Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why
Cover of the first edition
|Cover artist||Scott Camazine|
|Publisher||Oxford University Press|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|Pages||412 (first edition)|
246 (second edition)
Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation (2011; second edition 2016) is a book by the neuroscientist Simon LeVay, in which the author discusses scientific research on sexual orientation that in his view suggests that homosexuality and heterosexuality are products of the interactions between sex hormones and the developing brain, which predispose people's minds toward masculinity or femininity. He argues that sexual orientation should be understood as an aspect of gender that emerges from the prenatal sexual differentiation of the brain, and criticizes psychoanalytic and behaviorist explanations of sexual orientation.
The book received mainly positive reviews, praising it for LeVay's wide-ranging overview of scientific research on sexual orientation. However, it was also criticized for his willingness to rely on studies with inadequate sample sizes. In 2012, it received the Bullough Book Award for the most distinguished book written for the professional sexological community published in a given year.
LeVay discusses scientific research on sexual orientation conducted since his 1991 study of the hypothalamus. He writes that the research supports the conclusion that sexual orientation is a product of the interactions between sex hormones and the developing brain, which predispose people's minds toward masculinity or femininity. LeVay argues that sexual orientation should be understand as an aspect of gender, seen from a biological perspective. He defines "sexual orientation" as "the trait that predisposes us to experience sexual attraction to people of the same sex as ourselves (homosexual, gay, or lesbian), to persons of the other sex (heterosexual or straight), or to both sexes (bisexual). He criticizes the work of Alfred Kinsey, writing that while Kinsey took sexual behavior into account in judging a person's sexual orientation, that approach suffers from the problem that "sexual behavior is influenced by many factors that have nothing to do with one's basic sexual feelings and that are changeable over time." LeVay argues that in general only people's sexual feelings should be taken into account in assessing their sexual orientation.
Criticizing conversion therapy, LeVay writes that the majority view among mental health professionals is that it is unlikely to be effective and has the potential to cause harm. However, LeVay notes that a study by the psychiatrist Robert Spitzer identified two hundred people who claimed that it helped them to make a significant shift from homosexuality to heterosexuality. LeVay interprets Spitzer's study as showing that, "at least a few highly motivated gay people can be helped to engage in and derive some degree of pleasure from heterosexual relationships, and to pay less attention to their homosexual feelings." LeVay writes that statistical studies support Sigmund Freud's view that on average gay men are more likely than straight men to describe their relationships with their mothers as close and their relationships with their fathers as distant or hostile. However, he is skeptical of Freud's claim that the behavior of parents influences the future sexual orientation of their children, writing that while psychoanalytic theories about homosexuality have not been proven wrong, they are no more plausible than the idea that unidentified flying objects are alien spacecraft. LeVay suggests that boys who become gay may be unmasculine, or otherwise differ from boys who become straight in ways that influence the behavior of parents, and that Freudian theories reverse the direction of causation.
LeVay rejects the view, based on behaviorism, that the sex of a person's first sex partner influences their sexual orientation, arguing that it is contradicted by cross-cultural evidence, including the anthropologist Gilbert Herdt's work on the Sambia, and studies of British boarding schools. He criticized the sexologist John Money, who maintained that sexual orientation develops as part of a process of gender learning, with reference to the case of David Reimer, a man who was unsuccessfully reared as a girl following the destruction of his penis in a botched circumcision. LeVay writes that, contrary to Money's expectations, Reimer, who ultimately decided to live as a man, was sexually attracted to women as an adult, and that there are several similar cases conflicting with Money's learning theory of sexual orientation.
According to LeVay, there is evidence that levels of prenatal hormones, such as testosterone, influence the development of a person's sexual orientation. LeVay suggests that genes that cause a predisposition to homosexuality could persist despite the presumed lower reproductive success of gay people, through a mechanism similar to that involved in the disease sickle cell anemia, which persists because, while persons who carry two copies of the gene develop the disease, those with only one copy gain resistance to malaria. LeVay writes that there are several possible mechanisms by which genes predisposing persons of one sex to homosexuality might increase the reproductive potential of persons of the opposite sex, for example, the economist Edward M. Miller's proposal that the inheritance of a limited number of "feminizing" genes might make males more attractive to females by giving them increased empathy and kindness, or rendering them less aggressive, in turn making them more successful in reproductive terms, while a larger number of feminizing genes might result in male homosexuality. LeVay writes that a study has provided supporting evidence.
Reviewing his work on the hypothalamus, LeVay defends his 1991 study from the criticism that the differences in brain structure between gay and straight men which it found were simply a side-effect of AIDS, which all the gay men in the study had died from. LeVay writes that there was no obvious pathology in the specimens he studied and that he was subsequently able to study a gay man who died of factors unrelated to AIDS and found that his INAH 3 was the same size as those of the gay men in his study. LeVay notes that one attempt has been made to replicate his study. The psychiatrist and neuroscientist William Byne found a difference in INAH 3 size between gay and straight men, but the difference was not quite statistically significant by the criteria Byne used. LeVay concludes that homosexuality is, "part of a package of gender-atypical traits."
For the second edition, LeVay added a new chapter dealing with aspects of sexuality and gender such as bisexuality, asexuality, attraction to different age groups, "butch" and "femme" behavior, preferences for different sexual roles or positions, and transsexualism.
Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why received positive reviews from Schuyler Velasco in Salon, the journalist Deborah Blum in New Scientist, the philosopher Michael Ruse in The Globe and Mail, and in Publishers Weekly. Other reviews included those by Robert Leleux in The Texas Observer, W. P. Anderson in Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, and in Kirkus Reviews.
Velasco called the book "a comprehensive, engaging and occasionally quite funny look at the current state of the research." Blum called it "rational, smart and compassionate", but also suggested that it showed that scientific understanding of sexual orientation had advanced less than might be hoped since LeVay's 1991 hypothalamus study. Blum noted that many of the most influential studies LeVay cited were from previous decades, and wrote that "when a chapter on the importance of biology in sexuality contains 32 citations and 23 of them date to the year 2000 or earlier, a book can feel a bit dated." She suggested that the fact that there were relatively few notable recent findings could in part be the result of a lack of political willingness to fund sex research. Ruse wrote that the book was, "clear and comprehensive, looking at the widest range of research, and very balanced."
Publishers Weekly commented that, "The nature vs. nurture wars over the development of homosexuality have been pretty definitively decided in favor of nature", and described LeVay's work as the most comprehensive recent book about its topic. The review concluded that, "LeVay comes close at times to dry recitation of research results, but although the book's chief appeal probably will be to professionals dealing with these issues, other interested readers will find it an informative and generally approachable read."
Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why received a positive review from Terri Schlichenmeyer in Dallas Voice and a mixed review from David Woolwine in GLBTRT Newsletter. The book was also discussed by the psychiatrist Vernon Rosario in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide.
Schlichenmeyer wrote that the book was "intriguing" and made "sense on several levels". However, she also found it overcomplicated and technical. Woolwine wrote that those who considered gender primarily a social construct would dislike the book, and that LeVay relied on studies that were open to many objections, such as the small size of their samples. However, he considered the book necessary to bring together the information from such studies. Rosario described the book as a "rehashing" of LeVay's Queer Science (1996), though he credited LeVay with providing updated information about recent research on genetics and anthropometrics. He compared some of the research projects LeVay described, such as those that involved attempts to correlate the ratio of various finger lengths to sexual orientation, to Victorian anthropometry.
Scientific and academic journals
Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why received positive reviews from Richard Lippa in Sex Roles and Drew Payne in Nursing Standard and a mixed review from the psychologist Stanton L. Jones in Christian Scholar's Review.
Lippa called the book "an excellent review" of scientific research on sexual orientation and "fair-minded, and easy-to-read". Payne credited LeVay with critically examining all theories of sexual orientation. Jones called the book "the latest and most effective among the growing corpus of books and articles arguing for an exclusively biological explanation of sexual orientation", writing that it showed LeVay's "brilliance", "scientific acumen", and "exceptional capacity for the integration of an enormous array of scientific findings." He credited LeVay with "sophistication in outlining the nature of sexual orientation". However, he argued that the book had subtle problems readers not familiar with the primary literature might not notice. He wrote that LeVay's claim that if one of a pair of monozygotic twins is gay, the other is roughly fifty per cent likely to be gay as well is incorrect, and that research that LeVay himself cites shows that the actual odds are much smaller. He noted that discovering such mistakes undermined his confidence in LeVay's work in general. He accused LeVay of having a tendency to employ "creative" arguments to explain away findings inconsistent with his theory, criticizing the methodology only of studies that disagreed with him, and of wrongly implying that sexual orientation must be caused either only by biological factors or only by environmental factors, failing to suggest ways in which the two factors could interact. He rejected LeVay's claim that there is no evidence environmental factors influence sexual orientation, writing that "examples abound" of significant sociocultural influence, and argued that LeVay sometimes employed studies with dubiously representative samples despite his awareness of the problems involved in doing so.
Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why received a negative review in Socialist Review from Colin Wilson, who argued that LeVay failed to deal convincingly with evidence showing that people cannot be easily divided into categories such as homosexual and heterosexual, that in his evaluation of the biological evidence LeVay sometimes relied on studies with inadequate sample sizes, that the studies do not consistently support LeVay's hypothesis, and that LeVay was "too obsessed with his hypothesis to accept that it doesn't work" and was following a misguided strategy to advance the cause of gay rights by showing that homosexuality has a biological basis, in the process accepting sexist stereotypes.
Views of scientists and scholars
The gay scholar John Lauritsen dismissed Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, writing that LeVay is obsessed with a "faulty hypothesis". Lauritsen charged LeVay with ignorance of relevant historical and anthropological evidence and poor scholarship, noting that LeVay's bibliography excluded important works by the biologist Kinsey and the psychologist Clarence Arthur Tripp. In 2012, Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why received the Bullough Book Award for the most distinguished book written for the professional sexological community published in a given year. Louis Hoffman and Justin Lincoln, discussing Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why on PsycCRITIQUES, accepted that LeVay provided a strong argument "for biological influences on sexual orientation", but found his case that homosexuality stems partially from the "influence of prenatal hormones that feminize development" to be "convoluted". They also argued that LeVay implicitly endorses conversion therapy, criticizing his view that some highly motivated gay people can be helped to engage in heterosexual relationships, and to "pay less attention to their homosexual feelings." LeVay commented in 2016, when the second edition of Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why was published, that since the publication of the first edition there has been further progress in supporting a biological basis to sexual orientation.
Evaluations in books
- LeVay 2012, pp. x-xii, XVII, 1, 2.
- LeVay 2012, pp. 12-13, 30–31, 33.
- LeVay 2012, pp. 33, 35, 38-39.
- LeVay 2012, pp. 131-132, 179-181, 186-189.
- LeVay 2012, pp. 198–199, 273.
- LeVay 2017, pp. vii-viii.
- LeVay 2017, p. iv.
- Velasco 2010.
- Blum 2010, p. 53.
- Ruse 2011.
- Publishers Weekly 2010, pp. 40-41.
- Leleux 2010, pp. 16-17.
- Anderson 2011, p. 1576.
- Kirkus Reviews 2010, p. 7.
- Schlichenmeyer 2010.
- Woolwine 2011, p. 9.
- Rosario 2011, pp. 9-13.
- Lippa 2011, pp. 442-443.
- Payne 2013, p. 29.
- Jones 2012, pp. 214–217.
- Wilson 2010.
- Lauritsen 2011.
- LeVay 2013.
- Hoffman & Lincoln 2011.
- Bromberger 2016.
- Savage 2014, p. 69.
- LeVay, Simon (2012). Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-993158-3.
- LeVay, Simon (2017). Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation. Second edition. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-029737-4.
- Savage, Dan (2014). American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics. New York: Plume. ISBN 978-0142181003.
- Anderson, W. P. (2011). "Gay, straight, and the reason why: the science of sexual orientation". Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. 48 (8). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- Blum, Deborah (2010). "Gay: born or made?". New Scientist. 208 (2784).
- Jones, Stanton L. (2012). "Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation". Christian Scholar's Review. 41 (2). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- Leleux, Robert (2010). "Driving While Gay". The Texas Observer. 102 (17). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- Lippa, Richard (2011). "A New Look at the Causes and Correlates of Sexual Orientation". Sex Roles. 65 (5/6). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- Payne, Drew (2013). "Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why - The Science of Sexual Orientation". Nursing Standard. 27 (41). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- Rosario, Vernon (2011). "Of Genes, Genitals, and Gender". The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. 18 (4). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- Woolwine, David (2011). "Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation". GLBTRT Newsletter: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, & Transgendered Round Table. 23 (1). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- "Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation". Kirkus Reviews. 78 (18). 2010. – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- "Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation". Publishers Weekly. 257 (31). 2010. – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- Online articles
- Bromberger, Brian (December 22, 2016). "Gay scientist draws criticism over remarks on trans kids". Bay Area Reporter. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
- Hoffman, Louis; Lincoln, Justin (April 13, 2011). "Science, Interpretation, and Identity in the Sexual Orientation Debate: What Does Finger Length Have To Do With Understanding a Person?" (PDF). PsycCRITIQUES. Retrieved 27 November 2015.
- Lauritsen, John (2011). "The Gay Brain and other such nonsense". John Lauritsen's website. Retrieved 7 December 2013.
- LeVay, Simon (2013). "My Books". Simon LeVay's website. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
- Ruse, Michael (24 August 2012). "What Freud didn't know about being gay". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
- Schlichenmeyer, Terri (26 November 2010). "Born this way". Dallas Voice. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
- Velasco, Schuyler (25 October 2010). ""Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why": Where does homosexuality come from?". Salon.com. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
- Wilson, Colin (January 2011). "Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why". Socialist Review. Retrieved 25 July 2015.