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Social and Cultural Factors

Sociologists usually emphasize the importance of socialization over biology for the learning of many forms of human behavior. In this view, humans are born with “blank slates” and thereafter shaped by their society and culture, and children are shaped by their parents, teachers, peers, and other aspects of their immediate social environment while they are growing up.

Given this standard sociological position, one might think that sociologists generally believe that people are gay or straight not because of their biology but because they learn to be gay or straight from their society, culture, and immediate social environment. This, in fact, was a common belief of sociologists about a generation ago (Engle et al., 2006). [24] In a 1988 review article, two sociologists concluded that “evidence that homosexuality is a social construction [learned from society and culture] is far more powerful than the evidence for a widespread organic [biological] predisposition toward homosexual desire” (Risman & Schwartz, 1988, p. 143). [25] The most popular introductory sociology text of the era similarly declared, “Many people, including some homosexuals, believe that gays and lesbians are simply ‘born that way.’ But since we know that even heterosexuals are not ‘born that way,’ this explanation seems unlikely…Homosexuality, like any other sexual behavior ranging from oral sex to sadomasochism to the pursuit of brunettes, is learned” (Robertson, 1987, p. 243). [26]

However, sociologists’ views of the origins of sexual orientation have apparently changed since these passages were written. In a recent national survey of a random sample of sociologists, 22 percent said male homosexuality results from biological factors, 38 percent said it results from both biological and environmental (learning) factors, and 39 percent said it results from environmental factors (Engle et al., 2006). [27] Thus 60 percent (= 22 + 38) thought that biology totally or partly explains male homosexuality, almost certainly a much higher figure than would have been found a generation ago had a similar survey been done.

In this regard, it is important to note that 77 percent (= 38 + 39) of the sociologists still feel that environmental factors, or socialization, matter as well. Scholars who hold this view believe that sexual orientation is partly or totally learned from one’s society, culture, and immediate social environment. In this way of thinking, we learn “messages” from all these influences about whether it is OK or not OK to be sexually attracted to someone from our own sex and/or to someone from the opposite sex. If we grow up with positive messages about same-sex attraction, we are more likely to acquire this attraction. If we grow up with negative messages about same-sex attraction, we are less likely to acquire it and more likely to have heterosexual desire.

It is difficult to do the necessary type of research to test whether socialization matters in this way, but the historical and cross-cultural evidence discussed earlier provides at least some support for this process. Homosexuality was generally accepted in ancient Greece, ancient China, and ancient Japan, and it also seemed rather common in those societies. The same connection holds true in many of the societies that anthropologists have studied. In contrast, homosexuality was condemned in Europe from the very early part of the first millennium CE, and it seems to have been rather rare (although it is very possible that many gays hid their sexual orientation for fear of persecution and death).

So where does this leave us? What are the origins of sexual orientation? The most honest answer is that we do not yet know its origins. As we have seen, many scholars attribute sexual orientation to still unknown biological factor(s) over which individuals have no control, just as individuals do not decide whether they are left-handed or right-handed. Supporting this view, many gays say they realized they were gay during adolescence, just as straights would say they realized they were straight during their own adolescence; moreover, evidence (from toy, play, and clothing preferences) of future sexual orientation even appears during childhood (Rieger, Linsenmeier, Bailey, & Gygax, 2008). [28]Other scholars say that sexual orientation is at least partly influenced by cultural norms, so that individuals are more likely to identify as gay or straight and be attracted to their same sex or opposite sex depending on the cultural views of sexual orientation into which they are socialized as they grow up. At best, perhaps all we can say is that sexual orientation stems from a complex mix of biological and cultural factors that remain to be determined.

The official stance of the American Psychological Association (APA) is in line with this view. According to the APA, “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation” (American Psychological Association, 2008, p. 2). [29]

Although the exact origins of sexual orientation remain unknown, the APA’s last statement is perhaps the most important conclusion from research on this issue: Most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation. Because, as mentioned earlier, people are more likely to approve of or tolerate homosexuality when they believe it is not a choice, efforts to educate the public about this research conclusion should help the public become more accepting of LGBT behavior and individuals.

KEY TAKEAWAYS


  • An estimated 3.8 percent, or 9 million, Americans identify as LGBT.

  • Homosexuality seems to have been fairly common and very much accepted in some ancient societies as well as in many societies studied by anthropologists.

  • Scholars continue to debate the extent to which sexual orientation stems more from biological factors or from social and cultural factors and the extent to which sexual orientation is a choice or not a choice.

FOR YOUR REVIEW

  1. Do you think sexual orientation is a choice, or not? Explain your answer.

  2. Write an essay that describes how your middle school and high school friends talked about sexual orientation generally and homosexuality specifically.

[1] Gates, G. J. (2011). How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender? Los Angeles, CA: Williams Institute.

[2] Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., & Martin, C. E. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders; Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders.

[3] Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

[4] Chandra, A., Mosher, W. D., Copen, C., & Sionean, C. (2011). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual identity in the United States: Data from the 2006–2008 national survey of family growth (National Health Statistics Reports: Number 36). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved fromhttp://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr036.pdf.

[5] Gates, G. J. (2011). How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender? Los Angeles, CA: Williams Institute.

[6] Dover, K. J. (1989). Greek homosexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[7] Crompton, L. (2003). Homosexuality and civilization. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[8] Crompton, L. (2003). Homosexuality and civilization. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[9] Crompton, L. (2003). Homosexuality and civilization. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[10] Crompton, L. (2003). Homosexuality and civilization. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[11] Crompton, L. (2003). Homosexuality and civilization. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[12] Ford, C. S., & Beach, F. A. (1951). Patterns of sexual behavior. New York: Harper and Row.

[13] Edgerton, R. (1976). Deviance: A cross-cultural perspective. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings Publishing.

[14] Engle, M. J., McFalls, J. A., Jr., Gallagher, B. J., III, & Curtis, K. (2006). The attitudes of American sociologists toward causal theories of male homosexuality. The American Sociologist, 37(1), 68–76; Sheldon, J. P., Pfeffer, C. A., Jayaratne, T. E., Feldbaum, M., & Petty, E. M. (2007). Beliefs about the etiology of homosexuality and about the ramifications of discovering its possible genetic origin. Journal of Homosexuality, 52(3/4), 111–150.

[15] Sheldon, J. P., Pfeffer, C. A., Jayaratne, T. E., Feldbaum, M., & Petty, E. M. (2007). Beliefs about the etiology of homosexuality and about the ramifications of discovering its possible genetic origin. Journal of Homosexuality, 52(3/4), 111–150.

[16] Kendler, K. S., Thornton, L. M., Gilman, S. E., & Kessler, R. C. (2000). Sexual orientation in a US national sample of twin and nontwin sibling pairs. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 1843–1846; Santtila, P., Sandnabba, N. K., Harlaar, N., Varjonen, M., Alanko, K., & Pahlen, B. v. d. (2008). Potential for homosexual response is prevalent and genetic.Biological Psychology, 77, 102–105.

[17] Sheldon, J. P., Pfeffer, C. A., Jayaratne, T. E., Feldbaum, M., & Petty, E. M. (2007). Beliefs about the etiology of homosexuality and about the ramifications of discovering its possible genetic origin. Journal of Homosexuality, 52(3/4), 111–150.

[18] Allen, L. S., & Gorski, R. A. (1992). Sexual orientation and the size of the anterior commissure in the human brain. PNAS, 89, 7199–7202.

[19] Lasco, M. A., Jordan, T. J., Edgar, M. A., Petito, C. K., & Byne, W. (2002). A lack of dimporphism of sex or sexual orientation in the human anterior commissure. Brain Research, 986, 95–98.

[20] Breedlove, M. S. (1997). Sex on the brain. Nature, 389, 801.

[21] Sheldon, J. P., Pfeffer, C. A., Jayaratne, T. E., Feldbaum, M., & Petty, E. M. (2007). Beliefs about the etiology of homosexuality and about the ramifications of discovering its possible genetic origin. Journal of Homosexuality, 52(3/4), 111–150.

[22] Martin, J. T., & Nguyen, D. H. (2004). Anthropometric analysis of homosexuals and heterosexuals: Implications for early hormone exposure. Hormones and Behavior, 45, 31–39; Mustanski, B. S., Chivers, M. L., & Bailey, J. M. (2002). A critical review of recent biological research on human sexual orientation. Annual Review of Sex Research, 13, 89–140.

[23] Rahman, Q. (2005). The neurodevelopment of human sexual orientation. Neuroscience Biobehavioral Review, 29(7), 1057–1066.

[24] Engle, M. J., McFalls, J. A., Jr., Gallagher, B. J., III, & Curtis, K. (2006). The attitudes of American sociologists toward causal theories of male homosexuality. The American Sociologist, 37(1), 68–76.

[25] Risman, B., & Schwartz, P. (1988). Sociological research on male and female homosexuality. Annual Review of Sociology, 14, 125–147.

[26] Robertson, I. (1987). Sociology. New York, NY: Worth.

[27] Engle, M. J., McFalls, J. A., Jr., Gallagher, B. J., III, & Curtis, K. (2006). The attitudes of American sociologists toward causal theories of male homosexuality. The American Sociologist, 37(1), 68–76.

[28] Rieger, G., Linsenmeier, J. A. W., Bailey, J. M., & Gygax, L. (2008). Sexual orientation and childhood gender nonconformity: Evidence from home videos. Developmental Psychology, 44(1), 46–58.

[29] American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author.



5.2 Public Attitudes about Sexual Orientation



LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Understand the extent and correlates of heterosexism.

  2. Understand the nature of public opinion on other issues related to sexual orientation.

  3. Describe how views about LGBT issues have changed since a few decades ago.

As noted earlier, views about gays and lesbians have certainly been very negative over the centuries in the areas of the world, such as Europe and the Americas, that mostly follow the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is no question that the Bible condemns homosexuality, with perhaps the most quoted Biblical passages in this regard found in Leviticus:

  • “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” (Leviticus 18:22).

  • “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13).

The important question, though, is to what extent these passages should be interpreted literally. Certainly very few people today believe that male homosexuals should be executed, despite what Leviticus 20:13 declares. Still, many people who condemn homosexuality cite passages like Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 as reasons for their negative views.

This is not a theology text, but it is appropriate to mention briefly two points that many religious scholars make about what the Bible says about homosexuality (Helminiak, 2000; Via & Gagnon, 2003). [1] First, English translations of the Bible’s antigay passages may distort their original meanings, and various contextual studies of the Bible suggest that these passages did not, in fact, make blanket condemnations about homosexuality.

Second, and perhaps more important, most people “pick and choose” what they decide to believe from the Bible and what they decide not to believe. Although the Bible is a great source of inspiration for many people, most individuals are inconsistent when it comes to choosing which Biblical beliefs to believe and about which beliefs not to believe. For example, if someone chooses to disapprove of homosexuality because the Bible condemns it, why does this person not also choose to believe that gay men should be executed, which is precisely what Leviticus 20:13 dictates? Further, the Bible calls for many practices and specifies many penalties that even very devout people do not follow or believe. For example, most people except for devout Jews do not keep kosher, even though the Bible says that everyone should do this, and most people certainly do not believe people who commit adultery, engage in premarital sex, or work on the Sabbath should be executed, even though the Bible says that such people should be executed. Citing the inconsistency with which most people follow Biblical commands, many religious scholars say it is inappropriate to base public views about homosexuality on what the Bible says about it.

We now turn our attention to social science evidence on views about LGBT behavior and individuals. We first look at negative attitudes and then discuss a few other views.



The Extent of Heterosexism in the United States

We saw in earlier chapters that racism refers to negative views about, and practices toward, people of color, and that sexism refers to negative views about, and practices toward, women. Heterosexism is the analogous term for negative views about, and discriminatory practices toward, LGBT individuals and their sexual behavior.

There are many types of negative views about LGBT and thus many ways to measure heterosexism. The General Social Survey (GSS), given regularly to a national sample of US residents, asks whether respondents think that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” are always wrong, almost always wrong, sometimes wrong, or not wrong at all. In 2010, almost 46 percent of respondents said same-sex relations are “always wrong,” and 43 percent responded they are “not wrong at all” (see Figure 5.1 "Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two Adults of the Same Sex,” 2010").

Figure 5.1 Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two Adults of the Same Sex,” 2010

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig05_001.jpg

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

As another way of measuring heterosexism, the Gallup poll asks whether “gay or lesbian relations” are “morally acceptable or morally wrong” (Gallup, 2011). [2]In 2011, 56 percent of Gallup respondents answered “morally acceptable,” while 39 percent replied “morally wrong.”

Although Figure 5.1 "Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two Adults of the Same Sex,” 2010" shows that 57.3 percent of Americans (= 45.7 + 3.7 + 7.9) think that same-sex relations are at least sometimes wrong, public views regarding LGBT have notably become more positive over the past few decades. We can see evidence of this trend in Figure 5.2 "Changes in Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two Adults of the Same Sex,” 1973–2010", which shows that the percentage of GSS respondents who say same-sex relations are “always wrong” has dropped considerably since the GSS first asked this question in 1973, while the percentage who respond “not wrong at all” has risen considerably, with both these changes occurring since the early 1990s.

Figure 5.2 Changes in Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two Adults of the Same Sex,” 1973–2010

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig05_002.jpg

Source: Data from General Social Surveys. (1973–2010). Retrieved fromhttp://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Trends in Gallup data confirm that public views regarding homosexuality have become more positive in recent times. Recall that 56 percent of Gallup respondents in 2011 called same-sex relations “morally acceptable,” while 39 percent replied “morally wrong.” Ten years earlier, these percentages were 40 percent and 53 percent, respectively, representing a marked shift in public opinion in just a decade.



Correlates of Heterosexism

Scholars have investigated the sociodemographic factors that predict heterosexist attitudes. Reflecting the sociological axiom that our social backgrounds influence our attitudes and behavior, several aspects of our social backgrounds influence views about gays and lesbians. Among the most influential of these factors are gender, age, education, region of residence, and religion. We can illustrate each of these influences with the GSS question on whether same-sex relations are wrong, using the response “always wrong” as a measure of heterosexism.



  • Gender. Men are somewhat more heterosexist than women (see part a of Figure 5.3 "Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)").

  • Age. Older people are considerably more heterosexist than younger people (see part b of Figure 5.3 "Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)").

  • Education. Less educated people are considerably more heterosexist than more educated people (see part c of Figure 5.3 "Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)").

  • Region of residence. Southerners are more heterosexist than non-Southerners (see part d ofFigure 5.3 "Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)").

  • Religion. Religious people are considerably more heterosexist than less religious people (see part e of Figure 5.3 "Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)").

Figure 5.3 Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig05_003.jpg

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig05_x010.jpg

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved fromhttp://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.
The age difference in heterosexism is perhaps particularly interesting. Many studies find that young people—those younger than 30—are especially accepting of homosexuality and of same-sex marriage. As older people, who have more negative views, pass away, it is likely that public opinion as a whole will become more accepting of homosexuality and issues related to it. Scholars think this trend will further the legalization of same-sex marriage and the establishment of other laws and policies that will reduce the discrimination and inequality that the LGBT community experiences (Gelman, Lax, & Phillips, 2010). [3]

Opinion on the Origins of Sexual Orientation

Earlier we discussed scholarly research on the origins of sexual orientation. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the US public is rather split over the issue of whether sexual orientation is in-born or instead the result of environmental factors, and also over the closely related issue of whether it is something people are able to choose. A 2011 Gallup poll asked, “In your view, is being gay or lesbian something a person is born with, or due to factors such as upbringing and environment?” (Jones, 2011). [4] Forty percent of respondents replied that sexual orientation is in-born, while 42 percent said it stems from upbringing and/or environment. The 40 percent in-born figure represented a sharp increase from the 13 percent figure that Gallup obtained when it first asked this question in 1977. A 2010 CBS News poll, asked, “Do you think being homosexual is something people choose to be, or do you think it is something they cannot change?” (CBS News, 2010). [5] About 36 percent of respondents replied that homosexuality is a choice, while 51 percent said it is something that cannot be changed, with the remainder saying they did not know or providing no answer. The 51 percent “cannot change” figure represented an increase from the 43 percent figure that CBS News obtained when it first asked this question in 1993.



Other Views

The next section discusses several issues that demonstrate inequality based on sexual orientation. Because these issues are so controversial, public opinion polls have included many questions about them. We examine public views on some of these issues in this section.

A first issue is same-sex marriage. The 2010 GSS asked whether respondents agree that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another”: 53.3 percent of respondents who expressed an opinion agreed with this statement, and 46.7 percent disagreed, indicating a slight majority in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage (SDA, 2010). [6] In 2011, an ABC News/Washington Post poll asked about same-sex marriage in a slightly different way: “Do you think it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian couples to get married?” A majority, 51 percent, of respondents replied “legal,” and 45 percent replied “illegal” (Langer, 2011). [7] Although only bare majorities now favor legalizing same-sex marriage, public views on this issue have become much more positive in recent years. We can see dramatic evidence of this trend in Figure 5.4 "Changes in Opinion about Same-Sex Marriage, 1988–2010 (Percentage Agreeing That Same-Sex Couples Should Have the Right to Marry; Those Expressing No Opinion Excluded from Analysis)", which shows that the percentage agreeing with the GSS question on the right of same-sex couples to marry has risen considerably during the past quarter-century.

Figure 5.4 Changes in Opinion about Same-Sex Marriage, 1988–2010 (Percentage Agreeing That Same-Sex Couples Should Have the Right to Marry; Those Expressing No Opinion Excluded from Analysis)

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig05_004.jpg

Source: Data from General Social Surveys. (1988–2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

In a related topic, public opinion about same-sex couples as parents has also become more favorable in recent years. In 2007, 50 percent of the public said that the increasing number of same-sex couples raising children was “a bad thing” for society. By 2011, this figure had declined to 35 percent, a remarkable decrease in just four years (Pew Research Center, 2011). [8]

A second LGBT issue that has aroused public debate involves the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the military, which we discuss further later in this chapter. A 2010 ABC News/Washington Post poll asked whether “gays and lesbians who do not publicly disclose their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military” (Mokrzycki, 2010). [9] About 83 percent of respondents replied they “should be allowed,” up considerably from the 63 percent figure that this poll obtained when it first asked this question in 1993 (Saad, 2008). [10]

A third issue involves the right of gays and lesbians to be free from job discrimination based on their sexual orientation, as federal law does not prohibit such discrimination. A 2008 Gallup poll asked whether “homosexuals should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities.” About 89 percent of respondents replied that there “should be” such rights, and only 8 percent said there “should not be” such rights. The 89 percent figure represented a large increase from the 56 percent figure that Gallup obtained in 1977 when Gallup first asked this question.



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