Simon LeVay’s Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation is a brisk overview of the various theories regarding the biological roots of human sexuality. LeVay is a Kinsey for our age—a renowned scientist with an expertise in the origins of physical attraction. In 1991, he published one of the first major studies on the subject, called “A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men.” Even with a turkey of a title like that, the study still made headlines nationwide and, in some papers, received top billing over the collapse of the Soviet Union. Such is the selling power of sex.
In a nutshell, LeVay contends, “the scientific knowledge currently available does bolster the idea that gays and lesbians are distinct ‘kinds’ of people,” and “the origins of sexual orientation are to be sought in the interactions between sex hormones and the developing brain.” In other words, LeVay argues that a person’s sexuality (by which he means whether a person is attracted to men or women, rather than whether a person actually has sex with men or women) is, more or less, determined in the womb, and remains relatively stable throughout a lifetime, regardless of one’s rearing or formative experiences.
In the broadest sense, this is likely something we all believe. Most people recall being “attracted” to whomever they’re attracted to well before they had a working knowledge of the birds and the bees—and this “attraction” had scant to do with, say, whether or not they had an overbearing mother. The whopping majority of the medical community now agrees that a person’s sexuality is largely biologically determined. What they’re uncertain of is how it’s biologically determined—though the most credible theory seems to be that, during all pregnancies, there are these hormone surges that go whooshing through the womb. Depending on the timing of these whooshes, a fetus either becomes gay or straight. Now, the terms “gay” or “straight” are really inadequate here, because LeVay is talking about both more and less than sexual attraction. He’s referring to a “package of gender-atypical traits that share a developmental history.” And this is where the whole conversation becomes both really compelling and really absurd—because, tucked away in laboratories throughout the world, drab, lab-coated figures have been furiously studying sex in the un-sexiest way possible.
Here are some of their conclusions, suggesting that sexual orientation is far more than a heart going boom boom boom: Gay men scored as well as straight women on “verbal fluency” tests, while lesbians scored as poorly as straight men. Gay men share “navigation strategies” with straight women (meaning both groups prefer directions using “nearby landmarks,” whereas straight men prefer “distant landmarks” and “compass bearings”). Some studies have shown that the finger lengths of gay men resemble (in scale) those of straight women (especially in the second and fourth digits), while the finger lengths of lesbians resemble straight men’s, as does their “eye-blink auditory startle response” (a hideous phrase referring to the way people react to sudden loud noises). Also, gay men have bigger penises than their straight brethren.
Now, let me first say that LeVay and the researchers he quotes seem to be worthy, sincere, ethical scientists, in passionate pursuit of empirical knowledge. LeVay does a remarkable job of synthesizing complex information and theories into palatable language. As a writer and thinker, he’s compassionate, cautious and convincing on a hot-potato topic—and anyone interested in the science of sexuality would profit from reading his book. But I just can’t help finding the whole thing so frigging depressing. I mean, how reductive to consider something as ineffable as human sexuality from a purely biological perspective, as though we’re just so many cattle in the pasture. Where’s the stardust? Where’s the moon-glow? The whole time I was reading LeVay’s book, I found myself longing for that well-known sage of the mysteries of sexuality, Miss Tallulah Bankhead, who once described the sweet longings of her own heart thusly: “It isn’t the cock, and it isn’t the twat. It’s a look in the eye, and the faint whiff of lilac.” And if that isn’t a better explanation than the relative finger-lengths of the second and fourth digits, I’ll eat my hat.