Is being 'gay' a choice? Science says yes (but not in the way you're thinking)
March 11, 2014
This article is less about the various ways in which people like to define themselves, and far more about the various things academics and health professionals care about (for better or worse). So, we'll go over some illuminating statistics and then discuss the academic opinion on choice and orientation. The answer won't surprise you---of course these things aren't really a choice. But the journey might be illuminating for those outside this clinical sphere.
Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.
Article Status: Complete (for now).
At first glance, it might seem pretty easy to pick someone's sexual orientation; we tend to rely on people's own definitions of homosexuality. Someone calls themselves gay, straight, or bi and we take them at their word.
But plenty of people find it hard to use conventional terms to describe themselves, creating new ones like 'heteroflexible' or the infinitely precise adexsexual. These kinds of troubles pose unique challenges to psychologists and other health professionals. This article is less about the various ways in which people like to define themselves, and far more about the various things academics and health professionals care about (for better or worse). So, we'll go over some illuminating statistics and then discuss the academic opinion on choice and orientation. The answer won't surprise you---of course these things aren't really a choice. But the journey might be illuminating for those outside this clinical sphere.
Editor's Note, 2021: this is a very old article, written by a Dorian with a much less nuanced impression of the world. I'll leave it here for posterity, but note the stats have changed quite dramatically since both the positively ancient 90's articles I cite, as well as since the article's publication given the mood of intense societal focus on identity. Correspondingly, so too these clinical descriptions, not to mention my own impressions of the content.
Let's start with a definition. Should we let people choose their sexual identity themselves? Academics are not enthusiastic about this---ethically it makes sense, but pragmatically it makes publishing written records about it quite hard. Our own choice of definitions can be pretty flexible. For example, bi-curiosity is a theme that shows up quite commonly in pop-culture, but curiosity is different to a real romantic interest. Does this kind of experimentation fall into an existing, or distinct category? Should we ignore it as a 'deviation' from a more stable sexual identity? Or, take a different example: consider a male sex-worker who caters to men, but thinks of himself as straight in his personal life? A whole new set of classification challenges. Yet another example: it's been well documented that women seem to be more sexually fluid than men, although this fluidity appears to often settle later into something more heteronormative. What are we supposed to make of this? Even with the proliferation of new terms, it's hard to capture all the ways people explore sexuality.
Stepping outside the westernised sphere for a moment, we face quite different puzzles. For instance, in some cultural situations, same-sex relations can be seen as a quite ordinary and necessary and normal part of maintaining a healthy community. Not because one is sexually attracted to that sex, but because othe community requires it. What kind of sexuality is this?
Let's look at some stats, maybe that'll help. We return to the western world. These illuminating numbers come from Edward Lauman and his colleages in 1994 from interviews with close to 3,500 US men and women of all ages:
- 2.8% of men and 1.4% of women called themselves gay or bi.
- But, 5.3% of men and 3.5 % of women reported full on homosexual sex at least once since puberty.
- More than that, 7.7% of men and 7.5% of women reported experiences of homosexual desire
- And a further 10.1% of men and 8.6% of women reported other instances of homosexual desire and experiences.
And keep in mind studies like this usually lend themselves to under-reporting---1994 wasn't the most pleasant time to eschew heteronormativity. A study conducted by the Australian Research Centre in 2003 (Smith et al., 2003) found similar statistics.
- 1.6% of men and 0.8% of women classified themselves as homosexual.
- 8.6% of men and 15.1% of women reported homosexual experiences or desires.
So, we can assume that about 10% of people in western cultures are getting involved in same-sex relations in some way. That's a lot of people. About 31.8 million of 318 million Americans, 2.25 million of 22.5 million people in Australia, and 6.4 million of 64 million in the UK.
So if, 1 in 10 people are a bit gay, without delving into the nuance of the thing, what does that say about the whole choice debate? Seems unlikely that 10% of people are exploring just for funsies.
Well a meta-study (a study that looks at the results of a whole bunch of other studies) conducted by Douglas Diamond in 1993 can shed some light on that. He found that about 6% of men and 3% of women consider themselves exclusively gay. Since that doesn't account for those other 4% and 7% of those who've experimented respectively, he decided that sexual orientation falls along a continuum. At one end, you have homosexuals, then a decreasing level of bisexuality towards complete heterosexuality. He theorised that social pressure tends to push those who are naturally in the middle towards the straight life, but that genes play a role in how flexible you are. And the data support this.
To start with, we know same-sex sexual activity is relatively common in the animal kingdom, from lizards to chimps. But more convincingly, twin studies show that this preference is related to genes:
- Bailey and Pillard found in 1991 that 52% of identical twins ( with a gay sibling were also gay, 22% for fraternal twins and 11% for adoptive siblings in men.
- Bailey, Pillard and some of their colleagues in 1993 found that it was very similar for women, with 48% identical, 16% fraternal and 6% adoptive.
What does that mean? Well, identical twins share ~100% of their DNA and fraternal twins share ~50%. So we're looking at a pretty high correlation between genetics and homosexuality there. Only a quite small percentage of adoptive siblings (who share very little distinguishing genes) can say the same, so we like to use this to account for the effects of environmental pressures (like how they were raised etc). Anyone who knows anything about twins can tell you that that is pretty much what you'd expect from a hereditary trait.
“our sexual orientation is a choice, but mostly one our genes make, not our souls”
So, as (an unusually philosophical psychologist) Niklas Langstrom said, our sexual orientation is a choice, but mostly one our genes make, not our souls.
And while how we are raised and what we are exposed to undoubtedly has an effect, it's probably not very important overall except to repress those people who are somewhere in the middle (and it's not even very effective at that).