Thursday, March 5, 2009

Has male homosexuality changed over time?

One point is often raised about male homosexuality: it has always been with us. True, but has it ever changed in its nature or prevalence?

Well, more gays have been ‘coming out of the closet.’ People are practicing openly what used to be done in secret. But have there also been more fundamental changes?

Such a change has been postulated by Michel Foucault and others who argue that European societies originally had plenty of male homosexuality but few male homosexuals (Foucault, 1976; Halsall, 1988; Trumbach, 1977). In the Middle Ages, this behavior was seen as a ‘vice’ of older heterosexual men, typically with young boys or men of a servile status. In contrast, far fewer men were exclusively homosexual in the sense of being uninterested in women and resembling women in their sexual orientation (i.e., having a woman’s search image and desired self-image). This relative rarity is implied by the astonishment that European explorers felt on encountering Amerindian berdaches during the 18th and early 19th centuries (Désy, 1978).

Towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, this facultative male homosexuality seems to have been overtaken by the exclusive kind throughout northern Europe and North America. Today, at least in these regions, most male homosexuals fall into the second category, as Greg Cochran notes when comparing male and female homosexuality:

Female homosexuality is less common and women who self-label as homosexuals are a lot more likely to have children than gay men. So the overall impact on fitness is less. The distributions are different too: you find a lot more men who are Kinsey 6s, who aren't interested in women at all, than bisexual men: the distribution is J-shaped. It's the other way around in women, more bisexuals than Simon-pure lesbians. (Cochran, 2005)

Thus, around the turn of the 20th century, a shift occurred in the search image of some men, making them homosexual and exclusively so. Interestingly, a similar shift took place among heterosexual men in general, though to a lesser degree. The feminine ideal became that of a woman with long legs, a flat chest, narrow hips, large shoulders, and tanned skin, like a young boy on the brink of puberty (Bard, 1998; Marchand, 1997, 1988). This sort of woman appears in a 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, where Miss Jordan Baker is described as "a slender, small-breasted girl with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet" (Fitzgerald, 1992, p. 15). Such androgyny is sometimes put down to the social impacts of World War I, either the wartime entry of women into previously male jobs or the postwar shortage of men. Yet the ‘boyish look’ was being mentioned as early as 1914, in the United States, three years before that country entered the war:

The new ideal in feminine figure, dress, and hair styles was all semi-masculine. The “1914 Girl” with her “slim hips and boy-carriage” was a “slim, boylike creature”. The “new figure is Amazonian, rather than Miloan. It is boyish rather than womanly. It is strong rather than soft.” Her dress styles, meanwhile, de-emphasized both hips and bust while they permitted the large waist. (McGovern, 1968)

It is as if something had been altering the male search image, thereby causing a preference for more boyish-looking women and, in a minority of cases, for men. But what could this ‘something’ have been?

From the perspective of Cochran’s germ theory, it may have been a pathogen that became more transmissible with the growth of towns and cities in the late 19th century. Its male hosts may have varied in their degree of susceptibility, being pushed over the threshold of male homosexuality in some cases. In most cases, the psychological change would have been less drastic.

An alternate candidate may be some kind of chemical agent, specifically an estrogen or estrogenic compound that would hinder the masculinization of male brains. There has been much talk about a long-term decline in sperm counts, allegedly because of synthetic compounds that mimic natural estrogens (e.g., contraceptive pills, DDT, PCBs). Most of these compounds, however, date back only to the 1940s. Is there reason to believe that an estrogenic agent began to enter the human environment in the late 19th century—and in large quantities?


(to be cont’d in my next post)


Bard, C. (1998). Les garçonnes. Modes et fantasmes des Années folles. Paris: Flammarion.

Cochran, G.M. (2005). Cause of Homosexuality: Gene or Virus? Cochran Interview. Thrasymachus Online.

Désy, P.P. (1978).
L'homme-femme. (Les berdaches en Amérique du Nord), Libre — politique, anthropologie, philosophie, 78(3), 57-102.

Fitzgerald, F. S. (1992). The Great Gatsby, New York: Collier Books.

Foucault, M. (1976) Histoire de la sexualité. Tome 1. La volonté de savoir. Paris: Gallimard.

Halsall, P. (1988). The Experience of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages.

Marchand, S. (1997). Rouge à lèvres et pantalon. Des pratiques esthétiques féminines controversées au Québec 1920-1939, Montréal: Éditions Hurtubise HMH.

Marchand, S. (1988). La « Garçonne », un nouveau modèle féminin (1920-1929), Cap-aux-Diamants, 4, 19-20.

McGovern, J.R. (1968). The American woman's pre-World War I freedom in manners and morals, Journal of American History, 55, 315-333.

Trumbach, R. (1977). London's sodomites: homosexual behaviour and Western culture in the eighteenth century, Journal of Social History, 11, 1-33 .


Anonymous said...

I would guess Estrogen added to feed for cows producing milk.

Anonymous said...

I would love to read your feedback about the Chimera Hypthesis and homosexuality. Its seems are reasonable as the gay germ theory. But I don't haven't your background in the matter.

Jason Malloy said...

There was a large study that found that 1,300 men exposed to a high dose of a potent synthetic estrogen in utero had no greater adult reports of sexual contact with men than 1,300 unexposed controls.

So the estrogen agent theory probably doesn't pan out.

Anonymous said...

I read an old Natural Geographic about young men from Niger, slend tall and skinny. In their early adulthood they have to dress and makeup to accentuate their feminine features during seduction ceremonies. They also simulate girl gesture and mimics so from my occidental point of view, they look very much like queer at the gay pride. However, this is really a ritual they have to do to get a female. I understand that they have to enhance their physical beauty by using makup and bright colors like the red Paradise birds, but I don't understand why they have to exagerate their features to look like girls, even in their mimics.
Aren't they supposed to display strenght and courage by killing a lion or something?
The story didn't mention homosexual behavior, but it did mention that not all these young men get a girl, so it looks to me that the ground is prepared to have some sort of compensation behavior for the effeminate youngs left aside.


Tod said...

" men exposed to a high dose of a potent synthetic estrogen in utero had no greater adult reports of sexual contact with men than 1,300 unexposed controls.So the estrogen agent theory probably doesn't pan out

Estrogen mimics at low doses change how brain cells manage dopamine.
"The responses were not linear across the doses tested; that is they did not increase steadily as doses increased. The most profound effects were observed in the middle dose ranges of the EEs tested. The higher levels did not affect dopamine in the same way. Dose response experiments that show an inverted U response are referred to as non-monotonic and are very common with xenoestrogen responses."
How Does DES Affect Sons?
Difficult to believe nobody had their sexual orientation altered in any way given these physical effects.

Peter Frost said...


Estrogen added to cow feed is relatively recent. I believe it's a post-1960s phenomenon.


I hope to write a post on the Chimera hypothesis. Do you know of an article that provides references to supporting articles/studies?


I don't think environmental estrogens have much influence in utero. For one thing, there's the placental barrier. For another, the human fetus has already adapted to the high estrogen levels of its mother's bloodstream. I'm thinking in terms of the period after birth, in neural tissues that have not yet sexually differentiated.


I think you're referring to the Tuareg people. They are pastoralists, so displays of hunting ability are not important. Male makeup seems to have been a pre-Islamic tradition throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In those regions, pre-Islamic men also shaved their beards and armpits, wore jewelery, regularly washed and perfumed their bodies, etc. -- a bit like metrosexuals today. This was seen as a way of attracting girls. The Tuareg (who originally came from North Africa) have perpetuated this tradition.


Your references are interesting, but is there evidence of estrogen mimics in the human environment back in the late 19th century?

Tod said...

The only common novel substance I can think of is borax ( Estrogen-Like Effect of Boric Acid) It was added to foods back before the relevant time though.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking in terms of the period after birth, in neural tissues that have not yet sexually differentiated.

Males go through an early phase where they prefer the company of other males and tend to shun and exclude females.

Then, after puberty a great switch is thrown. If something interrupts this switch, that too could explain some forms of male homosexuality.

Tod said...

Maybe Borax fits the bill

For although the issue of pure food had been long promoted by women’s groups, public health advocates, and other progressive organizations, it only began to gain real legislative steam after an inadvertent media phenomenon, which accompanied the onset of tainted food experiments conducted on human volunteers by Dr. Harvey W, Wiley in the fall of 1902.

This study explores the coverage of that first “poison squad” study – the Borax trials of 1902 and 1903 --

Borax was selected as the first preservative to be experimented with,.. because it is probably the most important of the commonly used preservatives,

The following series of articles are freely translated from abstracts appearing in
the Zed. fiir Untersuch. der Nahr. U7ad Genussmittel, 1902, v., 678-682 :
E. ROST. (Arb. Kaiserl. Gesundh.-Amt., 1902, xix., 1-69.)-As the antiseptic action
of boric acid is small, comparatively large quantities are necessary to preserve
articles of food, it is quite possible for a person to take as much as 3 grammes daily
of the preservative in his ordinary food. Meats, sausages, milk, butter, margarine,
white and yolk of egg, fish, caviare, shellfish, etc., are frequently preserved by the
addition of boric acid. The author found 3.87 per cent. in dry salt meat and 293 per
cent. in shrimps.[...]THE AMOUNT Of
POWDERED BORAX OR BORIC ACID. E. POLENSK(AEr. b.K aiserl. Gesundh. -Anzt., 1902,
xix., 16?,168.)-It is already known that fresh meat, when packed in borax, becomes thoroughly impregnated with the same.

Merging Is Emerging From 2002 Nature article Discusses chimærism and mosaicism, includes references.

2003 New Scientist article

The Chimera Hypothesis: Homosexuality and Plural Pregnancy

Chimerism Common in Sheep

one in every eight people had a vanished twin

Tod said...

"Although not observed in humans, animal studies have shown that high doses of borax or boric acid produce adverse effects in the testis and affect male fertility (IPCS, 1998). Also, adverse effects have been found in the developing fetus (Heindel et al., 1992; IPCS, 1998; Price et al., 1996a). Effects on the testis have been observed in three species—rats, mice, and dogs—after supplementation with boric acid or borates in feed or drinking water (Fail et al., 1990, 1991; Green et al., 1973; Ku et al., 1993; Lee et al., 1978; Weir and Fisher, 1972). The effects tend to be similar in all three species and include inhibition of spermiation (release of spermatozoa into seminiferous tubule), loss of germ cells, changes in epididymal sperm morphology and caput sperm reserves, testicular atrophy, and decreased serum testosterone levels. Doses of 29 mg/kg/day in dogs and 58.5 mg/kg/day in rats have resulted in adverse reproductive effects. A comparison of the lowest-observed-adverse-effect levels (LOAELs) and no-observed-adverse-effect levels (NOAELs) for the key studies on reproduction is given in Table 13-1.

Pharmacokinetics. The pharmacokinetics of boron are very similar in animals and humans."

Peter Frost said...


Do you have a beginning date for the use of borax in food preparation? I'll check your references ...

Tod said...

beginning date for the use of borax in food preparation?
About 1897

(The 1997 Antimicrobial Food Additives: Characteristics, Uses, Effects p7 - Google Books Result, says "The introduction of... boric acid to food preservation about a hundred years ago")

Martin Regnen said...

Your post really made me think... if Greg Cochran's theory is true, it can explain a lot more than homosexuality. It could explain a lot of cultural and even political changes of the past 100+ years. I wrote up my thoughts here:

I don't know if there are any major holes in that, but I'm throwing it out there.

Anonymous said...

"In the Middle Ages, this behavior was seen as a ‘vice’ of older heterosexual men, typically with young boys or men of a servile status."

Seems as if this "vice" might be no different a behavior than what's been seen throughout history--an essentially homosexual man who's had to lead a hetero life finding an opportunity for homosexual encounters or perhaps a pederast whose social superiority finally allowed him to get what he would have preferred to have all along.

I am not at all persuaded that this type of behavior suggests that the homosexuality of that era was of a different sort than that of today.

Sounds to me as if power, age, influence, social and political standing, etc. have always allowed men whose predilections strayed from the norm to practice their preferences in some way. That these men would have been married early in life and had children doesn't mean they weren't essentially what today we'd call gay. The culture has simply changed.

While I am not persuaded, I do look forward to your next post and the argument you advance.

Anonymous said...

"Thus, around the turn of the 20th century, a shift occurred in the search image of some men, making them homosexual and exclusively so. Interestingly, a similar shift took place among heterosexual men in general, though to a lesser degree. The feminine ideal became that of a woman with long legs, a flat chest, narrow hips, large shoulders, and tanned skin, like a young boy on the brink of puberty ..."

This is really streeeeeetching it, don't you think?

Look at the garbs into which women stuffed themselves in the gay
'90s. Their corsets were pulled so tightly at the waist women couldn't breathe. These same suffocating corsets also pushed up their breasts, making even small-breasted women look as if they had large breasts when they had no such hour-glass figure at all; layers upon layers of skirts ended at their ankles and covered boots laced to the knees. The covered-up woman of fashion was soon to give way to the flapper for good reason. Men's fashions were almost as stifling--hot wool suits worn even on a sweltering day, high-collared shirts and ties choking them, hats, wool socks.

With the end of the war came the increased consumerism spurred by increased production of all those freeing new inventions like the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, the car, the radio. With the spare buck from a growing middle/working class *and* the new idea of credit extended to this growing class, people wanted to purchase all the new things they got a taste of in the magazines and catalogs of the day.

Enter the Madison Avenue we know with all kinds of new things to push and all kinds of people (people who now had some spare money or some credit) wanting to buy those things; then add in and stir the slogan of the day from the man in the White House-- "the business of America is business" and you have the birth of the new American, the one you and I know today, the American who wants things, things, and more things.

For the ordinary mom and pop and kids in the hinterlands? Never fear, there were goods they too could afford. Ah yes, in the the catalogs of Sears and Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, JC Penny and Company were all the things the new American wanted, all the things the new American woman wanted, one of which was...a new wardrobe, one which spoke of rebellion against the restrictive garb of the earlier decades.

These new styles were worn, promoted, flaunted by the children of the affluent--those women attending the companion women's schools of the male Ivy League. With their sleeveless, short, flapper clothing accentuated by beads and skullcaps, flaunting the mores of the era with their flasks of outlawed booze, puffing on their cigarettes held by long holders, these children of the rich stood as vanguards to the ordinary woman at home, who , while on the one-hand "tsk, tsked" such behavior, still envied the growing freedom such women represented.

It ain't for nothin' that this all coincided with women's suffrage.

To offer a 1920s woman such as Jordan Baker in Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby" as evidence of American men having developed a new search image is silliness in the extreme.

Look at history, especially the history of style as it relates to advertising. Want to sell a lot of something? Women's clothing? New washing machines and kitchen makeovers? New houses? Cars? ANYTHING? Then, change the styles. Do what every advertiser has been taught to do: create a need.

The confluence of social changes and the birth of modern advertising is what resulted in the new look of the American woman, at least the affluent, Eastern, educated young American woman. They were the trendsetters even if all the other American women could only dream, but they were not the result of a new American male search image.

They sold magazines and dreams.