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by Simon LeVay
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Charles Mpofu on Jul 24th 2012

Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why

One of the ways in which societies tend to defend the ideal statuses of their being either democratic or enlightened has been through how sexual diversity is viewed by such societies. Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist, has contributed to movements towards these ideals by the publication of his book- Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The science of sexual orientation. In short Simon LeVay has drawn a wide range of scientific knowledge to explain the question of what makes people gay, lesbian, bi, or straight. He has done this by defending the argument of link between genetics, human physiology and sexual orientation. By drawing on studies focusing on the interaction between genes, sex hormones, and the developing brain he concludes that that sexual orientation derives from biology, not from personal choices. Another conclusion that can be drawn from reading this book is that sexual orientation is not something to be determined after birth but much of it would have been determined at the time of birth

The book summarizes a range past and present scientific researches that explain human sexuality and demonstrate that science has not advanced much from the time LeVay himself publish his first scientific paper on the question of sexual orientation in early 1990s. LeVay does not present this current state of knowledge and the findings as the overall conclusion but leaves everything at a probable level.

In terms of organization the book features an introduction which is followed by chapters 1-11.

·         Chapter 1: What is Sexual Orientation? -explores issues related to sexual orientation include definitions and research findings from studies about sexual orientation.

·         Chapter 2: Why We Need Biology- explores a variety of theories that have so far been used to explain sexual orientation. These include Freudian theories and a variety of learning theories. LeVay argues why these theories tend to be hard to prove and hence the need for biological explanations.

  • Chapter 3: The outline of a theory- is where LeVay explains the issues about how sex hormone levels and brain development are linked to later life sexual preferences.
  • Chapter 4: Childhood-outlines how retrospective and prospective as well as other methods have been used to show how young boys’ and girls’ mental and behavioural traits have shown links with later life sexual preferences.
  • Chapter 5: Characteristics of Gay and Straight Adults-explores the question of shift in sexual preferences among gay man and women as have been demonstrated, for example, through verbal fluency tests.

Chapter 6: The Role of Sex Hormones-explores how some conditions which result in over exposure and poor exposure to hormone levels prenatally lead to later preferences in sexual orientation.

  • Chapter 7: The Role of Genes- explores studies that demonstrate that genes may predispose homosexuality
  • Chapter 8: The Brain- explores the roles of sex hormones, genes, and differences in the brain by looking at the evidence that is available in the brain structures that point to the association of such characteristics with gay or lesbian behaviour. These include the findings that the grey matter of lesbians and non-lesbians tend to differ. Other studies explored here include both human and nonhuman experiments on brain regions that are linked to sexuality preferences
  • Chapter 9-The body-Explores the roles of sex hormones, genes, and differences in the body by looking at how sex hormones have influenced body features in their development . Evidence is given from both human and non-human studies.
  • Chapter 10: The Older-Brother Effect- Explores the biological reasons of the link between birth order and fetal environmental changes and the likelihood of being gay in later life. This is exemplified by looking at studies that have explored the link between the number of older brothers and the likelihood of being gay in later life
  • Chapter 11- Conclusion- sums  up the debates and scientific evidence and the purpose of the debate in the book.

The book ends with a glossary of terms and this makes it even friendlier to a non-technical reader. Footnotes and a wide range of references are also given at the end of the book.

While this book may have a first appeal to academics I would also recommend it to a diverse range of people in the society. These include those who are sexually diverse as it could be a tool of empowerment in social conversations where they are faced with the need to explain who they are- the reality that these people face in the society.

Positioning the causes of being gay at the level of biological influences has implications for promoting social acceptance of gay people. One also wonders how far works of scientific nature such as this publication may contribute to the acceptance of people diverse sexual orientation in different societies. In his further writing in this book LeVay however spelt it out that even if being gay could be proven to be a question of choice there a myriad of other reasons why gay people should be accepted by society.

Finally, from an ethics perspective, on reading this book, one may have a feeling that given the evidence that sexual orientation could be determined before birth LeVay should have also dealt with the possible implications of this in the face of the available technology nowadays. By this I am referring to the fact that if we know the biological determinants of being gay and can diagnose these what are the ethical challenges regarding choices of who can be born and who cannot be born. Given the current levels of lack of acceptance of gay people in some societies the ethical challenges can be far reaching.

 

© 2012 Charles Mpofu

 

Charles Mpofu, MHsc (Hons), PhD Cand., AUT University, faculty of health sciences, Auckland, New Zealand.  He is a lecturer with interests in social justice and empowerment as well as ethics and health law. His research methodologies are empowerment oriented. Has taught mainly in the school of public health, School of occupation and rehabilitation and now teaches in interdisciplinary studies health care practice.