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Human Sexuality and an Armchair Hypothesis

January 11, 2010

My controversial hypothesis is stated simply: I do not believe that human sexuality is genetic, i.e. existent from birth.

If this causes hairs to rise on the back of your neck and your finger to immediately reach for the F key, subsequently followed five characters later by the Y key, you might want to read the disclaimer* at the bottom first. Otherwise, come with me on a magical tour of armchair theorizing!

One thing to make clear, something that should be readily apparent, is that human sexuality, like a fingerprint, is unique from person to person. Though David and I, straight men, both prefer to have intimate relations with women, we have particular preferences. David prefers women who are opinionated and intellectual, as well as being assertive, while civil, with a moderate, but not-too-much, attention to their appearance and to the cultural aesthetics of the most contemporary zeitgeist. On the other hand, I have the much more specific and limiting higher standard that I prefer women who laugh at my jokes.

The same is true of those who are of alternative lifestyles, a buzz-phrase I hope is soon relegated to the same headspace as ‘coloured peoples’. Two gay men have their own particular irrevocable and unchangeable preferences in the men they prefer to get it on with.  A person who likes excitable and flamboyant Latin men can no more change their preference than I can stand to be around a woman who does not (constantly) stoke the fires of my comedic ego.

With all of these near-immutable complexities of preferences in people with regards to their sexuality, I just find it absurd to surmise that this is all coded genetically. Sexuality is a very high-level process on the behavioral hierarchy (even if the knocking-of-boots itself is simple), and things that high up don’t usually come from genetic determinism alone. This sad addiction to horrible grungy 90’s alternative music I have wasn’t hard-wired at the GATTACA level. My sister likes gospel and thinks Eddie Vedder needs a haircut more than a Grammy.

My obsessive man-crush Chomsky has, in the course of his sexy studies of linguistics, helped advance the idea of the Language Acquisition Device, or its more recent and developed incarnation, the ‘Principles and Parameters’ vehicle for linguistic acquisitions. The idea here is that there is a genetic component to learning language. That is, our brains are wired in such a way as to influence both how language is created (leading to a certain inherent commonality to all human languages) and how we learn them (by accessing those common features on an instinctual level). They’re very general though, which is why to people of other countries, Americans sound like this.

Armed with this idea, a chair, and plenty of free time to postulate on ideas laughably far away from my field of expertise (enunciating on the difference between donuts and pretzels in a hair-raisingly formal way), I’ve come up with the theory that sexuality is culturally acquired at a very basic level throughout childhood and adolescence, with elements changing slightly well into adulthood, but without conscious control. It’s not really a matter of choice, no more than I chose to grow up speaking English as my first language and the words with which I understand any concept, including other languages. It’s remarkably subconscious. But at the same time, the fact that I speak English was not something that I received from birth but rather was trained to do, on a very deep cognitive level, because of my environment.

And the cues that train us aren’t so identifiable, either. Though I firmly believe that sexuality is acquired culturally, I don’t think it will ever be easy to know precisely what elements lead to specific expressions or classifications of sexuality. In other words, there’s no hope of creating some sort of ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ environment for a child that guarantees who they like to use pickup lines on later in life. And trying to exert that kind of control is as cruel as speaking to your child in Klingon throughout their developmental years to ‘see what happens’. You’re not going to prove a point, and you might get charged with child cruelty.

But a lot of interesting sexuality questions become much more explainable under this framework. Identical twins do not have a 100% correlation of sexual preference, a fact that’s been known for years. If it’s more-or-less culturally defined, we might expect a higher correlation than 50%, or random chance (as their outward appearance very well might influence who they hang around with, and indeed there’s a lot of correlation in their environment), but certainly not 100%. Further, have you ever met anyone who’s gone through gay-to-straight conversion therapy? I’m not trying to insult these people, but they appear stunted in a fashion, in regards to accessibility to their sexuality. This is what you would expect to see if sexuality were something akin to language. If you never learn a first language, or never get a chance to until too late into development, any further attempts will be hampered, and you will never be fluent. The same is true if you ‘unlearn’ your first language through brainwashing techniques that leave you, well, shell-ish.

The question could be asked, as it has been, “No one remembers when they become gay”, but at the same time, I couldn’t tell you when I first started understanding English, or reached different vague aptitude levels with the language. It’s a subtle, complex process that, at least in the case of language, is very definitely not genetic in any case. People can also change their sexuality later in life, but it’s more additive than subtractive. Straight or gay people can become bisexuals, or learn to like greater varieties of their preferred sex.

For the record, I have talked to people of different sexualities about this idea, and while understandably uncomfortable with associating sexuality with something more mutable than genetics, the idea wasn’t abhorrent to them and there wasn’t a unilateral denial.  I even received some accolades for having the testicular fortitude to risk getting tarred, feathered and crucified for a controversial idea that wasn’t entirely unreasonable.

In any event, I look forward to the hot pots of boiling oil, chicken feathers, and pitchforks I will inevitably receive in the comments. Or maybe you just have something incredibly interesting to say. Or you liked my jokes. (Hey, sup?)

*The intention of this post is not to imply that sexuality is a consciously malleable behavior that can be changed at will and indeed the arguments presented ensure that that conclusion isn’t one that can be drawn from the idea. I’m absolutely for equal rights and not condemning the gay lifestyle, and anyone who thinks that this post gives a way to rationalize those disparities is utterly misreading it. Secondly, I could very well be utterly wrong in my conjecture, and would actually love to be enlightened to the fact that it is indeed genetic and there at birth, if someone provides the evidence for it. I don’t have huge access to the Human Genome Project nor the latest and greatest in genetics research.

Update 1: If you’re tuning in from Facebook or another permalinked source, you may not know that David wrote a nice concurrence in part to this piece, which you can read here.

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