Science's Stilted Calibration of Human Sexuality

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Researchers, in typical researcher fashion, continue to search for ways to qualify, identify, and account for sexual orientation.

4597045291_fd977b98e5_bmain.jpgAli Leila Images/Flickr

Can we accurately determine someone else's sexual orientation just by their appearance?

Some people can, to an eerie degree. A study from earlier this summer found that college students had "above-chance accuracy" when guessing whether people were straight or gay, even when they were shown faces without any contextual clues. Even when they only got to look for 50 milliseconds. Even when the faces were upside-down. 

For those primed to detect sexual orientation (one author speculated that older people or those from other cultures might have a harder time), it would seem that facial features can be a semi-reliable indicator of sexual orientation.

Can your eyes give away your sexual preference?

Looks like it. Researchers at Cornell have established that pupil dilation is a viable means of determining one's sexuality. This is good news for lab rats, since having researchers stare into your eyes as you watch erotic video clips is probably much less invasive than monitoring one's genitals. It's good news for science, too, since this might make more people open to participating in studies about sexuality.

Can a multiple-choice quiz determine your sexual orientation?

Not likely. But in the course of researching his book The Whole-Brain Path to Peace, philosopher James Olson has developed a theory about brain dominance and sexual orientation. It's based, simply, on the fact that most men are left-brained and most women are right-brained, and that many of those who don't conform to this pattern are homosexual. Making an intuitive leap from the many studies he came across, Olson says:

Looking for the simplest, most logical answer, I concluded that when the right-brain hemisphere directs the thinking and behavior of a man, he sees life from the perspective typical of heterosexual women. The fact that he is male does not alter the perspective of his brain. But the perspective of his brain does alter his sexuality.

Olson's point is that sexuality starts in the brain, and this theory is just an integrated way of supporting current understandings. He is not able to suggest that brain dominance is entirely determinative of sexuality, but rather points to some interesting correlations. It does suggest that sexuality, like one's brain dominance, can be influenced by a variety of factors but never fundamentally altered.

Is sexuality too wide-ranging, interpretative, and fluid to be pinned down by science?

Of course. And this is what science is telling us more than anything else. The Cornell findings, for instance, show that while pupil dilation reliably correspondents to sexual preference in men -- as has been the case in other studies -- straight women's eyes dilate more or less equally in response to images of both sexes. The researchers had anticipated this result which, far from suggesting that all straight women are secretly bisexual, instead indicates that there may be other, unknown factors influencing sexual response. They also noted that bisexual men, along with being relatively uncommon, demonstrated less arousal, in general, than hetero- or homosexual men.

Olson, for his part, is able to provide a clue to why this might be so. The right brain, which is dominant in most straight women, is more holistic and inclusionary of the left-brain's perspective. While this, too, doesn't make women bisexual, it may allow for more fluidity in what they perceive to be sexually arousing, and it helps to explain why more women than men self-identify as bisexual.

On the other hand, the face-processing study found that women's sexual orientations are more readable than men's. Either we're just more liberal in assuming a male might be gay because culturally, we're more accustomed to this idea, or the difference between hetero- and homosexuality is more pronounced in women. 

Is science going to keep trying to pin down sexuality anyway?

Almost definitely. As long as our culture remains preoccupied with sexual preference, science will likely remain preoccupied with finding genetic, hormonal, and neurological ways of answering our burning questions. Fortunately, we continue to drive home the point that homosexuality is not a dysfunction or a mere lifestyle choice, and that it neither can nor should be "corrected."

That sexual orientation may be readable on one's face, says the lead researcher of the "gaydar" study, is "similar to how we don't have to think about whether someone is a man or a woman or black or white." This lends quite a bit of heft to arguments in support of equal rights. One coauthor of the pupil-dilation study even claims that those findings can be "used to help people who are confused about their sexuality sort through their desires."

So, sure, in the long run people are going to continue to do what they always do regardless of what science has to say about how or why they're doing it. Just like how science is going to continue to do what science does. To all involved: keep at it.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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