Sexual Personalities

Human Sexuality in Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Sexual Modularity in Sex, Gender, and Orientation

Appreciating the beautiful tapestries of our conflicting sexual selves.

According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time." This statement rings particularly true in the realm of sexual diversity. Most people find it rather difficult to reconcile the incredibly modular and often self-contradictory nature of our sexual personalities. We struggle to appreciate the beautiful tapestries woven from opposing threads of romantic desire, erotic fantasy, sexual behavior, and gendered identity. Instead, humans tend to force our sexual understandings into stringent categories, we label people as simply male or female, gay or straight, faithful or adulterous. Most of us are disturbed by inconsistent information about a person's sexuality, and we don't like it when the sexual categories we prefer to use are violated or even just a little bit blurred.

When Lady Gaga recently emerged on stage at the VMAs in the persona of a man (Jo Calderone), even some self-described liberals were a little uncomfortable with the gender-bending performance. Sure, Lady Gaga isn't everyone's cup of tea even as a female. But perhaps their reactions to Jo Calderone were also because the gender-bending was a tad too good, so good that it broke down our ability to cleanly categorize Lady Gaga as female versus male (or feminine/masculine, or singer/actor–maybe some people simply don't like "artists").

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Such violations of a culture's gender rules and categories are often violently punished, especially by those who are particularly authoritarian or religiously conservative. Even in relatively egalitarian cultures (such as the USA which ranked the 15th most gender egalitarian in the entire world by the United Nations in 2008), the tendency to restrict what men and women "are supposed to be" and to condemn sexual minorities is pervasive. The imperative to enforce sexual categories seems to reliably flow from traits such as authoritarianism, conservatism, and a basic psychological need for cognitive closure (Roets et al., 2011). For many people, the wonder of gendered diversity hurts their head.

With Lady Gaga, some of us couldn't let her be (or even portray) two sexually conflicting people at the same time, especially two people with contradictory genders. And yet, an increasing amount of evidence suggests all humans are sexually conflicted, perhaps we're even designed by evolution to be so. Consider the apparent modularity of women's sexual desires across their menstrual cycle. In their 2008 book, The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality, Randy Thornhill and Steven Gangestad highlight decades of work showing that women have an evolved, dualistic mating strategy. When nearing ovulation, women tend to desire men who are highly masculine in voice, facial structure, and sociosexuality. During the other non-fertile times of their cycle, women are less interested in bad boy cads and are more interested in good old dads–men with perhaps worse genetic traits but higher-investing paternal traits. One woman, two conflicting sexualities.

Helen Fisher (2004) has conducted some excellent work demonstrating that all humans possess distinct neurological systems involving attachment, attraction, and lust. She contends these three sexual circuits can function independently. We can feel deeply committed to one person, madly infatuated with another person, and rabidly lustful toward a third person...all at the same time. So within the same person, different sexual modules sometimes turn on and off, and perhaps lead many of us to wonder who we really are. Guess what, our sexual selves are not simple either/or switches. As sexual creatures, humans are much more complicated than that.

Consider also the handling of Congresswoman Michelle Bachman's husband, Marcus Bachman. Notwithstanding evidence that Mr. Bachman's reparative therapy clinic may be doing real harm, I think the media's treatment of his sexual identity (no pun intended) may be a revealing instance of our inability to reconcile sexual complexity. Many political and social critics consider the way he carries himself, how he speaks, how he looks, and even his funky moves on the dance floor with Congresswoman Bachman to be strong evidence that he is secretly a gay man. Even if there were "statistically significant" differences in speech, movement, and looks across sexual orientations (which some studies suggest there are; for a review, see Bailey, 2003), this would not prove that Mr. Bachman is secretly gay. I want to highlight some important reasons why jumping to such a "gaydar" conclusion would be a sexological mistake.

The first reason involves math. When psychologists report there is a "significant difference" between two groups, that doesn't mean that all members of the two groups must differ from one another. Just because men are significantly taller than women (on average), that does not mean that all men must be taller than all women. Although people like to think in clear black and white categories, psychologists usually can only account for statistical variation across groups and they do so with caution. Whether one is male or female may be a piece of the sexual puzzle, but it's rarely the total solution. Most of life (especially sexual life) is about complex variations, dimensions, and blends of attributes. Sexual orientations are no different.

Still, if statistically significant differences exist in the behavioral patterns of gay versus straight men–say gay men were to produce significantly more "effeminate" speech patterns than straight men–would that prove Marcus Bachman's speech betrays his true sexual orientation? No, it would not. The correlation between femininity and sexual orientation in men is rather modest, probably too modest to have reasonable levels of confidence in predicting one individual man's sexual orientation from just his speech. Moreover, a large twin study by Michael Bailey and colleagues (2000) showed that the genetics of sexual orientation and femininity are only marginally related in men. That is, whatever genes may be involved in generating a man's femininity are not exactly the same genes involved in generating his sexual orientation. Thus, the odds are pretty good of a feminine speech pattern being found in a straight man, exemplified in its extreme form by Dana Carvey's character Lyle on Saturday Night Live. Mr. Bachman's effeminate behavior, to the extent it exists, may be a diverse thread in his complex heterosexual tapestry. I wish everyone, including Mr. Bachman, would agree that effeminate straight men can be just as worthwhile and authentic as masculine gay men.

 All that said, if a competent researcher knew a lot of details about an individual man, it could be possible to predict his sexual orientation with some confidence. Richard Lippa attempted to do just that in a very public way on the Tyra Banks television show. He used a battery of tests (including, believe it or not, the lengths of men's fingers and the direction of their hair whorls; http://psych.fullerton.edu/rlippa/tyra_banks.html), and he correctly guessed the sexual orientations of all individual men involved. Of course, it would have been a lot easier just to ask the men about the content of their sexual desires, fantasies, behaviors, and identities. And if he had asked the right questions in the right way, he would have revealed a wondrously blended portrait of sexual personalities. 

 

References:

Bailey, J. M. (2003). The man who would be queen: The science of gender-bending and transsexualism. Joseph Henry Press. ISBN 978-0309084185.

Bailey, J. M., Dunne, M. P., & Martin, N. G. (2000). Genetic and environmental influences on sexual orientation and its correlates in an Australian twin sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 524-536.

Fisher, H. (2004). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. Henry Holt.

Roets, et al. (2011). Is sexism a gender issue? A motivated social cognition perspective on men's and women's sexist attitudes toward own and other gender. European Journal of Personality (DOI: 10.1002/per.843).

Thornhill, R. & Gangestad, S.W. (2008). The evolutionary biology of human female sexuality. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.

David P. Schmitt, Ph.D., is a Caterpillar Inc. Professor of Psychology at Bradley University.

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