Sex, Lies and Neuroscience: The Gaga Effect

Posted: March 24, 2011 in Identity, Lady Gaga, Masculinities, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

I found out that Gaga’s latest album and single were to be called ‘Born This Way’ towards the end of last year. My heart sank.  I knew it was going to become, if not a popular gay anthem, at least a symbol of the worst kind of essentialist thinking around sexuality. Unfortunately my fears have been proven right. The single went straight to number One in the American Billboard charts, and gay rights organisations and campaigns have been using it as shorthand, as way of securing the ‘gay’ identity as fixed and natural. We all know it is a crap song. We all know Gaga is looking a little less triumphant than she says she is feeling. But this doesn’t really matter. It is serving its purpose, ideologically speaking.

I’m beautiful in my way / ‘Cause God makes no mistakes / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born this way,”

If I have to see those words or hear them one more time I might just declare myself ‘straight’.

The most recent confirmation of the discursive power of Gaga’s lyrics, that she apparently wrote in five minutes flat, comes in the form of an article in Salon.

Ominously, the article is called ‘Fact Checking Lady Gaga’s Born This Way’. Because pop songs are now scientific papers that have to be ‘fact checked’? How very clinical.

Rahul Parikh, the author of the piece, quotes a psychiatrist, Ron Holt to support his view that we are all, indeed, ‘born this way’. Holt says that sexual orientation

‘refers to a person’s erotic response, regardless of the gender that evokes that response. Sexual orientation, he says, is fixed. This is in contrast to sexual behavior, which a person can alter. In other words, people can’t change their sexual orientation, but they can hide it.’

I don’t quite understand this paragraph, as I thought ‘sexual orientation’ was dependent on the gender that evokes sexual response. But anyway, Holt’s assertion is that sexuality is fixed. It is what we do with it that is open to change, or, as Parikh says, what we hide.

In a rather deft move, Parikh then goes to put Freud, the Grandaddy of modern theories of sexuality, up against Lady Gaga, a popstar, to show how the Austrian psychoanalyst and philosopher was surely lacking in his understanding, that he was wrong and Gaga is right, ’cause God makes no mistakes’. And Gaga, as a major 21st century celebrity is a kind of God.

‘Freud, unlike Lady Gaga, took the position that it was environmental, the result of child-rearing. If you were a boy, and your mother was overbearing or your father cold and distant, you were more likely to be gay. Freud’s view dominated medical discourse for much of the 20th century’.

According to this Salon article, the ‘constructionist’ view of sexuality which came from Freud, ‘may have led to various attempts by religious groups to try to “convert” gays “back into” heterosexuals’ . Because if something is not fixed but is dependent on environment, it can be influenced, tampered with, ‘cured’.

‘Science and sensitivity began to creep into that discourse’.says Parikh. Ah yes, because when it comes to studies of sexuality, science is known for its sensitivity isn’t it?

‘In 1973, the word “homosexuality” was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatry. The 1990s were an era of discoveries that began to point toward a biological basis for sexual orientation, including a then hotly discussed 1991 study showing differences in the size of certain parts of the brain between straight and gay men. Since then, science has built a case against Freud and in favor of Lady Gaga.’

The ‘hotly discussed 1991 study’ is actually a very dodgy piece of research indeed, which has been discredited. The idea of a ‘gay brain’ is a sort of Frankenstein sci-fi fantasy, that Mark Simpson demolishes much better than I could:

And yet, like a zombie rising from the dead, Simon Le Vay’s ‘gay brain’ is resurrected on a regular basis, not least by Salon itself. In 2010 Salon promoted a book by Le Vay which was really only rehashing his already proven to be wrong theories:

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Salon article then goes on to quote at length, another discredited ‘sex’ scientist: Michael Bailey. According to Salon, Bailey ‘is very confident that Lady Gaga is right.’ As if they have all had a conference together where Gaga has performed ‘Born This Way’ and had it approved by a panel of experts.

Even Bailey and Parikh  admit that ‘there are some subtleties you have to get through before you can understand that’ we are ‘born this way’. And by subtleties he means, ‘bullshit science’.

‘For example, if we are “born this way,” then why do studies of identical twins, some done by Bailey himself, reveal in many cases that one twin is straight and the other is gay? If they’re genetically identical, how can they be anything but the same in every way?’

The article does not answer this question satisfactory and starts using words like ‘speculation’ and ‘we don’t know’ and ‘may’  and ‘we are in our infancy of our understanding about sexual orientation’… to show that this is not a proven theory.

And that’s the thing. Nobody knows for sure how we come to ‘be’ who we are, how we come to have a certain sexuality. And nobody, not even God, or Gaga, ever will.  The key difference for me between Freud and Gaga and Bailey and Le Vay, is that Freud embraced how we did not know for sure how sexuality is formed. He did not use his ‘science’ to impose a dogmatic view of sexuality on everyone. He was far more concerned with individuals and how their development and experiences affected them emotionally. The others are trying to come up with an over-arching theory of sexuality, in order to moralise and police sexuality. In order to normalise it.

The context in which this ‘science’ is presented is America, where the ‘far right’ and Christian fundamentalists are pitched in a battle against gay rights campaigners. The gay rights lobby, and liberal America, presents sexuality as innate and fixed, because this counteracts the Christian right’s view that it is a chosen ‘sinful’ activity, or a disease that can be cured. If we are ‘born this way’ then surely God meant us to be like this? ‘Cause God makes no mistakes,right?

Except maybe he has. Because the article then goes onto mention ‘a major wild card in this entire discussion, one that puts to the test Ron Holt’s assertion that sexual orientation is fixed: women’. That’s right.  Half the population may actually not fit this scientific theory after all!

‘While most of the research has confirmed that men are “born this way,” Bailey says, there is an emerging view about women that is very different from men. “Leading researchers are beginning to believe that female sexual orientation is a bit more flexible than that of men,” he says. “Women have a higher rate of bisexual feelings than men. It’s not uncommon for a woman who has been in a lifelong heterosexual relationship to become attached to and develop a physical relationship with another woman.” ‘

But actually this attitude towards women’s sexuality being more fluid than men’s is just part of the same, ‘liberal’ conservative discourse, whereby it is actually men’s homo-sexualities which are being treated as ‘sacred’, fixed, and separate from men’s hetero-sexualities. Because it is homosexuality, and more significantly, male bisexuality, which threatens the whole concept of being a ‘man’.  Which, in America especially, is almost important as being Christian. Again Mark Simpson has written more lucidly than I can on the subject of the denial of men’s bisexuality by scientists such as Bailey.

I hope Mark might add something to this attempt at a take-down of Salon and its stroking of neuroscientist’s egos, because I know it is his field more than mine.

While I wait for his response, take a look at the photo at the top of this post. It  is from an American blog called ‘born gay born this way’.

This is a site where people send in photos of when they were children, to prove that they were ‘born this way’. I find it quite heartbreaking. It is full of gorgeous pictures of cherubic kids, playing cowboys and Indians, dressing up in Mommy’s dresses, putting on make-up, having water pistol fights, dancing. Being children. And then accompanying the pictures are little essays explaining how these kids knew from a young age that they were ‘different’ from other kids, because they didn’t do what ‘normal’ boys or girls did.This is Amanda. Isn’t she adorable? Does she look like a lesbian to you? She looks like a kid to me!

I am depressed but also glad that Salon has produced such a blatant, disingenuous piece of journalism. And that Gaga has shot herself in the foot by making the worst and most sanctimonious pop song since —er—- Michael Jackson’s Earth Song.  Because it gives us a chance to challenge head on the ‘gay agenda’ and the ‘essentialist’ agenda of liberal America in particular.

Parikh ends his article even more cynically, by quoting The Smiths ‘what difference does it make? It makes none’. But if it makes no difference whether or not we are born or made into certain sexualities, why make so much effort to prove one or the other?

Gaga’s album hasn’t even been released yet. But she has provided the liberal ‘conservatives’ with some invaluable ammunition in their war against sexual choice. You know what? I’d rather be identified as a good old-fashioned pervert in the Freudian sense. At least then my sexuality could not be co-opted by the do-gooders and the God botherers.

SO this is for you Siggy. Touch Me, I’m Sick!

  1. 2020 says:

    Growing up my sister was something tomboy she played sports wore traditionally masculine cloths and most of her friends were guys (I always used to joke she made a better boy than I did lol) so naturally she… is now living with her boyfriend and is thinking about getting married.

    I sometimes feel that this whole female sexuality is more fluid than male sexuality thing might be just another form of those stupid sexist stereotype’s that state that women are fickle and can’t make up their minds about anything where as men are always in control of everything. Again another way of reinforcing gender binaries on people instead of admitting that life like human sexuality is complex and like you said theres stuff we don’t know.

    Case in point I present Imani the misfit the bisexual rapper

  2. Mark says:

    That Salon article has very little to do with science. It’s essentially a theological discussion between members of the same, very narrow-minded, church.

    Everyone quoted, including the one writing this fabulously misleading piece, are true believers in monosexuality. Their belief in a Third Sex, which is what their unshakeable conviction that homosexuality is ‘inborn’ boils down to, is really just a way of maintaining that faith. In effect, everyone is heterosexual – including homosexuals. Everyone is programmed by Mother Nature – it’s just that in homosexuals the programming goes a bit awry because they’re insufficiently masculinised and have female brains etc. etc.

    And like any faith it is impressively impervious to proof. They don’t provide any proper evidence, and in fact there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, but they are all serene in their conviction that one day, thanks to the sterling efforts of Father Bailey et al, science will finally get around to proving what they already know to be true anyway. That gay men are really some variation of a female soul trapped inside a male body and lesbians… well, as you suggest, they don’t really care about lesbians. And Bailey’s acknowledgement that women’s sexuality might be more fluid is only another way of saying a) Women’s sexuality isn’t really important and most of all b) reinforcing the idea that men’s sexuality, which is very important indeed, ISN’T fluid. It’s HARD. And SOLID. And UNWAVERING. In other words: PHALLIC.

    Contrary to what Salon would have you believe, Freud didn’t think that homosexuality could be ‘cured’ – and he didn’t consider this to be a worthy goal of analysis anyway. At best he thought it possible that highly motivated individuals might, after lots of analysis, become more bisexually responsive.

    Freud also didn’t discount the possibility that some people might be congenitally pre-disposed to homosexuality. However, a pre-disposition – which is the most that the Church of Bailey can ever hope to show – and even on that front they’ve failed miserably – doesn’t give you a Third Sex. Because by definition with a predisposition nurture and environment and life experiences – and CHOICES – are the decisive factor.

    • Ah, choices. And don’t we make such excellent choices in our lives?!

      I have said this before and I could have said it above if I was more on it, that the current discourse of ‘fated’ determinist models of sexuality is also bound up and inextricably entwined with ‘social constructionist’ theory. So we are simultaneously told, and tell ourselves that we are both totally free to choose who our partners are and what we do with them, but also completely doomed/destined/born this way.

      This two-pronged discourse makes it very difficult to challenge the determinist elements of sexuality theory, even though they are often presented so stupidly.

      Because even the most churchy fundamentalists these days can speak the language of social constructionism.

      If Freud were still around today I don’t know how he would handle this or what kind of stance he would take. But if he were around today, I suspect nobody would listen to him anyway.

  3. Thijs says:

    Thank you for this excellent post! It’s both scary and infuriating how the discursive formation of essentialist neuroscience is picked up by this awful upbeat, poppy sexpol… I furthermore notice that some of my friends have been expressing their delight about the naturalness of their queerness (sic!) – I’ll make sure to forward them this post, so thanks again 🙂

  4. Nico says:

    Fuck the doctrinaire. Double fuck rhetorically expedient crypto-essentialism. And triple fuck bornthiswayism. xx from California

  5. Nico says:

    The whole thing is too sad and funny and oh! fuck me! please! Sometimes it’s hard to care. But what else is there?

  6. cat says:

    “In a rather deft move, Parikh then goes to put Freud, the Grandaddy of modern theories of sexuality, up against Lady Gaga, a popstar, to show how the Austrian psychoanalyst and philosopher was surely lacking in his understanding,….” Apparantly, Parikh ignores his history as well. Richard von Kraft-Ebing, who wrote the infamous “Psycopathia Sexualis” which played a huge role in medicalizing same sex sexualities, was an essentialist. Psychopathia Sexualis predated Freud’s work and dominated the psychiatric field at the time. “Sexual Inversion” is, in fact, Kraft-Ebing’s teminology. Kraft-Ebing held that same sex sexuality was a mental illness caused by malformation of the brain in utero (later in his life, after the bulk of his work was published, he actually changed is view about it being a mental illness, having been convinced by the work of a lawyer named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs). This notion dominated the medical model. There are numerous experiments on the hormones and brains of queer people done under this model as well. Anyone who thinks the bio-medical model is less tainted here than the Freudian (not necessarily Freud himself, but the school of thought that followed) needs to get a history lesson.

    • I know Kraft-Ebing contributed to the medical model but some say he also contributed to the creation of the ‘gay’ identity by moving things along!

      I think Mark Simpson has written on this I will find his post.

      • Matthew says:

        Ebbings ideas of gay revolve around Literally “women haters” and inverts (men in women’s bodies or women in men’s bodies). I am not a fan of “born this way” but I am of course an incredibly mutable person. And was both a football player and choir boy. In many ways I identify more with my mutability rather than “bisexuality”. Some people gay or straight are just stuck in their ways. : )

  7. Hmmm. Agree with much of this, as I’m not a fan of essentialism. Plato has a lot to answer for.

  8. thing is, after reading your and Mark’s punctual critics, I still don’t blame Gaga for anything else than MOR approach to the theme. even Paglia had her point, but for ignorant people Radio Gaga is ok. and the circle is complete when you hear the mash-up made by DJ Craig C Germanotta vs Donna Somerville, actually the first to come ouuuuut and saaaayyyy “it’s okaaaaayyyy if I’m gaaaayyyyyy”

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