Development of sexual identity

In order to understand the development of sexual identities, we must first be able to understand what is meant by ‘sexuality’. If one is asked ‘who has a sexuality?’ the first answer is typically ‘gay people’. In our society, sexuality is socially constructed and closely linked with gender, and this can lead to problems with people developing not only their own identity, but also their own sexual identity. There is an idea that people are conditioned into heterosexuality by the media, peers and parental expectations. In other words their sexual identity has been socially constructed.

There have been three main theories attempting to provide an explanation for our sexuality. One general criticism is that they tend to explain homosexuality as a ‘problem’ and heterosexuality is consistently perceived as ‘normal’. “Normal needs abnormal in order to be normal” The first main explanation is a biological theory. The main suggestion is that sexual identity is determined by our genetic makeup. Studies have included those measuring the effects of pre-natal hormones, brain structure and genetics.

In other words, the suggestion that pregnancy could affect the child’s sexuality. For example if the mother had high levels of the hormone testosterone, found in large quantities in males, would this characteristic be more likely to increase the chance of the child being born gay? In 1993, Simon LeVay argued that the brains of homosexual men were more like women’s brains than those of heterosexual men.

This he labelled the ‘gay gene’. He came to his conclusion by investigating differences in a tiny area of the hypothalamus (cited in Dunphy: 9-13). A key criticism of LeVay’s findings is that he only investigated a certain part of the brain, and he used a very small sample size that included mainly gay men who had died from an aids related illness. His results cannot therefore represent gay men in general. We cannot be sure that this is the part of the brain that affects sexuality. The differences he found within the hypothalamus could have nothing to do with human sexuality, and could be related to something entirely different.

Twin studies have been used to research the ‘gay gene’. Although there has been some evidence to support the genetic explanation for homosexuality (Whittam et al 1993) if the explanation was entirely biological then the figures for MZ twins would be 100% not the actual figure which was 52%. This suggests that the theory draws inconclusive results, and other theories could also provide an explanation for sexual identity.

The biological explanation is reductionist in the sense that it underplays the influence of social factors. Although this approach is reductionist and inconclusive, it is also popular amongst the general public because people trust science and facts. It also takes away responsibility from the mother and homosexual themselves. In other words, being homosexual is ‘nobody’s fault’. However, this point of view suggests that homosexuality is abnormal, and it is precisely this view that has been socially constructed by ‘heterosexuals’. There is also a suggestion therefore that there could be a ‘cure’ for homosexuality, again suggesting that it is something that is ‘wrong’ with somebody.

The social/psychological approach suggests that we learn sexual behaviour and develop our own sexual identities by modelling our behaviour from other people, mainly adults, in our immediate environment. However this idea is fabricated on the idea of Social Learning Theory, which has had supportive evidence in the area of pro and ant-social behaviour (Bandura 1973), but there has been no evidence to support the idea in relation to sexuality. Infact, the evidence that has been collected by Bailey et al (1995), found that children raised by gay parents are no more likely to be gay than other children (cited in Patterson 1995).

This theory should theoretically explain the gaps in the biological theory, but the research is too inclusive to draw strong conclusions. Because children are not often raised by gay parents, the situation is rare and therefore there are not enough families to be able to research the theory on. A more feasible explanation than direct modelling behaviour is the idea of social conditioning, and that our environment reinforces heterosexuality and possibly actively discourages homosexuality.

Some families are distinctly homophobic yet children from these types of families still identify as gay or lesbian. Tucker (1989) said that the family sets the social context within which the adolescent will learn about sexuality (cited in Heaven: 152). If social factors explained homosexuality then surely these children would not ‘come out’ as homosexual. Peer norms and expectations about sexual behaviour may influence sexual identity for a certain amount of time but as time goes on the adolescent will have a clearer idea about their sexuality and will not be under pressure to conform to social expectations.

Perhaps the most controversial of the three theories is Freud’s theory of psychosexual development and the psychodynamic approach. This theory focuses on the development of heterosexuality rather than homosexuality. Freud (1923) suggests that everyone is born a bisexual, but development through …

Sexual identity is a contentious issue among all age groups. However, the unique mindset of adolescence can transform this issue into a particularly difficult struggle. Sexual identity refers to an individual’s self-identification in terms of his or her sexual attractions. …

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The twin concepts of innocence and ignorance are vehicles for adult double standards: a child is ignorant if she doesn’t know what adults want her to know, but innocent if she doesn’t know what adults don’t want her to know’ …

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