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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

Is your child a "prehomosexual"? Forecasting adult sexual orientation

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There are signs, some would say omens, glimmering in certain children’s demeanors that, probably ever since there were children, have caused parents’ brows to crinkle with worry, precipitated forced conversations with nosy mothers-in-law, strained marriages and ushered untold numbers into the deep covenant of sexual denial. We all know the stereotypes: an unusually light, delicate, effeminate air in a little boy’s step, often coupled with solitary bookishness, or a limp wrist, an interest in dolls, makeup, princesses, dresses and a staunch distaste for rough play with other boys; in little girls, there is the outwardly boyish stance, perhaps a penchant for tools, a lumbering gait, a square-jawed readiness for physical tussles with boys, an aversion to all the perfumed, delicate, laced trappings of femininity.

So let’s get down to brass tacks. It’s what these behaviors signal to parents about their child’s incipient sexuality that makes them so undesirable—these behavioral patterns are feared, loathed and often spoken of directly as harbingers of adult homosexuality.

However, it is only relatively recently that developmental scientists have conducted controlled studies with one clear aim in mind, which is to go beyond mere stereotypes and accurately identity the most reliable signs of later homosexuality. In looking carefully at the childhoods of now-gay adults, researchers are finding an intriguing set of early behavioral indicators that homosexuals seem to have in common. And, curiously enough, the age-old homophobic fears of parents seem to have some genuine predictive currency.

In their technical writings, researchers in this area simply refer to pint-sized prospective gays and lesbians as “prehomosexual.” This term isn’t perfect—it manages to achieve both an uncomfortable air of biological determinism and clinical interventionism simultaneously. But it is, at least, probably fairly accurate.

Although not the first scientists to investigate the earliest antecedents of same-sex attraction, J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist from Northwestern University, and Canadian psychiatrist Kenneth Zucker published the seminal paper on childhood markers of homosexuality with their controversial 1995 review article in Developmental Psychology . The explicit aim of this paper, according to the authors, “was to review the evidence concerning the possible association between childhood sex-typed behavior and adult sexual orientation.” So one thing to keep in mind is that this particular work isn’t about identifying the causes of homosexuality, per se, but instead it’s about indexing the childhood correlates of same-sex attraction. In other words, nobody is disputing the genetic factors underlying adult homosexuality or the well-established prenatal influences; but the present work is orthogonal to those causal models. Instead, it is simply meant to index the nonerotic behavioral clues that best predict which children are most likely to be attracted, as adults, to those of the same sex, and which are not.

By “sex-typed behaviors,” Bailey and Zucker are referring to that long, now scientifically canonical, list of innate sex differences in the behaviors of young males versus young females. In innumerable studies, scientists have documented that these sex differences are largely impervious to learning and found in every culture examined (even, some researchers believe, in youngsters of other primate species). Now before that argumentative streak in you starts whipping up exceptions to the rule—obviously there is variance both between and within individual children—I hasten to add that it’s only when comparing the aggregate data that sex differences leap into the stratosphere of statistical significance. The most salient among these differences are observed in the domain of play. Boys engage in what developmental psychologists refer to as “rough-and-tumble play,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, whereas girls shy away from wrestling and play-fighting, instead preferring the company of dolls to a knee in the ribs.

In fact, toy interests are another key sex difference, with boys gravitating towards things like toy machine guns and monster trucks and girls orienting towards neotenous dolls and hyperfeminized figurines. Young children of both sexes enjoy fantasy—or pretend—play, but the roles that the two sexes take on within the fantasy context are already clearly gender-segregated by as early as two years of age, with girls enacting the role of, say, cooing mothers, ballerinas or fairy princesses and boys strongly preferring more masculine characters, such as soldiers and superheroes. Not surprisingly, therefore, boys naturally select other boys for playmates, and girls would much rather play with other girls than with boys.

So on the basis of some earlier, shakier research, along with a good dose of common sense, Bailey and Zucker hypothesized that homosexuals would show an inverted pattern of sex-typed childhood behaviors (little boys preferring girls as playmates and infatuated with their mothers’ make-up kits; little girls strangely enamoured by field hockey or professional wrestling…that sort of thing). Empirically, explain the authors, there are two ways to investigate the relation between sex-typed behaviors and later sexual orientation. The first of these is to use a prospective method, in which young children displaying sex-atypical patterns are followed longitudinally into adolescence and early adulthood, such that the individual’s sexual orientation can be assessed at reproductive maturity. Usually this is done by using something like the famous Kinsey Scale, which involves a semistructured clinical interview about sexual behavior and sexual fantasies to rate people on a scale of 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). I’m a solid 6; I often say that I wanted to get out of a vagina at one point in my life, but ever since then I’ve never had the slightest interest in going back into one.

Conducting prospective studies of this sort is not terribly practical, explain Bailey and Zucker, for several reasons. First, given that only about 10 percent of the population is homosexual, a rather large number of prehomosexuals are needed to obtain a sufficient sample size of eventually gay adults, and this would require a huge oversampling of children just in case some turn out gay. Second, a longitudinal study tracking the sexuality of children into late adolescence takes a long time—around sixteen years—so the prospective approach is very slow-going. Finally, and perhaps the biggest problem with prospective homosexuality studies, not a lot of parents are likely to volunteer their children. Rightly or wrongly, this is a sensitive topic, and usually it’s only children who present significant sex-atypical behaviors—such as those with gender identity disorder—that are brought into clinics and whose cases are made available to researchers.

For example, in a 2008 issue of Developmental Psychology, University of Toronto psychologist Kelley Drummond and her colleagues interviewed 25 adult women who, as children between 3-12 years of age, were referred by their parents for assessment at a mental health clinic. At the time, all of these girls had several diagnostic indicators of gender identity disorder. They might have strongly preferred male playmates, insisted on wearing boys’ clothing, favored rough-and-tumble play over dolls and dress-up, stated that they would eventually grow a penis, or refused to urinate in a sitting position. As adults, however, only 12 percent of these women grew up to be gender dysphoric (the uncomfortable sense that one’s biological sex does not match one’s gender identity). Rather, the women’s childhood histories were much more predictive of their adult sexual orientation. In fact, the researchers found that the odds of these women reporting a bisexual/homosexual orientation was up to 23 times higher than would normally occur in a general sample of young women. Not all “tomboys” become lesbians, of course, but these data do suggest that lesbians often have a history of cross-sex-typed behaviors.

And the same holds for gay men. In their 1995 report, Bailey and Kenneth Zucker revealed that, in retrospective studies (the second method used to examine the relation between childhood behavior and adult sexual orientation, in which adults simply answer questions about their childhoods) 89 percent of randomly sampled gay men recalled cross-sex-typed childhood behaviors exceeding the heterosexual median. Some critics have questioned the general retrospective approach, arguing that participants’ memories (both those of gay and straight individuals) may be distorted to fit with societal expectations and stereotypes about what gays and straights are like as children. But in a rather clever recent study published in a 2008 issue of Developmental Psychology by Northwestern University’s Gerulf Rieger and his colleagues, evidence from childhood home videos validated the retrospective method by having people blindly code child targets on the latter’s sex-typical behaviors, as shown on the screen. The authors found that, “those targets who, as adults, identified themselves as homosexual were judged to be gender nonconforming as children.”

Numerous studies have since replicated this general pattern of findings, all revealing a strong link between childhood deviations from gender role norms and adult sexual orientation. There is also evidence of a “dosage effect”: the more gender nonconforming characteristics there are in childhood, the more likely it is that a homosexual/bisexual orientation will be present in adulthood.

But—and I know you’ve been waiting for me to say this—there are several very important caveats to this body of work. Although gender-atypical behavior in childhood is strongly correlated with adult homosexuality, it is still an imperfect correlation. Not all little boys who like to wear dresses grow up to be gay, nor do all little girls who despise dresses become lesbians. Speaking for myself, I was rather androgynous, showing a mosaic pattern of sex-typical and atypical behaviors as a child. In spite of my parents’ preferred theory that I was simply a young Casanova, Zucker and Bailey’s findings may account for that old Polaroid snapshot in which 11 of the 13 other children at my seventh birthday party are little girls. But I also wasn’t an overly effeminate child, was never bullied as a “sissy,” and by the time I was ten I was indistinguishably as annoying, uncouth and wired as my close male peers.

In fact, by thirteen, I was already deeply socialized into masculine social norms; in this case, I took to middle school wrestling as a rather scrawny eighty-pound eighth grader, and in so doing I ironically became all too conscious indeed of my homosexual orientation. Intriguingly, cross-cultural data published by Fernando Luiz Cardoso of Santa Catarina State University in a 2008 issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior showed that young prehomosexual males are attracted to solitary sports, such as swimming, cycling, or tennis, over rougher contact sports, such as football or soccer—and also that they are less likely to be childhood bullies. I distinctly recall being with the girls on the monkey bars during second grade recess while the boys were in the field playing football, thinking to myself that that was rather strange.

Another caveat is that researchers in this area readily concede that there are probably multiple—and no doubt very complicated—developmental routes to adult homosexuality. Heritable, biological factors interact with environmental experiences to produce phenotypic outcomes, and this is no less true for sexual orientation than it is for any other within-population variable. Since the prospective and retrospective data discussed in the foregoing studies often reveal very early emerging traits in prehomosexuals, however, those children who show pronounced sex-atypical behaviors may have “more” of a genetic loading to their homosexuality, whereas gay adults who were sex-typical as children might trace their homosexuality more directly to particular childhood experiences. For example, in a rather stunning case of what I’ll call “say-it-isn’t-so science”—science that produces data that rebel against popular, politically correct, or emotionally appealing sentiments—controversial new findings published earlier this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior hint intriguingly that men—but not women—who were sexually abused as children are significantly more likely than non-abused males to have had homosexual relationships as adults. Whatever the causal route, however, none of this implies, whatsoever, that sexual orientation is a choice. In fact it implies quite the opposite, since prepubertal erotic experiences can later consolidate into irreversible sexual orientations and preferences, as I discussed in a previous piece on the childhood origins of fetishes and paraphilias.

It is fashionable these days to say that one is “born gay,” of course, but if we think about it a bit more critically, it’s a bit odd, and probably nonsensical, to refer to a newborn infant, swaddled in blankets and still suckling on its mother’s teats, as being homosexual. I appreciate the anti-discriminatory motives, but if we insist on using such politically correct parlance without consideration of more complex, postnatal developmental factors, are we really prepared to label newborns as being LGBT?

Then we arrive at the most important question of all. Why do parents worry so much about whether their child may or may not be gay? You might not be one of these fretful parents—in fact you might like to see yourself as being indifferent to your child’s sexuality so long as he or she is happy. I don’t suppose this is entirely untrue for many. Then again, all else being equal, I suspect we’d be hard-pressed to find parents that would actually prefer their offspring to be homosexual rather than heterosexual. Evolutionarily, needless to say, parental homophobia is a no-brainer: gay sons and lesbian daughters aren’t likely to reproduce (unless they get creative). And I would imagine, on a viable hunch, that even in today’s most liberally-minded communities, coming out of the closet to parents is a much easier thing to do for gay individuals who have the luxury of demonstrably straight siblings who can carry their own reproductive weight. As fo rme, with a breeding older brother and sister—not to each other, mind you—and their little respective litters of nieces and nephews, my father at least doesn’t have to worry about his genes going extinct. In any event, I think it’s far better for parents to recognize the source of their concerns about having a gay child as being motivated by unconscious genetic interests than it is to have them fibbing to themselves about being entirely indifferent to their son or daughter “turning out” gay.

And, bear this in mind parents, it’s also important to stress that since genetic success is weighed in evolutionary biological terms as the relative percentage of one’s genes that carry over into subsequent generations—rather than simply number of offspring per se—there are other, though typically less profitable, ways for your child to contribute to your overall genetic success than humdrum sexual reproduction. For example, I don’t know how much money or residual fame is trickling down to, say, k.d. lang, Elton John and Rachel Maddow’s close relatives, but I can only imagine that these straight kin are far better off in terms of their own reproductive opportunities than they would be without a homosexual dangling so magnificently on their family trees. The very thought of making love to a blood relative of Michelangelo or Hart Crane, irrespective of anything else about that person save his heritage, makes me strangely and instantly aroused—and I’d imagine such a person would be eminently desirable to heterosexually fecund women as well. So here’s my message: Cultivate your little prehomosexual’s native talents and your ultimate genetic payoff could, strangely enough, be even larger with one very special gay child than it would if ten mediocre straight offspring leapt from your loins.

There’s one final thing to note, and that’s in reference to the future of this research and its real-world applications. If researchers eventually perfect the forecasting of adult sexual orientation in children, what are the implications? Should broadminded mothers be insouciantly describing their OshKosh B’Gosh-wearing toddlers as “bi-” or fathers relaying how their “straight” daughters started eating solid food or took their first steps at the grocery store today? Would parents want to know? Parents often say to their gay children, in retrospect, “I knew it all along.” But hindsight is twenty-twenty, and here we’re talking about the possibility of really, definitively, no-doubt-about-it, knowing your child is going to be gay from a very, very early age.

I’m not a parent, but I can say as a once-prehomosexual that perhaps some preparation on the part of others would have made it easier on me, rather than constantly fearing rejection or worrying about some sloppy slip-up leading to my “exposure.” It would have at least avoided all of those awkward, incessant questions during my teenage years about why I wasn’t dating a nice pretty girl (or questions from the nice pretty girl about why I was dating her and not doing anything about it.)

And another thing: it must be pretty hard to look into your prehomosexual toddler’s limpid eyes, brush away the cookie crumbs from her cheek, and kick her out of the house for being gay.  

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Sign up for the RSS feed, visit www.JesseBering.com, friend Dr. Bering on Facebook or follow @JesseBering on Twitter and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns. Jesse's first book, The Belief Instinct (Norton) [The God Instinct (Nicholas Brealey) in the U.K.], will be published early February, 2011.

Image ©iStockphoto.com/brucejolley

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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