3 min

Attraction? It’s biological, baby

But what you do sexually is all up to your imagination

Dear Dr Ren,

I just read your “Year in Review” column and am wondering what new knowledge about “just how fixed and biologically based male sexuality is, including orientation and turn-ons” has recently come to light. I was under the impression that, if anything, young people in Western societies seem to be finding that sexual attractions are rather more fluid than we all believed, males included.


More Please


Dear More Please,

Our parents taught us the social code of refusing to air one’s dirty linen publicly. We were not to speak of anything impolite or messy, and “what is said at the hearth does not cross the threshold.”

This discretion is no longer either possible or expected. We now live in an atmosphere of hedonistic exhibitionism, showcased by “reality” TV and talk shows. Audiences squeal with titillation and self-righteous judgment as hapless confessors expose every detail of decadence or victimization. Sexual content amps the ratings.

Internet anonymity fosters this tell-all attitude. Add social media, and bravado balloons while accountability plummets. It’s easy to lie — and to judge — when we feel anonymous, or when we are bolstered by real or imagined choirs of supporters. So talk, and watch, we do!

The result of this explosion of previously withheld information is the impression that more people are engaging in more (and more bizarre) sexual behaviours than ever before. What’s true is that we just know about them now.

We are accustomed to witnessing sexual expressions as never before. Many are growing ever more comfortable with sexuality in many forms. But that’s attitudes and behaviours we’re talking about here. Which leads me to your impression that “young people in Western societies seem to be finding that sexual attractions are rather more fluid” than supposed.

Well, no. Especially in the case of males, attractions (orientations, who we want sexually) are pretty fixed. New research solidifies a biological basis for this.

That said, this is not a restricting situation. It means that who you want to be sexual with will remain the same (regardless of how you feel about that orientation), but what you do with your partners is limited only by your imagination. As you become exposed to novel sexual behaviours, you may find they appeal to you. You are always free to explore that potential, provided you can locate enthusiastic partners. Furthermore, as you become exposed to more sexuality, your attitudes will probably become more liberal. That’s the way of social change.

New research offers us some concrete answers about the biological underpinnings of sex.

Brain scans (fMRIs) are unlocking puzzles about the brain. We are still learning about the role of genetics, but those hurdles are falling fast. What about womb life and the potent androgens that bathe male fetuses? What can we learn from brain chemistry, with and without pharmaceuticals?

Who would ever have thought we’d know to ask these questions, yet alone know how to find the answers?

Dr Simon LeVay, as to the cause of orientation, says in his latest book, “scientific evidence . . . points to one conclusion: Sexual orientation results primarily from an interaction between genes, sex hormones, and the cells of the developing body and brain.”

Definitively biological, yes, but aren’t these very broad strokes? Canadians Ray Blanchard, and later Tony Bogaert, vote for the womb environment theory. Their research supports their claim that it matters who was in that womb before you were. Every male fetus subsequent to the first has a three to five percent greater likelihood of being gay. I am so hoping that somebody is doing longitudinal studies on those Duggars boys (10 of ’em so far)!

Blanchard and Bogaert teamed with Breedlove and Bailey to document another finding only academic sexologists would notice: the length ratio of the second and fourth fingers (2D:4D) in gay men are statistically different from that in straight men. They did hair whorl directions, too. Honest.

On a more serious — and equally rigorously academic — note, Dr James Cantor has just released his research on pedophilia. Given the hot-button topic this is, you can imagine how scrupulous the research he does must be. He does fMRIs to document the site of arousability in the brain. As with other brain scan researchers’ findings (Whipple and Komisaruk, Fisher), his data proves the intractability of target location (who you’re hot for). His research findings also herald excellent predictions for behaviour management if appropriate therapy and release mechanisms are available.

Whether the “cause” of our orientation is genetic, hormonal or a function of brain chemistry, it is neither a choice nor a failure of prayer. In a moment of grace, the president of the reparative therapy movement’s Exodus International, Alan Chambers, admitted just this month that “99.9 percent of [people who try] have not experienced a change in their orientation.” Expect backlash, but this is acquiescence to science and sanity.

It’s difficult to comprehend that anything as hot as fantasy, or as sweet as post-sexual bliss, could originate in brain chemicals and firing synapses. But given that’s the case, let’s investigate further! I suspect the answers are going to be as exciting as the questions.

Stay tuned. We’ve only just begun.