Alex Blaze

Silly gay gene article of the day

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 26, 2007 10:17 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: gender, nematodes, origin of sexual orientation, sex, sexuality, University of Utah

A National Geographic article entitled "Sexual orientation is genetic in worms" shows that some people are very attached to the idea that sexual orientation is monolithically a gender inversion based on genetic.

nematode.jpgResearchers at the University of Utah were able to make hermaphroditic nematodes behave sexually like male ones, that is, chase each other around instead of being chased. The article, though tries to turn this into a far-reaching study that will have implications for the study of human sexuality. Uh-huh. Forget the facts that nematodes are so distantly related to humans that they don't even have a coelom, that their brains are only several hundred unmyelinated neurons instead of our hundred billion myelinated neurons, and that they experience sex differently (females can self-fertilize). Sure, there are some genes that are shared between nematodes and humans, but can we even say that they are experiencing sexual orientation the same as people, much less that whatever causes theirs is the same cause for ours?

Like all of these gay gene articles, you get the same silly gender inversion bits:

This tricked [female/hermaphrodite nematodes'] brains into acting like male brains. As a result, the hermaphrodite worms adopted male sexual behavior and became attracted to other hermaphrodites.

"They look like girls but they act like boys," study lead author Jamie White, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah, said in a statement.

Because that's what sexual orientation's about, acting like your own or the Opposite Sex.

And there are the references to debunked studies:

Many scientists believe that such sexual behaviors stem from parts of the brain that are larger in each respective gender.

Are they really referring to Simon LeVay's gay hypothalamus study brains that took 19 men who died of AIDS-related causes as representative of all gay men and just assumed that the other 16 men studied were straight? I can't think of any other that's been about the sizes of parts of the brain between genders.

It just seems like we have to have one of these articles a month trying to oversimplify sexuality, which if you read a bit deeper into doesn't really say what the headline says it does. This makes me wonder just why we want it to be so simple, but that's too big of a question for me.


I don't really have a problem with the study, which is interesting, and even one of the co-authors said:

You might think this is a study about sexuality, but it's really our foothold on understanding the brain.

But the title of the article, the link directly to a study of human lesbians, and imposition of a human, Western understanding of gender, sex, and sexuality on nematodes shows a whole lot more about what we want to believe than what actually we've actually proven.

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I think my brain just exploded from all the information...

I agree that sexuality is much more complex than most of these articles tend to say, although I have met a few men that could be qualified as worms.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | October 26, 2007 12:50 PM

although I have met a few men that could be qualified as worms.


Alex, IMHO, part of the desire to simplify--although I wouldn't say it applies in the case of this study--is that the complexity of life in the real universe scares people. Authoritarian-inclined individuals find comfort in the belief that there's a long-bearded, all-powerful father figure keeping track of who puts his penis in a non-approved orifice or gets off on clitoral pleasure without intending to get pregnant. Simple, black and white definitions and rules, especially around the potentially explosive subject of sexuality, make insecure people feel better.

What I find irritating is the arrogant heterosexist assumption that gay men are attracted to members of the same sex because of hormonal differences that are female-inclined. It assumes that only females are programmed to like men and vice versa, and that something "went wrong" with us.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | October 26, 2007 7:09 PM

Alex really didn't want to post this item in the first place, but found he just couldn't wiggle out of the assignment.

Re: Brains

Zhou J.-N, Hofman M.A, Gooren L.J, Swaab D.F (1997)
A Sex Difference in the Human Brain and its Relation to Transsexuality. (PDF)

See also
Kruijver F.P.M, Zhou J.-N, Pool C.W., Swaab D.F. (2000)
Male-to-Female Transsexuals Have Female Neuron Numbers in a Limbic Nucleus (PDF)

In both the coarse-scale (size of BSTc layer of hypothalamus) and fine-scale (neuron numbers in limbic nucleus), Gay men are typically male. Whatever the seat of sexual orientation, this ain't it.

The same study showed TS women (ie those with male or mostly male bodies) are typically female. But it's symptomatic, not causative: gender identity is fixed long before the sex-differences in this part of the brain become apparent. Also, hormones have nothing to do with it, TS women not on Hormone replacement therapy have the same structures as those who are, and men undergoing hormone therapy for cancer are still typically male.

Recent fMRI studies show the same differences in brain activity, the TS women and non-TS women have one pattern, non-TS men another. Unfortunately that study only covered straights. We really need samples of Gay, Lesbian, Straight as well as M, F, MtoF and FtoM to say what the studies mean. The fMRI studies may be detecting andro- vs gyna- phillia rather than gender.

These kinds of studies are *important* to TS and IS people. GLBs not so much, except to explode the myth that it's some sort of "lifestyle choice".

While on the subject of sexual orientation and worms, have you heard about the slutty nematodes who go out partying every Saturday night ... and who are inadvertently ending up with a strain of drug-resistant intestinal humans?

Cut! ... Re-write! ... TAKE TWO:

While on the subject of sexual orientation and worms, have you heard about the slutty nematodes who go out partying every Saturday night ... and who are inadvertently ending up with a strain of drug-resistant intestinal humans?

"Butt doctor, I had to escape for a few hours from that boring asshole I'm stuck with at home ..."