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States of physical arousal that may or may not be linked to a specific physical activity and may or may not be objects of conscious awareness. Conscious erotic interest in response to finding others attractive in perception, memory, or fantasy , which may or may not involve any of the bodily processes associated with measurable states of physical arousal. The romantic aspirations and feelings associated with infatuation or falling in love with a specific individual. An aesthetic measure that latches onto perceived beauty in others.

In a given social science study, the concepts mentioned above will often each have its own particular operational definition for the purposes of research.

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But they cannot all mean the same thing. Strong interest in finding a companion, for example, is clearly distinguishable from physical arousal. The philosopher Alexander Pruss provides a helpful summary of some of the difficulties involved in characterizing the related concept of sexual attraction:.

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Does it mean to have a tendency to be aroused in their presence? But surely it is possible to find someone sexually attractive without being aroused. Does it mean to form the belief that someone is sexually attractive to one? Surely not, since a belief about who is sexually attractive to one might be wrong — for instance, one might confuse admiration of form with sexual attraction.

Does it mean to have a noninstrumental desire for a sexual or romantic relationship with the person? Probably not: we can imagine a person who has no sexual attraction to anybody, but who has a noninstrumental desire for a romantic relationship because of a belief, based on the testimony of others, that romantic relationships have noninstrumental value.

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But if the concept of sexual attraction is a cluster of concepts, neither are there simply univocal concepts of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. The problem is neither irresolvable nor unique to this subject matter.

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Other social science concepts — aggression and addiction, for example — may likewise be difficult to define and to operationalize and for this reason admit of various usages. It is also important to bracket any subjective associations with or uses of these terms that do not conform to well-defined scientific classifications and techniques.

It would be a mistake, at any rate, to ignore the varied uses of this and related terms or to try to reduce the many and distinct experiences to which they might refer to a single concept or experience.

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As we shall see, doing so could in some cases adversely affect the evaluation and treatment of patients. W e can further clarify the complex phenomenon of sexual desire if we examine what relationship it has to other aspects of our lives. To do so, we borrow some conceptual tools from a philosophical tradition known as phenomenology, which conceives of human experience as deriving its meaning from the whole context in which it appears. The whole set of inclinations that we generally associate with the experience of sexual desire — whether the impulse to engage in particular acts or to enjoy certain relationships — does not appear to be the sole product of any deliberate choice.

Our sexual appetites like other natural appetites are experienced as given, even if their expression is shaped in subtle ways by many factors, which might very well include volition. Indeed, far from appearing as a product of our will, sexual desire — however we define it — is often experienced as a powerful force, akin to hunger, that many struggle especially in adolescence to bring under direction and control. What seems to be to some extent in our control is how we choose to live with this appetite, how we integrate it into the rest of our lives.

But the question remains: What is sexual desire? What is this part of our lives that we consider to be given, prior even to our capacity to deliberate and make rational choices about it? We know that some sort of sexual appetite is present in non-human animals, as is evident in the mammalian estrous cycle; in most mammalian species sexual arousal and receptivity are linked to the phase of the ovulation cycle during which the female is reproductively receptive. Whatever the explanation for the origins and biological functions of human sexuality, the lived experience of sexual desires is laden with significance that goes beyond the biological purposes that sexual desires and behaviors serve.

This significance is not just a subjective add-on to the more basic physiological and functional realities, but something that pervades our lived experience of sexuality. Perhaps sexuality, like other human phenomena that gradually become part of our psychological constitution, has roots in these early meaning-making experiences. If meaning-making is integral to human experience in general, it is likely to play a key role in sexual experience in particular.

And given that volition is operative in these other aspects of our lives, it stands to reason that volition will be operative in our experience of sexuality too, if only as one of many other factors. This is not to suggest that sexuality — including sexual desire, attraction, and identity — is the result of any deliberate, rational decision calculus. It might be more accurate to say that we gradually guide and give ourselves over to them over the course of our growth and development. This process of forming and reforming ourselves as human beings is similar to what Abraham Maslow calls self-actualization.

In the picture we are offering, internal factors, such as our genetic make-up, and external environmental factors, such as past experiences, are only ingredients, however important, in the complex human experience of sexual desire. These historical examples bring into relief the complexity that researchers still face today when attempting to arrive at clean categorizations of the richly varied affective and behavioral phenomena associated with sexual desire, in both same-sex and opposite-sex attractions.

We may contrast such inherent complexity with a different phenomenon that can be delineated unambiguously, such as pregnancy. With very few exceptions, a woman is or is not pregnant, which makes classification of research subjects for the purposes of study relatively easy: compare pregnant women with other, non-pregnant women.

To increase precision, some researchers categorize concepts associated with human sexuality along a continuum or scale according to variations in pervasiveness, prominence, or intensity. Some scales focus on both intensity and the objects of sexual desire.

Among the most familiar and widely used is the Kinsey scale, developed in the s to classify sexual desires and orientations using purportedly measurable criteria. People are asked to choose one of the following options:. But there are considerable limitations to this approach. In principle, measurements of this sort are valuable for social science research. The ambiguity of the terms severely limits the use of the Kinsey scale as an ordinal measurement that gives a rank order to variables along a single, one-dimensional continuum. So it is not clear that this scale helps researchers to make even rudimentary classifications among the relevant groups using qualitative criteria, much less to rank-order variables or conduct controlled experiments.

In a critique of such approaches to social science, philosopher and neuropsychologist Daniel N. Another obstacle for research in this area may be the popular, but not well-supported, belief that romantic desires are sublimations of sexual desires. Romantic desires, following this line of thought, might not be as strongly correlated with sexual desires as is commonly thought.

All of this is to suggest that simple delineations of the concepts relating to human sexuality cannot be taken at face value and that ongoing empirical research sometimes changes or complicates the meanings of the concepts. Research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum , from exclusive attraction to the other sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex. Sociologist Edward O. Laumann and colleagues summarize this point clearly in a book:. While there is a core group about 2.

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In sum, homosexuality is fundamentally a multidimensional phenomenon that has manifold meanings and interpretations, depending on context and purpose. More recently, in a study, psychologists Lisa M. Diamond and Ritch C. Savin-Williams make a similar point:. The more carefully researchers map these constellations — differentiating, for example, between gender identity and sexual identity , desire and behavior , sexual versus affectionate feelings, early-appearing versus late-appearing attractions and fantasies , or social identifications and sexual profiles — the more complicated the picture becomes because few individuals report uniform inter-correlations among these domains.

Some researchers acknowledge the difficulties with grouping these various components under a single rubric. For example, researchers John C. Gonsiorek and James D. At the very least, we should recognize that we do not yet possess a clear and well-established framework for research on these topics. To that end, this part of our report considers research on sexual desire and sexual attraction, focusing on the empirical findings related to etiology and development, and highlighting the underlying complexities.

K eeping in mind these reflections on the problems of definitions, we turn to the question of how sexual desires originate and develop. Consider the different patterns of attraction between individuals who report experiencing predominant sexual or romantic attraction toward members of the same sex and those who report experiencing predominant sexual or romantic attraction toward members of the opposite sex.

What are the causes of these two patterns of attraction? Are such attractions or preferences innate traits, perhaps determined by our genes or prenatal hormones; are they acquired by experiential, environmental, or volitional factors; or do they develop out of some combination of both kinds of causes?

What role, if any, does human agency play in the genesis of patterns of attraction? What role, if any, do cultural or social influences play? Research suggests that while genetic or innate factors may influence the emergence of same-sex attractions, these biological factors cannot provide a complete explanation, and environmental and experiential factors may also play an important role.

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However, as the following discussion of the relevant scientific literature shows, this is not a view that is well-supported by research. O ne powerful research design for assessing whether biological or psychological traits have a genetic basis is the study of identical twins.

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  5. If the probability is high that both members in a pair of identical twins, who share the same genome, exhibit a trait when one of them does — this is known as the concordance rate — then one can infer that genetic factors are likely to be involved in the trait. If, however, the concordance rate for identical twins is no higher than the concordance rate of the same trait in fraternal twins, who share on average only half their genes, this indicates that the shared environment may be a more important factor than shared genes.

    One of the pioneers of behavioral genetics and one of the first researchers to use twins to study the effect of genes on traits, including sexual orientation, was psychiatrist Franz Josef Kallmann. But the study was heavily criticized. Nevertheless, well-designed twin studies examining the genetics of homosexuality indicate that genetic factors likely play some role in determining sexual orientation.