From Exotic to Erotic: Roots of Sexual Orientation Found in Personality, Childhood Friendships

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, August 10, 1996 | Go to article overview

From Exotic to Erotic: Roots of Sexual Orientation Found in Personality, Childhood Friendships


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Homosexuality sparks bitter political wrangles and impassioned scholarly debate in the United States. From the embattled policy of "don't ask, don't tell" in the armed services to controversial attempts to certify same-sex marriages, legislators appear far from gay, in the traditional sense of that word, when confronted with such divisive issues.

Policy disputes regarding homosexuality often seem to rest on the assumption that if you choose, you lose. Battle lines form over whether homosexuals heed strong inborn impulses (a notion favored by gay activists and others who want to extend legal protection for homosexuals) or consciously decide to consort with members of their own sex (the position held by many of those who oppose such laws).

Academics face off across their own conceptual divide. Biology-oriented researchers point to mounting evidence linking homosexuality to a gene or genes, prenatal exposure to excessive amounts of masculinizing or feminizing hormones, and changes in brain structure. Biological factors such as these mastermind the erotic pull to one's own sex, this camp argues.

An opposing school of thought, known as social constructionism, regards sexual orientation as a malleable concept that varies greatly from one culture to another. The extent of homosexuality and public attitudes toward homosexuals oscillate markedly across societies and historical eras, this group holds.

Enter Daryl Bem of Cornell University. Bem, a respected social psychologist, boldly claims that he can weld these factions into a cohesive explanation of how individuals become sexually attracted to the same sex, the opposite sex, or even both sexes. His theory rests on what he sees as a fundamental facet of human development. He calls it "exotic becomes erotic."

More precisely, children frequently view the opposite sex, and in a minority of cases regard the same sex, as dissimilar, or exotic. Exotic peers elicit physiological tingles and jolts that seem offensive at first but that fire up sexual desire later in life.

If true, this idea would put a new spin on the enthusiasm with which many grade-school boys and girls brand the opposite sex as "yucky," or worse.

Scientists express mixed reactions to Bem's proposal. Some suspect it will inspire a rethinking of how sexual proclivities develop, while others classify his theory as vague and unpromising.

Regardless of who proves correct, Bem-who has previously engaged in controversial research (SN: 1/29/94, p. 68) outside the roiling waters of sex studies-hopes to inject greater theoretical rigor into studies of sexual orientation.

Though many researchers assume that genes directly cause same- or opposite-sex attraction, they have not spelled out the pathway by which genes lead to sexual behavior, Bem holds. That tempts scientists and the media alike to herald biological features linked to homosexuality as probable causes of same-sex attraction. However, researchers have yet to examine whether these ballyhooed biological factors actually regulate temperamental or personality traits that raise the likelihood of becoming homosexual in certain types of cultures, Bem argues.

"The public can be forgiven for believing that research is but one government grant away from pinpointing the penis-preference gene," he remarks.

Bem's theory, which appeared in the April Psychological Review, outlines a sequence of events presumed to ensure that exotic becomes erotic for most men and women, at least in cultures that emphasize or exaggerate sex differences through divisions of labor and power. Nearly all cultures, past and present, meet that requirement, Bem contends.

Genes and other biological factors orchestrate temperaments that, in turn, gear kids toward pursuing sex-typical or sex-atypical activities and peers, Bem proposes. These temperamental traits probably include the

pursuit or avoidance of aggressive interactions and rough-and-tumble play, in his view. …

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