Is Sexual Orientation Innate?

Girls-are-doing-all-the-fellows-jobs-now-postcard-660x1024The stench of racism wafting from the speech of Donald trump has brought a lot of racists scurrying out of the woodwork and into our newsfeeds. Consequently, a lot of us have been wondering about what we can do to combat this. I suspect that logical argument from scientific studies that show race to be an unscientific concept isn’t going to do the job. The recurring popularity of characters like Spock and Data from Star Trek is due to the undeniable fact that it’s very, very easy to wring humor from how illogical people are.

People are creatures of social sanction. They flow with the cultural stream. Or, to change the metaphor, they absorb, by osmosis, the values around them. If the culture abjures racism—if racists are called out when they call the police on others for barbecuing while black or when they refer to Nazis and anti-Nazis as the “good people on both sides”—eventually, even the thickest among them, for the most part, will learn to check their behavior. There are exceptions to this, ofc–people incapable of learning.

Doubtless, television shows featuring blacks and whites in close relationships did more to combat racism than did the substantial scientific literature indicating that race doesn’t really exist (except as a cultural phenomenon, to be celebrated), that it is not a rational biological method for categorizing people.

I begin with all this because I’m going to present some arguments to support a position on the question of whether sexual orientation is innate. I want you to know that even though I believe the arguments below to be sound, I don’t think that they are going to carry the day, except with a few people who are willing to be swayed by evidence. But first, a couple asides:

In January of this year, the Israeli Medical Association banned gay conversion therapy. A psychiatrist in Israel who practices such “therapy” can now be expelled from the association. Good for them. I strongly believe that we need to follow suit. A lot of damage can be done to gay teens by treating their sexual orientation as a sickness to be cured. If you are a committed heterosexual, imagine living in a society that would send you to a camp to reeducate you to loathe heterosexuality. Pretty awful, huh?

A number of years ago, a pastor who ran some of these conversation therapy camps was caught returning from Europe with his boy toy from an online gay escort service. Politicians who sponsor anti-gay-marriage bills have a habit of being caught soliciting gay sex in airport bathrooms. These anecdotes are not science, of course, but they are suggestive about what motivates such people. OK. Let’s turn, now, to some actual science.

Field studies of higher vertebrates have now shown that ALMOST ALL higher vertebrates engage in homosexual behaviors. See, for example, this list:

There’s no question, now, about whether homosexual behavior is “natural.” The evidence is overwhelming. But is a homosexual orientation innate? That’s a more complex question.

Many strictly gay and lesbian people I know have strong feelings about this. They believe that people are born gay or lesbian or straight and that attempts to change people’s orientation are as contrary to nature as is, say, footbinding, and far more dangerous. My gay brother and I had a big laugh, once, over our recollections of the first time that we remembered being, uh, tumescent. We were kids, it was October, and we were playing with the neighbor kids in a big pile of leaves. I found myself “excited” by the neighbor girl. He found himself excited by the neighbor boy. We were barely in school. (Parents: it’s important to start having “the talk” about sex and sexuality pretty early. Kids need to learn, pretty early, that some behaviors are safe for them and acceptable and some aren’t.)

When gay and lesbian people tell me that they knew or had strong hints about what their orientation was early on, I have no reason to disbelieve and strong reason to believe them. After all, they understood or had strong hints about their own orientation early on, even though they lived in a homophobic culture and had to overcome resistance in order to be who they are. This seems, to me, a very strong argument for the innateness of primary sexual orientation. HOWEVER. . . .

In the introduction to a collection of essays he edited recently, cultural anthropologist Jared Diamond talks about what he calls “Natural Experiments.” One of the issues with studying humans is that it’s difficult to set up proper experiments in which everything is the same for different groups but one variable is altered. However, Diamond points out, what we can do is look across human cultures, past and present, for situations in which a viable differed and see what happens there. This got me to thinking about natural experiments regarding sexual orientation. Throughout history, there have been quite a few cultures that strongly condemned homosexual behavior and quite a few in which it was deemed acceptable, and in every case where there were liberal ideas about the number of sexual partners one could have and no cultural prohibition against homosexual behavior, bisexuality was the norm. Typically, people would have an officially “straight” sexual orientation solemnized by marriage but also engage, at various times in their lives, as occasion allowed, in same sex interactions.

For this reason, I think that the issue of innateness in sexual orientation is a bit complicated. I think that people tend toward one orientation but, if their culture allows it, will vary from that from time to time. Note what’s been happening in our own culture. A recent study by the Kinsey Institute showed that in the United States, 17 percent of American women report having had sex with other women (that number is probably underreported), and other studies have shown that some 60 percent of American women report having had sexual fantasies about relations with other women. Why? Women in our culture encounter much less negative sanction of relationships with same sex partners than men do. Girls are allowed to be touchy with one another. But still, in the US, today, boys are microconditioned to be homophobic. Gay boys still, despite the progress we’ve made, have to deal with a lot of casual homophobia of the “that’s so gay” variety and worse. However, many studies show that the majority of American young people aren’t prejudiced against homosexuals and transgender people. The times they are a’changing.

I suspect that as we become better educated and more enlightened and accepting of the range of human variability and less superstitious about bodily pleasure, we will tend toward a more natural state of affairs in which a few outliers have a solely heterosexual or homosexual orientation, and most are primarily heterosexual or homosexual, with occasional dips into the other pool. In other words, I think that occasional, opportunistic bisexuality will become the norm. The historical evidence–Diamond’s “natural experiments–suggest that in the absence of enculturation and social sanction to the contrary, this is the pattern into which people naturally fall.

When I make this argument to male hetero friends, I often get extreme reactions—ewww, I would never. . . . LOL. I think that these people have been microconditioned to think of homosexual behavior in men as repulsive to them. I admit that I think of that as an unevolved position, akin to, “I’m no racist. I just think that it would be hard for the kids if my sister married one of them.” Sorry. That’s racist. And “Ewww. . . . I would never,” is homophobic. Get over it. That kind of talk, and the attitude it represents, is no longer acceptable except among the backward.

One of the reasons why humans have gained such mastery over the planet that we are now placing all creatures on Earth, including ourselves, in great peril is that we are extraordinarily adaptable. We can adapt to fill (and dominate) extremely varied niches. Sometimes, our adaptability is a great thing. We can learn to be tolerant and to have wonderfully varied experiences.

All of which is to say, don’t be so sure. You may not be as straight as you think you are.

Same-sex marriage cartoon (18634736453).jpg

Art: World War I-Era Anti-Suffrage Cartoon. By Unknown –, Public Domain,; Same-sex Marriage Cartoon. By thedailyenglishshow –, CC BY 2.0,

Copyright 2019, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on Gender and Sexuality, go here:

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on Love, go here:



About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Sex and Gender. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is Sexual Orientation Innate?

  1. Roy Turrentine says:

    Interesting comments, Bob. The issue of whether the sexual orientation of a person is inate or biologically determined is a companion to the issue of whether humans have free will. That one will get a lot of blowback if you bring it up.

    To me the issue is pretty obvious. All organisms in the biological world exhibit tendencies on a spectrum. There are really weak people and really strong ones and plenty of those in between. Why on earth would gender be different. Since we can observe those who have trouble deciding what their tendencies are, we must assume that gender is spectral as well.

    The implications of this are way more problematic than settling for our society. It means that a sizable part of our society will grow up feeling indefinite in their sexuality, leaving them open to aggressive overtures from those who have a definite idea and a sort of evangelical zeal for their own point of view. It strikes me that the proper lesson for young people is that their body is not for someone to play with, and that someone includes them. I have always felt that the generation I grew up in was too cavalier about the physical part of relationships.

    Am I sounding like Levin inAnna K?


    • Bob Shepherd says:

      I think it very healthy for young people to explore/play with their own bodies so that they can grow up with healthy notions about sex and sexuality, but they should be taught to keep their hands off the bodies of other young people. It should go without saying that young people are incapable of consent that that older people sexualizing them or anyone, of any age, using them sexually is really, really wrong.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s