Pruden v. LeVay in the Salt Lake Trib: My response

David Pruden, Executive Director of Evergreen International and Simon LeVay, writer and neuroscientist had parallel op-eds in the Salt Lake Tribune this month about the origins and mutability of sexual orientation (click the links to read them). I submitted the following response to the trib, which was considered but turned down today for sunday’s paper. No word if it will end up in a future edition but I am going to post it anyway.

Sexual orientation: An interactionist’s view

The Tribune recently printed articles by David Pruden and Simon LeVay regarding sexual orientation. I want to present an alternative view.

I am more tentative about cause than either Mr. Pruden or Dr. LeVay. I disagree with Mr. Pruden that all researchers have abandoned the born gay view. Many researchers enamored with biological determinism continue to look for anything besides environment that could determine our sexuality. Sometimes their enthusiasm reminds me of the optimist cleaning the horse stall – “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

On the other hand, Dr. LeVay is correct that biological factors cannot be dismissed. Corroborating research is required to learn how these factors operate but research consistently demonstrates small and subtle biological influences.

An alternative proposition incorporating biological and environmental factors is offered by Daryl Bem at Cornell University. He suggests that erotic attractions are not directly coded in genes, or wired in the brain via pre-natal hormones. Rather, biology may influence sexual orientation through the expression of childhood temperament (levels of aggression, eye-hand coordination, etc.), which are influenced by pre-natal factors. The most durable finding in years of research regarding homosexuality is that adult homosexuals recall gender atypical preferences as children (e.g., feminine boys, tomboyish girls). For instance, boys feeling different from other boys during childhood due to culturally feminine preferences may see males as the opposite sex just as puberty ushers in hormones and the accompanying unfocused sexual feelings.

While Dr. Bem’s theory awaits additional investigation, there is supporting research. One study found that neither genetic similarity nor a shared womb was associated with adult homosexual orientation unless childhood gender nonconformity was factored in. Even with this research, we must be tentative due to the observation that not all gays, especially lesbians, felt different from same-sex peers as children. The best we can say at present is that different factors, biological and environmental, may be relevant for different individuals. This would make sexuality akin to many human preferences, unchosen in the immediate sense, but acquired over time via an interaction of one’s nature and life’s nurture. Although difficult to fit into a headline, sexual orientation is more complex than “gay genes” versus “no gay gene.”

What ever “causes” sexual orientation, there is clear evidence that sexual orientation is somewhat flexible, at least for some. One recent study found that about one-third of participants reported spontaneous change in sexual orientation categories (e.g., gay to straight; bisexual to gay). Another one-third reported less dramatic change. These changes were naturalistic; no therapy was involved.

While Dr. LeVay is correct that sexual reorientation therapy does not lead to benefit for all clients, he is on shaky ground when he states: “By all accounts, the chances of “success” – if that is the right word – are far outweighed by the likelihood of experiencing lasting psychological trauma.” The results of research on change depend on what former clients are polled – some believe therapy helped and some do not. There is no research that can predict what percentage of people might benefit and what percentage might experience harm. We need more research not dogmatism.

However, no matter what causes various sexual desires, or how flexible they might be, humans are endowed with the capacity to reflect on their situations and direct their actions to live in alignment with their beliefs and chosen values. Scientific research on biological and social factors that are relevant to adult personality cannot be prescriptive. That is, science can tell us much about what is, but little about what we ought to believe. Many questions of public policy, or how we should relate to God are independent of what science might ever find out about our sexual proclivities.

19 thoughts on “Pruden v. LeVay in the Salt Lake Trib: My response”

  1. Warren, I’m an engineer. Stop it, the talking that way, OK?

    (Show me the raw numbers. I can work them sideways and upwards and backwards — but show me the numbers. Raw numbers.)

    Even accepting your numbers, and I do not, why do 60% to 75% of gay males NOT present with “girly” childhoods?

    You can make as much as you want to over the (unaccepted) 25% to 40%… but you cannot offer anything with the MAJORITY of adult gay males.

    MAJORITY. That means “most”. Please explain them. You seem so dismissive of the fact that gay men do not, as a majority, follow what you are focussed on.

    And please do not bring up the issue of bias, unless you can point to something. It’s a cheap and easy charge.

    One could also make a variety of assumptions about a straight, anti-gay man who relies on his income from a fundamentalist Chistian college, has deep contacts with the fundamentalist religious-right and who has no contact with real, living gay people.

    Warren, I’m not sure you’re quite with “it” from the way you’re talking — we don’t need to be told what being gay is all about. We are gay. Don’t do that with us, OK? Don’t try and tell us what gay is. We are. We know.

    Get it?

    (And for my next trick: I shall publish a research paper on the sexual lives of the staff at Grove City College. I interviewed 2 people.)

  2. Explaining variance does not translate to percentages of people. It relates to how much prediction power do we get from knowing an assessment of GNC. And compared to other factors, GNC is consistently the single largest factor. In predicting SO, there are very small effects for pre-natal factors (for instance the older brother effect may account for as little as 1% of the reason the men in the study were gay). The x-chromosome effect in moms only predict about 8% of the differences between gay sons and straight sons. GNC accounts for a large 25-40% (most studies are near 40). However, in a regression analysis, sometimes you cannot account for all of the variation and you have errort (or chance factors). It appears that a lot of what contributes to SO as a trait is chance (non-shared factors). More on this later as I am working on something for publication that will discuss this further. But no, we are not talking about percentages of people.

  3. Excuse me?

    You just said 25% to 40% are.

    This means 60% to 75% ARE NOT!!!

    ie You just admitted the MAJORITY of gay men (as always, lesbians-be-gone) had typical male-conforming childhoods.

    So how on Earth do you get away with “research doesn’t support you one this”????

    Frankly, it seems that research doesn’t support your focus on gender non-conforming childhoods….

    C’mon Warren… you just admitted that the majority of gay men were “normal” boys.

    Please explain the 60%-75%.

    Please explain why you are focussed on the minority.

  4. Research doesn’t support you on this. Gender non-conformity consistently accounts for between 25-40% of the variance in univariate and multivariate studies. Most of the people in those studies have never heard of Nicolosi or if they have they would be inclined to say anything to disagree with him.

  5. True enough Warren.


    When “You” are not clear in public, this leads to people concluding things that are simply not true. You’re the one who makes the sound-bite, but we’re the one’s who have to answer the silly questions from the audience.

    i.e. Nicolosi going on a desp. hunt for non-conformity. Before you know it… one is happily joking with the idea of dropping (male) babies on their head to “toughen them up”. So they don’t end up gay, you know…

    Boys are all sorts of things. And that’s good IMO. Almost convinced that true “brilliance” is a %wise a male trait, like autism (and possibly due to same). As is true “stupidity” — possibly for same reason 🙂

    The point is…

    Even if one finds an intersection of childhood gender non-conformance and adult homosexuality… that only explains very little adult homosexuality.

    And how much of it is actually recollection being made to conform to assumption? QED Nicolosi?

    I realise you got into the idea of there being “30 types of homosexual” at one level — but, frankly, there are not. I think this is confusing you. There’s one type of homosexuality — one — and those show the full range of types of personality as do heterosexuals.

    And let’s not forget: much of life is acting, and the whole World is a stage. I’m sure straight professors at a Christian school behave in certain ways too…

  6. Grantdale – As a group the gender nonconformity thing explains more of the variance than any other factor. Didn’t say it explains you or those who were not gender nonconforming. Point being if we are trying to predict variables, we look at those correlates that provide prediction. Gender nonconformity (feeling different, prefering cross-gendered stuff, etc) explains more than any one biological factors and as far as I can find, more than all of them combined.

  7. Well, Dave who is a friend of mine was technically correct but I think he may have created the impression that no one is looking for genetic linkage. Not the case, the hunt continues apace. Now, LeVay is misleading by saying there are 3 gay genes. They didn’t even meet the tests for a significant linkage.

    In sympathy for both of them, I know how hard it is to say something nuanced in 650 words (which is what you get from the Salt Lake City Tribune for an op-ed).

  8. It’s surprising to see Simon LeVay saying that “the totality of the available evidence points strongly in that direction”, ie, that people are born gay, since this contradicts things which he has said in the past, such as his interview with Bill Andriette in February 2004.

    Here ( he said that, “It would be ridiculous to assert that sexual orientation is entirely a matter of biological predisposition, because we know that homosexual feelings and behaviours are organized differently in different cultures”, and, “The socialization side I’m sure is important.”

    If LeVay has changed his mind on this issue, and on the evidence of his latest comments he seems to have changed it completely, he ought to say why.


  9. Dr. Throckmorton i appreciate your resply to the two articles.

    You didn’t say anything about LeVay’s claim that there are 3 genes contributing to SSA and not just one. By saying that, he implies that Pruden is being misleading.

    Thanks very much!

  10. Dr. Throckmorton:

    What studies other than Kinnish et al support this sexual orientation flexibility? Is there more research needed to confirm this?


  11. Oh, the Kinnish et al (from your Powerpoint presentation etc). Didn’t wish to guess which, having guessed wrong last week!

    I recall that they found self-declared bisexuals — despite both the capacity for and history of “flexibility” — didn’t report changes to their sexual orientation. Oh. Perhaps they were the only group to, as a whole, maintain the most realistic view of themselves. Without any semantics pokey-jiggerey (that’s a technical term, BTW)

    Women reported very different results to men. But on self-identifaction/labels, and arguably not actual, underlying sexual orientation. Diamond explores this a little better.

    And the proportional differences in “flexibility” can be easily explained as a simple artifact when working with bell shaped curves and ratios if one proportion is small compared to the other. Ask me on that one if you need to — it’s a common issue and well understood in the physical sciences. Chemical Engineering, for example 🙂 Yields and contamination ratios…

    (We could have added this third-third-third claim to the growing list of “brave statements” made in that letter. But one thing at a time, hey?…)

  12. Kinnish et al, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34(2), April 2005, 173-183. – One-third of the participants reported no change. Very few went from exclusively gay to exclusively straight. Most were bisexuals who went to other categories. Straights were least likely to report change. There is also a New Zealand study that found a small group of non-changers but that there was much variability as well. I’ll add that reference later…

  13. “One recent study found that about one-third of participants reported spontaneous change in sexual orientation categories (e.g., gay to straight; bisexual to gay). Another one-third reported less dramatic change. These changes were naturalistic; no therapy was involved.”

    Warren, can you please clarify which study you are referencing.

    Without context, this paragraph sounds to me as though you’re claiming that one third of gay people have sudden and random shifts in sexual orientation. Since I’ve never known anyone to do that, this seems to be an unlikely interpretation on my part of the study.

  14. “I do think however, that how one interprets what science has to say on those points has a lot to do with basic worldview, which is a kind of pre-scientific judgement.”

    Warren, people are free to “interpret” or believe whatever they like based on pre-scientific judgement. However, basing public policy on “pre-scientific judgement”, especially when such judgement is used to treat selected citizens differently is both bad public policy and ultimately immoral (in the neighbor-as-self understanding of morality).


  15. Ivan – What references are you interested in? Google Daryl Bem and you will get to his papers at his website.

    The reference to sexual orientation flexibility is Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34(2), April 2005, 173-183.

  16. Actually, I agree with grantdale for probably different reasons on the part about science may say nothing about public policy. I was responding to what Pruden was saying in his piece about gay marriage being related to science. I don’t think they are necessarily. However, I think I made too sweeping a statement. For instance, most people would say that science or at least social science is relevant to what is best for kids. Some say a married mom and dad is best and others dispute that of course. But in either case, it is relevant. I do think however, that how one interprets what science has to say on those points has a lot to do with basic worldview, which is a kind of pre-scientific judgement.

  17. We hope they do print it. Please don’t assume we’re being nice to you at this point…

    The most durable finding in years of research regarding homosexuality is that adult homosexuals recall gender atypical preferences as children

    Well, who’s stepping over a line with that one? And after lecturing people about making unsupported — let alone disproved — statements.

    Adult homosexuals certainly do not. Some adult homosexuals do.

    Ditto, some adult heterosexuals. A lesser proportion. ? And so what. Point being. ?

    And do you honestly believe “public policy” and what is “best for children” should be independant of what science has to say?

    What an extraordinary proposition. Are you sure you didn’t mean “informed by”?

    (Will we apply this to all spheres of life including, say, Warren Throckmorton; or just when gay men and lesbians is involved?)

    Whatever next: every Court House in the nation shall be equipped with a pond and a chair on the end of a long pole…

  18. Dr. Throckmorton:

    Can you add in references to your response to Pruden and LeVay?


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