Homosexual behaviors a lesson from history and some observational data pertinent to the issues of classification and stability

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Support for the arbitrariness inherent in the notion of homosexuality comes from history (see e.g. Bullough, 1979; Spencer, 1995). It seems that the concept of homosexuality was created as late as the 19th century, while descriptions of copu-latory behaviors with individuals of the same sex were already common in the distant past. We have no written records of homosexual activities from ages earlier than Greek and Roman antiquity, but considering that some monkeys show what we now call homosexual behaviors, we can assume that humans, too, have engaged in such behaviors for as long as there has been a human species. Despite the existence of the behavior, there was no need to create a particular label for the individuals engaging in it until quite recently. There are, just to take one example, many descriptions of same-sex activities in ancient Greece and Rome, but the concept of homosexuality does not appear in any of them. Literary sources tell us about the close association between men favored in the armies of Elis (the city-state where the Olympic games were founded in 776 BC), Thebes and Sparta. It was thought that close friendship, including having sex with each other, fostered solidarity among the men (Burg, 2002). It was probably not a stupid idea, although most European and American generals would disagree. As subversive tongues have it, the army is the only place where you are decorated for killing your fellow men but expelled from the force if you dare to love one. Anyway, in those ancient times sexual activities between individuals of the same sex were socially accepted and there was no need to create a particular category for those engaging in these behaviors. Furthermore, no clear distinction was made between having sex with other men and having sex with women. This is probably a consequence of the fact that most antique discourse on sexuality concentrates on penetrative sex, either penile-vaginal intercourse or sodomy. The difference between one orifice and another was regarded as quite insignificant. In contrast to the slight importance given to the sex of the partner, the motor pattern displayed during copulation was significant. Being the inserter was regarded as an expression of manliness, while the role of the insertee was less glamorous. Whether this distinction is real or created in the minds of contemporary historians interpreting classical texts is impossible for me to judge, but the important point is that if there existed any social judgment with regard to copulatory acts, it referred to the motor pattern expressed and not with whom this pattern was expressed. Because people were not categorized according to the sex of their preferred partner but according to their preferred motor pattern, a category of homosexuality could not have any meaning. Furthermore, the men having sex with other men also had sex with their wives, as part of their marital duties. The contention that having sex with one's own sex somehow excludes the possibility of engaging in similar activities with the opposite sex never occurred to the Greeks. This is another nice illustration of the fact that the partner's sex was of very little concern. Contemporary notions of homosexuality are, to a large degree, based on the idea of exclusiveness.

A short comment on the choice of motor pattern for defining the sexual categories of inserter and insertee is warranted. Those reading this book carefully might remember, from Chapter 8, that the motor pattern associated with penetration is the only sexually dimorphic copulatory motor pattern. Penetration is the only behavior that can be performed by one sex and not by the other. Curiously enough, it is the privilege of men. Thus, the Greeks chose the only copulatory motor pattern exclusive for men as criterion for establishing sexual categories. Not surprisingly, Greek society considered the category of inserter as superior to the category of insertee. That the act of inserting was considered as an expression of manliness is entirely logical, since only men can perform it. On the contrary, being the insertee is equally possible for both men and women, so it cannot be regarded as an expression of manliness. We may agree or disagree with the notion of superiority of being the inserter, but we cannot deny the rationality of the contention that it is a male privilege.

From a scientific point of view, the Greek categories inserter-insertee are as problematic as homosexual-heterosexual. In the case of women, the category insertee is unequivocal. A woman can never be the inserter, so for women there is no doubt with regard to their belonging to the category of insertee. Likewise, there is no doubt as to its stability. A woman can never become an inserter. For men, however, the situation is unclear. Any man can be either inserter or insertee, so categorization is not automatic. Furthermore, any man can change from inserter to insertee at any moment, and he can change back to inserter whenever convenient. The category is unstable. Furthermore, the category insertee may contain both men and women. In the case of men, they are unstable members, while women are stable. Although the Greek method of categorizing copulatory activities may seem perfectly logical, its scientific use is no easier than the contemporary categories of homosexual and heterosexual. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that sexual activities may be categorized according to essentially arbitrary criteria and that the dichotomy homosexuality-heterosexuality is only one of many possible classification schemes.

The preceding account suffices as an example of the many criteria we can use for establishing sexual categories. It should also illustrate that independently of the criteria we choose, there will always appear problems in determining to which category an individual belongs. Likewise, independently of the criterion we choose, there will be the problem of stability. Having established this, we can now try to approach the first part of the drama, that of assigning individuals to a category. As is evident to everyone, this needs to be done on the basis of observations of behavior of one kind or another.

The accounts of sexuality in ancient times are inadequate for scientific analysis. All our knowledge of ancient sexual behaviors is based on hearsay, which should be considered as entirely anecdotal. We have no quantitative data on the prevalence of different sexual activities and no direct observations performed by observers with verifiable credibility. Personally, I am always extremely skeptical to anecdotal material. I fear that what is judged to merit recordings in the form of literary descriptions, paintings or sculptures are events outside the ordinary, or perhaps manifestations of the artist's creativity without any immediate connection to reality. One could fear that this fascination for the extraordinary becomes a key element in descriptions of sexuality. Thus, a priori, there is no reason to believe that the accounts of Greek and Roman authors represent everyday behaviors. In fact, there is no way to determine the prevalence of same-sex behaviors in ancient Greece and Rome. Likewise, the behavioral criteria for categorizing someone as inserter or insertee are unknown and the stability of these categories is impossible to estimate. However, these societies' views upon the behaviors described are probably reproduced correctly, since they are most consistent between one source and another. Nevertheless, it would be far more reassuring to have some direct observational data on same-sex behaviors and on the individuals performing them. Although such data from antiquity are non-existent, we do have some from contemporary society. They come from an exceptional study performed in the late 1960s and reported in a charming book (Humphreys, 1970).

In an undisclosed American city, there was a public convenience visited by men interested in having sex with other men, in addition to those who just needed to satisfy a physiological demand for voiding the bladder or the bowels. It was localized in a park, so most of the men arrived by car. In order to observe the behavior of the men looking for sexual interaction, Humphreys pretended to be one of them. He assumed the task of lookout, making it possible for him to stay in the toilet without attracting attention and without interrupting the normal activities. Since the police now and then raided the toilet, the function of lookout was a necessity and raised no suspicion. Besides observing the men's behavior, Humphreys noted the license plates of the cars used by some of the most assiduous visitors. He then went to the car register to get the addresses of these men. For some reason, Humphreys soon secured an employment as life insurance salesman. With the pretext of proposing a life insurance, he proceeded to visit the men at their home. When selling life insurances, it is customary to ask questions about marital status, number of children, general health, annual income, and so on. In that way, Humphreys obtained a considerable amount of information about the men coming to the toilet for sex. Finally, he revealed the purpose of his presence in the public toilet to some men, who accepted to be interviewed. This extraordinary research is one of the very few cases where we actually have observational data concerning same-sex behavior and reliable personal information about the individuals engaging in it.

Most of the toilet visitors stopped by on the way to or from work. According to a strict and silent ritual they demonstrated their willingness to have sex by displaying a full erection while standing at the pissoir. When they had received signals of acceptance from another man, both disappeared into one of the stalls. There fellatio was performed and, immediately afterwards, both men left without a word. Sodomy was exceptional. Many intricate details of the interactions in the toilet are described in the book, but they are not necessary for our present purpose. What is more interesting, though, are the data obtained during the home visits. It turned out that a substantial proportion of the men were married and had children. Some had mistresses. The reason they frequently gave for visiting the toilet and having oral sex there was that they needed an ephemeral distraction or wanted sexual activity in addition to that obtained in their current relationship, without much expense of money and/or emotional involvement. They could just as well have visited a cheap brothel. However, that kind of service had been closed because of violation of morality laws. The most appropriate alternative was a public convenience.

The data from this study make evident the difficulty inherent in questions of classification. It is far from clear whether we should consider these men as homosexual or not. Most of them also had sex with women, so they do not fit the most popular stereotype of a homosexual. Indeed, some of them may have had sex with a man on the way home from work and sex with their wife later in the evening. Thus, the sex of their partner may be highly variable. Another question is whether these men have a preference for other men or for women. The answer to that question is impossible to give, since they did not have access to both sexes in the toilet. In the absence of a possibility of choice, we can have no idea of their preference. However, if the comment stating that they could just as well have visited a cheap brothel is true, then we must conclude that they had no particular preference. They wanted to execute copulatory responses, regardless of the sex with whom they executed them. This attitude seems quite similar to the one I described for ancient Greek society.

Many years have passed since Humphreys (1970) collected his data. In the period from the late 1960s up to present, the social acceptance of homosexuality has apparently increased. Public conveniences may no longer be a meeting place for homosexuals. In fact, in Oslo and probably at many other places, it appears that sauna clubs have taken over the public toilets' function as places for having fast and anonymous sex between men. A recent newspaper article revealed that the local health authorities were concerned about the risk of HIV infection in these clubs. They even suggested that the 'dark rooms', small rooms where men meet in absolute darkness for having sex without knowing with whom, should be closed. One argument for that was that many of these men also had unprotected sex with women, thereby spreading infections not only between men but also to the opposite sex (Lilleb0, 2006). The force of that argument does not seem to be overwhelming, but the description of the typical behavior in the sauna clubs is surprisingly similar to the behavior displayed in the public conveniences, according to Humphrey's (1970) account. I will not return to the sauna stories and I will not use them in support for any further assertions. After all, they come from a newspaper report and not a scientific study.

The Humphreys (1970) data illustrate very nicely the problem of assigning individuals to a category. It also illustrates that theoretical discussion of categories is one thing and applying them to real data is another. I would like to substantiate this assertion by mentioning additional data from carefully done observational studies of sexual behavior outside the laboratory. However, I know of no other study where information has been gathered by direct observation combined with interviews and other means of obtaining personal information. It is, in fact, most unfortunate that we have so little observational data on homosexual women and men. In contrast, we dispose of a huge amount of questionnaire data. Tragically enough, most of these data have been gathered because of the preoccupation associated with the risk of HIV infections and they are of no relevance either for questions regarding the behavioral basis for categorizing individuals as homosexuals or for questions regarding the stability of this behavioral basis. Instead of being able to present real data concerning the question of stability, I am forced to trust an opinion expressed by Kinsey many years ago:

... both homosexual and heterosexual activities may occur coincidentally in a single period of life of a single individual; and ... the exclusive activities of one type may be exchanged, in the brief span of a few days or a few weeks, for an exclusive pattern of the other type, or into a combination pattern that embraces the two types (Kinsey, 1941, p. 428).

In addition to Kinsey's own data supporting his contention of homosexuality as an unstable condition, there are more recent reports evaluating the prevalence and incidence of change from homosexuality to heterosexuality (e.g. Cameron and Cameron, 2002). They confirm that such change is not unusual. Thus, anecdotal evidence from ancient Greece, interview data collected by Kinsey, observational data obtained by Humphreys (1970) and a questionnaire study asking the appropriate questions (Cameron and Cameron, 2002) all suggest that homosexuality is not a stable category.

The preceding arguments can explain why studies of a genetic basis as well studies of differences in brain structure between homosexuals and heterosexuals have given inconsistent results. There is no need to point out that if classification in either the category of homosexual or that of heterosexual is incorrect, then no reliable data can be obtained. In the case of the twin studies and the more sophisticated genetic studies, classification was based on questionnaires or direct questioning of the participants. This information can perhaps be considered as trustworthy with regard to the participants' sexual preferences at the moment they were questioned, but neither we nor the researchers have any knowledge concerning their sexual history. It is not impossible that some of them had belonged to the other category at some earlier point in life. In the brain structure studies, the participants were dead at the moment they were included. Classification as homosexual or heterosexual was based on their medical record. The reliability of these records is impossible to estimate. Thus, it is not surprising that the results of these studies are difficult to replicate. Finally, considering the overwhelming evidence that homosexuality is not a stable condition, the entire logical underpinning of the genetic and brain structure studies disappears. Please remember that data from the non-human mammals in which homosexuality has been described, rams and the snow monkey, coincide with the human data in showing that the sexual character is unstable.

The arguments expressed above are not new in any way. The dilemmas which have to be faced by those trying to understand homosexuality as a biologically caused, stable entity have eloquently been identified by many others (e.g. De Cecco and Parker, 1995) and exposed over a period of many years.

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