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The Science of Gaydar

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In many other studies, though, lesbians have appeared less unique than gay men, leading some people to wonder if their sexual orientation is innate. Michael Bailey—who, as a heterosexual researcher, is a minority in this field—even doubts the existence of female sexual orientation, if by orientation we mean a fundamental drive that defies our conscious choices. He bases this provocative gambit on a sexual-arousal study he and his students conducted. When shown pornographic videos, men have an undeniable response either to gay or straight images but not both, according to sensitive gauges attached to their genitals—it’s that binary. Female sexual response is more democratic, opaque, and unpredictable: Arousal itself is harder to track, and there is evidence that it defies easy categorization. “I don’t yet understand female partner choices very well, and neither does anyone else,” Bailey wrote me in an e-mail. “What I do think it’s time to do is admit that female sexuality looks in some ways very different from male sexuality, and that there is no clear analog in women of men’s directed sexual-arousal pattern, which I think is their sexual orientation. I am not sure that women don’t have a sexual orientation, but it is certainly unclear that they do.”

He contends that what they have instead is sexual preference—they might prefer sex with women, but something in their brains can still sizzle at the thought of men. Many feminist scholars agree with this assessment, and consider sexuality more of a fluid than an either-or proposition, but some don’t. “I think women do have orientations, but they don’t circumscribe the range of desires that women can experience to the same degree as men,” says Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, who is writing a book on the subject. “For women, there’s more wiggle room. You can think of orientation as defining a range of possible responses, and for women, it’s much broader.”

Bailey stops short of saying that lesbianism is a myth (although he has notoriously declared that true male bisexuality doesn’t exist and dismissed many transgender people as peculiar sexual fetishists, drawing lasting enmity from gay and trans groups). But it may be less hard-wired. And it appears to have separate triggers and correlates that haven’t been identified yet. In studies of twins, there is a lower correlation of sexual orientation between female siblings than male siblings, for instance. “We’re at a place,” agrees Diamond, “where everyone agrees that whatever is going on is quite distinct between the sexes.”

I suppose the main upside to this kind of work, besides any impact it might have on securing gay rights, is the comfort of self-knowledge. The secrets lurking in the hypothalamus (and the ring finger and the hair whorl) aren’t just about who we desire but about a more fundamental organization of our personalities, individually and collectively. Still, some have dismissed all this field-guide work as wrongheaded. Gaydar can no more be proved than a sixth sense, they say. What’s being classified as fundamentally gay is nothing more than cultural signals that vary so much from one part of the world to another that they’re worthless as clues to anything. It is surely true that gaydar has its blind spots. When I traveled through Nigeria a few years ago, I was unable after nearly a month to say with any conviction that I had encountered any gay people along my way. No knowing eye contact, no species recognition. (Then again, it’s not as if I was able to measure index-to-ring finger ratios.)

Where were they all? In Lagos, the morning newspaper offered an answer. According to a tiny news squib, a court had just convicted a young man of sodomy and sentenced him to death by stoning. Two other death sentences were handed down to gay people in the few days before I boarded my airplane. I paid a visit to one of the top human-rights agencies in the country and asked why they weren’t protesting these cases. The director looked at me dumbstruck. “Because sodomy,” he said as if speaking to a child, “is illegal.” To survive, they were hiding, even from me—they had edited down their gendermaps to the barest minimum and disappeared.

Still, Dr. Lippa, the hair-whorl researcher, is publishing a paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior later this year that seems to prove the existence of gay-typical behavior across the globe. Lippa is looking at a 2005 BBC Internet survey, part of a BBC documentary project called Secrets of the Sexes, which included more than 200,000 respondents in 53 countries answering questions about everything from their occupational interests to their sexual histories and personalities. Lippa, a tall and slender man who came out to his parents in his thirties, analyzed the data first along gender lines, then compared straight people to gay people. What he found, he says, is a cross-cultural confirmation of what amount to stereotypes.


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