A conservative defense of sex research

During the Saddleback Civil Forum, if Rick Warren had asked the candidates about funding sex research, it might have gone like this.
Warren: What is your position on researching sex?
McCain: (with resolve and without hesitation) – Missionary!
Obama – Uh, well, it depends on how you define “sex” and “research.” Scientifically and politically, it is above my pay grade to determine what my position is in that arena.
Pure fiction, of course. I doubt sex research will come up in this year’s election. However, the topic has become a concern to some politicians. According to an ABC News report, “Sex, massages and taxpayer dollars,” some legislators are bothered by some NIH grants to universities to study sexuality. Some of Michael Bailey’s work aroused more than curiosity. To wit:

A few years ago, NIH gave a $147,000 grant to a Northwestern University psychology professor who was paying women to view pornography while a device measured their sexual responses.
That study didn’t go over too well in the halls of Congress.
Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake was among 20 Republicans to sign a letter to NIH’s director asking for an explanation for why taxpayer money was going for such a study. They called it “a bizarre spending decision.”
Today, Flake believes Congress has failed to properly oversee NIH and its spending.
“It’s Congress’ job to set guidelines for how NIH and other agencies spend taxpayer money and then exercise oversight to ensure that those guidelines are being followed. “However, over the last several years, Congress has neglected its oversight function,” Flake’s office told ABC News. “It’s difficult for Congress to criticize NIH for wasteful grants when Congress itself is earmarking billions of dollars every year on similarly wasteful pet projects.”

I have to disagree with Rep. Flake and his colleagues. As a social conservative, I am very interested in research which helps us better understand how sexuality works. Regarding sex research, I think Guggenheim Fellow Alice Dreger raises a valuable point when she argues:

What about the studies that look into things like which kind of pornography stimulates women versus men? Useless and prurient? I don’t think so. I know this sort of research horrifies conservatives, but they should really wake up to the fact that research into sexual stimulation can actually help promote family life by helping married couples understand how to have satisfying sex lives within the context of monogamy. (Is it better that a guy cheat on his wife with a prostitute, or better that he learn a vibrator and some massage might make his wife a lot more receptive? I vote for the latter.)

Of course, an unexciting sex life does not force anyone into seeking prostitutes, but I think Dr. Dreger’s argument should be taken seriously. Counselors know that otherwise solid couples, yes even very religious couples, are not exempt from sexual questions and concerns. Better that counselors are armed with good science on sexuality than the latest issue of Cosmo. Reading the Song of Solomon, while quite, uh, interesting, might not be enough to help overcome issues which would benefit from basic information. Lay people might be surprised that research is needed to better understand sex and attraction, but such science is important for reasons that might not seem apparent.
In my work, I have found the research coming out of the Bailey lab to be very helpful. His research informs my work with people on a regular basis. I often consult with heterosexually married, same-sex attracted men who wish to maintain their marriage. Bailey’s (and other researchers’) brain research, for instance, provides significant insight into how the brain responds to sexual cues. This is valuable information for those who seek insight into why they respond as they do. And many of them use this information to pursue their values and beliefs to avoid sex with men and enhance their marital adjustment with their wives.
I guess the bottom line for me is that funding sex research doesn’t mean advocating an anything-goes stance toward sex. Studies done solely for prurient interests should be questioned, but basic science of sexual attraction and arousal can have positive, and even conservative, applications.

Multiple factors involved in sexual orientation, part 2

I posted 2 weeks ago about this twin study but it is now making the media.
Here is the abstract of the article from Archives of Sexual Behavior:

There is still uncertainty about the relative importance of genes and environments on human sexual orientation. One reason is that previous studies employed selfselected, opportunistic, or small population-based samples. We used data from a truly population-based 2005–2006 survey of all adult twins (20–47 years) in Sweden to conduct the largest twin study of same-sex sexual behavior attempted so far. We performed biometric modeling with data on any and total number of lifetime same-sex sexual partners, respectively. The analyses were conducted separately by sex. Twin resemblance was moderate for the 3,826 studied monozygotic and dizygotic same-sex twin pairs. Biometric modeling revealed that, in men, genetic effects explained .34–.39 of the variance, the shared environment .00, and the individual specific environment .61–.66 of the variance. Corresponding estimates among women were .18–.19 for genetic factors, .16–.17 for shared environmental, and 64–.66 for unique environmental factors. Although wide confidence intervals suggest cautious interpretation, the results are consistent with moderate, primarily genetic, familial effects, and moderate to large effects of the nonshared environment (social and biological)
on same-sex sexual behavior.

Reactions are mixed but not really along any ideological grounds that I can see. For instance, from ScienceNOW:

J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who led earlier twin studies of sexual orientation, calls the new study “good, important, and one unlikely to be bettered in the near future.” But Jonathan Beckwith, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says that the new work fails to overcome a number of problems faced by previous twin studies. He notes that the final sample included only 12% of the males in the Swedish registry, leaving open the possibility of recruitment bias. And Beckwith says that the failure to control for family environment could inflate estimates of genetic influence.

Co-author Qazi Rahman, was quoted by the Washington Post:

“This study puts cold water on any concerns that we are looking for a single ‘gay gene’ or a single environmental variable which could be used to ‘select out’ homosexuality — the factors which influence sexual orientation are complex. And we are not simply talking about homosexuality here — heterosexual behavior is also influenced by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors,” study co-author Dr. Qazi Rahman, a leading scientist on human sexual orientation, said in a prepared statement.

I intend to devote at least one more post to this study as I agree with Michael Bailey that it is an important study. I think along with the other 2 population based studies (Bailey’s in 2000 and Kendler’s also in 2000), it provides a picture of modest genetic effects along with a major role for non-shared enviromental factors. Many roads lead to a similar result. Nothing in this study provides a clear picture of what those environmental factors are but a simple environmental explanation (e.g., poor parenting) or genetic source (single gene, or uniform action of several genes) is not supported here.
Rahman added in the Post article:

“Overall, genetics accounted for around 35 percent of the differences between men in homosexual behavior and other individual-specific environmental factors (that is, not societal attitudes, family or parenting which are shared be twins) accounted for around 64 percent. In other words, men become gay or straight because of different developmental pathways, not just one pathway,” Rahman said.

Multiple factors involved in sexual orientation: New study

A new study released online with Archives of Sexual Behavior and via press release today propose a relatively small role for family attitudes in the direction of sexual attraction, with more of the explanation being factors not shared by siblings.

Society’s attitudes have little impact on choice of sexual partner
[PRESS RELEASE 16 June 2008] A unique new study from the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institute (KI) suggests that the attitude of families and the public have little impact on if adults decide to have sex with persons of the same or the opposite sex. Instead, hereditary factors and the individual’s unique experiences have the strongest influence on our choice of sexual partners.
The study is the largest in the world so far and was performed in collaboration with the Queen Mary University of London. More than 7,600 Swedish twins (men and women) aged 20-47 years responded to a 2005 – 2006 survey of health, behaviour, and sexuality. Seven percent of the twins had ever had a same-sex sexual partner.
“The results show, that familial and public attitudes might be less important for our sexual behaviour than previously suggested”, says Associate Professor Niklas Långström, one of the involved researchers. “Instead, genetic factors and the individual’s unique biological and social environments play the biggest role. Studies like this are needed to improve our basic understanding of sexuality and to inform the public debate.”
The conclusions apply equally well to why people only have sex with persons of the opposite sex as to why we have sex with same-sex partners. However, the conclusions are more difficult to transfer to countries where non-heterosexual behaviour remains prohibited.
Overall, the environment shared by twins (including familial and societal attitudes) explained 0-17% of the choice of sexual partner, genetic factors 18-39% and the unique environment 61-66%. The individual’s unique environment includes, for example, circumstances during pregnancy and childbirth, physical and psychological trauma (e.g., accidents, violence, and disease), peer groups, and sexual experiences.
Niklas Långström, Qazi Rahman, Eva Carlström, Paul Lichtenstein, “Genetic and Environmental Effects on Same-sex Sexual Behaviour: A Population Study of Twins in Sweden.” Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 7 June 2008, doi 10.1007/s10508-008-9386-1

This is more evidence that different factors operate differently for different people. In discussing sexual orientation, it may be that individual narratives have validity for the individual but cannot be generalized widely. Where have I heard that before?
Another news item is circulating today with what appears to be a mix of new and old research on brain structure and sexual orientation.
UPDATE – There is indeed new research from Ivanka Savic’s team in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. The study, titled “PET and MRI show differences in cerebral asymmetry
and functional connectivity between homo- and heterosexual subjects” by Ivanka Savic and Per Lindstrom is not yet published but I have a copy and am reviewing it.

The science of sexuality

Greta Christina has a reflection on the science of sexuality which provides good balance to extreme claims of biological and developmental causation – in a phrase – we don’t know.

She makes an interesting statement that activists on all sides should heed:

We should stop ignoring scientific findings that do not mesh with our political beliefs


Sexual orientation: An elusive concept

I have been way busy of late, more than usual, hence little time for the real important stuff – like blogging. The thread regarding sexual orientation theorizing has been pretty active, although for reasons that I did not anticipate. I thought perhaps readers would discuss the APA statement and how researchers are backing away from strong statements about causation. I thought some additional discussion might occur regarding NARTH and the prominence of psychoanalytic concepts there.

However, the discussion has revolved around definitions of sexual orientations. I have observed that the concept of sexual orientation is multi-faceted and continuous. However, we persist in wanting discreet, categorical labels to aid communication. These are understandable tensions; scientists want something to measure and everyday usage requires description to facilitate common communication.

So here is something to keep us occupied until the sexualorientationomometer is invented – how do you define the terms? No critical comments, please. Simply bring us definitions and/or descriptions of sexual orientations and SO itself. If you find the definition somewhere, like in a textbook (sexual orientation is…), then please cite the reference for us all to review.