Alison Dellit's Reviews > Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation

Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why by Simon LeVay
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Jul 21, 12

bookshelves: gender, non-fiction
Read from July 13 to 18, 2012

This is really a 3.5 star review. LeVay's honest approach and commitment to thoroughly explaining the research makes this the most enlightening read on the "biology did most of it" side of the current debate around gender and sexual identity. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would unhesitatingly recommend it as part of a package of reading about behavioural sciences. Unfortunately, I don't think LeVay's evidence bears out his conclusions, and I think he overlooks some key areas of study. This is the last of a half-dozen books I've read on this subject now, and honestly, I think I'm out of the behavioural sciences business. All it's done is convince how little we know and how much we assume.

LeVay's argument is simple enough: men and women have a set of physical and behavioural differences, and gay men and women are the result of some process disrupting this, so that some of those behavioural differences, primarily attraction to the opposite sex, are disrupted. Lesbians are women who got a bit of masculinity in their dose, and gay men were somewhat feminised.

There are numerous problems in attempting to use studies of behaviour to determine the cuase of same-sex attraction. Perhaps most insurmountably - how do you define gay? LeVay deals with in an offhand way - correctly pointing out that behaviour is not an accurate guide to someone's impulses - millions of closeted gay people attest to that - he suggests relying on description of attraction from the person. Most studies simply rely on subjects self-identifying as gay or straight. A nice illustration in this dilemma comes when LeVay discusses the only four identical-twins-separated-at-birth-with-at-least-one-gay-member that researchers have identified. (Such twins are the holy grail of determining hereditism as a characteristic). Of one pair, both are gay. Of two, one is gay and one is straight. The final pair, both men, have both have sexual encounters with men and with women. But one identifies firmly as straight and the other as gay. The researchers, and LeVay's, frustration is palpable through the paper. It would not be unreasonable, LeVay asserts, to describe them both as some kind of bisexual.

And indeed, it would not be unreasonable. But the kicker here is the main reason I can't take this research seriously - it's because researchers choose to interpret the data this way because it fits what they think is true. There are so many uncertainties in this world for us to fill with preconceived ideas. LeVay expresses dubiousness with a finding, based on self-reporting, that gay men have larger penises than straight men. His doubt is understandable - but it's based on his personal experience of gay men's value on penis size. A similar study, showing lesbians have lower sex drives, he accepts because it reinforces his idea of the truth. Our assumptions, our life experience, are all things we bring to the research table, especially with behavioural sciences, and they influence the conclusions we are going to draw from inconclusive data.

And boy is the data inconclusive. Degrees of hereditism from five separate twin studies came up with everything from 0% to 80%, and every figure in between. Studies undertaken by different research groups into the same topic almost never come up with correlating figures. In no single area is the evidence compellingly consistent, so LeVay relies on the fact that a huge number of diffuse studies tend to come up with something - but whether that is the something we expect to see, is left open to doubt. Some, such as occupation choice, are so palpably influenced by social factors, as to be able to be dismissed easily.

One of the key flaws in his approach is that he accepts as a given the assertion of Simon Baron-Cohen that such behavioural differences are provable in men and women from birth - an assertion which is difficult to substantiate. He spends a single chapter essentially summarising Baron-Cohen's book, weeding out the most absurd and outdated studies, but still relying pretty heavily on the baby-looking-at-mobile survey which has been widely criticised, as well as the mental-rotation studies in their simplified form. This chapter is much less patronising and easy to read than Baron-Cohen's book and I'd recommend it as a substitute, actually. He does not refer to Baron-Cohen's critics at all.

Another is his starting point of homosexuality as a manifestation of cross-gender biology (probably hormone exposure at the fetal stage). Alternative explanations are barely explored. Given this, it is also a big gap that he ignores transgender individuals almost entirely. He mentions results of "transexuals" in a couple of studies, but posits not theories into how transgender persons might come to be.

There is no avoiding the political import of arguments now around biology and sexuality. Lady Gaga's Gay Rights anthem, title of "Born this way" is significantly of a general approach the gay liberation movement has taken, of stamping their rights alongside the assertion that sexuality is biologically determined. There is real need as well for an approach which shuts down the tortorous process of trying to force gay and lesbian people to become straight. I'm not sure how much of this need rely, however, on an understanding of the mechanics of how people come to be straight or gay. We still have no idea why some people are left-handed, but we have accepted that they are, and that beating them for being different is a bad thing to do.

I didn't come out of this book agreeing with the author. I did come out feeling like I had a handle on the area of scholarship, and understanding the author's point of view. For that reason, I'd give this book 3.5 stars if I could, and I'm comfortable rounding up to 4.

Sometimes, it just feels to me that in our push to celebrate "diversity" we really just want to expand the number of boxes we can fit people in to. You still have to choose one, we'll just add a new rainbow range of colours. I'm not sure if we'll ever get to the stage where we just accept people for who they are, without worrying who else fits into that category with them.
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