SOC 400 – Term Paper
I have struggled since my first degrees in Sociology and LGBT Studies and throughout this class to find a concise and plausible scientific explanation accounting for the development of diverse sexual orientations in humans. I think I’ve finally identified one that works. The ideas of sex, gender, and sexual orientation are a reductive and imprecise heuristic of human behavior which — through prediscursive construction — resist scientific examination despite lacking evidentiary support.
Let’s start with two quick examples. In the seventeenth century, a scientist named Mendeleev tried to create a system for categorizing molecules based on their properties. (Sutton, 2019) He created the first periodic table of the elements. (Sutton, 2019) What he was trying to do is create a simple two-dimensional system where everything is arranged merely into rows and columns. Things in the same row share certain properties. Things in the same column share certain properties. Knowing where something is would mean you can leverage a heuristic or shortcut to predict its properties. The problem with this model is that we have learned countless new things since then which do not fit, and every new thing adds another missing dimension which is not included in the model. The heuristic shortcut breaks down because it introduces errors into our assumptions. For example, there are often many versions of each element called isotopes and they all have different properties not illustrated in the model; this could be seen as the missing third dimension. But then the patterns of many things like electronegativity, ion charge, and oxidation numbers do not follow the table’s layout. (Scerri, 2012) Our two-dimensional model is now twenty-dimensional, and the categories Mendeleev established already don’t make any sense. We have also learned that these “elements” and not truly elemental, but made up of smaller components. (Sutton 2020) It’s a case where a simple model intended as a heuristic shortcut is invalidated as we learn more detail about the underlying systems.
As a second example, there is the shoreline problem. How many kilometers long is the shoreline of Britain? If you look from far away, it seems like there is a clear answer, but the closer you look and the more detail you add, the bigger the number becomes. (Giaimo, 2016) There is no true and correct answer which fits all cases. Instead, we see an inverse relationship between accuracy and precision; the closer you look, the harder it is to feel confident about your answer.
These are examples of a larger idea called Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems from mathematical logic. The basic argument is that there are inherent limitations in all modeling systems, and no system of symbolism can be complete. (Raatikainen, 2020) In essence, no map of the world can be a better map than the world is of itself, and the closer you get, the worse your map is. I bring this up because much of the modern social sciences including Sociology have evolved in part from two earlier sciences called Cybernetics and Systems Theory. These early sciences tried to produce accurate models of complex systems like economies and society. (Curtis, 2011, 6:48-10:15) Instead of trying to create precise models of linear relationships between cause and effect in complex systems, they learned it was more accurate to adopt a nuanced understanding of multiple overlapping factors contributing to an outcome. (Curtis, 2011, 10:15-10:42) This is the solution to all the examples I’ve given here. If we likewise accept that there is no correct answer to the problem of categorizing all people into a discrete set of prescribed identities, then we can discuss precision and probability in a broader spectrum of possible identities and orientations.
Around the same time Mendeleev was categorizing elements, Magnus Hirschfeld was categorizing sexuality. Before Hirschfeld’s work in the nineteenth century, the idea that people had a sexual orientation was not a commonly accepted idea. (LeVay, 1991, p. 163) Hirschfeld made the classic scientific error. He ignored the long history of examples when different kinds of sex were normalized between different gender groups, privileging instead the cultural assumptions he had as a result of his own socialization. He reduced everyone to a binary gender and a binary partner. (LeVay, 1991, p. 35) Within decades, scientists like Alfred Kinsey had thoroughly debunked this idea using experimental data to show that most people do not fit Hirschfeld’s theory. (LeVay, 1991, p. 8)
Judith Butler said, “Are the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests? If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all… gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts… This production of sex as the prediscursive ought to be understood as the effect of the apparatus of cultural construction designated by gender.” (Butler 1990, p. 10)
Foucault said that humans perceive the world through a series of “sieves” or “screens,” each of which slightly alters or colors our perception, leading each individual to a completely different final image of a given situation. (Foucault, 1971, 18:33-22:19) These final images are wholly inaccurate from any objective perspective since no two people would see the same thing in the same situation. Foucault’s “sieves” are the discourses or social ideas that we have. Some examples of discourses that color our perception include things like sex and gender and therefore sexual orientation, but also the idea that any of these things exists at all.
While I don’t deny that most people are socialized to identify with a particular gender and feel attraction to others who identify with particular genders, these ideas and behaviors vary widely across cultures and throughout history from Ancient Greece (LeVay, 1991, p. 12) to the modern Fa’afafine of Samoa. (Vasey, 2016) It’s easy for anyone to make claims about humanity founded on assumptions from their own culture which don’t fit all the available evidence. It is more accurate and less culturally contingent to argue that categories like sex and gender are merely the social performance of the way each person we meet is experiencing the overlap of countless semi-random biological and social factors that contribute to a unique expression of characteristics.
An intersex mentor once told me that there are at least as many genders and orientations as there are people. Just like the shoreline problem, any attempt at a more precise definition of sex, gender, and sexual orientation must necessarily become less accurate than this very abstract explanation. Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are like elements on Mendeleev’s table arranged in two dimensions. These categories started out as an attempt to create simple boxes to place all individuals into. The problem is that the closer we look, the more examples we see where these categories do not accurately account for the countless other dimensions which they purport to include. Therefore, sexual orientation starts from a basis of reductive inaccuracy and arrives at a conclusion that cannot possibly reflect reality.
LaVey covers many of these missing dimensions of sex, gender, and sexual orientation in the book “Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why.” For example, there is a structure in the human brain called INAH3. These structures are considered a sex characteristic. This means they vary across the population and correlate to a person’s gender identity (LeVay, 1991, p. 161) and sexual orientation (LeVay, 1991, p. 107). INAH3 is one of many brain structures which despite correlating to sex, gender, and sexual orientation cannot be used on its own to reliably determine a person’s gender identity and preferred sexual behaviors. Instead, it forms part of a broader holistic view of hundreds of similar body structures and other social and environmental factors like facial structure (Malvina et al, 2013, 1377), natal testosterone levels (LeVay, 1991, p. 28) and the number of older brothers a person has (LeVay, 1991, p. 135). All of these correlate to some degree with a person’s gender identity and preferred sexual behaviors, but none of them correlates 100%, and even taken together there are always exceptions. It simply can not be said that for any individual throughout history and across cultures, a given set of observations about their physical and social characteristics will 100% predict their innate and permanent gender identity and sexual orientation.
Just like we saw in those first two examples, it’s easy to make superficial claims about individuals and groups based on our own culture and experience. However, the more we learn about the details and background beyond these superficial claims, the more these claims fall apart. Just like with shoreline measurements, there is an inverse relationship between accuracy and precision when making claims about the identities of people based on evidence. The more detail we add, the more confounding third-factors we introduce, and the claim that people have some determinable gender and sexual orientation quickly falls apart. Based on the evidence, the truth seems to be that like height, body shape, skin color, and all other physical and behavioral characteristics, sex and sexual orientation are diverse multidimensional spectra where countless sub-factors overlap in chaotic and interesting ways to produce a wide variety of people and experiences.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble. London: Taylor and Francis.
Curtis, A. (2011, June 06) The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts. Film. BBC.
Foucault, M. (1971, November). The Chomsky-Foucault Debate On Human Nature. Retrieved December 06, 2020 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wfNl2L0Gf8
Giaimo, C. (2016, October 07). Why It’s Impossible to Know a Coastline’s True Length. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-its-impossible-to-know-a-coastlines-true-length
LeVay, S. (2011). Gay, straight, and the reason why: The science of sexual orientation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Raatikainen, P. (2020, April 02). Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/goedel-incompleteness/
Scerri, E. (2012, January 01). Trouble in the periodic table. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://edu.rsc.org/feature/trouble-in-the-periodic-table/2020266.article
Skorska, Malvina N, Geniole, Shawn N, Vrysen, Brandon M, McCormick, Cheryl M, & Bogaert, Anthony F. (2015). Facial Structure Predicts Sexual Orientation in Both Men and Women. Archives of Sexual Behavior., 44(5), 1377-1394.
Sutton, C. (2020, December 01). Subatomic particle. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/science/subatomic-particle
Sutton, M. (2019, January 02). The father of the periodic table. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.chemistryworld.com/features/the-father-of-the-periodic-table/3009828.article
Vasey, P. (2016, November 16) No Dodos: What Cross-Cultural Research Tells us About Why Homosexual Males Do Not Become Extinct. Retrieved December 06, 2020 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m939SyfQqow