Homosexuality: Right or Wrong?

By Ruse, Michael | Free Inquiry, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview
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Homosexuality: Right or Wrong?

Ruse, Michael, Free Inquiry

The notorious Kinsey studies of American sexual behavior (the male study was published in 1948 and the female study in 1953) shocked the shockable and surprised even the unshockable. No one had realized what a fetid maelstrom of sexual lust bubbles beneath the comfortable and calm Norman Rockwell surface of conventional family life. And no aspect of the studies caused greater upset than those parts centering on sexual inclination and activity directed toward members of one's own sex. Homosexuality (from the Greek, meaning "same sex," rather than from the Latin and meaning "human or man's sex") is apparently a very common phenomenon indeed, especially among males. Up to half of us (males) have had some erotic same-sex encounter at some point in our lives, and a full 10 percent are more or less exclusively homosexual, more or less all of our lives. The figures for females are significantly less, although there is now some suspicion that they might be rising.

Speculation about the causes of homosexuality predate Kinsey. Roughly speaking--very roughly speaking--there are two main schools of thought. On the one hand, there are those who think that homosexuality might be a function of biology, in some broad sense. The genes could be involved, for instance, but there also might be a connection to hormones, which in turn might or might not have something to do with heredity. On the other hand, there are those who think that homosexuality has its genesis in environmental factors--atypical family dynamics, for instance, or the influence of older classmates or teachers.

Then, cutting across these approaches, there are those who would argue that the full picture must acknowledge both biology and culture. They claim that biology sets background conditions and constraints, but that culture fills out the specific details. Sexual orientation, therefore, is somewhat like language skill. It is clear that the ability to speak any language at all is a function of our innate nature, and, if Chomsky and his school are correct, the very structure of our language is determined by heredity. But the actual language we speak--English, French, Japanese--is a function of upbringing.

Finally, at the opposite pole are those who argue that sexual orientation has no cause at all! More precisely, what they argue is that sexual orientation--heterosexual or homosexual--is all a "social construction," that is to say it has no true reflection in objective reality. Strongly influenced by the ideas of the late Michel Foucault, people of this school suggest that terms like homosexuality were inventions (in this case by the medical profession) to control and rule certain segments of society implicity or explicitly. The only function of such terms is to support the power that some people claim over others.

Arguments can be given for and against all these causal positions. I mention them to underline the point that even now we really cannot say definitively why some incline sexually one way and others incline another. Yet, there are two points that can be made with reasonable conviction. First, homosexuality does not seem to be an infectious disease in the sense that (say) measles is, where exposure (especially of children) would lead to lifelong intuitive inclination. Certainly, in a society like that of ancient Greece where homosexuality was accepted there would probably be more open activity, but the actual number of homosexuals would not increase.

Second, homosexual inclination is not really a matter of choice. How one acts is, of course, a matter of personal freedom, with the proviso that obviously someone with a homosexual inclination is much more likely to act homosexually, all other things being equal (which they rarely are). Deliberately thinking about members of the opposite sex is not going to make a homosexual change. (As Simone de Beauvoir noted some years ago, females tend to be less rigidly fixed in their sexual orientation than either heterosexual or homosexual men.

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