(Courtesy of Yawning Bread, a most respected and incisive place for countless thought-provoking and insightful articles.)
A Swedish researcher has found that lesbians’ brains respond in a way that is distinct from heterosexual men’s and women’s, to two hormone-derived chemicals. This is yet another piece of evidence that there is a biological basis to sexual orientation.
Ivanka Savic from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm carried out the study using two chemicals.
One, labelled “AND”, is derived from progesterone and found in men’s armpit sweat. In heterosexual women, she found that sniffing this chemical triggers a response in the anterior hypothalamus of heterosexual women’s brains. This area is involved in sexual interest, lying as it does very close to the pituitary gland. In homosexual women however, AND triggers a response in another part of the brain, the olfactory region. This is the region where smells are normally processed.
The brains were imaged using positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging.
What the results show is that where heterosexual women respond to a male smell in the sexual part of their brains, lesbians respond to it as just another smell. The lesbians’ response is similar to heterosexual men’s. The latter too handle AND as just another smell, in the olfactory part of their brains.
The other chemical that Savic worked with was derived from oestrogen and found in pregnant women’s urine. It was labelled “EST”.
Savic knew from earlier studies that EST produces responses in heterosexuals that are opposite to the effects of AND. In straight men’s brains, EST triggers a response in the hypothalamus (the sex area). In straight women’s brains, the response is located in the olfactory region, as just another smell.
Interestingly, this latest study found that lesbians also handled EST in the olfactory region.
Thus it isn’t correct to say that lesbians are somehow analogous to straight men. The response pattern in their brains to AND and EST put them in a class of their own.
Earlier work with gay men
A year ago, the same researchers published a study comparing gay men with heterosexual men and women. Both gay men and heterosexual women, on sniffing AND, triggered responses in the sexual area of their hypothalamuses. This was different from the response of straight men, whose response was located in the olfactory region, as mentioned above.
Heterosexual men responded in their hypothalamuses to the female-derived chemical EST, but gay men and straight women reacted to EST in the olfactory region as just another smell.
Gay men’s response to EST and AND paralleled straight women’s response.
But the latest study showed that lesbians’ response did not parallel straight men’s, so once again we are reminded not to assume that lesbians are mirror images of gay men.
As controls, the researchers had used the scents of cedar and lavender, showing that men and women both responded to these in the olfactory area, the usual part of the brain that processes smells. This underlines the significance of any chemical that triggers a response in the hypothalamus.
There is a growing body of work on the biological basis for human sexual attraction, not all of which tie neatly together. But almost always, researchers find something that indicates there is a biological basis. The Savic studies are therefore not unusual in that respect.
Yet they became headline news. To understand why, we need to understand the Judeo-Christian background, which postulates a discontinuity between animals and humans. Humans are open to the divine and “created in the image of God” whereas animals are not.
Until only about 200 years ago — that is, throughout 90% of the 2 millennia of Christianity — piety required asexuality. To be sexual was no aid in approaching the divine, in fact it earns you demerit points. Sex was seen as “animalistic”.
Studies that demonstrate that sexual urges are built into our biology are treated with suspicion. To the extent that they contradict the belief that humans are discontinuous from animals, they are seen as somewhat heretical. Even those who, applying high reason, argue that the biological nature of our human bodies shouldn’t be a problem because the aim of religion is to overcome our nature, are often uncomfortable with the possibility that these studies may be apprehended as permission to “live down” to our natures rather than “live up” to God.
Things get even more sensitive when studies begin revealing the biological basis for homosexual orientation. Unlike other great religions, e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, which have nothing against homosexual love, the Abrahamic religions, sharing as they do the same Old Testament, are read as being “against homosexuality”.
To justify their proscriptions, the belief is created that homosexuality cannot be “natural”; it is no more than perverse behaviour like stealing and drinking. If only the individual “returned” to God, he would “return” to the heterosexual state that God intended.
It is seldom noticed that a statement like that is founded on the opposite principle of human-animal discontinuity. The statement appeals to the notion that (hetero)sexuality is grounded in nature and imprinted into our physical bodies by the deity. Our (animalistic) heterosexuality is “good”, our counter-intuitive homosexuality is “bad” — “against nature”.
Studies like Savic’s truly upset the applecart for they show that homosexual orientation is as biologically demonstrable as heterosexual orientation. How does one argue that one is “natural” and the other not?
Inborn and learned
Faced with this, you can see the battlefront shifting. The argument that is coming up is that the biology of adults is a snapshot in time. Behavioural habits can cause certain parts of our bodies to flourish and other parts to wither. It’s so apparent in body-builders for example. Likewise, parts of our brain can change with habits.
Hence, the response pattern seen in the brains of homosexual persons merely demonstrate the cumulative effect of a lifetime of (bad) habits. This formulation helps to support the argument that homosexuality is learned behaviour (like stealing, cursing and drinking), not inborn (thus not “natural”).
But there are two big problems with this attempt to minimise the significance of these studies.
The first is that the explanation offered — that the way the brain circuits are organised is a result of behaviour, not a cause of it — is testable. While no one has yet done such a test, one can get a glimpse of the result from a different study.
In the article Here’s proof that homosexuals can change! I discussed the findings from the 2001 Spitzer study. This was a study of 200 subjects who have been associated with fundamentalist Christian-linked “conversion therapy” programs. Not only that, they were selected for the study on the basis that they claimed to have been successfully converted and were living heterosexual lives. Yet Spitzer found that more than 80% remained homosexual in some ways. With tremendous willpower, they changed behaviour (though the study left unanswered the question of how long this behavioural change could be sustained), but they couldn’t demonstrate that their instincts changed.
The second big problem in trying to explain away the significance of studies like Savic’s is one of symmetry: If one says that the neural organisation of gay people’s brains is the effect of behaviourial habits and not the natural (inborn) state, why does one assume that the neural organisation of heterosexuals’ brains aren’t also the effect of habits and not the inborn state?
As much as these studies do not “prove” that homosexuality is inborn, neither do they “prove” that heterosexuality is. So what makes one superior, or more “natural” than the other?
Homophobia towards lesbians
Besides not being a mirror image of male homosexuality, homophobia directed at lesbians is also quite different from homophobia directed at gay men. Anti-lesbian views are often wrapped up in misogyny.
Here is a conversation I overheard about 2 months ago. Given the time lapse, I’m not able to reproduce the words exactly, but the sense of it, I remember all too well. There were three guys talking among themselves, to whom I will give fictitious names (actually I don’t even know their real names, since I merely overheard what they said). Two of the three guys seemed to know the lesbian girl in question, but not the third.
Gary: Wah, that Carol, tonight she quite stunning.
Suhaimi: Carol is which one? You interested, ah?
Elvis: Eh, brother, you donno or what? She lesbian, lah.
Suhaimi: Lesbian, ah? Which, one, which one?
Gary: How you know?
Suhaimi: Which one, lah?
Elvis:, Aiyah, you cannot see or what?
Gary: See what?
Elvis: Whole night she stick with who?
Suhaimi: Wahsey, lesbian!
Elvis: That one, lah, that man-woman, lah! What her name?
Gary: Donno. Didn’t see. Which one?
Elvis: Aiyah, I oso donno her name, lah, but so obvious one. Anyway, that Carol been going out with that butch for some time oredi.
Suhaimi: Describe, lah. Which one is Carol?
Gary: But she pretty leh.
Elvis: So what, pretty oso can be lesbian mah.
Suhaimi sucks in his breath: sss'tte
Elvis: But that Carol, she damn proud one, noe.
Gary: Ya lah, she look a bit proud.
Elvis: That’s why she lesbian.
Suhaimi: Because proud?
Elvis: She so proud, no guy wants her.
Gary: Dun worry. Give her to me. One night and I will make a woman out of her.
Suhaimi: Ya, man, All she need is a good man.
Elvis: Ha ha, a real man. Not that kind of man-woman.
Gary: They just hungry for a good screw, but won’t admit it.
Suhaimi: Yeah, Hero Gary to the rescue.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. But seriously, there are so many things that one can sense from this short conversation.
- Femme lesbians seen as an extra challenge that ups the male conquest game;
- Butches as despised competitors for the female body;
- Lesbian preference for other women seen as a “second-choice” in the absence of men in their lives - thus homosexuality is situational while heterosexuality is assumed to be “natural”;
- Sexuality is little more than genital (a very infantile idea that alas, afflicts a lot of males). The assumption is that since ejaculation satisfies them, so penetration will sufficiently satisfy women;
- By extension, sexual orientation is also little more than genital. When the lesbian has experienced a real penis instead of a dildo, she will immediately turn straight.
This reduction of sexual longing to merely the genital reminded me of the recent case in Singapore’s High Court (mid-April 2006) where a father was sentenced to 32 years’ imprisonment and 24 strokes of the cane for raping 5 of his 33 daughters.
In court, he explained his actions — not that you have to believe the explanation — by saying that his daughters were reaching the age when they would begin to have sexual ideas. In his religion, girls were not supposed to mix sexually with other boys, and so, to avert that possibility, he took it upon himself to satisfy the teenage girls’ needs.
This kind of reasoning — that sexual fulfillment is merely genital — is no different from that displayed by Gary, Suhaimi and Elvis. And countless other males who have no understanding of sexuality and sexual orientation. Having said that, attitude is one thing, rape is another. I’m not implying that the typical guy is anything like that heinous father.
The danger of self-referencing
But the point i’m coming to is the way we use self-reference as the yardstick of sexuality: “I feel this way, so everybody else must feel this way too”.
We have seen it in the way the 3 ignorant young men in a coffee shop spoke of lesbians, but we also see it in the way people resist the idea that homosexual orientation is as natural and as biologically grounded as heterosexual orientation. They tend to say, “homosexuality feels alien to me, therefore it is alien to God.”
Then with that idea in mind, we search out bits of scripture that can be interpreted to support it.
Which brings me to my final thought: Perhaps the teaching that there is a discontinuity between humans and animals can be read in a different way. That unlike animals who may not be able to break out of self-reference, we can. We have the intellectual capability to look beyond ourselves — to feel beyond our genitals, as it were — in order to grasp an understanding of others that is built on intellectual knowledge. It’s when we self-reference and close our minds to science and reason that we are behaving animalistically.
We can, and we should, see the world through the facts as they are discovered over time; we can do much more than merely act and react emotively. It is then that we overcome our “natures” and open our minds to the divine.