Tuesday 17 June 2008

Sex on the brain

Scientists claim to have discovered that gay men and heterosexual women share similar kinds of brains, as do straight men and lesbians. Apparently studies have shown that gay men and straight women both tend to have a poor sense of direction, while they outperform straight men and lesbians in tasks that require verbal fluency.

I'm not sure where this leaves all those lesbians and straight men who happen to be brilliant writers, or all those heterosexual men who have difficulties with maps. Nor is it easy to see how this theory would account for bisexuality, or for the experience of those who go through a gay phase in their youth only to settle down with a partner of the opposite sex, not to mention those whose sexual preferences change in more subtle ways throughout their lives. 

I can see the usefulness of all this neuroscientific stuff for challenging those who insist that sexual preference is a mere lifestyle 'choice', but it's really far too reductive to account for the complexities and vagaries of human desire. Like all positivist science, it isolates historically and culturally shifting phenomena (the notion of 'the homosexual' as a distinct category was unknown 200 years ago), treats them as if they were fixed and unchanging, and attempts to identify 'hard-wired' causes that explain them. I often wonder if, in a hundred years time, this kind of neuroscience will seem as peculiar as the theories of those Victorian phrenologists who claimed to have identified the key features of the 'criminal' brain now appear to us.

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