Are Straight People Born That Way?

The best scientific argument we have for the innateness of straightness is that evolution would favor it. But a poll of sexologists raises some interesting questions about arousal.

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Time for a thought experiment: Are straight people born that way? When I put the question to a number of sexology colleagues, they thought it a good question -- indeed, a hard question.

To answer it, we have to start with a more fundamental question: What do we mean when we say someone is "straight"? At the most basic level, we seem to be imagining female bodies that are specifically sexually aroused by male bodies, and vice versa.

Laboratory studies such as those conducted by Michael Bailey of Northwestern University and Meredith Chivers of Queens University suggest that, while such people probably do exist -- at least in North America, where many sexologists have focused their attentions -- it's not uncommon for straight-identified people to be at least a little aroused by the idea of same-sex relations.

The media has tended to broadcast the news that gay-identified men and straight-identified men have quite discernible arousal patterns when they are shown various kinds of sexual stimuli. And that's true. But if you look closely at the data, you'll see that most straight-identified men do tend to show a little bit of arousal across sex categories (as do gay-identified men).

In Samoa, boys who are very feminine are understood to be destined for attraction to males. Without changing their bodies, they are raised like girls, live as women, and take straight men as sex partners.

Developmental studies by researchers like the University of Utah's Lisa Diamond suggest that women may demonstrate a fair bit of flexibility over the course of their lives in terms of their sexual attractions, relations, and identities, and laboratory studies by people like Chivers and Bailey seem to back up the hypothesis that females are, on average, less rigidly oriented when it comes to sex. At least when you measure their vaginal response, straight-identified women can be aroused by a wide variety of sexual stimuli.

Nevertheless, let's just say, for purposes of argument, that we're willing to accept the existence of some straight females and males as defined above, even if they are not always perfectly straight arrows in the lab. Were they born that way?

When I put the question to Eric Vilain, a pediatric geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies sexual development, he didn't like the way I phrased it, because babies don't get aroused by particular sexual scenarios.

"If we are literal about 'born this way,' we have to say that humans do not appear to be born with particular arousal patterns -- babies aren't gay or straight," Vilain told me. He suggested we think about the question a different way: Do we see evidence that, from a very early age, children exhibit behavior patterns that appear highly predictive of future sexual orientation?

In other words, do children give us clues about whether they're going to ultimately be sexually attracted to males, females, or both? To a certain extent, yes. That's why plenty of gay and lesbian adults can point to childhood clues that they were "born this way." Most straight people could do the same, although typically no one asks straights when they knew they were straight. Behavioral patterns in childhood do show some correlation with adult sexual orientation.

Vilain points, for example, to the evidence from girls born with a disorder called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), including that gathered by the University of Cambridge psychologist Melissa Hines. CAH results in naturally increased levels of androgens (a "masculinizing" type of hormone), and females with CAH show relatively high early interest in male-typical childhood activities as well as relatively high rates of bisexuality and lesbianism as adults.

Gendered behaviors are linked closely enough to sexual orientation cross-culturally that various cultures have developed third-gender categories that "normalize" a homosexually-oriented person. For instance, in Samoa, boys who are very feminine as young children are understood to be destined for attraction to males. They are relabeled "fa'afafine" -- meaning they will live "in the manner of a woman." Without changing their bodies, the fa'afafine are raised like girls and then live as women, and take straight men as their sex partners.

Sexologists call this kind of phenomenon "homosexual transgenderism" and suggest it is fairly common around the world. Sometimes "homosexual transgenderism" is enacted via a humane cultural system, as in Samoa, and sometimes via a phenomenally oppressive one, as in Iran, where feminine homosexual men have been given the choice of transsexualism or death.

Regardless of the cultural system, social pressure to appear straight seems to be fairly intense cross-culturally. Indeed, one is inclined to wonder, if being straight is just natural, why does it require quite so much policing?

Still, there does seem to be some biological evidence that at least some straight people probably were born strongly inclined that way.

Ray Blanchard of the University of Toronto has articulated the "fraternal birth order effect" (FBOE): The more older brothers a male has from the same biological mother, the more likely he is to be a gay adult. The theory is that the mother builds up an accumulating immune response to male fetuses, progressively dampening down masculinity of later-born male fetuses. That's just a theoretical explanation, although the FBOE itself is unequivocally real; it holds up in study after study across cultures. Blanchard has estimated that the 15 to 29 percent of gay men are gay by virtue of the FBOE. (The effect doesn't exist with women.)

Presented by

Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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