Lingua Franca, May/June 1998
Does the Exotic Become Erotic?
A Cornell psychologist’s bold new theory about who’s gay and why. By Emily Nussbaum

“When my wife saw this apartment for the first time,” says Cornell social psychologist Daryl Bem, showing me into his elegant living room decorated with a tall Chinese screen, red lacquered coffee table, and polished piano, “she said, ‘Well, this really looks like the apartment of a gay man.’” He flashes an ironic smile. Medium height with olive skin and slight bags under his liquid brown eyes, Bem resembles an empathic therapist more than any gay archetype; he’s soft spoken and self-mocking, swaddled in a nondescript brown sweater and gray slacks. He pads in stocking feet up to the second floor, pointing out the framed posters (Keith Haring, Benetton boys), a collection of Beanie Babies given to him by his grown children, an office piled with papers.

When we sit down with the tape recorder in his study, he engages in some self-scrutiny: “Listening to myself makes me realize what a gay contour there is to my voice. The pitch goes up and down more than it does for so-called real men.” Is he being serious? Or is he parodying himself? A bit of both, perhaps. In any event, Bem has a tremendous interest—and investment—in sussing out what he terms “gender nonconformity.” It’s at the crux of his controversial new theory: the Exotic Becomes Erotic (EBE) model of sexual orientation.

Bem’s snazzily titled theory is a bold attempt to reclaim for psychologists the discussion surrounding the origins of sexual orientation—one that’s been dominated for the last decade by rampaging geneticists and neurobiologists. Finding after finding—from Dean Hamer’s discovery of the “gay gene” to Simon LeVay’s revelation of size differences in the hypothalamus—has jumped with alacrity from the lab to the headlines. Until this year, such findings centered only on male homosexuality. But in February, the first biological difference between lesbians and straight women received the full-press courtship: A new study demonstrated that the inner ears of lesbians emitted fainter “clicks” than those of straight women, ostensibly because of the influence of androgens in the womb.

Such revelations have helped to elbow psychological notions about sexual orientation out of the picture, associated as they are with a barbaric history of attempts at “curing” same-sex desire. The American Psychiatric Association stopped calling homosexuality a mental illness only in 1973. And early-childhood-development theories—both the vampiric notion that homosexuals must be victims of molestation and the classic Freudian family constellation, in which male homosexuals are the unhappy product of an overbearing mother and a weak, rejecting father—have similarly been discarded, both because they’d been disproved by clinical studies and because they were deemed homophobic. Meanwhile, as psychologists stumbled, the biological/genetic approach picked up speed: Indeed, everything from alcoholism to a penchant for skydiving is now suspected of lurking inside the shadowy curves of DNA. Why shouldn’t sexual orientation be next? “The public can be forgiven for believing that we are but one government grant away from pinpointing the penis preference gene,” Bem wrote in his EBE manifesto, published in Psychological Review. “But before we all become geneticists, biopsychologists, or neuroanatomists, I believe it’s worth another try.”

Bem’s puckish provocation has an edge of urgency. If social psychologists simply slink off to the sidelines, he suggests, they’ll lose more than just a disciplinary tug-of-war. The public will increasingly ignore the nuances of sexual identity and the vagaries of erotic experience. Sexual orientation will be viewed as a matter of a simple on/off switch—comparable to hair color or diabetes—and research will shift toward Frankensteinian tinkering in the lab. More than anything, then, Bem is playing the gadfly, seeking to undermine the gay genies by reinterpreting their data with a social psychological twist. “My whole career has consisted of solving puzzles,” Bem explains, curled on the sofa with his legs pulled under him. “So, frankly, I took it as a sort of challenge: There must be other explanations, other possibilities!”

His solution is, in his terms, an “unabashedly reductionistic” theory that nonetheless emphasizes the role of the environment in shaping desire. Genes and other biological factors don’t lead directly to sexual orientation, he suggests. There is no gay gene—and no straight gene, for that matter. Instead, children’s genetic structures predispose them to a variety of personality traits: enjoyment of rough-and-tumble play, say, or the desire to sit quietly and talk. And though these genes aren’t directly linked to sexual orientation, they often match up with gender stereotypes: Kids who are more active and aggressive, for example, tend to be boys.

What happens next, he posits, is a chain of environmental events that transforms childhood fears and aversions into sexual desire. In part because their personalities “match up” with their physical sex, the majority of children identify strongly with their own gender—and find the opposite sex strange and disturbing. (Or, to use the technical term, yucky.) These future heterosexuals experience a multitude of physical sensations in response to their emotions about the opposite sex: hatred, fear, confusion, self-consciousness. Then, at the cusp of adolescence, Bem suggests, those electrical jostles transform—kaboom!—into erotic arousal at the sight of the other sex.

But a minority of kids, Bem continues, have the opposite experience: They find their own sex exotic and fascinatingly strange. Most commonly, he suggests, this happens because they are in some way “gender nonconforming”—a boy who enjoys tea parties more than hockey games, or a girl who prefers carrying a switchblade to toting a hairbrush. Feeling alienated, ostracized, or just plain different from their own gender, these kids get their attractions triggered through the same ineluctable process as their gender-conforming peers, except that their turn-ons end up being homoerotic. In short, sexual desire is directed at those who made you most uncomfortable at an early age.

Bem made his case in a lively, accessible 1996 article in Psychological Review. (He plans to expand the paper into a book.) The EBE article cleverly threaded together a hodgepodge of sources, ranging from cross-cultural comparisons to lab tests. His strongest evidence, however, came from a study done in the late 1970s by the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research. Investigators performed in-depth interviews with approximately one thousand homosexuals and five hundred heterosexuals in San Francisco, prodding them about their relationships with their parents and their childhood memories. The data debunked most stereotypes: Gay men and lesbians were no more likely to have had a “smothering, seductive mother” or a “withdrawn, rejecting father” (à la Freud) than heterosexuals; they hadn’t been “recruited” via molestation; nor were they “turned” gay merely because their peers suggested they were.

One statistic, however, stuck out: Both gay men and lesbians were far more likely than their straight counterparts to have felt “different” from others of their own gender and were more likely to have gender-nonconforming traits.

In fact, childhood gender nonconformity was, says Bem, “not only the strongest but the only significant childhood predictor” of adult homosexuality. Strikingly, 63 percent of both gay men and lesbians reported that they had “not enjoyed sex-typical activities,” whereas only 10 percent of straight men and 15 percent of straight women said the same. And 72 percent of both gay men and lesbians recalled having felt different from same-sex children, most frequently because of non-stereotypical sex traits, such as not liking sports for boys or seeming aggressive for girls. (While 39 percent of straight men and a hefty 67 percent of straight women also reported feeling “different,” the reasons they cited, argues Bem, were not connected with gender expectations—straight women, for example, most frequently cited feeling different because they didn’t live up to beauty standards, not because they felt more masculine.)

The San Francisco findings matched up, writes Bem, with a plethora of other data. A 1995 meta-analysis of forty-eight separate studies (performed by Northwestern psychology researcher Michael Bailey and clinical psychologist Ken Zucker) confirmed that gay men and lesbians were more likely than their straight counterparts to recall gender-nonconforming traits. Such findings are buttressed by UCLA psychologist Richard Green’s famed “sissy boy” study: Out of sixty-six gender-nonconforming boys and fifty-six gender-conforming boys, 75 percent of the nonconformers turned out to be gay or bisexual, compared with only 4 percent of the conventionally gendered tykes. (No such studies have been performed on girls.)

Of course, this evidence merely suggests that gender nonconformity and homosexuality are linked—not that one precedes the other. The type of statistical trick used to distinguish such chronological alternatives is called a “path analysis,” a dizzyingly complex mathematical stringing apart of the two sequences. In as-yet-unpublished analyses, Bem performed such wizardry on a data set documenting sexual orientation and gender nonconformity in Australian male twins. Bem’s numbers supported the EBE hypothesis—that is, gender nonconformity seemed to precede sexual orientation. (The conclusion, he admits, is tentative.)

The biggest mystery in the Exotic Becomes Erotic sequence is the central process itself: Why would finding one gender or another exotic trigger a turn-on? Bem’s not sure—but he theorizes that a combination of documented biological phenomena could account for sexual choices in adulthood without recourse to a gay gene. For example, the “extrinsic arousal” effect derives from evidence that individuals who get physiologically revved up by any means—from running in place to watching a gory film—are subsequently more likely to become sexually stimulated. Could peer harassment somehow spark erotic arousal? In the equally well-known “opponent process,” the nervous system compensates for strong negative sensations by producing strong positive jolts: Parachutists, for instance, initially experience intense physical expressions of terror (racing hearts, stiff bodies). But after several jumps, Bem notes, “the fear extinguishes and…[they] regularly experience a strong euphoric ‘high’ after each jump.” Similarly, Bem muses, a taunted effeminate boy might transform fear and anxiety into pleasurable homoerotic sensations.

These two effects, Bem writes, might also combine with an “imprinting” process to create a lasting sexual predilection. Just as baby ducks will follow the first large moving object they encounter—whether it be a duck or a scientist—many animals undergo an imprinting process in mate selection. In one study, notes Bem, male zebra finches reared in nests of Bengalese finches developed a long-term lust for these out-of-town chicks, preferring them even when presented with females of their own species. “There are several specific features of sexual imprinting in birds that appear to be analogous to the development of sexual orientation in humans,” Bem writes. “First, sexual imprinting establishes an attraction to an entire class of individuals well before sexual maturity. Second, after imprinting has been established, the sexual preference is quite stable, even irreversible.”

For many, no doubt, this move from zebra finches to humans is a mighty big leap. But Bem’s not bothered. In addition to finding his theory “politically, scientifically, and aesthetically satisfying,” he writes, “I believe that it can also be sustained by the evidence.”

Not surprisingly, Bem believes that his own childhood matches his theory rather well. Born in Colorado in 1938, he recalls being an unathletic and academically focused boy. “A lot of my pals were girls, and I preferred quiet play,” he says. “Often I had boy pals, but they were usually deviant in terms of not liking sports.” (Fortunately, he notes, “my father wasn’t especially masculine, and my mother always prided herself on being nonconforming.”) Bem attended Reed College in Oregon, where he had casual homosexual involvements; even so, he says, “somehow that never interfered with my view that I would get married, have children, live monogamously, all of that.”

Bem received his degree in physics, and began pursuing graduate work in the subject at MIT. But he switched gears after taking an eye-opening course on the psychology of race relations, a subject he also explored politically through his civil rights activism in CORE. Upon becoming a social psychologist, he studied everything from personality theory to theories of self-perception. (“I’ve always been a bit of an intellectual dilettante,” he says.) He received an appointment at Cornell in 1978. Since then, he has continued to range widely in his research. In 1994 he wrote a controversial but well-regarded paper for Psychological Bulletin on psychic phenomena, bringing a new test for telepathy to the attention of skeptical scientists—an interest that grew out of his hobby as an amateur magician.

On their first date, Bem says, he told his future wife, Sandra—now a women’s studies professor at Cornell—that she should know two things about him: He was from Colorado, and he was primarily homoerotic. She responded that she had never met anyone from Colorado. “She was rebelling against her parents’ ideas about sex—anything they said had to be wrong,” he explains. The two formed a self-consciously egalitarian marriage at a time when 1970s feminist ideas were first being articulated, maintaining two careers and splitting household responsibilities. They also cheerfully offered up their unconventional marriage as a role model: Traveling from place to place, the Bems gave popular and theatrical first-person speeches on androgyny, marriage, and non-gendered parenting (even before the birth of their children, Jeremy and Emily) and were featured in an article in the premiere issue of Ms. magazine. A charming anecdote about their son, Jeremy, now appears in numerous psychology textbooks and articles: The little boy, raised with the idea that the only difference between men and women was their genitals, wore barrettes to school, only to have another boy insist that he must be a girl. Unable to convince him with words, Jeremy dropped his pants. “Everyone has a penis,” responded the skeptic. “Only girls wear barrettes.”

Daryl and Sandra Bem now live separately; each has had same-sex relationships since their separation in 1994. (Daryl’s lover died of cancer; Sandra is no longer with her partner.) Even so, Bem says, “We didn’t separate because of our sexual orientations.” Instead, he cites personality differences and, ironically enough, conflicts over how to parent adolescents. (Another irony: Their children have pursued strikingly gender-typical paths, their daughter studying theater, their son pursuing mathematics.) Despite their separation, Bem claims, he and Sandra are “good friends. My guess is, as we age and get older and one of us becomes infirm, we’ll take care of each other.” In the fall, Sandra will publish An Unconventional Family (Yale), a memoir of the Bems’ iconoclastic marriage and child rearing, in which she details the couples’ bonding over their mutual gender nonconformity and their attempt at a defiantly “gender-liberated, anti-homophobic, sex-positive” upbringing for their kids. The memoir itself is a bit of a family project: It includes interviews with her children and an epilogue by Daryl.

Has Bem’s commitment to gender nonconformity allowed him to see through the cloudy pieties of the genetic revolution? Or is he blinded by his desire for a theory that leaves wiggle room for an androgynous, bisexual political agenda? There’s no denying that Bem’s peculiar insistence on combining a mechanistic theory—EBE has, at its heart, a system of causes and effects as implacable as any chromosome—with Whitmanesque fantasies of polymorphous perversity leaves him open to the criticism that he is a mere eccentric, performing a semantic bait and switch instead of sticking to the data. Is EBE just another of Bem’s magic tricks?

The EBE theory is guaranteed to annoy two diametrically opposed camps: social constructionists, who believe that sexuality is shaped entirely by culture, and hard-core geneticists and biologists, who believe it is simply hard-wired into the body. (Dean Hamer, author of the famed gay-gene study, says he is intrigued by the fact that the theory contains a genetic component but remains “skeptical of the flexibility Bem suggests for human behavior.”) But participants from Bem’s own camp—social psychology—also have begun to peck at the newly hatched theory.

Most prominently, UCLA’s Anne Peplau has written a detailed critique of the EBE theory which appeared in Psychological Review this April, along with a response from Bem. According to Peplau, Bem has merely updated Havelock Ellis’s quaint turn-of-the-century notion of gender inversion—that is, gay men are attracted to men because they are “like” women, lesbians are attracted to women because they are “like” men. She finds Bem too eager to brush aside data that contradicts his thesis—in particular, the San Francisco study showing that half of straight women considered themselves tomboys in childhood. And she finds that Bem’s ideas don’t jibe with women’s more fluid sexuality. While Peplau salutes his attempt to fight genetic determinism, she says, “Part of the problem is the way he defines sexual attraction. For women, what often happens is falling in love with a person, then becoming sexually attracted.” Women’s sexual feelings, she argues, are frequently driven by “limerance”—a romantic infatuation, falling in love with a specific individual—not by some objectifying lust for a physical type. What’s more, sexual orientation, in her view, may not have any single mechanism that fits for both men and women: “I think the answer is going to wind up as multiple pathways. Just as there are many different routes to people becoming psychologists, there are many different routes that lead adult women to be lesbian inclined. Frankly, I don’t think, at least for women, his route will be center stage.”

Bem readily acknowledges the problems in the empirical data currently available. “I have no real investment in it all being true,” he says with a grin. “I want to use the theory to raise these kinds of questions.” (This tack drives Peplau crazy: “When you bring up an empirical problem, he simply shifts his interpretation once again!”) As a result, Bem tends to embrace rather than deflect criticism. Doesn’t the San Francisco study suffer from being a retrospective interview? After all, won’t gay people be more likely to recall childhood nonconformity now that they’ve consciously stepped outside the mainstream? Yes, Bem replies calmly. Why would some lesbians be attracted to “masculine” women, or gay men to “feminine” men, if their erotically charged alienation was from the normative gender stereotypes? Why the central focus on the peer group—are people really so immune to the influences of their families? Why wouldn’t the EBE dynamic work its magic on, say, a Jewish kid attending an all-WASP boarding school? “These are all good questions,” Bem responds. “I’d like to know the answers.”

Yet Bem is hardly willing to cave in to his critics. In his response to Peplau, he writes, “I especially dispute the implication that my theory is the androcentric fantasy of yet another male theorist who believes that the whole of romantic life resides in the cojones.” For one thing, he argues, EBE suggests an explanation for the very phenomenon Peplau describes: the greater fluidity of women’s sexual desire, including the higher proportion of women who perceive their sexual orientation as “chosen.” Today’s young girls, he points out, have a broader range of allowable behavior in terms of gender. “This implies that girls are less likely than boys to feel [different] from opposite-sex and same-sex peers and, hence, are less likely to develop exclusively heteroerotic or homoerotic orientations.” In other words, a wide variety of women-only sexual phenomena—“political lesbianism,” lesbian until graduation, women who claim they “became” lesbian in middle age, and the popular “I don’t love women, I just love Ellen” syndrome—may actually be the result of feminism’s efforts to expand girls’ horizons.

In fact, notes Bem with some excitement, this is the most radical implication of his theory: that heterosexuality is not, in fact, a “natural” or default sexual orientation, merely the most likely outcome in a gender-divided culture. (A societal setup, he acknowledges, that is nearly universal.) “Freud said it first: You have to solve the problem of heterosexuality as much as you have to solve the problem of homosexuality,” he says. But wait. Surely heterosexuality is dictated by evolution. Does Bem doubt Darwin? “Heterosexual behavior is reproductively advantageous, but it does not follow that it must therefore be sustained through genetic transmission,” he writes. “EBE theory implies that heterosexuality is the modal outcome across time and culture because virtually every human society ensures that most boys and girls will grow up seeing the other sex as exotic and, hence, erotic…. As long as the environment supports or promotes a reproductively successful behavior sufficiently often, it will not necessarily get programmed into the genes.”

What would happen if we transformed this environment—with neither sex feeling alienated from the other, most children sharing friendships with both genders, and few traits regarded as exclusively “masculine” or “feminine”? In that case, Bem writes, “I believe that many of today’s nonheterosexual women may be giving us a preview of what sexual orientations might look like in a less gender-polarized future.” Waxing utopian, he envisions a world in which men and women base their erotic choices “on a more diverse and idiosyncratic variety of attributes” than just biological sex. Or, more piquantly: “Gentlemen might still prefer blonds, but some of those gentlemen (and some ladies) might prefer blonds of any sex.”

The plaudits and brickbats for Bem’s theory have not always come from predictable corners. In contrast to social psychologists like Peplau, evolutionary biologist Jim Weinrich welcomes EBE as revolutionary. In fact, Weinrich says, he and Bem came up with different versions of the idea nearly simultaneously. Although Weinrich’s approach varies slightly from Bem’s, he shares a belief in the central EBE dynamic. But where’s the proof? Weinrich isn’t troubled. For him, the theoretical leap is the achievement; as with all major scientific insights, the details will get filled in later. “Einstein didn’t first say, ‘I need to work out the implications of Michelson and Morley,’” he explains. “It was, ‘I do these weird thought experiments.’ It was a theoretical tour de force, almost independent of actual experimental evidence of the speed of light. The role of the theorist is to say, ‘Hey, look, if this were true, look at all the wonderful things this explains!’ Do the consequences have to be thought out and tested? Well, yes. But if it sounds compelling, we’d better test it out.”

In fact, Bem hopes to see his theory rigorously tested with fresh studies and statistical analyses. Some of these would focus on proving or disproving the basic “exotic to erotic” process: Do children respond with physical tingles to the presence of the gender they feel different from? And how, if at all, do these sensations code themselves as sexual arousal? But the more difficult process would seem to be the chronological path analysis. Will crunching the numbers ever enable us to tell for sure whether genes lead directly to both homosexuality and gender nonconformity or whether the path winds—as Bem suggests—from genes to personality to gender nonconformity to sexual orientation?

Maybe, maybe not, says Michael Bailey, an expert on path analyses. These highly technical statistical methods, Bailey points out, can be performed in a number of different ways, and it will take time to figure out whether it’s even possible to distinguish clearly between the two paths. For his part, Bailey so far prefers recent hypotheses that suggest a prenatal hormonal “masculinization” or “feminization” of the brain, hypotheses borne out by the finding on lesbian “ear clicking.” He finds such theories more “parsimonious”—a scientific term for the neatest explanation.

Meanwhile, Bailey is polishing off his next huge data set, from an Australian study on five thousand twins. The early results, he says, show some degree of heritability for both gender nonconformity and sexual orientation, although the level for sexual orientation appears to be lower than in other studies. Such findings leave EBE’s fate very much up in the air—but Bailey isn’t holding his breath. “I think that Bem’s is a provocative and surprising theory,” says Bailey. “And like most provocative and surprising theories, I bet that it’s not true.”

Similar skepticism comes from clinical psychologist Ken Zucker, Bailey’s co-author for the meta-analysis Bem cites. He says he “likes the theory,” which gibes with some of his clinical observations of kids with Gender Identity Disorder (a controversial diagnosis for children who desperately wish to change sex). He is dismissive, however, of the more utopian conclusions that Bem draws. “I think Daryl Bem and his former wife, Sandra, fall in the long tradition of American romantics. I think it’s because they both have been in Ithaca for too long and they should get out!” he says dryly. “Bem’s constructing a romantic, pro-gay idea that, if society were less gender polarized, what people find exotic might be eye color or length of earlobes. It’s a good romantic fantasy, but I’m not persuaded. I just think they’re naive.”

Bem himself, meanwhile, seems anything but naive about the debate he’s triggered. His aim: to move the discussion forward by waving the academic equivalent of a bullfighter’s red cape. “There’s a way of stating the theory that’s very strong, very dogmatic—and ultimately indefensible,” he says, gesturing with one hand. “And there’s a weaker version of the theory, which is reasonable, it’s plausible, it rests on the data—but it’s not very interesting without the stronger version.” Bem compares his intellectual tactics to his experience in the civil rights movement, when the more rabble-rousing language of CORE scared the Ann Arbor city council into negotiating with the NAACP. “Stating the argument dogmatically makes clear the assumptions that other people have been making that are invisible,” he says calmly. “So far we don’t have the data to distinguish between their theory and mine, but now there’s a clearly stated alternative that they must push against. It’s consciousness raising, in the intellectual sense.”