Origins of Heterosexuality

Paul Varnell

March 8th, 2007

Editor’s Note: Columnist Paul Varnell, another fan of satire, sent this to me with permission to publish it here. This column originally appeared in the Chicago Free Press on February 28, 2007.

I’ve been wondering what makes people heterosexual. I’ve read what I can find of the research on the origins of heterosexuality — there isn’t much — and no one seems to have any clear idea.

If you ask a heterosexual, he or she will generally deny that they had any kind of choice in the matter. They say that they were just born that way or at least knew at the first stirrings of sexual awareness that they were heterosexual. “It just feels natural,” they say and seem genuinely puzzled that anyone would wonder about it.

But science isn’t so sure. The fact that any phenomenon occurs most of the time is not an explanation of why it occurs. The fact that most stars are hot is not an explanation of why they are hot.

No one seems to have found any genes for heterosexuality. Nor have studies of human brain found anything that impels males to be attracted to females or vice versa. Even that zealous proponent of heterosexuality Sigmund Freud confessed in 1915 that “the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women is also a problem that needs elucidating and is not a self-evident fact…”

Freud, of course, concluded that heterosexuality was a hard-won achievement that required successfully negotiating a path through a minefield of childhood complexes, identifications, fixations, attachments, transferences and repressions. But so many people nevertheless seem to achieve heterosexuality that his model of a single tortuous pathway scarcely seems credible. So we are inclined to conclude that there are multiple routes to adult heterosexuality.

So it may be useful to offer some speculative hypotheses for future research without claiming certainty for any one of them. (We confine ourselves here to male heterosexuality.)

It is possible for instance that young pre-heterosexual males may become fixated on their mothers as sources of nourishment and care, but, finding as they grow up that an erotic attachment to the mother violates a cultural taboo, they repress their early childhood desires and find a way to transfer their attraction to another female who can more safely serve the same psychological function. The obsession of most heterosexual males for the female breast is well known.

Alternatively, they may become alienated from their mother through resentment against their early dependence on a female. In that case they may repress their resentment but react by seeking out a female who is (or pretends to be) similarly dependent upon them, thus revenging themselves upon the mother figure. Occasional instances of spousal abuse by males may be an example of the “return of the repressed,” offering possible support for this model.

Or it may be that an early identification by the male child with the father as a figure of power and authority combined with the father’s rejection of an overly close attachment (more than 80 percent of fathers are heterosexual) can result in resentment and repression by the pre-heterosexual child and a subsequent inability to relate emotionally and romantically to other males.

This model could help explain the social reproduction of a predominant heterosexuality. It was, after all, Freud himself who observed in 1919 that every human “is capable of making a homosexual object-choice and has done so at some time in his life and either still adheres to it in his unconscious or else protects himself against it by vigorous counter-attitudes.” If so, could this be an explanation for homophobia (“counter-attitudes”) and physical gay bashing?

Or the pre-heterosexual male may develop a resentment against that early paternal source of discipline and punishment. Although he may repress the hostility to the actual father, his resentment may inhibit his ability to feel any romantic and emotional closeness with other males, to whom he transfers his original hostile feelings toward the father figure. Thus either a suppressed desire for or hostility to the father may result in the clinically identical outcome of heterosexuality.

Of course, if a father is neither a source of authority or discipline, a male child may respond to the weak or distant father with disgust and contempt which he may transfer to other males as he encounters them, thus inhibiting his ability to form emotional (pre-erotic) connections with other males. Or if the mother is weak and subservient, the male child may develop feelings of pity and protectiveness that he subsequently transfers to another woman in order to belatedly compensate for his childhood inability to protect his mother.

It will be evident that we have barely scratched the surface of the various parental dynamics that may prompt a heterosexual outcome. Nor have we even touched the role of sibling resentment, rivalry and affection. These must await future exposition.

© Paul Varnell. All rights reserved by the copyright owner. Some of Paul Varnell’s previous columns are available at the Independent Gay Forum.


October 31st, 2011

Hey! I enjoyed the article. I would love to use several passages, if I may in a presentation regarding sexual orientation. Basically I will just explain these ‘theories’ and will say that in case of homosexuality this would be regarded as something scientific, but the author wrote it as a satire. And I will provide the link and the name of the author. May I? Thanks!

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