What’s at stake?

Where does sexual attraction come from? And why are some people gay, others straight, and still others some other sexual identity? It hasn’t been easy for scientists to explore these questions. Politics sometimes gets in the way of research, with people at both ends of the political spectrum expressing doubts about the merits of such work.

Research on sexual orientation is also difficult to accomplish. Sexual attraction is highly individual, complex and multi-faceted. It doesn’t lend itself easily to being studied in scientific labs. Science writer Megan Cartwright (2015) sums up the challenges in a recent article in Slate:

“Studying the biology of sexual orientation is hard. The science, says [Dr. Tuck] Ngun, is extremely complicated, with genetics and hormones and other factors playing parts—meaning that while being non-straight is the common destination, people get there through different biological routes. Also, it takes a lot of work to recruit enough research subjects, especially when subjects are a minority targeted for discrimination. But the ‘biggest roadblock in doing this kind of work,’ says [Dr. Meredith] Chivers, ‘is institutional support’ at the university and government level, especially in the United States.” (Cartwright, 2015)

Why pursue research on sexual orientation in the face of so many challenges? Because it’s basic to who we are. In 2016, a group of prominent scientists led by Dr. J. Michael Bailey, PhD, defended scientists’ efforts to increase understanding of sexual orientation:

“[T]he single best justification for studying the causes of sexual orientation is scientific, not sociopolitical. Quite simply, sexual orientation is a basic human trait that influences identity and behavior at both the individual and the group level, and hence it is fundamentally important and interesting to understand its causes and development (Bailey et al., 2016).”

Scientists are the first to admit that they have a lot to learn about the broad spectrum of sexual orientations, and new findings are emerging all the time. For instance, researchers have just begun to study the characteristics of bisexuality, and there hasn’t been much research on other sexual identities, such as asexuality.

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Click to read the full Slate article and learn more about the challenges to studying sexual orientation, including reasons why scientists are only just now getting around to studying women.

Where’s the Scientific Research Into How Sexual Orientation Develops in Women?


Bailey, J.M., Vasey, P.L., Diamond, L.M., Breedlove, S.M., Vilan, E. & Epprecht, M. (2016). Sexual orientation, controversy, and science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(2), 45-101. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1529100616637616

Cartwright, M. (2015, August 3). Where’s the scientific research into how sexual orientation develops in women? Slate. http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/08/03/sexual_orientation_in_women_why_so_little_scientific_r...

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.