Nature vs. nurture has remained a cornerstone debate in modern psychology. The debate continues in both the scientific community and in modern society, particularly in the discussion of social issues such as homosexuality. Advocates of a biological approach to homosexuality assert their theories on the basis of genetics, brain/neuron-chemical considerations and comparative studies. In contrast, advocates of a socio-cultural approach to homosexuality support their theories based on cultural, familial and peer influences. Is either side of this contentious issue truly correct, or does true scientific compromise provide the best solution?
It lies at the root of many of our society’s most pressing questions: the fairness of intelligence testing, effective parenting, school violence, other criminal behavior, language acquisition, mental disorders, genetic engineering, cloning, religion and morality, child custody, prejudice, gender differences, talent, and so forth.
Nativism vs. empiricism, innateness vs. learnedness, rationalism vs. environmentalism, internal vs. external locus of control—the nature vs. nurture debate goes by many names (Chomsky, 1987).
Amidst all the psychology and philosophy jargon is one basic question. Are our personalities and behaviors determined by biology (are we “born” that way) or are we truly a product of our environment (are we “made” that way)? This question is at the basis of many issues, and it has become a cornerstone of one of the most contentious issues of our time: homosexuality.
Proponents of the “nature” side believe that we are born into the world with our basic personality and behavioral traits already set. They base this assumption on research in three areas: genetics, brain structure/neurochemicals, and cross-cultural/cross-species comparisons.
Research studies which attempt to link homosexuality with these three issues are plentiful. In the area of genetic studies, for example, two avenues of research have proposed a genetic underpinning for sexual orientation. A handful of twin studies (Bailey and Pillard, most notably) have uncovered an interesting result: identical twins (who share the same DNA) have anywhere from a fifty to a near-one hundred percent chance of sharing a homosexual orientation. Further, some of these studies were conducted on twins raised in separate homes, thus eliminating the argument of critics who claim that the shared orientation is a result of shared environmental factors (Twins born gay?, 1992). A different line of research has proposed the existence of a so-called ‘gay gene.’ Scientist Dean Harner hypothesized that a particular section of X-chromosomes could correlate with sexual orientation, due to the fact that the family trees of homosexual men contained a disproportionate amount of homosexual ancestors on the mother’s side of the family (Johnson, 2003).
A large portion of biological research into sexuality derives from the study of bodily chemical interactions (hormones) and brain structure. Neuro-research has uncovered some noteworthy differences between the brains of homosexuals and heterosexuals, suggesting another
biological link. For example, three separate studies found that the hypothalamus (the part of the brain responsible for sexual drive) of homosexual men differed markedly from the hypothalamus of heterosexual men (Sullivan, 1995). The other portion of neurobiological research, hormonal considerations, claims a high level of support among biologists. One popular theory concerning a hormonal basis for homosexuality holds that sexual orientation can be influenced by the amount of estrogen (female hormone) and testosterone (male hormone) a human being is exposed to while still in the womb. A male embryo exposed to unusually high levels of estrogen could become feminized, and thus attracted to males, and vice versa for female embryos. Studies conducted on rats support this theory (Berkowitz, 1996).
The final component of biological arguments for homosexuality arises from comparative observational studies. Rates of homosexuality tend to be consistent across cultures, regardless of the cultures’ respective tolerance of homosexual activity. Homosexual citizens number roughly ten percent across all cultural and social distinctions (Boswell, 1990). Finally, do psychosocial considerations (or instinct) operate on the many animal species in which homosexual behavior has been witnessed, including fruit flies, fish, penguins, owls, sheep, bears, sheep, and some monkeys (Safro, 2005)? Even the American Psychological Association has issued statements proclaiming that homosexuality is not a choice (Johnson, 2003).
Nurturists argue just as passionately as naturist for the influence of culture, family and peers on sexuality. For example, few could question the enormous impact our cultural background has upon us. Consider homosexuality. In certain cultures, homosexual acts were and are acceptable. Ancient Greek and Roman men sometimes “initiated” young boys into adulthoo through homosexual relations (Schmidt, 1995). Similarly, some current tribes in New Guinea include insemination rituals which male warriors perform upon upcoming warrior youths (Johnson, 2003). And pop culture anecdotes have familiarized the notion of frequent homosexual activity in a prison setting. Yet in none of these cases would the participants claim that they are homosexual (White, 2005). The acts resulted from opportunity an circumstance….from the culture.
Nurturists might also counter that societal pressures can influence orientation. Today’s figures and statistics were calculated in an era of more general acceptance. As little as a few decades ago, homosexuality was considered both a mental sickness and a moral depravity (Roberts, 2004). Statistics tabulated during these times might have revealed a quite lower rate of homosexual identification than today’s era of gay pride parades and social activism. (Many believe that the very idea of homosexuality as a form of self-identification did not emerge until the permissive, rebellious Renaissance era). (Schmidt, 1995) Today, ex-gay ministries (which treat homosexuality as an unhealthy social ailment) claim success in introducing gays and lesbians into a heterosexual lifestyle (Johnson, 2006). One ‘ex-gay,’ Caleb Price explained in a 2004 article that he came to believe the arguments of naturists, but his experiences at an ‘ex-gay’ camp led him back to his original assertion that his sexual inclinations were a result of childhood factors. Price’s sentiment is shared by many ‘nurture’ advocates who claim that some form of maladaptive parenting or childhood trauma can influence sexuality. The Archives of Psychiatry could support the bad childhood theory, as they have found high rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety amongst gays and lesbians (Byrd, Cox & Robinson, 2001). Naturists might also find a hard case for arguing the higher incidences of childhood sexual abuse (up to thirty-five percent for men) and absentee parents among gays and lesbians (Schmidt, 1995). Less dramatic parenting problems have also been implicated in sexuality theories, including the psychoanalytic belief that alternate sexual orientations (more specifically in men) results from weak fathers and strong, domineering mothers. This theory, however, lacks credible scientific evidence (Johnson, 2003).
An additional aspect of parent-child relations can also apply to peer relations: gender identity. Could a child who exhibits physical and behavioral characteristics of the opposite sex encourage parent/peer interactions which would reinforce the development of alternate gender characteristics, including same-sex attraction? Most cultures have a gender belief system, which includes an unspoken understanding of appropriate expectations for each gender. If a child defies these expectations, he or she may either be dismissed by parents. A child exhibiting gender-atypical behavior is also more vulnerable to ridicule by peers. Often, both adults and children will assume that a feminine boy or a tomboyish girl are homosexual (as stereotypes and surveys alike confirm). (Whitley, 2001) Might these assumptions lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy? One survey found that cross-gender behavior led to a later homosexual orientation in seventy-five percent of cases (Burr, 1997).
How does the great nature/nurture debate ultimately measure in regards to sexuality?
Perhaps we are not dealing with an either/or question. The best theories join ideas to create an ultimate truth….it is the basis of all science. This debate is no different. Both sides have their strengths, and both sides have their weaknesses. Like most scientific matters, sexuality is likely a complicated intertwining of both biological and socio-cultural factors.
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