The science of sex and attraction

Author Dr. J. Michael Bailey speaks about his controversial research on sexual arousal, sexual orientation, and how genetics may play a role

More than 70 people gathered in Schubas Tavern in Chicago to hear Dr. Bailey's talk "The Science of Sex and Attraction." (Photo by Stephanie Levi)What is sexual orientation? Why is it different for men and women? And what are the origins of sexual orientation?

These were a few of the questions addressed by Dr. J. Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of The Man Who Would be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transexualism, at a recent event in Chicago called The Science of Sex and Attraction.

His talk was organized by Dr. Stephanie Levi of the Science is Sexy blog, and co-organized by Dr. Terre A. Constantine and Sandra Jaggi DiPasquale of the Brain Research Foundation. It was held in tandem with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, which traditionally takes place the week of Valentine's Day.

It was part of the Night Lab, a science-focused bar-lecture series started by Dr. Levi in 2008. The monthly meetings draw huge crowds to hear about science in hip Chicago settings.

Dr. Levi, who has a PhD in molecular genetics and cell biology, said this event was part of her group's ongoing effort to make science more accessible to the public.

Stephanie Levi, PhD, introduces J. Michael Bailey, PhD (Photo by David Levine)"Chicago is a great city for science. And it is the goal of our group to get the bests scientists to talk about their work ... and to have a little fun too, especially the night before Valentine's Day.

More than 70 people jammed into Schubas Tavern in downtown Chicago to hear Dr. Bailey's speech and take part in an array of activities to put them in the mood, or at least the mindset to learn about matters of love and lust. Attendees were given the opportunity to use an interactive scientific data analysis device, add their favorite songs to Night Lab's Make-Out Playlist, and play scientific trivia. There were also candy kisses and drinks at the bar, Dr. Levy said, "to help the attendees discover the molecular mysteries behind love, lust, and who we are."

Dr. Constantine, Executive director of the Brain Research Foundation, told the audience: "The Brain Research Foundation knows how important and interesting neuroscience is, but not everyone does. That is why we partnered with Night Lab — to make brain research more accessible and fun. What better way to get people excited about neuroscience than to have a talk on sex and attraction on Valentine's Eve in a bar?"

Some of Dr. Bailey's research is controversial and has been criticized by professional and GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) advocacy groups. In 2011, he drew national attention and dismay for allowing a couple to conduct a live demonstration of sex toys in his Human Sexuality Class, a move he has since called a mistake.

J. Michael Bailey gives a presentation for the Night Lab series at Schubas Tavern in Chicago. Here he shows experimental equipment used in his lab at Northwestern University. (Photo by Stephanie Levi)On this evening, he spoke about his research on sexual arousal, sexual orientation, and how genetics may play a role in who we are sexually.

He began his presentation by telling the audience that Valentine's Day is not solely about romance: "It is about romantic love, but especially passionate love and closely linked to a history of sexual desire, perhaps especially in men."

He focused on what sexual orientation is, why it is different for men and women and the origins of sexual orientation. Based on MRI studies he has conducted, Dr. Bailey said that "in men sexual orientation is a sexual arousal pattern that can be measured objectively although not perfectly."

'It is about wanting, not doing'

Women, he said, are totally different. "Research has found that sexual arousal patterns of heterosexual women are bisexual and possibly irrelevant; lesbians have a somewhat male-typical arousal pattern, and sexual orientation works differently for women than for men, if it exists in women at all."

In other words, women are a mystery to researchers.

Dr. Bailey's mantra is that research about sex is legitimate, that its findings should not be based on societal judgment and that the facts are the facts. He stressed repeatedly that sexual orientation is not a choice. "It is about wanting, not doing," he said. "And nothing I tell you should have any effect, positive or negative, about homosexual people."

Dr. Bailey stressed that sexual orientation is not a choice, saying "It is about wanting, not doing."Dr. Bailey has published many papers and is known for his twin studies. His view is that the debate over sexual orientation is "naive science based on an archaic morality" and no more controversial that one's choice of ice cream. He noted that in studies of twins, from which valuable data has been gleaned on mental illnesses, alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease and autism, "there is a consistent evidence for modest genetic effect, that most homosexual twins have heterosexual co-twins and that environment is important."

Many in the audience shook their heads when Dr. Bailey said that the more older brothers a man has, the more likely a man is to be gay: "It's estimated in the US that 15 percent of gay men owe their sexual orientation to this effect."

Dr. Bailey also noted that he and colleagues have recently replicated the controversial finding that a gene on the X chromosome causes some men to be gay. The finding was first published in 1993 by Dr. Dean Hamer in the AAAS journal Science when he was an independent researcher for the National Institutes for Health. "Hamer found that among gay brothers, the concordance rate for markers from the Xq28 region were significantly greater than expected," Dr. Bailey said. "This study was highly controversial and condemned as people feared it could lead to eugenics."

Dr. Bailey and his Northwestern colleague Dr. Alan R. Sanders did their own study because they thought the numbers used by Dr. Hamer (114 families) were too low to be conclusive. "I did not expect to replicate Dean's findings, Dr. Bailey said, "but we did."

Dr. Bailey spoke with his trademark candor, without couching his message in the niceties that pervade Cupid's holiday. Reading a slide from his presentation, he said:

If you can't make a genetic male exclusively attracted to men by cutting off his penis, castrating him, and raising him as a girl, then male heterosexual orientation is surely innate and fixed. If you can't make a genetic male exclusively attracted to men by cutting off his penis, castrating him, and raising him as a girl, how likely is any social theory of male homosexuality? Things may well be different for women.

That, followed by "Happy Valentine's Day!"


Elsevier Connect Contributor

David LevineDavid Levine (@Dlloydlevine) is co-chairman of Science Writers in New York and a member the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Association of Healthcare Journalists. He served as Director of Media Relations at the American Cancer Society and as Senior Director of Communications at the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp. He has written for Scientific American. The Los Angeles Times, Good Housekeeping, BioTechniques, Robotic Trends and Nautilus and was a contributing editor at Physician's Weekly for 10 years. He has a BA and MA from The Johns Hopkins University.

For an example of the new journalism, David Levine recommends Ed Yong's story "Here's What Happens Inside You When a Mosquito Bites."

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1 Archived Comment

Christine Lehmann March 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

This finding that male and female sexual orientation has different patterns is interesting. The quote at the end is particularly telling about the futility of trying to change male sexual orientation. It seems more research is needed to understand female sexual orientation.

Michael Bailey March 6, 2014 at 3:58 pm

I agree with your comment in all respects.