[This is a postscript to the published article Exotic Becomes Erotic: A Developmental Theory of Sexual Orientation. It has been excerpted from Exotic Becomes Erotic: Explaining the Enigma of Sexual Orientation, an invited address presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, 1997. Correspondence should be addressed to Daryl J. Bem, Department of Psychology, Uris Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to d.bem@cornell.edu.]

Exotic Becomes Erotic: A Political Postscript

(Version 2.0)

Daryl J. Bem
Cornell University

This article is a postscript to Bem's (1996) theory of sexual orientation, which claims that an individual's sexual orientation is more directly the result of childhood experiences than of inborn biological factors. The possibility that the theory provides a successful strategy for preventing gender-nonconforming children from becoming homosexual adults is considered and rejected. So, too, is the thesis that biological explanations of homosexuality are more likely than experience-based explanations to promote gay-positive attitudes and practices.

In the article, "Exotic becomes erotic: A developmental theory of sexual orientation" (Bem, 1996), I claimed that an individual's sexual orientation is more directly the result of childhood experiences than of inborn biological factors. My purpose there was to argue that the claim was valid; my purpose here is to discuss what might happen if the public believed it to be valid. Could the exotic-becomes-erotic (EBE) explanation of homosexuality be (mis)used to aid and abet an antigay agenda? Is a biological explanation of homosexuality more likely to promote gay-positive attitudes and practices?

[Footnote 1. The policy implications of biological explanations of homosexuality are also discussed by Greenberg and Bailey (1993).]

The Prevention & Cure Agenda

Because EBE theory proposes that an individual's sexual orientation is more directly the result of childhood experiences than of biological factors, it has prompted concerns that it could aid and abet an antigay agenda of prevention and "cure." In particular, the theory appears to suggest that parents could prevent their gender-nonconforming children from becoming gay or lesbian by encouraging sex-typical activities and discouraging sex-atypical activities.

Of course our society hardly needed EBE theory to suggest such a strategy. The belief that childhood gender nonconformity leads to later homosexuality is already so widely believed that many parents (especially fathers) already discourage their children (especially sons) from engaging in gender-nonconforming behaviors lest they become homosexual. And, if EBE theory is correct that both homosexuality and heterosexuality derive from the same childhood processes, then it is clear that a gender-polarizing society such as ours is already spectacularly effective in producing heterosexuality: 85-95% of all men and women in the United States are exclusively heterosexual.

But this same figure suggests that the sex-atypicality of children who persist in their gender nonconformity despite such pressures must be strongly rooted in their inborn temperaments--as EBE theory proposes. Requiring such children to engage in sex-typical activities and to avoid sex-atypical activities is unlikely to diminish their feelings of being different from same-sex peers--it may even enhance such feelings--and, hence, is unlikely to diminish their later erotic attraction to those peers.

Empirical support for this conjecture emerges from the longitudinal study of gender-nonconforming boys, cited earlier (Green, 1987). About 27% of these boys had been entered by their parents into various kinds of therapy, including behavioral therapy specifically designed to prevent a homosexual orientation from developing. Interviews with these parents revealed that they were more anxious about their sons' later sexuality than were parents of other gender-nonconforming boys in the sample, and they had probably tried to actively discourage their sons' gender nonconformity in other ways as well. All of this effort was for naught: 75% of these boys emerged as homosexual or bisexual, slightly more than the percentage of boys who had not undergone therapy. In the context of our society's current gender-polarizing practices, then, EBE theory would not seem to provide a successful strategy for preventing gender-nonconforming children from becoming homosexual adults.

Because contemporary debates about the causes of race and sex differences have so familiarized the public with the nature-nurture issue, it is commonly assumed that the public debate about homosexuality is a replay of that same issue. It is not. The nature-nurture issue concerns the respective roles of biological and environmental factors in the determination of some trait or behavior and is debated within the usual deterministic framework of science. In contrast, the public debate about homosexuality concerns the deterministic assumption itself: Is homosexuality determined by factors beyond the individual's control or is it freely chosen? Because the public tends to equate uncontrollable factors with biological determinants and to overlook environmental determinants (other than seduction), the only alternative to biological causation that currently enters the public discourse is free choice. (The public is generally unaware of the debate between biological essentialists and social constructionists over the concept of sexual orientation itself.)

In the context of the public debate, then, both the EBE and the biological explanations are equivalent because they are equivalently deterministic. Both refute the claim that individuals simply choose their sexual orientations; both are consistent with the data showing that individuals cannot be "seduced" into a homosexual orientation by same-sex sexual encounters or by positive role models who happen to be gay (Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981; Bem, 1996); and, neither suggests an available strategy for changing a person's sexual orientation.

Are Biological Explanations of Homosexuality Politically Benign?

Biological explanations of homosexuality have become more popular with the public over the past several years: In 1983, 16% of Americans believed that "homosexuality is something that people are born with"; by 1993, that figure had nearly doubled to 31% (Moore, 1993). Many members of the lesbian/gay/bisexual community welcome this trend. For example, The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, reported that 61% of its readers believed that "it would mostly help gay and lesbian rights if homosexuality were found to be biologically determined" (1996).

Several supporting reasons for this expectation are frequently cited: Evidence for biological determination would convince the public that gays and lesbians do not simply choose their sexual orientations; it would calm fears that gays and lesbians (or even positive representations of them in the media) could prompt young people to adopt homosexual orientations; it would discourage the pursuit of strategies designed to prevent or "cure" homosexuality; and finally, it would strengthen the rationale for treating sexual orientation like race and sex in civil rights legislation.

Survey data are consistent with this reasoning. A 1993 Gallup poll found that Americans who believe that homosexuality is caused by "something that people are born with" were almost twice as likely as other Americans to oppose the ban on gays serving in the military and to believe that civil rights protection should be extended to gays (Moore, 1993). Similarly, a cross-national study in the United States, the Philippines, and Sweden found that those who believed that "homosexuals are born that way" held significantly more positive attitudes toward homosexuality than those who believed that "homosexuals choose to be that way" and/or "learn to be that way" (Ernulf, Innala, & Whitam, 1989; see also, Whitley, 1990).

But I don't believe it. That is, I do not believe that beliefs about causality substantially influence most citizens' attitudes toward homosexuality. Rather, I believe the reverse, that attitudes toward homosexuality often influence beliefs about causality: Individuals are likely to find most plausible those beliefs that best rationalize their attitudes. For example, in the Gallup poll cited above, political liberals--who have historically been the most resistant to biological explanations of race and sex differences--were almost twice as likely as conservatives to endorse biological explanations of homosexuality (Moore, 1993). Surely their political liberalism preceded their beliefs about causality. And, of course, this same statistic implies that the political conservatives arrived at their beliefs about causality in the same way.

Consequently, I suspect that widespread public acceptance of a biological explanation for homosexuality would leave attitudes pretty much unchanged. Those who hold progay attitudes would conclude that being gay is like being left-handed, no big deal. Those who hold antigay attitudes would conclude that being gay is like having a congenital physical disability or an inborn tendency toward schizophrenia or alcoholism--better to be pitied than scorned. (For some antigay individuals, I suppose that this would reflect progressive change.) In fact, whenever the media announce evidence for a "gay" gene, the researchers receive inquiries about detecting pregay children in utero, presumably so that they could be aborted. Better to be prevented than spawned.

This should disabuse us of the optimistic notion that biological explanations of homosexuality necessarily promote progay attitudes and policies. Historically, of course, biological theories of human differences have tended to produce the least tolerant attitudes and the most conservative, even draconian, public policies--as in Nazi Germany.

I also believe that it is short-sighted of those who seek to bring sexual orientation under the protection of civil rights statutes to argue for the biological basis of homosexuality as a way of strengthening the rationale for treating sexual orientation like race and sex. Most civil rights statutes protect against discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, and sex. But if race, color, and sex are protected because they are based in biology--and, hence, not freely --then what is the rationale for including creed? Surely Jews, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Mormons--to mention some who have historically sought protection under this provision--have never had to argue that their religious beliefs were biologically determined before earning the right to be protected against arbitrary discrimination. And surely there must be a nobler and more militant call for justice than "it isn't my fault." It is also dangerous to base arguments for equal rights on empirical evidence of causality because the evidence might change. Surely the moral argument should not.

Finally, it is sometimes argued that the biological explanation of sexual orientation should be politically attractive to gays and lesbians because it "naturalizes" homosexuality, thereby refuting the argument that it should be seen as sin or sickness. But if that is a desideratum, then I believe that EBE theory does an even better job of treating homosexuality and heterosexuality symmetrically. Most biological theories of homosexuality are based on the evolutionary argument that heterosexuality is the natural consequence of reproductive advantage and, accordingly, homosexuality is a relatively rare evolutionary anomaly that requires additional theorizing to account for it. In contrast, EBE theory "deprivileges" heterosexuality completely, viewing it as no more biologically natural than homosexuality. Ironically, it accomplishes this by denaturalizing both homosexuality and heterosexuality, by insisting that they are social constructions, not hardwired properties of the human species.

But in the final analysis, I believe that the causes of sexual orientation are, and ought to be, irrelevant to both public policy and private pride. Indeed, my deepest motivation for hoping that EBE theory turns out to be correct is embarrassingly apolitical: I've always found it more fun to be right than wrong.

References

Bell, A. P., Weinberg, M. S., & Hammersmith, S. K. (1981). Sexual preference: Its development in men and women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bem, D. J. (1996). Exotic becomes erotic: A developmental theory of sexual orientation. Psychological Review, 103, 320-335.

Ernulf, K. E., Innala, S. M., & Whitam, F. L. (1989). Biological explanation, psychological explanation, and tolerance of homosexuals: A cross-national analysis of beliefs and attitudes. Psychological Reports, 65, 1003-1010.

Green, R. (1987). The "sissy boy syndrome" and the development of homosexuality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Greenberg, A. S., & Bailey, J. M. (1993). Do biological explanations of homosexuality have moral, legal, or policy implications? The Journal of Sex Research, 30, 245-251.

Moore, D. W. (1993, April). Public polarized on gay issue. The Gallup Poll Monthly, 30-34.

The Advocate (1996, February 6). Advocate Poll Results. p. 8.

Whitley, B. E., Jr. (1990). The relationship of heterosexuals' attributions for the causes of homosexuality to attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16, 369-377.

 

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