Alex Blaze

La volonté de savoir

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 19, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Michel Foucault, origin of homosexuality, science

The LA Times has a neat little article up about the latest developments in the field of explaining why some people are gay. It's neat because it makes the studies themselves so transparent.

People, for reasons far too complex to go into here, need to know why some people are gay, or at least why they're attracted to members of the same sex, at a rate faster than they're able to construct testable theories, conduct studies, and analyze results.

Ever since sexuality was medicalized in the Victorian days, people have been looking for a scientific reason why some people are gay to satisfy their curiosity, to force us to justify our existence, and then possibly eliminate us. And that's all I can see in these studies; genuine scientific inquiry looks starkly different from what goes on here.

I complained here at Bilerico a while ago about the hair whorl study of gay men, that supposedly supported a theory that hair whorls are more likely to be counter-clockwise in gay men. It got quite a bit of press and lots of excitement from members of the community thinking that this would finally prove that being gay isn't a choice.

Of course, the study was far less than rigorous. The researcher just took pictures of 50 guys' heads at Long Beach Pride, his gay sample, and compared it to national averages, his straight sample, and then said he can't really tell which way a lot of them whorl, so he just assigns a direction. A year later, the LA Times describes the study with this:

The study, although intriguing, suffers from a lack of scientific rigor. The author walked around while on vacation, collecting hair-whorl observations on men from a discreet distance. He didn't know anyone's sexual orientation for sure, and didn't objectively examine any scalps up close.

There are the famous penis size studies (a sign that these studies are more pop-science than anything else, if there ever was one). They've depended on self-reporting, as if this is a topic about which even a simple majority of men are honest. (And, yes, I suspect gay men would be more adept at adding an inch or two, so saying that gay men have bigger penises, while fun, isn't science.)

The article also mentions the left/right-handed studies.

There were also the famous hypothalamus studies that chose people who died of complications related to AIDS as a gay sample and the population in general as the straight sample. Besides the numbers not lining up, the assumption that AIDS and AIDS medications don't affect neurology in unknown ways is a pretty large one to be making.

How any of this is different from saying that gay men have overbearing mothers and distant fathers is beyond me. It's the same thing - people care more about having a reason why people are gay than they do about going through the scientific process to find it. In fact, sometimes I wonder if James Dobson's belief that fathers have to dangle their penises in front of their sons' faces to turn them straight would have been accepted here if it weren't for the person selling it or the fact that it isn't sufficiently biological.

Now, where this desire comes from is a much more interesting question to me. Why is it that we need to know the origin of sexuality? Other than genocide, what can we do with that knowledge? (That "we" is everyone, not just queer people.)

Considering that the definitions of "gay" and "straight" aren't hard and fast, that some people change throughout their lives, that bisexual people do exist, that some people aren't really bi but are gay or straight with some substantive eccentricities, and that sexuality, depending on whom you ask, can be an identity, a set of attractions, or a set of actions, asking the question "Why are some people gay?" is a whole lot more political than the question "Why are people attracted to the people that they're attracted to?"

But excising as best we can the linguistic and epistemological questions associated with sexuality to create the most level playing field for science just seems to take all the fun out of it.

I do know that in a society and culture that thinks of me as a second-class citizen, a culture that wants me straight and an important part of my identity dead, by any means necessary, that I just can't trust others' motives in studies like this one.

I also know that if we're holding true to our fundamental belief that autonomy should be the central value in constructing law and policy around sexuality and family, justifying our existences is absolutely unnecessary. The question is about freedom to be who we are, not the freedom to be what a scientific study "proves" that we are stuck being.

Even the mostly-Republican California Supreme Court got it.

This cycle is annoying, it's endless, but it's not going to die without me. Western culture seems to have a need to know, to label and describe, to separate, a certain volonté de savoir, as Michel Foucault put it. Whatever we say about him, he was complaining about these pseudo-scientific studies years ago, and they're still going on.

But, hey, the LA Times article says that "how gay and straight brains navigate new cities, respond to erotic movies and react to the scent of sweat and urine" are next on the agenda. What about Swedish brain studies? Those have pictures!

(Thanks to Pam for the link)

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Thanks for bringing a little Foucault to this discourse.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 19, 2008 12:39 PM

Alex, I think that Alfred Kinsey and everyone since him who has done credible studies of sexuality have done an amazing service to humankind. Imagine our lives today if this pioneering research had not been done. Your assertion that they want to know "why" because "we" are different is spot on because, we, humankind, are naturally bisexual to varying degrees, but our sexual behaviors and opportunities are channeled by societal norms, and innate preference.

I get that your implied message is that they want to understand why so that they can affect a "cure" but my response to that is to say that exclusive heterosexuality is the problem and a tripling of the world population in the last sixty years is the result. We are just about out of miracles in raising food by the way.

Why wouldn't we want to know what we can about human sexuality and sexuality of any species? What motivates this quest for knowledge is the same thing that led Galileo to build his telescope, Leonardo to draw his anatomy, and Darwin to study his finches. It's simple curiosity about the world around us and how it all works. There was a time when these types of inquiries were suppressed; we refer to it as the "Dark Ages." You're free to stick your head in the sand and pine for a return to those good ol' days, but the rest of us unencumbered by superstitious belief in phony deities and would-be saviors would like to know what makes the real world tick.

I don't think anyone here wants to stick their head in the sand and return to the Dark Ages. What we would like is to get away from the pseudo-science that has permeated the investigations, and start seeing true science being practiced.

The hair-whorl story has been quoted as science in much of the MSM, yet anyone with any modicum of intelligence can recognize that it is completely meaningless. There was no scientific principles applied to the study at all. And yet, the LA Times deemed it scientific enough (even with their disclaimer) to include it in their report.

The penis size study is based on self reported data. How could any scientist seriously report on a study based on unverified pseudo-facts and expect to be taken seriously. And yet, they do, and they are.

I'm all for further investigation into the physiological and phychological roots of sexuality. But lets base it on good science, and not National Enquirer-ish pseudo-science.

What motivates this quest for knowledge is the same thing that led Galileo to build his telescope, Leonardo to draw his anatomy, and Darwin to study his finches.

I think that that's the first time that head-whorl guy's been compared to Galileo. I mean, taking some pictures of dudes at LB Pride, guessing which way the hair whorl goes, then applying for a grant... I don't think that's why we remember those names!

Honestly, I think that's one of the biggest problem I have with a lot of these studies - how insulting they are to real science.

Marc~ and last year we didn't even get the disclaimer! It was everywhere, even the NY Times, as real science.

Robert~ Yes, I was talking mostly about the ones that get publicity for doing idiocy, not the real ones in the field who use real scientific methodology.

Still, the ones who use the most cutting edge scientif-esque methods are more interesting in terms of cultural analysis. They say more about us than they do about the truth.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | June 19, 2008 7:04 PM

Excellent post, Alex!!

As I read it, I kept thinking of comments but then I'd read a bit further and you'd address them.

Seems to me, we'd be better off as a society if we simply accepted that human beings are wired to seek sexual pleasure, and let go of all value judgments attached to who does what to whom (as long as all are consenting adults).

Don't get me wrong: I think it's vastly interesting to study human sexuality. But as you point out so well, merely phrasing a question as, "Why are some people gay?" starts from a very strong value judgment.

I want to know more about the penis size study. If it rolls in my favor, I'm just going to claim that as "the reason" from now on.

Average Man: "But why are you gay?"
Me: "Because my dick is bigger than yours."

Why didn't I hear of this study before? I want to see their data! *grins*

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 20, 2008 4:12 AM

Are you looking for hard case studies Bil or field work?

James Baldridge | June 20, 2008 10:05 AM

I think we should all start a study to study those who do studies! How fascinating would THAT be? "Why do you study?" "What motivates you to study others?" "Have you always wanted to study, or did it begin at puberty?" "Did you mother study?" "Were you studied as a child, and did that influence you to study later in life?" Wouldn't THAT be a blast?? Hehehehe