CAN WE CHOOSE our sexual orientation? Given the polarized nature of the discussion among national leaders, it would be logical to think that the publics opinions must be equally divided. On the one hand, religious conservatives argue that being homosexual is a choice. On the other, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and at least a few experts counter that sexual orientation is immutable, something that we are born with. After running an article by psychologist Robert Epstein in the February/March issue--Do Gays Have a Choice?--that explored the related research, the editors at Scientific American Mind wanted to know how the public felt about these issues. We recently commissioned a nationwide poll to find out--and received some surprising results.
Although the editors worried that people might not be comfortable answering questions about sexuality, the online poll conducted by Zogby International drew more than 4,200 responses. Half the respondents believed that sexual orientation is not a choice but rather is innate, genetic or predetermined by other factors such as environment. Another 34 percent believed that sexual orientation is determined by both choice and other factors. In contrast, only 11 percent agreed that sexual orientation is a conscious choice. Six percent were not sure. The margin of error for the sample was plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.
I think the results are surprising and spectacular, says Epstein, a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego. There is clearly a myth about what people generally believe about sexuality.
Epsteins article made the point that sexuality exists on a continuum, with both genetics and environment playing a role in determining where people end up. The majority occupy the heterosexual end of the continuum, as a result of both genetics and a push provided by social pressures. For people who fall near one extreme or the other (exclusive attraction to either same-sex or opposite-sex partners), choice about sexual orientation is very limited, if it exists at all. As a result, reparative therapies and other techniques that seek to switch homosexuals to heterosexuality work only if an individuals makeup permits.
Likewise, responses to the poll indicated that people believe that sexual orientation occurs along something of a spectrum, with both straight and gay people having the potential to be attracted to individuals of either sex.
Some 47 percent of the poll respondents, a slight plurality, agreed with the following statement: I believe that all people have the potential to be sexually attracted to members of both sexes. But a distinct majority (53 percent) said they believed that a straight person may occasionally experience sexual attraction to individuals of the same sex. An even higher number (62 percent) believed that a gay person may occasionally experience sexual attraction to individuals of the opposite sex.
Although the belief that sexuality is not a choice is generally widely held, a closer look at some groups reveals differences of opinion as well. For instance, the idea that sexuality is innate was particularly prevalent among Americans aged 50 to 64 (53 percent) and aged 18 to 29 (51 percent), single people (58.5 percent), Hispanics (57 percent) and Democrats (72 percent).
People who identified themselves as conservatives were more likely to think that sexual orientation was either fully or partly a choice. This opinion was especially common among those who said they were very conservative; nearly 80 percent held that sexuality is a choice, with only 15 percent believing that it is determined by genetics or other factors.
Men and women were deeply divided in their perceptions of sexual orientation: 60 percent of females believed it is innate, genetic or predetermined by other factors such as environment. Only 39 percent of men agreed.
The belief that all people have the potential to be sexually attracted to members of both sexes was especially prevalent among adults younger than 30 (66 percent). Groups that expressed high levels of disagreement included people aged 65 and older (53 percent), those who identified themselves as frequent Wal-Mart shoppers (58 percent), NASCAR fans (56 percent), and those who called themselves born-agains (59 percent). --The Editors