Sexuality and the Politicisation of Science

Very shortly, in Dioceses across the Church of England, ‘Shared Conversations’ on the Church’s approach to sexuality will start to take place. To the best of my knowledge the topics to be discussed have yet to be decided.  We can be sure however that at some point, with comments such as ‘in the light of new scientific insights’ or ‘well, as studies have shown’, people on all sides of this debate will reference the claims of science. But what does the science actually tell us about this issue?

The use of science in the theological exploration of human sexuality has a long and controversial history. On one side of the debate, speculative concepts of illness and pathology have been used to marginalise and humiliate people that society considers to be different. On the other side, some revisionist theologians have deployed science to imply that the Bible no longer has anything relevant to say on this issue. So we need to think carefully about how science works, and what it can actually contribute to serious theological debate. And more importantly, we need to be vigilant to the way that science can be used (on all sides) for political leverage.

Science in a social world

Ideas are born and transmitted in human cultures and within social contexts. Sometimes, when social conditions are especially favourable, new ideas can spread like a viral epidemic. Even when evidence to the contrary emerges, a notion may have become so popular and culturally acceptable that people now just want to believe it. As the sociologist Peter Berger observed, once an idea has entered into the conversational fabric of a culture at a ‘well everybody knows that don’t they?’ level, it’s extremely difficult to maintain objectivity.

 We prefer to think that scientific ideas stand aloof from the social processes that bias thinking in other areas. The process of discovery, we believe, is overseen by a scientific community dedicated to objectivity and guided by the strict codes of the scientific method. Here, the objective cartographers of reality test and probe, sift and search, discard the useless and preserve the good. In contrast to the cynical old hacks dominating the media, and the foul-mouthed spin-doctors controlling politics, scientific knowledge producers can be trusted to tell it how it is. But is that how it works in the real world?

True, under strictly controlled conditions individual ‘facts’ can indeed be subjected to scientific scrutiny, sifted and then tested objectively. The scientific method has delivered an incredible array of social goods for our civilisation. I am certainly not seeking to undermine the ability of the scientific method, strictly applied, to get through and beyond our social biases. 

But in complex areas like the study of human behaviour, individual facts have to be merged to create bigger facts, or stories, which are more difficult to test under controlled conditions. And it’s here, as ideas get strung together to tell stories about reality, that bias potentially kicks in. 

Scientists are susceptible to the same desires for social acceptability, and the prestige hierarchies, that seduce the rest of us, and this can lead to biases in decisions about which hypotheses get picked for further research, which results are repeated rather than ignored, and how much visibility is given to any findings. It’s well know, for example, that in the past pharmaceutical companies did not always publish the findings of all the studies they had carried out, leading to concerns that less favourable data about their products were being selectively withheld.

Social factors play into how scientific findings are publicised in the media and then get into the ‘conversational fabric’ of the general population as well. Once media and social elites have settled on a particular way of looking at the world, it may be more socially acceptable to give priority to some study results; to repeat the findings we like and ignore the ones we don’t. And once the latest scientific discovery has broken through into popular culture it may assume a life of its own, surviving in the popular imagination long after there has been a severe weakening of the evidence behind it.

So in the contentious area of human sexuality especially, we need to exercise extreme care when somebody claims scientific support for what they are asserting. There’s no substitute for going back to the facts, asking some hard questions, and then deciding for ourselves.

 Science and morality

We need to be especially careful when the findings of science are used in moral reasoning. Science can help us to map and investigate our experiences, but it can’t interpret them or answer questions of moral value. Science can help us to understand factors that predispose us to experiencing certain attractions, and it can make predictions about the outcomes of different courses of action, but it can’t tell us what we should actually do about our wants and desires. These are different categories of analysis and we need to be careful not to confuse them. So when we hear the latest claims about science and ‘what we now know’, we should handle with care: science can’t settle the moral status of human sexual interests.

A gay gene?

The notion that there is a gay gene is a particularly good example of how preliminary scientific findings can be seized upon, politicised and then embedded in culture as an indisputable fact that ‘everybody knows’ is true. 

Over 20 years ago one particular study[i] claimed to have found a specific gene linked to male sexual orientation. It was never replicated but it helped to spawn the idea that there are just 2 groups of people – gay or straight – whose sexual interests and attractions are somehow fixed genetically at birth. Let’s look into this a little further. 

The ‘born that way’ theory implies that genes (or some other biological factor) directly ‘cause’ same-sex attraction. In fact, over the past 2 decades, as the methodology of studies has improved, the evidence for a genetic cause of same-sex attraction has weakened considerably. The best available evidence taken from more carefully sampled twin populations[ii] suggests that genes contribute to the development of our sexual desires and interests – just as they contribute to the development of personality traits such as humility and compassion – but can’t be considered to be a ‘cause’ in any direct sort of way. Whatever our attractions and instinctive interests, sexual or otherwise, these are almost certainly the result of a complex interplay between genes and environment[iii]. And of course all kinds of factors come into play (including personal moral reasoning and agency) when we decide whether, and how, to act upon our attractions and desires.

 The ‘born gay’ theory also implies that, in every case, sexual interests are fixed and inflexible. But more recent and more reliable surveys (all of them have problems of accuracy) now seem to suggest that bisexuality is the most common minority sexual identity label chosen by women[iv].

Further, researchers such as Lisa Diamond argue that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that for some men, too, sexuality can be experienced as more fluid and changeable[v]. A self-identified lesbian and active supporter of gay marriage, in a recent radio interview Diamond argues:

“The queer community has been obsessed with cultivating the idea that we all have fixed sexual identities. We’ve crafted terrific narratives and political platforms based on the notions that all gays are ‘born that way’. But what if sexuality is more complex? What if biology actually intersects with environment, time, culture and context? Could we possibly be more fluid than we’ve supposed?”

And the lesbian feminist Julie Bindel recently provoked a minor storm among advocates still wedded to the ‘born gay’ theory, by declaring ‘there is no gay gene’ and that for her lesbianism is a ‘choice’[vi].

Reflecting this cultural shift a new generation of young people has grown intolerant of labels and categories and, by tagging an endless string of additional letters onto the old ‘LGBT’, underscored the variations and fluidity of sexual experience[vii]. Even in the gay community the idea that our sexual interests can be summarised in the simple binary of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ is rapidly collapsing.

Of course, this complexity does not diminish the reality that for a small minority of men and women same-sex attraction is a powerful, stable experience from earliest memory. Whether or not we want to use the language of ‘born that way’, it certainly feels that way to them. This is a reality the Church must engage with and respond to pastorally. But we also need to recognise that this group is but one part of a larger, more complex, landscape of human sexuality and our theological discourse need to get up to speed with these modern realities. 

Finally, we urgently need to consider how this trajectory is going to develop further. As society moves away from viewing heterosexuality as some kind of expected ‘norm’, we have no idea how this loss of expectancy and assumption is going to affect the (at least partly socially constructed) sexual maturation of children, teenagers and young men and women.

‘Does it matter anyway?’ some will ask. It’s a fair question.

The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who has fought hard for the defeat of a ‘heteronormative’ framework of sexual flourishing, doesn’t think so and has written lucidly about what this implies for our sexual formation:

But if one sexuality is not privileged over another … [t]he need to maintain sexual differences, boundaries and identities disappears with the demise of straight supremacism. As we evolve into a sexually enlightened and accepting society … [t]he vast majority of people will be open to the possibility of both opposite-sex and same-sex desires, regardless of whether they act upon them. They won’t feel the need to label themselves (or others) as gay or straight because, in a future non-homophobic civilisation, no one will care who loves who. Love will transcend sexual orientation.

This isn’t my own worldview, but given Tatchell’s premises, his logic is surely correct. If there is no morally ordered Way in which we are summoned to walk, a path revealed from beyond the horizons of subjective desire, then why should anybody care who loves who? Why not be fluid? Or as Queer theorists devoted to the deconstruction of heteronormative culture might say, why can’t we all just be queer?

Surely that is a theological issue that the Church, and those taking part in the Shared Conversations need to address. Vague talk of ‘inclusion’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘equality’ simply won’t do. 

[i] Hamer, D.H., Hu, S. et al. ‘A linkage between DNA markers on the X-chromosome and male sexual orientation’, Science (1993) 261(5119), 321-327

[ii] For example: Bailey, J.M., Dunne, M.P. & Martin, N.G. ‘Genetic and environmental influences on sexual orientation and its correlates in an Australian twin sample’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology (2000) 78(3), 524-536

[iii] For a careful overview see De Pomeroi D (2010) The Witness of Science. In: Groves P, The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality. SPCK

[iv] For example: Gates, Gary J. (2011) How Many People are Lesbian, Gay, bisexual, and Transgender? The Williams Institute, UCLA.

[vii] ‘Generation LGBTQIA’ (2013) New York Times

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3 Responses to Sexuality and the Politicisation of Science

  1. Ian says:

    Thanks. Glynn. Simon LeVay was one of the co-authors with Hamer of the paper you mention, and I think also published by himself. He and I went to the same school! But his work has been discredited on methodological grounds because of his biassed samples.

    I wonder whether you ought also to mention the longitudinal studies of variation in ‘orientation’ that Peter Ould documented so well.

    • Many thanks Ian, good point about the Dunedin longitudinal studies. I have in fact cited previously because (despite small sample sizes) it has impressively low attrition for a cohort study, so well worth looking at. It shows that whilst, for example among the women, the proportion ‘predominantly same-sex attracted’ stays stable across follow up points at around 2%, it’s not precisely the same 2% of people. People change their self-identity labels over time as you observe. I’ve been hugely appreciating your incisive writing in this area btw…

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