Nature Versus Nurture


The question of homosexuality in children and adolescents in relation to nature versus nurture is an issue that has been debated without much avail. This issue poses the question which is more dominating nature or nurture? Nature referring to genetics or inherent traits and nurture referring to learned behavior. The scientific community proposes that homosexual children have a predisposition for same sex orientation whereas the religious community proposes that homosexuality is a sin and is a learned behavior, one of the many immoralities of society. In 1980 the diagnosis of Gender GIDC was introduced into the DSM-III as a kind of backdoor maneuver to replace homosexuality, which was deleted from the DSM-II in 1973. Research has an affect on how society views and responds to homosexuality. It increasingly supports the idea that sexual orientation is biologically determined.

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Nature Versus Nurture: An Analysis Research of Homosexuality and Societal Views of Childhood and Adolescent Homosexuality

From their parents the ideas of feminine and masculine gender roles are learned by children in every culture. These conceptions are influenced more by culture than biology. The manner in which we think about female and male gender roles in our culture represents the existing archetype that shapes our mode of thought. Over time this mode of thinking may change.

During the last forty years the idea of female and male gender roles have undergone significant changes in relation to attempts to challenge traditional ideas and attitudes with more egalitarian views. Societal views concerning childhood homosexuality are heavy influenced by research that focuses on nature vs. nature.

The issue of gender roles is associated with the nature versus nurture debate; nature referring to biological influences and nurture referring to learned behaviors. Most debates concerning gender roles deem that learned behavior is the most significant factor in the determination of society’s thoughts and conduct in relation to same sex orientation. The debate over nature versus nurture poses the question of how gender roles are developed. Do gender roles in children develop according to the nature of the sexes or do children learn gender roles via the process of nurturing and socialization by which society creates acceptable roles for females and males? The debate can be constructed in an identical manner when the questions is posed of whether childhood or adolescent homosexuality is genetic or learned behavior, meaning is it caused by nature or nurture.

Past Theories of the Origins Homosexuality

Prior to the 1970’s theories concerning the origins of homosexuality were dominated by three basic theories, dominating mother weak father, arrested psychosexual development, and hormonal imbalance. According to Weiten, “Freudian theorists argued that a male is likely to become gay when raised by a weak, detached, ineffective father who is a poor heterosexual role model and by an overprotective, close-binding mother, with whom the boy identifies” (2008, p.415).  There are no empirical studies that validate this theory. It has been found in studies of homosexual men that homosexual men were no more strongly attached to their mother nor were they more overindulged by their mother than heterosexual men. (Perrin, 2002)

According to Lerner:

In Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development all normal people go through the oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages of development because these stages are universal and biologically predetermined. Nurture-environment—is said to interact with these biologically determined changes, but only as a secondary influence; environment may on speedup, slow down, or in extreme cases arrest these intrinsic progressions. (2008, p.4)

It has been hypothesized in psychoanalytic tradition that same sex orientation was the result of an arrest in normal psychosexual development, caused by being brought up in a dysfunctional family with a specific makeup. In spite of the relative popularity of this theory, it is founded exclusively on clinical speculation and has not been validated empirically. (Haldeman, 19994)

According to Dansky:

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, endocrinologists submitted hormone imbalance theories to account for same-sex relatedness. They hypothesized that the hormone testosterone, a physical substance, is the psychological embodiment of masculinity. The assumption rests with the premise that gay males are less masculine than heterosexual males because they have decreased testosterone levels. This proves not to be the case, since hormone measurements demonstrate no variance in gay males, heterosexuals, or bisexuals. . . . Due to the failure of studies of prenatal neuroendrocrine influences on sexual orientation and biological determinism, researchers about-faced, returning to the importance of a model based on interactions between nature, nurture, and sexual orientation. (1994)

Psychological Models Explaining Same Sex Orientation

Three Models have been developed by psychologist to explain the origins of same sex orientation. The first model, the model of permissive biological effects proposes that “biology primarily provides the neural machinery through which sexual orientation is inscribed by formative experiences” (Corvino, 1999, p.108). This model supports the idea that homosexuality is learned through interaction and socialization. Corvino explains:

“Formative experience” can be defined as the subjective internalization of one’s interactions with the environment. Internalization includes the perception of the environment and the interpretation and integration of ongoing experience in the contexts of the moment and of one’s life history. Each formative experience changes the individual so that the next interaction with the environment will be different. The individual is not passive in this process but, instead, repeatedly provokes responses from the environment and changes the environment in the process. (1999, p.109)

The second model, the model of direct biological effects proposes that ” The brain would have an intrinsic (i.e., constitutional) sexual orientation or predisposition toward one orientation or another” (Corvino, 1999, p.111).  According to this model biological factors such as hormones or genes directly influence the part of the brain the decided sexual orientation.

The third model, the model of indirect biological effects proposes that “any number of temperamental variants could influence sexual orientation. A given variant might predispose an individual to homosexuality in one environment and to heterosexuality in another, while making no contribution to sexual orientation in others” (Corvino, 1999, p.112). These variants can influence how an individual experiences their environment from the moment of birth; thereby, shaping the relationships and experiences that influence how sexual orientation develops.

Nature Argument

Substantial genetic, endocrine, and anatomical evidence has been found to support the argument of biological theorists. In the early 1990s studies performed by Bailey and Pillard reinforced that idea that homosexuality is genetically inherited. They performed study in which they surveyed homosexual men who either had a twin brother or an adopted brother. They found that fifty-two percent of identical twins of homosexual men were also homosexual, twenty-two percent of fraternal twin brothers of homosexual men were homosexual, and eleven percent of adoptive brothers of homosexual men were also homosexual. A second study performed on women in 1993 yielded similar findings. It was found that forty-eight percent of identical twins of homosexual women were also homosexual, sixteen percent of fraternal twins were also homosexual, and six percent of adoptive sisters of homosexual women were homosexual. The results of these findings suggested that there is a genetic predisposition to homosexuality. (Weiten, 2008)

     In 1991 Simon LeVay a neurobiologist performed scientific research in hopes that his findings would help homosexuals to become recognized by society as a separate sex. LeVay hoped that through his research he would achieve rights for homosexuals and reduce homophobia in the United States.  In the study, LeVay performed autopsies on the brains of nineteen homosexual male cadavers, sixteen heterosexual male cadavers, and six female cadavers. His findings revealed that nuclei in a region of the hypothalamus that was known to be important in differentiating typical male from typical female sexual behavior in certain animals showed differences.  He noted that two of the nuclei had shown to be larger in males than in females; LeVay found the same sex difference in one of them, the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH‑3).  LeVay’s findings also revealed that the size of the INAH‑3 was comparatively symmetrical in homosexual males and heterosexual females.  LeVay also reported findings contrasting statistical averages; he found that in some homosexual males and heterosexual females, the INAH‑3 was as large as in most heterosexual males.  Thereby, he concluded that the size of this brain region in the hypothalamus cannot be the single source of sexual orientation, and may not be a cause at all.  LeVay’s findings suggest that homosexual males and heterosexual females often share a feature of brain anatomy that is related to sexual behavior. (LeVay, 1994)

     LeVay was not the only neurobiologist to note differences in the anatomy of the brain. Laura Allen a research scientist and Roger Gorski a professor of neurobiology reported findings from a study of the anterior commissure, a small bundle of nerves that connects the two cerebral hemispheres. The anterior commissure, which is believed to control sexual behavior and linked to prenatal hormones, which is larger in females than males was found to be larger in homosexual males than heterosexual males.  These findings also support the theory that sexual orientation may be determined prenatal hormones. (Allen & Gorski, 1992)

     Gunter Dorner a neuroendocronologist pioneered research that studied the influence of prenatal hormones on sexual orientation. Gunter performed test on lab rats where he manipulated a fetal rat’s exposure to male hormones. This manipulation caused an inversion in the rat’s sexual orientation. (Myers, 2004) These findings implied that the same type of inversion could occur in humans causing bisexual or homosexual behaviors. In 1987 Ellis and Ames identified four factors; environment, genes, hormones and neuroanatomy, that when compounded are likely to cause same sex orientation or behaviors. Prenatal interactions of these factors have an effect on development on the hypothalamic-limbic region of the brain. These prenatal interactions also affect the regions of the brain that control gender-typed behavior. (Barrett, Black, Cantor & Cantor, 2006) Mustanski, Chivers, and Bailey’s study (as cited in Barrett, Black, Cantor & Cantor, 2006, p.42) found that “Prenatal androgen activity potentiates attraction to females and the absence of such activity potentiates attraction to males, is strongly suggestive of prenatal neurohormonal effects in determining sexual orientation.”

     The most promising research performed to confirm nature as the cause for same sex orientation was performed by Dean Hamer a geneticist that reported finding a gay gene. In 1993, in the journal Science Hamer reported that DNA markers on the X chromosome were linked to male same sex orientation. Hamer began his research by recruiting seventy-six homosexual men. He then traced the men’s families for instances of homosexuality. Hamer found that an unexpectedly high number of instances homosexuality in the male family members; male family members with a matrilineal. These findings led to the analysis of the X chromosome which male exclusively inherit from their mother. Hamer rationalized that a gene contained in the X chromosome increased the probability of same sex orientation leading him to conclude that biologically related men share the same X chromosome marker in proximity of the gene. Hamer recruited forty pairs of homosexual male siblings and found that thirty-three of the forty sibling pairs shared a mutual set of markers in proximity of the end of the long arm of the X chromosome. (Harvey, 1996)  Hamer (as cited in Harvey, 1996, p. 47) concluded that his findings “produced evidence that one form of male homosexuality is preferentially transmitted through the maternal side and is genetically linked to chromosome region Xq28.” Hamer’s findings seemed promising; proponents of the nature theory finally had biological proof that homosexuality was caused by a genetic anomaly. However, in 1999 George Rice debunked the gay gene. Rice reported that he had performed a study similar to that of Hamer in which he recruited 52 homosexual male siblings. Rice reported that he had found no evidence of linkage of homosexuality to the chromosome region Xq28. (Sadar, 1999) Schuklenk and Stein state:

 “Gay genes” are not required for homosexuality to be heritable. This is because heritability has a precise technical meaning; it refers to the ratio of genetic variation to total (phenotypic) variation. As such, heritability merely reflects the degree to which a given outcome is linked to genetic factors; it says nothing about the nature of those factors nor about their mechanism of action. Homosexuality would be heritable if genes worked through a very indirect mechanism. (1997, para.11)

Nurture Argument

Proponents of the nurture theory believe that homosexuality is learned behavior; factors from an individual’s environment cause same sex orientation or behavior. Nurture proponents also known as social theorists believe that homosexuality is a result of environmental factors that affect an individual during childhood. The social construct for what is considerable acceptable behavior is mandated by religious ideals, political factors, and tradition or norms. Pickering and Saunders (1997) propose that, “The diversity of sexual behaviour across cultures and history provide evidence for this view. In some cultures homosexuality is so uncommon that there is no word for it in the language, and open long term relationships between consenting adults were almost unheard of in Western culture before the 19th century.”

Most nurture theories focus on the family environment. The social learning theory advocates that children learn to behave as boys and girls by modeling others and responding to rewards and punishments. Research has found that children tend to model their behavior after persons whom they perceive as dominant and caring. A child’s persona tends to resemble that of the more attractive or dominant parent. Boys and girls not only model their parents but also the behavior of same-sex peers. Boys and girls tend to follow the crowd. Children are very perceptive; they examine the consistencies in the behaviors of females and males and act accordingly to their sex. (Lippa, 2002)

Media is another factor in how children learn about gender. Men are portrayed as strong, heroic, and breadwinners while women are portrayed as sexy, attractive, and weak. Women serve more domestic roles opposed to men serving more professional roles. Cartoons which specifically target children possess gender stereotypical behavior. In the cartoon Jimmy Neutron, Jimmy’s father works outside the home whereas his mother works inside the home and often is shown wearing gloves that she uses to clean. The cultivation theorists maintain that the more time that an individual spends watching television the more apt they are to form views of the real world that are reflections of those on television. Signorielli and Lears found that:

Those children who watched more television were likely to say that only girls should do those chores traditionally associated with women and that only boys should do those chores traditionally associated with men. . . . Among preadolescent children there was a moderate, statistically significant relationship between television viewing and sex-stereotyped ideas about gender-related chores. (1992,p.168)

     Homosexuality as a Mental Illness

In the early twentieth century it was an accepted belief among psychiatrists and psychologist that homosexuality was pathological. Until the late 1960s it was believed that same sex orientation in adolescents was, temporary and normal. It was believed that we all through this stage of development prior to becoming normal heterosexual adults. Developmental psychology urged the acceptance of homoerotic and homosexual behavior in adolescents. There was a general consensus among psychiatrists and psychologists that depicted same sex orientation as a part of every individual’s human experience. It was believed that homosexuality was a result of human development; this was a key concern to psychiatrists and a significant concern for psychologists dealing with development. The assumption behind these views was that homosexuals were discontented and mentally ill. (Spurlock, 2002)

In 1973 in the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality under the heading of same sex orientation disturbance as a response to the pressure they were receiving from the Gay Rights Activist. This measure was taken to address the issue of whether homosexuality was a result of nature or nurture. (Spitzer & Zucker, 2005)  Greenberg states, “The depathologization of homosexuality not only brought social and political considerations into the clinic, but also clinical proceedings into the social and political world…. Rather than telling individuals how to adapt to society, therapists were to tell society to make room for certain individuals, to stop making them suffer” (1997, p. 261).

According to Spitzer and Zucker:

In the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III; American Psychiatric Association, 1980), there appeared for the first time two psychiatric diagnoses pertaining to gender dysphoria in children, adolescents, and adults: gender identity disorder of childhood (GIDC) and transsexualism (the latter was to be used for adolescents and adults)…. Over the years, the diagnosis of GID (and its predecessors GIDC and transsexualism) has attracted controversy as a mental disorder, for its diagnostic criteria, as a target of therapeutic intervention, and for its relationship to a homosexual sexual orientation…Given the connection between GID in childhood and a later homosexual sexual orientation, a number of critics have claimed that the GIDC diagnosis was included in the DSM-III as an indirect method of preventing the  development of a later homosexual sexual orientation. (pp. 32-33)

By adding these diagnoses the American Psychiatric Association provided warrant for society and parental fears that there is something wrong with a boy that plays with girls dolls or likes to dress up in girls. According to Baker (2002), “A good deal of evidence supports that adult gay men and lesbians are more likely to remember gender-nonconforming or gender atypical behaviors and interests in childhood than are heterosexual men and women” (p.26). It was the belief that this type of homosexual behavior should be restricted and treated. Parents feared that they and their children would be stigmatized. In the 1970s, as a result of a panicked and anxious society projects were implemented to mentally and physically study what society deemed gender deviant boys in an effort to control them. Society was attempting to force conformity of the young boys and put them on the path to become heterosexual male adults that met the appropriate standards of masculinity. (Herzog, 2009)

Political Arena: Liberal Versus Conservative

The matter of sexual orientation has become a matter of political and religious as well a psychological and biological. Liberals have a tendency to view homosexuality as genetic or biological, denoting that homosexuality is shaped by natural processes and thereby are mot responsible for their propensity to same sex orientation. Conservatives have a tendency to view homosexuality as a moral issue in which same sex orientation is a learned behavior. Homosexuality as a moral issue is characterized by immorality or sin rather than intrinsic behavior.


     Homosexuality is either categorized as biological or learned. The arguments for nature and nurture are compelling. It is not likely that society will ever unanimously agree on the origins of homosexuality. There are those that believe that homosexuality is neither learned nor inherited but a choice that an individual makes. The nature argument appears to provide more empirical scientific evidence whereas the nurture side possesses more sociological findings. It is up to the individual and not society to decide what argument best represents their beliefs about homosexuality.


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