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Gay Science: The Ethics of Sexual Orientation Research

Gay Science: The Ethics of Sexual Orientation Research

Sexual Orientation
by Timothy F. Murphy
review James Bohling: James Bohling is a graduate student in the Annenberg School for Communication’s school of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Southern California. He holds a Master’s Degree in French from the University of California at Berkeley and is an Assistant Lecturer at USC’s Department of French and Italian. He is interested in media portrayals of gays and lesbians, and the origins of all kinds of sexuality.

Homoeroticism, the term philosopher Timothy F. Murphy uses to refer to male-male or female-female sexual desire, has traditionally been a condemned trait in most Western societies. But even in the face of social opposition, same-sex desire and activity have continued to thrive. For well over a century, homoeroticism has been the subject of scientific inquiry: if such urges and conduct carry with them a weighty and often damaging stigma, why do they persist? Is it nature? Is it nurture? Is it a combination of both? Over the past several years, these questions have been discussed with an unprecedented eagerness, in great measure because of significant and well-publicized studies that have suggested that sexual orientation may have strong biological influences.

The reaction from the gay and lesbian community has been ambivalent: on the one hand, we want to know why we are the way we are, and we harbor some hope that the answers will help to combat heterosexist prejudices. On the other hand, the coupling of these very prejudices with an informed technology could, many fear, lead to a socially sanctioned extinction of all homosexuals. In Gay Science, the Ethics of Sexual Orientation Research philosopher Timothy F. Murphy presents, in encapsulated form, the most important studies on the origins of homoeroticism.

He interprets the conclusions of these studies, and examines the different applications they would conceivably have. But most importantly, he tackles the implications of research into the origins of homoeroticism and offers, as he puts it, “an ethical overview of sexual orientation research and, more specifically, the meaning of that research for gay people” (3). Murphy, who identifies as a gay man, is clearly not insensitive to the concerns that gay men and lesbians might have about the potential abuse of sexual orientation research.

He laments the fact that homo- and heteroeroticism are seen as polar opposites and that the former has been the subject of so much moral frowning. However, he believes the scientific study of the origins of all eroticism to be a worthy endeavor. And while he (perhaps over-) emphasizes his cognizance of the discomfort that many gay people have around the issue of such study, he consistently arrives at the conclusion that “(f)reedom of intellectual inquiry is an important moral and scientific value, and its control may be worse than any single wrongful use on which it is wasted.” (58) Before launching into his formal discussion of specific studies, Murphy offers his own interactionist philosophy with respect to the origins of sexuality.

A purely social constructionist theory of homoeroticism is inadequate in explaining the roots of sexual orientation. Conversely, he submits, one cannot deny the power of cultural influences in shaping erotic desire and behavior. Sexuality, of which homoeroticism is but a subset, logically seems to be an intersection of nature and culture, and it is refreshing to have a theorist of sexual origins confirm this common-sense notion. The extent to which homoeroticism is formed by social and biological determinants is nonetheless hazy at present, Murhpy concedes. In his first chapter, “Scientific Accounts of Sexual Orientation,” he synopsizes the most relevant studies conducted in the field, including Simon LeVay’s now-famous research on the hypothalamus in the brain of gay men as opposed to straight men.

Although LeVay’s study suggests that there may be some biological basis to sexual orientation, the findings are far from conclusive, Murphy points out. Much the same holds for other well-known studies involving sexual orientation patterns among siblings, DNA linkage among male homosexual cousins and uncles (through maternal aunts), and dermatoglyphics (skin ridges). In none of these studies do the results “prove” anything, Murphy argues. However, he staunchly believes that pursuing further studies is imperative in the quest for a theory of “human psychosexual development.” He echoes the sentiment of many gays and lesbians that it could be socially beneficial to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of the origins of homoeroticism through biology.

He adds that the pursuit of answers is doubly important in light of the unconvincing conclusions of the existing studies: the work of LeVay and others should not, regardless of whatever merits it may possess, go down as the “final word” on sexual orientation research. The remaining chapters, i.e., the bulk of Murphy’s book, are speculative in nature. In the case that biologically conclusive methods for divining sexual orientation were developed, how might they be used? In chapter 3, “The Practice of Sexual Orientation Therapy,” he deals with the potential applications of such findings for adults who wished to alter their sexual orientation.

While such tentatives have been almost wholly unsuccessful in the past, adults could conceivably “go straight” by means of medical technology, if scientists developed efficacious therapies to do so. Murphy ultimately concludes that the safety of such procedures, coupled with a subject’s willingness to undergo them, would render them ethically acceptable. His discussion of the issue is thoughtful and thorough, though his equation of sexual orientation therapy to cosmetic procedures such as liposuction will probably leave some readers feeling uneasy. His fourth chapter, “Controlling the Sexual Orientation of Children,” focuses up on the area of potential application of medical technologies that has caused the most distress among lesbians and gays. Shortly after LeVay’s studies became public, there was talk going around that the isolation of a gay gene or other biological marker could lead to the identification of gay or lesbian fetuses.

It was not a far leap to imagine, in a society replete with heterosexist leanings, that fetuses bearing a genetic propensity toward homoeroticism might be aborted, and gays and lesbians thus eradicated as a people entirely and permanently. Murphy discusses the anxiety that many share about this possible scenario, or one like it, but he generally feels that such fears are unfounded. He asserts the rights of parents to influence their children’s values and conduct up to a certain point, though he maintains that these rights diminish as a child grows older and becomes capable of making independent decisions.

His primary concern is, again, that no one risk any side effects from whatever medical procedure is developed. However, Murphy never draws a clear line: a fetus or infant is completely under the jurisdiction of his or her parents, while a fifteen-year-old is free to do as he or she pleases. It would have been interesting to see how he dealt with, say, a seven- or eleven-year-old, as such cases would surely come up in the hypothetical future Murphy portrays here. Once more, some will certainly be disturbed by his willingness to let parents abort or alter fetuses on the basis of predicted sexual orientation (although Murphy strongly states that heterosexism is a societal ill and finds it lamentable that parents would wish to abort on such a basis).

But Murphy’s argument will push many past their visceral discomfort with the idea and likely persuade them to contemplate more fully the reasons for which they oppose such intervention. Murphy also devotes a chapter to the possible uses of sexual orientation tests were a genetic basis for homoeroticism discovered. Though we are, of course, totally in the realm of the hypothetical, his insights are nonetheless intriguing. He proposes numerous situations in which tests to determine sexual orientation could be used, for example by insurance companies, the military, and potential employers. While many of the scenarios Murphy describes seem farfetched, they are interesting to ponder. Sexual orientation tests could, he concludes, be an advantage or a burden for gay men and lesbians.

The reader must make up his own mind, and Murphy offers plenty of circumstances in which one might test his convictions about what such a test might mean. In fact, the reader is given ample pro and con on just about every possible application of conclusive sexual orientation research. In his final chapter, “Science and the Future,” Murphy makes some of his most outlandish proposals, imagining that a violently heterosexist dictatorship were to have access to technology that could suppress sexual orientation.

He again makes the case for unrestrained scientific inquiry, noting that such a society would demand only the suppression of openly homosexual expression, not its eradication. Unfortunately, he does not take things a step further, i.e., envisaging a society in which genetic tests were performed without exception on all newborns and/or fetuses, and those who tested positive for homoerotic impulse killed or aborted by government mandate. It is, of course, the most extreme (and unlikely) of possibilities, but it would have been particularly interesting to see how Murphy, as a philosopher, would have dealt with it.

Do lesbians and gays have any stake in ensuring the survival of their “race”? What could occur if homosexuality were, in fact, eradicated? This is a missing segment in Murphy’s argument. He does acknowledge that “there are serious questions to be asked about the legitimacy of trying to achieve moral reform via biomedical engineering” (212). But Murphy maintains throughout his book the thesis that sexual orientation research is a valuable branch of science that ought to be pursued. I am inclined to agree with him, though many readers, I expect, will not. In any event, Timothy F. Murphy has rendered, with GAY SCIENCE, a series of principled and well-reasoned arguments that offer insight into the most practical and immediate, as well as metaphysical and far-reaching implications, of sexual orientation research.

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