Hot Hypothalami

by Pinko Lesbo

In Rain and Thunder (Summer Solstice 2000)

The other day at work a straight woman acquaintance was talking about her gay nephew, probably to impress me with how liberal she is. “His Dad and Granddad are having a real hard time with it. But his Mom told them, ‘What is wrong with you two? Don’t you know a person doesn’t choose that kind of thing? That’s just how he is, and I don’t love him any less.'” She beamed at me, proud to have gotten the official gay/lesbian/bi/trans line just right.

Is anybody else really tired of these conversations? I could write a script, they’re so predictable…

Radical Feminist: “Well, I don’t think it is inborn. I believe that sexual preference can be chosen and unchosen. Actually, I think that all sexual response can be learned and unlearned.”

Straight Woman (After A Long Pause): “I thought you were a lesbian.” OR

Queer Woman: “No way. I was a tomboy. I’ve wanted women since I was four. I’ve always been a dyke–never had a choice. I would never trust a woman who said she did.” (Suspicious Look)

Oh, you can’t blame them, really. They’re just repeating what they’ve been told. The visible LGBT media doesn’t air much of that oh-so-precious diversity when it comes to politics. Biology is the party line. Every one of us within the many colors of the Happy Rainbow of Perverts was “born that way,” whatever “that way” might be. Young lesbians are taught this in colleges, in coming out groups, in therapy. Straight people read this in magazines, see it on t.v., learn it in “sensitivity” trainings. And it’s a relief to them. The young (or old) lesbian because she therefore can’t be asked to change, and the straight people because it isn’t catching after all (although the latter continue to be nervous because although being a Rainbow Pervert is innate, one still must discover one’s true inclination, and how can you truly be sure you’re straight with all those queers coming out at all ages and even after having kids, for chrissake, and why don’t they have a genetic screening tool yet so you can be completely sure of yourself, huh?).

Let’s face it. The idea that you can choose to be a lesbian for feminist reasons has not gotten any media play for many years, if ever. Let’s not beat ourselves up about this fact. We haven’t stopped trying to get the idea out; we’ve been outspent and outshouted. Besides, nobody wants to hear it. Why not? Hot hypothalami, silly.

Did you hear about the Gay Brain research? A gay male scientist dissected the brains of a number of cadavers, comparing those of straight men and gay men. He found, in a discovery much ballyhooed in the media, that the hypothalami of gay men were statistically much smaller than those of straight men. The hypothalamus is a part of the brain whose function is poorly understood. He therefore hypothesized a Gay Brain, in which undersized hypothalami made men gay. Everyone talked about the Gay Brain, proof once and for all that homosexuality is biological. The scientist made speeches about how he hoped that his research would win greater tolerance for us puny hypothalamused gay people (by the way, no difference was found between lesbian and straight women’s hypothalami, but we have to have unity within our great diverse Rainbow Pervert Community, don’t we? Don’t be divisive!) all over the world. People started to get nervous about the possibility of fetal hypothalamus screening. Would there be a flurry of abortions of gay children? I recently read of a national group of gays and lesbians centered in Springfield, MA lobbying against abortion for fear that a Gay Gene will be discovered and fetuses bearing it eliminated.

Another scientific study, following the first, didn’t get much attention. A group of scientists studied the brains of rats (and no, I don’t approve of this, but it’s essential to the point). They took identical male rats and divided them into two groups. The first group was put into cages with a never-ending succession of female rats in heat, and the second with a succession of sexually disinterested females. After a number of weeks, they compared the hypothalamus size of the two groups. The sexually overactive rats had much smaller hypothalami than the celibate rats.

Did all the hypothalamically underendowed rats just happen to get picked to have all the sex? And straight sex, at that? Of course not. Continual sex caused the smaller hypothalami. Think about that. What do gay men do constantly? An activity can influence brain structure, it’s not just brain structure influencing activity. Our brains are amazingly plastic things. If we survive a stroke, often our brains will develop new pathways and we regain function. If we suffer a head injury, the brain can remodel with stimulation. Our brains are not computers, despite popular analogy; they are constantly changing according to stimulation.

The “my brain makes me do it” argument has been around a long time. Since Darwin, biology has been destiny in popular thought. Havelock Ellis’s notion of the “congenital invert” was embraced by gays and lesbians in the early 1900s as a way to win sympathy and support from straights. Radclyffe Hall propagated an entire generation of gotta-tolerate-me-because-god-made-me-a-sick-freak-of-nature Stephen Gordons with her book The Well of Loneliness. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues is its 1990s descendant. (Proving that although biology may not be destiny, literature may well be.) Behavioral biology, especially sexual behavioral biology, is all the rage again after a brief fall from grace during the height of the second wave of feminism. I read about a study of chronically unfaithful married men–their brain MRIs were different than those of faithful married men. The researchers expressed hope that the study would promote understanding of the unfaithful’s biological “problem,” especially by their wives(!). It’s those oversexed rats again.

It seems that every sexual variance in the Rainbow Pervert Happy Family of Diversity can be justified with biology. I’ve heard foot fetishism, pedophilia, transsexualism, and sadomasochism explained this way. In the late 1980s I was passed a petition in the workers’ camp at Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. “I am a worker like you,” it started. “I have worked long and hard to make this festival happen. I am differently pleasured…” It was a petition in support of lesbian sadomasochists, cruelly oppressed by radical feminists for expressing their goddess-given sexuality. It went on to make comparisons of the opppression of sadomasochists to that of women of color and disabled women. It didn’t get too many signatures that year, but I’m sure it would be well received today, even at Michigan.

Why is “I am a helpless pawn of my inborn sexual urges” so popular? For one, you can’t argue about someone’s sexual choices if it’s the fault of their tiny hypothalamus and other brain bits. You can’t change, despite Religious Right demands. If Nature made us this way, everyone has to accept that we have a right to exist. Second, it eliminates any threat to Institutional Heterosexuality. No longer can any woman choose to be a lesbian. (Although it doesn’t plug the theoretical hole of a woman “discovering” her innate lesbianism and rewriting her herstory. I know a woman who explains her pubescent crush on David Cassidy by emphasizing his femininity, thereby preserving her cherished identity of Butch Lesbian. While I can certainly sympathize with the need to rationalize a crush on David Cassidy–tres embarrassment!–the biological determinism argument is a stretch, especially when talking about the so-called sexual feelings of children.) Nor does the brain-as-sexual-dictator argument prevent lesbian identified women from “discovering” their attraction to men and thereby their bisexuality. Sure, political lesbians can go straight, but so can queers. Thus, Rainbow men and women are free to pursue different but equal (sort of) lives as happy mindless worker-consumers, just like the straights. No threat of revolution here. Don’t worry, Mom, my lover just happens to be a woman; some of my best friends are men. We won’t seduce your biologically straight daughters. (Unless of course we really want to, in which case she was a lesbian all along, she just needed help to discover it.) Third, it eliminates any argument about–gasp–morals.

Yes, I used the M-word. Morals. Not Christian Right, family value morals, but morals of simple human dignity and respect. Radical feminism demands that we critically examine all aspects of our lives, including sexual practice. Questioning the free-market capitalism that provides us with the cheap consumer goods that flood this country is not hip. It doesn’t feel good. Questioning pornography, role playing and sadomasochism is not hip, either. It’s not sexy. And nothing, nothing is more important to this culture than what feels good and sexy. If my brain demands that I whip my lover with a rubber weenie made by prison labor in China, well then, so has the goddess determined it. I am only following the dictates of my biology.

Straights: I like Coke.

Mainstream Gays and Lesbians: I am naturally inclined to prefer Pepsi.

Sadomasochists, Fetishists, Transsexuals etc.: I am biologically compelled to crave RC Cola.

Radical Feminists: Let’s blow the Cola factories up and drink water. It’s better for the planet and for our teeth.

The strongest appeal of hot and horny hypothalami theory is the complete removal of personal sexual responsibility. What turns you on? Do it. Do it over and over again, each time rewarding yourself with orgasm, thereby strengthening the circuit in your brain in an endless feedback loop. It feels good. Do it. It’s natural. You can trust your gut. We can sell you stuff to enhance your pleasure. Anybody who questions you is a sexual prude and oppressing you.

Say you really like cheese, but want to become vegan for political reasons. You give up cheese, and slowly, you develop a taste for soy cheese. This is easiest if you don’t think about dairy cheese while you’re eating soy cheese. Soon only the soy cheese will taste good to you. Dairy will taste gross, if you happen to eat it by accident. So why is sex any different? You can remodel your taste buds, and you can remodel your sexual response. You can decide not to torture other living beings for food, and you can decide the same for sex. It’s like any other appetite.

In the end, blaming your biology for your sexual response is a fashionable rationalization for what feels impossible to change. Sexual response can be relearned. I’ve heard straight women say they “just aren’t attracted to women.” I’ve heard sadomasochists (and others) say they can’t have orgasms from “vanilla” sex. That may well be true, but doesn’t have to be. Let me give some nitty-gritty advice. Don’t want to be straight? Have sadomasochistic, rape, or incest turn-ons you want to eliminate? Don’t reinforce the feedback loop in your brain. Get a vibrator. Practice having orgasms with new thoughts. Are the old fantasies creeping in? Turn the vibrator off. Don’t reinforce old patterns with orgasm. Can’t come? It won’t kill you not to–try again tomorrow. Practice with new, positive fantasies, and eventually you will be rewarded with a new sexual response. We’ve all been colonized, but we can drive the invader off.

Ultimately, we do not have to be slaves to our conditioned endocrinology. We can and must make sexual choices based on our vision of a better world. We will never change patriarchy jerking off to its tenets. We can desire one another with a passion for justice, not despite it. Sexual desire and action can be embraced or discarded based on principles, not whether it is mysteriously “hot.” Tell everybody what a sexual revolution really is. Train your brain.