Desire – is it all in the brain?

Desire – is it all in the brain?

by Amber De La Haye, Co-editor

Is our sexual desire innate? is there such a thing as a ‘gay brain’, created by hormone fluctuation in the womb or even inscribed in our fundamental genetic makeup? Arguing that sexuality is innate is a cornerstone of many gay rights campaigns, quelling religious calls to ‘pray for a cure’ or offers of sinister corrective treatments. It is true that popularising the belief that sexuality is not a choice has encouraged tolerance, and played a major part in the arguments leading to England’s legalisation of sexual acts between consenting adult males in 1967. However, is this belief really beneficial? Wendy Brown points out in Regulating Aversion that ideas of hierarchy are bound up with the calls for tolerance; after all, magnanimity is always a luxury of power, and the act of tolerating identifies the object of tolerance as essentially different from the tolerating subject. We can certainly see this in the suggestion that there is a ‘gay brain’, and ideas of biological determinism can also have a negative impact on gender politics. Further to this, the very questions being asked perpetuate the norms of heterosexuality and patriarchy – my opening sentence immediately links the question of innate sexuality with homosexuality – why aren’t we asking whether people are born straight? And why are lesbians and bisexuals all but invisible in this debate? We must question the accuracy of a science that can’t, even in the very questions it poses, escape a heteronormative discourse.

There is an overwhelming body of biologically determinist research suggesting  (homo)sexual desire is innate. Research and theories, some more spurious than others, are regularly disseminated through the collective consciousness by semi-accurate eye grabbing headlines. You may have heard, for example, Anthony Bogaert’s theory that sexuality is decided prenatally, through hormonal changes in the womb caused by bearing a high number of previous male foetuses. An immediately obvious exception to this rule is the 48% of cases in which twin brothers are not both homosexual.

More dangerous, however, is the scientific research that uses socially constructed notions of gender to assert facts about sexuality. For example, a study at UC Berkeley discovered that lesbians were more likely to have a ‘masculine’ hand structure – that is, a longer ring finger than index finger, which most men have. The conclusion was that lesbianism is caused by foetuses being exposed to greater levels of ‘masculine’ hormones, which, they theorised, influence hand structure and attraction to women. However, this study conflates socially constructed gender -notions of masculinity and femininity- and sexual orientation. It works from the premise that masculinity naturally always involves attraction to women and vice versa.  However, gender constructs do not always align with desire, a fact many ‘masculine’ straight women and ‘feminine’ straight men will attest to.  Science tackling this topic cannot disentangle itself from misconceptions surrounding the difference between gender (socially constructed) and sex (biological). It is framed from within a discourse of heteronormativity and patriarchy, skewing its conclusions.


Further to this, the very notion of a ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ is a narrow, recently constructed, western-centric set of divisions. Michel Foucault (1926-1984 – pictured above) discusses the invention of the homosexual in The History of Sexuality, discussing the development from sodomy – considered a ‘temporary aberration’ – to the homosexual, now ‘a species’, to insist sexuality is generated by the social. The notion of sexuality as key to subjectivity is a recent one. In Ancient Greece, for example, sex between men was normal, and a respected form of sexual behaviour. Freud, in Three Essays on Sexuality, suggests our conception of the sexual object being the crucial trigger for desire is culturally constructed, and, as the example of Ancient Greece suggests, it is actually sexual instinct that is key. Our rigid, modern categorisation also gives rise to defining what constitutes a homosexual: regular sex with a member of the same sex? Sexual desire for a member of the same sex? A singular sexual encounter? Rugby initiations? Kissing a girl at a party? And liking it? The issue of bisexuality is also problematized through these strict binaries of homo/hetero, and therefore the bisexual is marginalised: no explanation can be found and many scientific studies claim they do not even exist. If the very category and definition of homosexuality is discursively constructed, then, how can it be innate?

Our history of science shows it to be clearly influenced by the dominant culture of the day; for example, in the 18th century a dissatisfied or disobedient woman would be treated for hysteria, which research papers and many scientific books had proved to be caused by a wandering womb. Sexologists like Havelock Ellis published research on homosexuals, suggesting they were ‘degenerate’ – literally a step backwards in evolution. In 1952 war hero and enigma code breaker Alan Turing underwent the scientific procedure of chemical castration in order to cure his homosexuality. Science can, and often is, wrong, and can never be considered objectively outside of discourse.

The very questions we are asking also point to an inherent bias; why is the focus on what causes homosexuality? Until we can examine the causes of sexuality in general the debate will always be couched in a heteronormative bias. A common counter-argument suggests heterosexuality is normal, therefore not in need of research, because it is reproductive, however surely then we should be researching the confounding popularity of masturbation and oral sex? Freud brilliantly points out that the heterosexual kiss, the peak of romantic heterosexual desire as depicted by the media, should logically be an aberration and considered as distasteful as sharing a toothbrush. As we move toward a culture liberated from the hangovers of a society in which the lack of birth control made monogamous, heterosexual relationships almost a necessity, we need to rethink our relationship to sexuality. It is not irrelevant that the heterosexual family unit provides the perfect base for capitalism; a productive ideological state apparatus that pays for the privilege to create, raise and condition subjects. Gay men and women, childless women and bisexuals are all marginalised, and all constitute a potential threat to the current system.

Science cannot escape discourse, and scientific research often perpetuates norms of gender and sexuality. The very questions the scientific establishment are asking are problematic, proceeding as they do from a recently constructed assumption of static desire and binary sexualities. Fluid desire, however, has potentially liberating, revolutionary effects, and attempts to constrict our sexuality further by defining it as innate deny these possibilities. We need to move away from the idea of being gay as inscribed at birth, indeed, we need to move away from the very rigid ideas of being gay or straight altogether.

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