Homosexuality Doesn’t Spread Via Social Networks

By Neuroskeptic | July 20, 2013 9:39 am

Worries over the possibility that gay people are seeking to promote or spread their orientation are common.

Sometimes these fears are expressed openly, and take the form of conspiracy theories. Then again, they can be unspoken reservations.

But what’s the truth? A new study reassures us that Same-Sex Sexual Attraction Does Not Spread in Adolescent Social Networks.

The data come from the Add Health study, a project that included around 15,000 adolescents from across the USA. Neuroskeptic readers may remember Add Health from the “black women less beautiful” controversy two years ago.

The adolescents studied were 15-16 years old at baseline (1995) and aged 16-17 in the second phase (1996). As well as answering questions about their sexual desires and behaviours, they gave a list of their closest friends – who were often also participants in the study.

In order to estimate possible social influences on sexuality, self-reported same-sex attraction in the second phase was analyzed in terms of various predictors from phase one, including the participant’s own previous characteristics, and, crucially, those of their friends.

The key finding was that having friends who reported same-sex attraction wasn’t a predictor of later having such an attraction yourself. Friends did seem to exert an effect on desire for a sexual relationship, and on actually having sex – your friends’ scores on those were associated with your own later scores – but there was no effect for sexual orientation. Gay siblings didn’t have any influence either. As can be seen in this graph:

Although this measure of same-sex sexual attraction was purely self-report and fairly crude, it correlated strongly with whether participants went on to identify as gay, lesbian or straight a number of years later.

Nor did people who experienced same-sex attraction tend to have friends who did – there was no ‘clustering’ by that variable, although clustering was seen for other things such as having intercourse:

So, there we have it. Homosexuality is not contagious. Not in 1990s high schools, anyway.

However, the odds seem low that the conspiracists will believe this.

What will their objections be? Perhaps they’ll focus on the Add Health study… (tinfoil hat on) which in fact grew out of a 1991 teen sexuality research project that was rightly quashed by conservatives, because it acknowledged the existence of teen sexuality. But the study re-emerged in 1994 – under Bill Clinton.

It was funded by many federal government agencies and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an elitist ‘public health’ organisation who are also notorious for supporting restrictions on those harmless pleasures, tobacco and alcohol. So it’s quite clear that Add Health represents a neo-Puritanical attempt to promote sexual permissiveness (tinfoil hat off).

ResearchBlogging.orgBrakefield TA, Mednick SC, Wilson HW, De Neve JE, Christakis NA, & Fowler JH (2013). Same-Sex Sexual Attraction Does Not Spread in Adolescent Social Networks. Archives of sexual behavior PMID: 23842784

  • Semigrounded

    Any study on the nurture argument for sexual orientation should start at least in prepubescence, if not in utero.

    An ideal evolutionary design would be if society caused the ratio of homosexuals to increased with population density. It’d be a malthusian trap stop-gap. Nature keeps balance through famine and infighting. Wouldn’t a density controlled sexual orientation mechanism be so much more pleasant?

    • Buddy199

      Interesting idea. I wonder if there are any animal studies along those lines.

      • Semigrounded

        I don’t think so. You’re right. I take that back. It would be modified by density, not controlled. The mechanism would be societal. Perhaps exposure to a wider array of behavioral templates as a child would nudge things one way. Maybe increased stress levels would edge it further. I know this is treading into the territory of “making people queer,” but we know homosexuality isn’t purely genetic, and so what? Current growth is unsustainable. What could possibly be the downside of an increasingly homosexual society?

        So what do you think neuroskeptic? Did the Jesus Lizard plan for homosexual proliferation to keep us from destroying Gaia?

        • Buddy199

          WTF is Jesus or Mohammad Lizard?

          • Semigrounded

            It was a way of humorously poking fun at my own insinuation of a planned evolutionary course.

            Humor is a tough thing to pull off on the internet.

            Still, homosexuality has been kept in the game by some unknown mechanism(s), one(s) which likely exist on a movable scale. I know that the seeming increase in presentation is most likely, if not completely, due to a growth in general acceptance, but what the hell, an occasional ride in the wild speculation mobile keeps the brain’s associations from going stale. :)

    • facefault

      It would be nice, but it would only have evolved that way if overpopulation exerted a strong selective pressure on us in the past, which is unlikely. Kin selection is a more likely explanation.

      • Semigrounded

        Right. I agree. I was just spinning fire.

        Kin selection would actually be something that could affectively be influenced by society, though. The nuclear family exists less as an island these day, and our in-group/out-group patterning can fluctuate with the speed of a bored three-year-old with a remote control. The templates we have to understand who our allegiance and love belongs to have become fractals. I considered Lucille Ball my second mother until the age of thirteen. If the noise of a dynamic system is heightened by each iteration of complexity(is it?), then why wouldn’t the more fractured paradigms of modern society kick a few extra people to the queer end?

        You know, when I brought this up I was just being goofy, but I’m starting to like the idea. It seems hopeful.

  • http://petrossa.me/ petrossa

    Pity stupidity, ignorance does spread that way however.

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  • Wouter

    “The key finding was that having friends who reported same-sex attraction wasn’t a predictor of later having such an attraction yourself. Friends did seem to exert an effect on desire for a sexual relationship, and on actually having sex, but not on sexual orientation.”

    Hold on… so, having homosexual friends is not only an aphrodisiac, but also gets you laid? I’m definitely visiting the gay parade this year :)

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      That was a bit ambiguous, sorry. I meant that friends’ desire for a relationship was correlated with your desire for one, and so on. Those variables were associated among friends, but same-sex attraction wasn’t.

      • Wouter

        Ah…I see. Well, I’ll probably visit the gay parade anyway, now that I’ve just bought this lovely pink tank top with matching thong.

        Nonetheless, your comment reveals something else that’s funny: having sex increases the odds that your friends will have sex as well. It’s the best excuse for taking home a ‘not-so-pretty-person’. You’re doing it for your friends.

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  • Buddy199

    I does raise an interesting question though: what evolutionary purpose does homosexuality serve? Obviously none for the individual or his genes, they are much less likely tobe passed on. So, there might be some advantage to the group, when you realize that human evolution designed us to survive in small group Neolithic circumstances. Fewer males fighting over the females, who at the same time could share the task of defending the group and “bringing home the bacon” for all. The same for homosexual females, more free hands for the group’s children, rather than your own. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a trait with no evolutionary advantage, the way that Multiple Sclerosis or genetically inheritable dysfunctions have persisted throughout human history, though homosexuality is benign behavior rather than a destructive disease. Though it’s hard to imagine the evolutionary process wasting its time repeatedly producing individuals with traits that have no Life advancing qualities, individually or for the group at large.

    • Semigrounded

      As facefault mentioned, kin selection is the dominant theory. Kin selection was initially used to explain altruistic behavior in animals. It was either created, or popularized (I can’t remember), by E. O. Wilson in reference to ants. Homosexuality fits pretty nicely into the theory. Especially with evidence that the chances of homosexuality increase with one’s birth order. Perhaps the evolutionary reward of one more competitive sexual player decreases the larger the group gets. We all depend on each other to survive, and at some point, I imagine, the benefit of cohesion outweighs the benefit of sheer numbers.

      • Daniel Smith

        E.O. Wilson has rejected kin selection theory, or rather modified it into multilevel selection theory. The math didn’t support kin selection theory and it doesn’t support homosexuality as being purely biological in origin. It’s simply too dysgenic to be natural for the frequency in which it’s claimed to occur.

    • Wouter

      I think there is something else that should not be overlooked here: many homosexuals do not lose the wish/desire to reproduce. Throughout the history of mankind, homosexuals still produced offspring, maybe behaving opposite to their sexual orientation, but still. These days it has become even easier to produce offspring for homosexuals without them having to make compromises. Additionally, adoption, which is not uncommon for homosexual couples, will also benefit the group at large.
      Thus, I think it may seem that homosexuals have no Life advancing qualities, but that this might actually be false due to desire for reproduction, which is still present in many homosexuals.

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  • Dean Eckles

    I think there are good reasons for many people not to take the conclusions of this study too seriously, simply for statistical reasons. Maybe on a second look you’ll feel similarly skeptical.*

    First, just take a look at the first figure posted here (Figure 2 in the paper). The confidence intervals for contagion effect in (self-reported) same-sex attraction actually include the contagion effect in (self-reported) sexual behavior!

    That is, the results are actually quite consistent with peer effects in same-sex attraction of the same magnitude as in sexual behavior.

    This is a classic case of a conclusion that needs a “precise null” but actually we have a very imprecise null finding. The authors make some adhoc arguments about having sufficient power, but it is clear that this study did not have sufficient power to detect even quite large associations. (Note that the raw correlation in sexual orientation, without the modeling, is estimated as r = 0.02. This might seem small, but it actually corresponds to an estimate of a ~45% relative increase in reporting same-sex orientation if the alter does.)

    * Note that I’m just expressing skepticism about whether this study provides substantial evidence for its conclusion, not whether this conclusion may well be true. Though I would be surprised if there weren’t contagion in this variable simply because of the self-report nature of the measure.

  • http://fortheloveofthecreator.blogspot.com/ SHAHARIL AHMAD

    More or less like a natural selection, nature itself will take it course!

  • Alex

    No study is going to contradict the obvious that we know from experience, observation, and past educational and psychological theories:
    1. That raw modeling and social acceptance influence choices people make;
    2. That children often follow certain expectations because they want to “fit in” a specific group or follow their friends.
    Most research admits that both biological (genetic) and social (environmental) factors determine sexual behaviour, identification, and, consequently, orientation. However, the second factor (social/environmental) is, at present time, not politically correct and therefore not much research is being funded and done on that aspect of homosexuality. It would be essential to know the answers before we, as society, allow homosexual parents to adopt and bring up children, The rights of one group cannot be exercised at the expense of another, especially at the expense of children who are more vulnerable and less aware of consequences of choices they make than the adults.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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