Causal Theories

Bell, Alan P., Martin S. Weinberg and Sue K. Hammersmith, Sexual Preference. Its Development in Men and Women, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

William Byne, "LeVay's Thesis Reconsidered", in: Martin Duberman (ed), A Queer World. The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, New York: New York University Press, 1997, pp. 318-328.

De Cecco, John and David Allen Parker (eds), Sex, Cells and Same-Sex Desire: The Biology of Sexual Preference, New York: Haworth, 1995 (also Journal of Homosexuality 28:1-4).

Hamer, Dean, and Peter Copeland, The Science of Desire. The Search for the Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

LeVay, Simon, The Sexual Brain, Cambridge Ma/London: MIT Press, 1993.

-, Queer Science. The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality, Cambridge Ma/London: MIT Press, 1996.

Lewes, Kenneth, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

McWhirter, David P., Stephanie A. Sanders and June M. Reinisch (eds), Homosexuality/Heterosexuality. Concepts of Sexual Orientation, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Rosario, Vernon A. (ed), Science and Homosexualities, New York/London: Routledge, 1997.

Although some texts from ancient Rome discussed the nature of sexual passivity in men, causal explanations of homosexuality became common since the Enlightenment. S.A.D. Tissot's theory of "onanism" (self-stimulation) assumed that children learned to masturbate through external agents and went on from onanism to other sins including same-sex behaviors. At the other hand, the marquis de Sade stressed that pederasty and sodomy were natural interests. With the development of sexual sciences in the late-nineteenth century, the concept of homosexuality and the question of its explanation became central topics. The main argument in the Western world has since been that homosexual interests are not learned, but inborn, and are not passing lusts, but constitute fixed identities.

Rosario's anthology delves into the history of medical theories regarding homosexuality. It offers an article on the theory of the first gay activist, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Most of his work on "uranism", his term for what later would be called homosexuality, was published in the 1860's. Ulrichs believed that it was an innate condition, uranians being "female souls in male bodies". He located homosexuality first in the balls, later in the brains. This was the first well-developed biological explanation of homosexuality. Rosario writes on nineteenth-century French medical theories, while other articles deal with the insights of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, author of the famous "Psychopathia sexualis" (1886) and Magnus Hirschfeld, in 1897 founder of the first homosexual rights movement. Most doctors and activists at the turn of the century believed homosexuality was an inborn and natural identity, countering older christian and legal concepts of sodomy as counternatural sin or crime. The question remained if the new homosexuality was normal or pathological. Other articles in the anthology pursue hormonal and genetic explanations of homosexuality in this century. Psychiatrist Richard Pillard discusses biological research from the perspective of sympathetic participant, biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling as staunch critic.

Lewes' book gives a skilful overview of psychoanalytic theories since Freud. In its early days, psychoanalysis did not see homosexuality as a unified phenomenon to be explained in a monocausal way. Neither did Freud think homosexual desires could be cured. He believed a homosexual object choice was an inhibition in the normal development, heterosexuality remaining the ideal outcome. He asked for compassion with homosexuals. The American analysts who followed in his steps, saw male homosexuality however as a social danger. It was a disease that should be cured and that could be explained for example by an overprotective mother. In the seventies, opinions split and some psychoanalysts took again more tolerant attitudes while others continued to cure gay men. The book has nothing on postwar psychoanalysis in Europe.

Not only biologists and psychiatrists came up with explanations for homosexual interests. Psychologists did the same. Bell, Weinberg and Hammersmith have tested the best-known psychological theories for their research population from a sociological survey Bell and Weinberg conducted. The authors come in their book to the conclusion that no psychological theory can explain the development of sexual preference. They suggest once again the best exegesis might well be biological. The criticism has been raised whether psychological theories can be tested by way of a sociological survey. Moreover, not all theories have the pretention to be applicable in all cases. The book nonetheless offers an overview of most relevant psychological theories.

The tradition of biological interpretations for same-sex desires, started by Ulrichs, continues to this day. Main proponents of such theories are nowadays Dean Hamer, who found a "gay gene", and Simon LeVay, who found in gay and straight men different hypothalamic structures. Both have written popular accounts of their insights, placing their discoveries in a broader perspective of biological roots of human sexual behavior. Problematic remains that all researchers find something else, on other places and for various developmental stages, and that their research is never duplicated.

Since the late seventies a strong critique of monocausal and biological theories has been brought forward, inspired by the work of Michel Foucault and social constructivism. The anthologies of DeCecco and Parker and McWhirter, Sanders and Reinisch reflect this discussion. While the first includes both the biologists who produced such theories and their critics, the second anthology focuses on concepts of sexual orientation and includes papers by the leading scientists in the field from different disciplines, like John Money, John Bancroft, James Weinrich, John Gagnon and Gilbert Herdt.

The neuroanatomist William Byne concludes in his article "LeVay's Thesis Reconsidered" that "it is imperative that behavioral scientists and physicians begin to appreciate the psychosocial complexity of sexual orientation and resist the temptation to hastily embrace simplistic biological explanations." He points to the fact that the major growth of the human brain takes place after birth in constant interaction with the social environment. He demands an integrated approach of different disciplines. But all the media attention for causes of homosexuality will seduce many scholars to produce new "discoveries".

Social scientists and historians have raised various points of criticism against biological explanations. Homosexuality is often not well defined and not clearly differentiated from femininity or passive roles in males. Knowledge of nature is only possible by way of culture (terminology, technology), so scholars should first proceed to an analysis of their tools of research. It is surprising that rarely a cause of lesbianism or heterosexuality has been found. In other cultures and historical periods very different forms of same-sex desires were general, what indicates that culture is an important factor. Neither sexual development nor its projected variant outcome, homosexuality, are the monolithic phenomena many researchers assume. Sexual desire is not dichotomous and fixed, but specific and variable. Not men in general, but special qualities, behaviours, fetishes, attributions or situations are gay objects of desire. An interesting objection has been how a choice for external objects could be determined by the internal physiology of the subject as if an external social world could be programmed in genes.

Political criticism has been directed towards the negative uses of knowledge on the origins of sexual preference and its medical and social implications. In the past, gay men have endured castration, lobotomy, hormonal cures and other medical solutions for non-accepted preferences. The promise of genetic research is that fetuses with all kinds of ailments can be aborted, and many parents will include homosexuality under the unwanted afflictions. Psychology has helped to restrain, redirect or prevent homosexual desires. Parents learned how to make sissies more butch. More social explanations have favoured preventive measures against gay pleasures. The age-long struggle against masturbation was based on the idea that youngsters would proceed from the solitary sin to other perversions. All these measures were only partly successful. Their main effect was to underline the unacceptability of same-sex pleasures and to produce feelings of shame and guilt. Rarely biology, psychology and sociology have been intentionally used for the reverse, the promotion or production of gay desires.