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social sciences

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Etiology may be defined as a science or doctrine of causation, particularly with respect to the medical sciences. While the earliest etiologies of homosexuality date from European antiquity, the search for a universal, coherent model of causation has intensified as homosexual behavior has come increasingly under the scrutiny of scientific authorities over the course of the past one hundred fifty years.

This intensification corresponded to a shift in how homosexuality was conceptualized during the nineteenth century, as it was transformed from being simply a criminal behavior to which all people might succumb to the habitual predilection of a small subpopulation whose collective identity came to be defined by a disposition to the criminal behavior in which they engaged. The initial function of etiologies of homosexuality was largely explanatory and prescriptive of medical and legal policy for the treatment of these "disordered" persons.

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Some subsequent etiologies have been prophylactic, seeking to prevent the incidence of homosexuality or to arrest the course of its development in individual persons. These persons are usually male; the etiology of female homosexuality has been examined far less frequently and, when treated at all, is usually imagined as analogous to models developed for men.

Etiologies have become increasingly scientized, moving from their roots in early sexological writings through psychoanalysis and psychiatry to specializations such as endocrinology, neurology, and genetics. After a century and a half of research and conjecture, there are many partial explanations for the incidence of homosexuality and still no real consensus among the theorists who have formulated them. Different theories have been mobilized by different individuals and groups, often for directly opposed ideological ends, and may have done as much violence to the political cause of gay and lesbian rights as they have buoyed it.

Pre-modern Etiologies of Homosexual Behavior

Theories explaining homosexual behavior among humans have been circulating in European texts for many centuries, dating at least as far back as Plato's Symposium (5th century B. C. E.). In this Socratic dialogue on love and erotic attraction, Aristophanes imagines humans as having been once paired, joined back-to-back at the spine, a state in which they lived in perfect contentment. A whim of the gods split these strange, doubled creatures each into two, condemning them forevermore to seek out the person with whom they ought to have been conjoined.

Those who had been joined with someone of the opposite sex sought out opposite-sex partners; those joined with someone of the same sex, same-sex partners. In this fanciful formulation Plato (speaking through the personage of Aristophanes) manages to account for both erotic inclination and sexual object-choice in one fell swoop.

Peter of Abano, a fourteenth-century French physician, described a condition in which male seminal vesicles were "obstructed" in such a way that men with this condition were made "effeminate" and could derive sexual pleasure only through stimulation of the anus; he nonetheless refused to characterize men with this condition as "," whose perversion he saw as willful.

Bernardino of Siena, a fifteenth-century polemicist, was not as generous in his estimation of the sodomitical vice so prevalent in Florence. In his sermons he offered up reasons why boys might become disposed to sodomy, many of which stemmed from negligent or overly indulgent parenting. Boys were believed to learn sodomy from their fathers, who were also practitioners; mothers might turn a blind eye to this grave sin, since gifts from male suitors brought money into the household. Bernardino warned against dressing up boys too prettily or letting them show too much skin in public, for fear of their being accosted and raped in the street by adult male sodomites.

In these three examples from pre-modern and early modern Europe, widely divergent in time and place, we nonetheless see some elements that recur in the allegedly more scientific etiologies of homosexuality of later centuries: the alignment of gender identity and sexual object-choice; the hodgepodge of somatic and behavioral factors accounting for a disposition to same-sex eroticism; the particular susceptibility of male youth to same-sex eroticism; and the decisive role played by parents in either facilitating or stemming their children's acquisition of socially undesirable behavior.

While attempting to derive directly modern etiologies of homosexuality from this matrix would be anachronistic, it seems significant that the preoccupations of more recent theorists of same-sex erotic inclination involve some of these same elements in varying constellations.

Sexology, Criminology, and Modern Homosexual Identity

What is strikingly different about the modern era is that the articulation of homosexuality--an emergent concept in late nineteenth-century European medical and juridical discourse--occasioned a revolution in the way same-sex sexual behavior was understood by linking that behavior inextricably to social identity, hastening cultural changes in the organization of sexuality already underway in urban areas of Europe and North America. However, this novel formulation "homosexuality" generated a new etiological question--what makes a person homosexual?--and the search for a satisfactory answer was initiated.

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Dean Hamer (above) and his colleagues maintain that sexual orientation is attributable to genetic influences. Publicity photograph provided by Outright Speakers and Talent Bureau.
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