Nature versus nurture was always too simple a formulation. Now, we ask: Is it chance, choice, family, culture, hormones or genes that determine who we are and whom we love? Or some combination of these factors? Or, more intriguingly, a combination that differs for different people?
For all the sophistication of our twenty-first-century science, we still haven't much more than a clue. There's a dizzying litany of potential explanations for sexual behavior, inclinations, identity. And sometimes it seems as though competing disciplines are tugging us in opposite directions.
Our recent historians of sexuality, following Michel Foucault, have tended to favor social-constructionist approaches that suggest the mutability of sexual behavior. Writers such as George Chauncey (Gay New York) and Jonathan Ned Katz (The Invention of Heterosexuality) have explored how cultural categories shape both behavior and identity. During more liberal eras, as social repression eases, a wider variety of sexual expressions and labels becomes possible. Today, we have not simply gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, but also a panorama of subcategories–like bisexual gay men and male-to-female transsexuals.
But even as shifting sexual paradigms are tracked (or defined) by historians and social theorists, scientists remain wedded to what postmodernists dismiss as "essentialism." In thrall to what Dean Hamer called "the science of desire," they search for the "gay gene," differences in brain size, the hormonal elixirs that propel gender change–all the mysteries of sex that may lie embedded in biology.
Even within movements for sexual liberation, there is considerable debate about the nature of sexuality and gender. The gay rights movement has fought against the notion that gay men or lesbians somehow opt for a "lifestyle" of same-sex love. Gayness is supposed to be a state analogous, say, to blackness, a condition one is born with that provokes discrimination and deserves legal protection. Even the expression "sexual preference," which is descriptively accurate, has acquired a pejorative cast because it seems to leave open the possibility of choice. "Sexual orientation," considered fixed and unchanging, though paradoxically often revealed only over time and through experience, has become the politically correct term.
But the essentialist notion of sexuality advanced by the gay rights movement has come under attack by bisexual activists, many of whom perceive sexuality and sexual identity as more fluid, more susceptible to choice. "Are there people that are born bisexual and can't help it? No, I don't really believe that," Elias Farajaje-Jones, a Washington-based bisexual activist, once told me. Of course, just because many bisexuals experience their own sexuality as fluid doesn't mean that other people–gay, lesbian, straight or even bisexual–don't feel straitjacketed by an innate sexual nature they are powerless to alter.
Similar questions arise about gender. Second- and third-wave feminists have been fretting since the 1960s about the competing pulls of biology and culture in determining gender differences. As women have assumed aggressive leadership positions in the corporate world and (a few) men have begun to stay home and nurture their progeny, we've been able to conceive of gender-based roles, if not gender itself, as an outworn social construct–a mask that one can, with proper support or an act of will, simply shuck off. Never mind all those women now being drawn ineluctably back into the home, trading corporate perks for childcare. Perhaps their support system, or their own energy, simply gave out.