Is being 'gay' a choice? Science says yes (but not in the way you're thinking)

March 11, 2014

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Is being gay a choice? Or is it biologically driven. In this article we talk about this hot button issue and show you the evidence that gives us the answer!

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

What does being gay even mean? 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, transgendered 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'. This question poses a unique challenge to psychologists and other health professionals, who (you might have noticed) really like to pin things down. Today we're going to talk about how we can think about sexuality, go over some illuminating statistics and discuss whether our orientation is really a conscious choice or not (spoiler alert: it's not. But you might be surprised at what else we find out). So, lets start with a definition. Do we let people choose their sexual identity themselves? The problem here is that our own choice of definitions can be pretty flexible in themselves. 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 experimentation fall into an existing, or distinct category? Or do we ignore it as a 'deviation'? 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 entirely new puzzles. For instance, in some cultural situations, same-sex relations can be seen as a necessary and normal part of maintaining a healthy community. Yup, bloody complicated and we've only just started. Let's look at some stats. 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 (because people unsurprisingly, people don't like 'fessing up to this kind of stuff). 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 is getting busy with their own team members, what does that say about the whole choice debate? Seems unlikely that 10% of people are just doing it 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 it's 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”
— Niklas Langstrom
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). Want to know just how unimportant (in terms of sex) your sexual orientation is? Find out here. It talks about today's attitudes towards homosexuality and how terrible that can be (or awesome depending on what attitude you have). Otherwise, if you're interested in how different men and women are when it comes to heterosexual sex, check this article out! Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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