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Sexual Orientation - Early Sex Research

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Some of the earliest sex research that centered on homosexuality was done in 1864 by Karl Ulrichs who postulated a "third sex" and called them urnings—those that loved others of the same sex. Later in the nineteenth century, Magnus Hirschfeld, a founder of sexology studies, embraced the idea of an inborn sexual orientation. In 1919 he founded the Institute for Sexual Science and was at the center of the first modern gay rights movement. Some later researchers, finding that a large number of people had sexual experiences at least once with a member of their own sex, argued that one's sexual orientation was fluid and could change over the course of a lifetime. Alfred Kinsey suggested that everyone was bisexual but, because of social conditioning, most people chose heterosexuality. He felt it would be good for society if people experimented with both same sex and cross-sex partners, as these practices would promote tolerance for difference (Kinsey 1953).

Studies that have tried to link sexual orientation to genetic or hormonal factors have been inconclusive. Nevertheless, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) does not consider sexual orientation to be a choice, and current scientific explanations leave open the possibility that sexual orientation may well be something one is born with, indicating the possible existence of a gay or straight gene (Stein 2001).

Consideration of a biological link to the formation of sexual orientation has conflicting implications. A positive aspect of a genetic cause is the loss of a foundation to discriminate against gay men and lesbians because of something they have no control over. A negative consideration might be that science will look for a genetic marker that can be changed so no one in the future would be born with a homosexual gene.

No one knows with certainty the answer to the nature/nurture debate, but in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association (APA), based on clinical experience, removed homosexuality from its list of disorders. Since that time it is considered ethically questionable for psychiatrists and psychologists to attempt to alter a trait that is not a disorder and that is an essential component of identity and sexual health.

Given the agreement of SIECUS, the APA, and others that sexual orientation is, in general, not flexible, the study of sexual orientation must take into account the knotty problems of public self-identification and why people are often forced to live a dual life. Consider, for example, the problem of choosing a same sex partner while still identifying as a heterosexual person. Under conditions in which sexual behavior is situational, such as in prison populations, the term sexual orientation does not apply because the behavior is brought on by the impossibility to engage in any other consensual sexual acts. Beyond restricted settings, there are those who do not wish to be labeled bisexual or gay and may even feel convinced that they are not, yet lead a double life with regard to their sexual practices. For instance, a study by Laud Humphreys, Tearoom Trade (1970), revealed the lives of men who practiced anonymous sex with other men in public bathrooms but who otherwise led traditional lives with wives and children where they publicly identified as a heterosexual. Another example was the rise of political lesbians in the 1970s when feminism was developing a strong sex/gender consciousness in the women's liberation movement. By the 1990s, though, many of these women were leading heterosexual lives (Stein 1997).

Some researchers have suggested that biological arguments of sexual orientation apply to men to a much larger degree than to women (Veniegas and Conley 2000). A close look at gender shows social, cultural, and experiential differences account for women's often late recognition of same-sex desires. A primary explanation for gender differences between gay men and lesbians is the recognition that women's relationships (gay and straight) have been guided by cultural scripts that are deeply heterosexist (Rose 2000). This fact should be kept in mind when speaking in generic terms of homosexuality (or heterosexuality). When lesbians and gay men are studied together, the gay male experience becomes the norm, and the unique aspects of lesbian's lives get ignored (Garnets and Peplau 2000; Rothblum 2000).

Sexual behavior both within and beyond orientation often resembles a continuum, particularly for women. There is also no doubt that for most people (gay and straight), sexual orientation is experienced as set, not flexible, and nonchanging. The conflicting beliefs in essentialism and fluidity serve different purposes. Essentialism, the claim of biological origin, highlights the lack of preference in orientation. Fluidity calls for acceptance of diversity and, conversely, rejection of privileged hierarchies in sexual orientation, practices, and lifestyles.

Where sexual orientation comes from is not important except in how those beliefs are used. If the majority of people in society establish categories that fit their experience and draw lines that fail to account for difference, a sexual orientation that differs from the majority leaves the minority vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination.


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