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Josh Spinks

Given that what sort of looks are considered sexually attractive is clearly determine by culture, it seems to me that a person could learn to be sexually attracted to someone of the same or different gender, but not romantically attracted to them. Thus a person could be straight or gay, because they are only romantically attracted to people of only one sex. I offer the Ancient Greeks as an example. If sexual orientation is innate, as I'm assuming, then why would homosexuality have been more common in Ancient Greece, and why did most men still marry women? I'm positing that the majority of Greek men were heterosexual, but acculturated to find other men sexually attractive. This would explain why some bisexuals only ever seem to have relationships with people of one sex. What do you think?

Nurse Ingrid


Was homosexuality really "more common" in ancient Greece? Or was it just more accepted, and talked about more openly? I'm not sure it's actually true that there was any more same sex activity going on in ancient Greece than in other times or places, but they did have a culture in which it could be acknowledged rather than kept hidden.

Plus in those days there was really no such thing as a "gay identity" the way we think of it today. So I'm not sure it makes sense to say whether a man in ancient Greece who had sex with men but married a woman was "really" straight, "really" gay, or "really" bisexual. Those are very modern concepts.

Finally, I don't agree with your assumption that sexual orientation is completely innate. To me it seems clear that both heredity and environment can contribute to such a complex aspect of human behavior.

Josh Spinks

Same-sex sexual relationships were very common for men in parts of Ancient Greece. What I'm suggesting is that who you are attracted to sexually is determined by culture, but who you are attracted to romantically is determined by genetics. But, since these tend to be conflated, people who have a sexual attraction to people of both sexes, but are only interested in relationships with people of one sex identify as bisexual, whereas, I would consider it more appropriate for them to identify as gay or straight. I brought up Greece to argue that Ancient Greek men were raised in a culture that encouraged them to find other men sexually attrative, but that, nevertheless, most of them would not fall in love with other men (not any greater a percentage than now). I don't think that they needed to have a homosexual identity.


Is it possible that both are controlled by genetics--that the same person who in Ancient Greece would have been sexually (and potentially romantically) attracted to men and women would have acted on both those impulses, that being expected and encouraged, whereas now he might find it easier to act only on his feelings for women? And that same man in a totally different environment might find it easier to fall in love with a man?

I guess (speaking totally from personal experience) that I tend to fall for people *after* having known them for a while, and I know it's going to happen, and if it were someone who could cause a lot of problems, I would have the time to get myself out of that situation. So I think that for me, both are probably hardwired--it's just that I can control the romantic angle better than the sexual angle.


I'm completely puzzled by the distinction Josh seems to be making between "sexual" and "romantic" attraction - it seems exactly backwards to me. So Achilles' love of Patrocles was "sexual" and his raping the corpse of the Amazon queen was "romantic"?

As far as I know the Greeks thought of real love, "Platonic" love, primarily in the context of male lovers. I think it's to be expected that people experienced their sexuality with the same people they were intellectually and affectionately attracted to. Women in ancient Greece were often little more than cattle, which was probably a big obstacle to a "love between equals" type of relationship.

I too wish people would drop the "argument from nature" already and start arguing that there would be nothing wrong with *choosing* to be gay.


1. Originally, I was only intending to post "ditto" after I read Greta's piece. I still say "ditto."

2. This discussion of Ancient Greek sexual and affectional norms is woefully lacking in historical content.

CULTURALLY, there was a norm that dictated acceptance and artistic celebration of romantic relationships between two young men, or a young man and a more mature man. This did not involve a homosexual or gay identity -- there was no such thing. Romantic relationships between men and women were also celebrated. Participating in both these norms was not considered "being bisexual" -- there was no such thing.

Men were expected to marry women and reproduce when they reached maturity. This was not considered "being straight" and was not seen to be in conflict with previous male-male romantic behavior.

[For the above, I thank my "History of Sex" professor, Henry Abelove.]

There is some evidence of women romantically involved with each other, specifically a poet named Sappho and her companion(s). The lack of other data prevents us from knowing if this too was a cultural norm. What we do know is that they could be rightfully called Lesbians, but only due to geography.

Did this mean that the Greeks were more open to a diverse range of sexual and romantic behavior? Not neccessarily, it just means that norms were different. Because transgressive sexual behavior is usually less well documented than behavior that is the norm for its time and place, we do not really know what transgressive sex and love looked like to the ancient Greeks, nor the repercussions.

3. I think the idea that physically attraction is more affected by culture while romantic attraction is more innate is silly. Nature and nurture shape both, but it seems to me that a lot of what turns us on -- makes us hard or wet -- is hardwired, either genetically or very early in development.

Greta Christina

Josh, your theory is interesting, but there's a couple of big problems with it. One is that, as others here have pointed out, the distinction between sexual and romantic attraction is not very clear-cut. For many people, one doesn't exist (or isn't very strong) without the other, and the two are very closely intertwined.

Another is that the evidence simply doesn't support it. The research is still being done, but at this point there's a fair amount of evidence showing that sexual orientation comes from a combination of genetics and environment (with the possibility of some in-utero environmental influence being a factor as well). The most compelling piece of evidence I've seen is twin studies. Identical twins are significantly more likely to have the same sexual orientation as fraternal twins -- but it's not 100%. Many identical twins have different sexual orientations. This pretty clearly points to "combination of genetics and environment."

Also, while social norms clearly play a role in standards of physical beauty, it's not the one and only factor. Lots of people are sexually attracted to people who aren't conventionally attractive. And it's very possible to find someone pretty or handsome without being drawn to them sexually. (I think George Clooney is an incredibly beautiful man, but he doesn't drive me mad with desire the way that, say, the much less conventionally attractive Alan Rickman does.)

Human behavior is very complex and multi-factorial. Human sexuality especially. Trying to sum it up with simple, blanket statements like "sex is learned and love is genetic" is a losing proposition.

Greta Christina

"I too wish people would drop the "argument from nature" already and start arguing that there would be nothing wrong with *choosing* to be gay."

Politically and ethically, I totally agree with you. That was the ultimate point of my piece, after all.

Scientifically, I still think it's an interesting question. I'm interested in what makes us tick; I'm especially interested in what makes us tick sexually; and questions about why we are the way we are sexually is one that I find infinitely fascinating. But when it comes to gay rights debates, it's pretty much irrelevant.


I find this paper fascinating, personally:

(I think I'm a bit weird in that I seem to have a paraphilia for affectional bonding, as in that I tend to develop sexual desire to people only after achieving emotional closeness. I assume this is unusual as few people seem to get it.)

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