The Hetero-flexible Gene

Jennifer Roback Morse
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Posted: Feb 20, 2006 12:05 AM
The recent New York Times article on the Cuddle Puddle at Stuyvesant High School unwittingly undermines the legal strategy of the Gay Rights movement. Because the article chronicles the sexual adventures of a group of metero-sexual students, you might think it would fall squarely in the pro-homosexual camp. Nonetheless, a close read of the piece completely dismantles one of the leading claims made by the gay rights legal strategists: the claim that sexual orientation is a fixed trait. You know the idea: People are born gay or straight. Only an ignoramus or a Neanderthal would even imagine that there is an element of choice, chance or change in sexual orientation.

But these heteroflexible kids in the Cuddle Puddle are messing around sexually because they are in an environment that considers it “cool.” An honest reader can’t get very far into this article and still believe that all these kids are just doing what they were born to do. Consider paragraph two:

“Alair is headed for the section of the second-floor hallway where her friends gather every day during their free tenth period for the “cuddle puddle” as she calls it. There are girls petting girls and girls petting guys. ... They are all 16, juniors at Stuyvesant. Alair slips into Jane’s lap, and Elle reclines next to them, watching cat-eyed. All three have hooked up with each other. All three have hooked up with boys–sometimes the same boys. But it’s not that they are gay or bisexual, not exactly. Not always....

Elle is watching, enthralled, as two boys lock lips across the hall. ‘Oh, my,’ she murmurs. ‘Homoerotica. There’s nothing more exciting than watching two men make out.’ And everyone is talking to another girl in the puddle who just ‘came out’ meaning she announced that she’s now open to sexual overtures from both boys and girls, which makes her a minor celebrity, for a little while.”

It strains the imagination to believe that these kids are completely impervious to the pressures of their little sub-culture. This behavior is almost completely peer-driven.

Now what does this have to do with the gay rights legal strategists? Sexual orientation as a fixed trait is central to their argument to have “sexual minorities” designated as “protected classes.” The argument builds on an analogy with race. If a person is born gay, then the argument for decriminalizing same-sex behavior, legalizing same-sex marriage and making homosexual persons members of a protected class falls neatly into place by a straightforward analogy with laws protecting racial minorities.

The strategy also draws a distinction between same-sex behavior and sexual orientation. Up until the sexual revolution, the law didn’t care much one way or the other about sexual orientation. The law instead concerned itself principally with behaviors. But the advocates of gay rights say that this is an unwarranted distinction. They argue that sexual orientation is fixed at birth. Therefore, prohibiting same-sex behaviors amounts to prohibiting any sexual activity to a distinct class of persons, those born with same-sex orientation.

But plainly, the kids in the Cuddle Puddle are making choices about their sexual partners and sexual behavior. At least for some people, the distinction between chosen behavior and innate sexual orientation is valid. My claim that some people choose same sex behavior, does not preclude the possibility that for other people, no practical choice is possible. Yet the legal strategy of the gay rights movement depends on the radical claim that same sex attraction is always and everywhere, innate and fixed.

There is actually plenty of data that supports the position that sexual orientation is not a fixed trait. I know, I know, I can hear the howls already. Everybody knows that homosexuality is genetically determined.

Actually, everybody who knows anything about the subject knows exactly the opposite. No “gay gene” has been discovered. Dean Hamer is the scientist most widely accredited with the discovery. The media have not trumpted the fact that his results have never been replicated. Surveys of identical twins indicate a heritability level for homosexuality of roughly 20% to 35% which makes it, for all practical purposes, non-genetic.

Moreover, survey data of behavior indicate two overwhelming facts. First, homosexuality is not a well-defined phenomenon. It is a complex combination of behavior, attraction and self-identification. For instance, the definitive University of Chicago study by Edward Laumann and colleagues, showed that only a minuscule less than one percent of the population have had exclusively same sex partners since puberty. They also report sizable groups of people who have had same sex experiences or same sex desires, but who do not identify themselves as gay. The kids in the Cuddle Puddle, for instance, don’t describe themselves as gay. But if they wanted to claim someone was discriminating against them, couldn’t they define themselves into the protected class?

Second, no matter which definition one chooses to use, people do not remain “gay” over time. Many studies show a marked decline with age in homosexual/bisexual self-identification. The largest drop off occurs after the age of 18. Many authors are now concluding that their results are “consistent with a large role for the social environment.” College education, for instance, is correlated with higher rates of reported same sex attraction. Some wise-gal college students have figured this out: they call themselves SLUGs, Selectively Lesbian Until Graduation.

Come to think of it, there is a genetic explanation for the “Cuddle Puddle.” These kids are young, they’re horny and they’re not too particular. They are sensitive to peer pressure.

It’s the gene for adolescence.

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For more information about this topic, check out these resources.

The definitive University of Chicago study cited in the text is: The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practice in the United States, by Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael and Stuart Michaels, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), especially Chapter 8, Homosexuality.

“Same Sex Attraction in a birth cohort: prevalence and persistence in early adulthood,” Social Science and Medicine 56 (2003) 1607-1615.

For a summary of research on the fixity of same sex attraction, see

Jeffery Satinover, “The Trojan Couch,” NARTH Conference Reports 2005, available on-line at: http://www.narth.com/docs/TheTrojanCouchSatinover.pdf

Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austiaco, “The Myth of the Gay Gene,” Homiletics and Pastoral Review December 2003, reprinted on-line at: http://www.ignatius.com/magazines/hprweb/austriaco.htm