done by Bell (1981) on homosexual and heterosexual males, there was definite differences in gender conformity. Eleven percent of the homosexual men (70% heterosexual) enjoyed male activities, such as playing football. More homosexual men preferred female games, such as playing house (46 versus 11 percent). Only 18 percent of the homosexual men recalled having been “masculine,” compared to 67 percent of the heterosexual men.
The majority of homosexuals in this study had their first crush on members of the opposite sex. Hamer and Copeland (1994) found 96 percent of homosexual men had a first crush on members of the same sex, while 100 percent of heterosexual men had crushes on members of the opposite sex. Of the homosexual men studied by Hamer and Copeland (1994), 86 percent had their first sexual contact with a member of the same sex, while 27 percent of the heterosexual men had their first contact with a member of the same sex. This was explained there was more of an opportunity to “mess around” with males rather than females for both sexualities. This could be an indicator that sexual orientation entails more than physical sex.
We realize the study we carried out had many limitations. The sample size in our study was representative of the population on Miami campus as it was predominantly heterosexual. However, this did not aid us in our study because we wanted to look at the factors influencing homo- and bisexuality. We also had problems with people lying on the surveys, even though they were entirely confidential. Many of the questions were read incorrectly, and the respondents used this survey to convey unrelated angst about their sexuality. This survey did not take into account non-traditional family structures, which leads to problems in determining how the parental bond influences sexuality.
Current methodological strategies used to analyze sexual behavior and formations are problematic in that they fail to account for differences in family structure, cultural practices and demography. Much of the research is biased in that it is looking to prove homo- and bisexuality are deviations from the norm. The conclusions of these studies have many political implications, thus making the studies very controversial. Evidence supporting either theory can be used in the war for and the war against the ethical treatment of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Bell, A.P., M.S. Weinberg, and S.K. Hammersmith. 1981. Sexual preferences: Its development in men and women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bieber, I., H. Dain, P. Dince, M. Drellich, H. Grand, R. Gundlach, M. Dremer, A. Rifkin, C. Wilbur, and T. Bieber. (1962) Homosexuality: A psychoanalytic study. New York: Basic.

Butler, J. (1994) Gender trouble. New York : Alyson Press.

Green, R. (1987) The “sissy boy syndrome” and the development of homosexuality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Grellert, E.A., M.D. Newcomb, and P.M. Bentler. (1982) Childhood play activities of male and female homosexuals and heterosexuals. Archives of Sexual Behavior 11: 451-478.

Hamer, D. and P. Copeland. (1994) The science of desire: The search for the gay gene and the biology fo behavior. New York: Imons and Schuster.

http1: http://magazines.enews.com/magazines/discover/magtxt/9710-2.html

http2 http://www.sciencenews.org/sn_arc97/1_4_97/bob1.html

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