STEPHEN STRAUSS:The perspiring future of homosexuality
CBC News Viewpoint May 18, 2005
I smell societal trouble and I can tell you exactly the odour it gives off: the stale stink of male sweat. This past week, the world’s media all in one burbling breath started reporting a new perspiration-related study out of Sweden and a companion bit of research out of Philadelphia. The Swedish study conducted brain scans on 36 people as they were smelling a testosterone derivative produced in male sweat. Twelve of the subjects were what you might call wall-to-wall guy heterosexuals, 12 were similarly committed straight women, and 12 were male homosexuals who viewed themselves as completely and totally gay. Testosterone, more familiarly known as the male hormone, lit up the homosexual men and the heterosexual women in precisely that primitive part of the brain that governs sexual behaviour. Conversely, in the straight men the smell went directly to the slice of the brain that routinely processes any stray smell. The companion study done at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia found that heterosexual males and females preferred the smell of straight men relative to gay men, and that gay men preferred the body odour of other gay men. There are, as there always seem to be in initial studies, a host of questions needing further evaluation – particularly in relation to the Swedish sex-smell-brain connection. Was the gay men’s response learned – that is, did having sex with men turn them on to other men’s body odour? Did the study replicate in any way the amount of testosterone a person would likely be exposed to by another person? How important, precisely, is smell to your sexual preference in a species as relentlessly visual as humans? Nobody knows the answer to those questions, but I can make a few deep and maybe dire predictions about how this research might be applied in our very medicalized world. As we speak, I bet some enterprising drug company somewhere is starting to ask whether they can come up with a substance that blocks male sweat odour from entering the brain. They are doing this because they know a potential market – the Please God, I Don’t Want To Be Gay Anymore market – exists. It is largely, but not entirely, fuelled by fundamentalist religious groups who see homosexuality as a sin and a blasphemy, and have for decades been trying to come up with ways of converting fallen gays to saved heterosexuals. Their present “reparative therapy” is very Freudian, and counsels gay men who want to change to stay away from gay men and to spend much time praying, meditating, considering their relations with their fathers, and the like. These talking, social cures follow up on previously failed efforts to change sexual orientation using electric shock, nausea-producing drugs, castration, LSD, hypnosis and brain surgery. The question of whether sexual orientation transformation due to counselling or anything else ever works has become an arena of huge intellectual and political brawling. The biggest complaint is that it’s unclear whether the reoriented people were ever the Swedish study’s wall-to-wall gays in the first place. They might have been men and women who were only what you might call “gayish.” With this as a background, if blocking male smells, and maybe more particularly gay male smells, increases the “success rates” of sexual reorientation programs, I predict some people will use these chemical blockers. I say this without comment on whether this is personally or politically sensible, but merely suggest that in an age where Ritalin kids, and Prozac citizens are the norm, collectively we have become very comfortable with using drugs to change our behaviours. Very comfortable. In a different vein, I can see people in the field of sexuality research wondering whether they have suddenly been given a tool to “scientifically” measure male gayness in the population. To date, everything we know comes from self-reported descriptions of behaviour. Self-reporting is truth’s own bitch goddess as people exaggerate, forget, ignore and otherwise skew their recitations. If the smell tests of brain activation patterns prove to have a verifiable distribution – that is, if the self reports of being pure straight, various gradations of gayness, or an entirely gay man are mirrored in a the movement in your brain to where you process the smell of testosterone – one can imagine a smell-test-based survey seeking to discover how many gays, and what kind of gays, exist in the human population. At least among men. This might resolve the running debate about whether one or five or 10 per cent of humans are homosexual, but there also could be something more ominous. One can imagine parents, particularly devoutly religious parents, worried about the sexuality of their young sons giving them brain smell scans. Depending how they scored, anti-gay “therapy” could be started early. The politics of this will, again, be dubious to many, but we inhabit what has been called The Diagnostic Age, the era of the MRI and CT scans and DNA fingerprints, and have grown very comfortable with discovering who we intrinsically are from a machine readout. Very comfortable.