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Married at age 21

A few years ago the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asserted that his nation did not have gays as they did in the West. What Ahmadinejad seems to have meant is that a public gay identity does not exist in Iran. He has to be aware that homosexual behavior is not unknown in his nation. More generally Ahmadinejad’s comments brought up the issue of men having sex with men throughout the Middle East before marriage. This is a taboo topic in much of the region, so getting good quantitative data seems pretty much impossible. But today PLoS Medicine came out with a paper with a result which suggests that the anecdotes of relatively widespread homosexual behavior in the Middle East are not totally unfounded or unrepresentative (the journalist Hugh Pope has indicated that Middle Eastern men have sometimes assumed he would naturally be open to sexual propositions because he was a Westerner. He grew a mustache to discourage such inquiries) . The paper is about HIV, Are HIV Epidemics among Men Who Have Sex with Men Emerging in the Middle East and North Africa?: A Systematic Review and Data Synthesis. Here’s the figure which jumped out at me:

The title of the table is Prevalence of anal sex between males in select populations in MENA.

For Iran there is a notation of “unspecified male-to-male sexual contacts,” so I take the figure for Iran to mean that 29% of sexually active unmarried men in Iran are engaging in activities with other men. Does this mean that 29% of men in this sample are gay? I don’t think so. As you likely know Iran’s state imposes conservative sexual mores upon its population. Though Iran is not Saudi Arabia there are still hazards when it comes to men and women entering into relationships before marriage. But it also turns out that many Iranian men at their peak of sexual ardor are unmarried. A recent paper reports that 40-45% of men aged 25-29 were unmarried.

One needs to be cautious of a figure like this. There is likely selection bias in the sample, even if it is less clear than in the case of truck drivers at STD clinics or prisoners. And this is only one report. But it finally gives us a concrete number to point to when we allude to the likelihood that male-to-male sexual contact has to be rife in societies where heterosexual sex outside of marriage is very difficult, and marriage has to be delayed to the exigencies of the modern economy.

Image credit: Marcello Casal Jr.

• Category: Science • Tags: Data Analysis, Health, Homosexuality, Iran 
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Tim Pawlenty debates Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ idea:

Gregory pressed, asking “Is being gay a choice?”

Pawlenty ultimately said, “I defer to the scientists in that regard.”

Again, Gregory pressed: “So you, you think it’s not a choice. … That you are, as Lady Gaga says, you’re born that way.”

Said Pawlenty: “There’s no scientific conclusion that it’s genetic. We don’t know that. So we don’t know to what extent, you know, it’s behavioral, and that’s something that’s been debated by scientists for a long time. But as I understand the science, there’s no current conclusion that it’s genetic.”

This is one issue where the American Left has a tendency to be on the side of the hereditarians. In contrast, the American Right emphasizes the plasticity of human behavior, and its amenability to cultural pressures and individual will and contingency. Transpose the structure of the arguments to male-female sex differences, and many of the basic elements would be preserved, but those espousing them would invert politically.

One issue which needs to be clarified is the distinction between something which is explainable by genetics, and something which is not explainable by genetics but may still have a biological basis. It does seem that homosexuality is only modestly heritable. That means that genetic variation can not explain all the population wide variation in sexual orientation. The correlation between identical twins on height is much tighter than when it comes to homosexuality.

Does that mean then that since so much of the variation in homosexuality is “environmental” it is amenable to change? Let’s focus on male homosexuals, as the heritability estimates for female homosexuals are so much lower. “Environment” in these heritability estimates means a lot of different things. It can include what we normally think of environment, socialization. But it can also include pre-natal and post-natal developmental randomness which induces unpredictable biological variability. Then there are the mysterious changes wrought by infection. Finally, even non-linear gene-gene interactions are often included in the “environmental” component. In other words, even if most of the variance in homosexual behavior can’t be explained by variance in genes, that doesn’t imply that a male who has a homosexual orientation at the age of 12 is going to be able to change that through behavioral therapy with any ease.

At the end of the day I doubt we’ll fine a “gay gene” in the near future. And without that, people like Tim Pawlenty will continue to take the stand they’re taking now. Revised upward heritability estimates wouldn’t change anything either, if people don’t want to believe that a behavior has a strong biological basis for ideological reasons, unless you can offer up a robust concrete genetic association they’ll keep denying in my experience.

But a bigger meta issue has to be “so what?” If homosexuality has a biological basis, then in the long term one can imagine that someone could devise a “cure” for it, just as they have claimed with today with talk therapy and what not. But that’s the long term. In the short run it does seem that if something is biological the naturalistic fallacy will loom large in our political debates.

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I noticed that Jim DeMint has said some controversial things about the demographic criteria of teachers:

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) says that even though “no one” came to his defense in 2004 after he said that gay people and unwed mothers should be banned from teaching, “everyone” quietly told him that he shouldn’t back down from his position.

The Spartanberg Herald-Journal described the comments this way: “DeMint said if someone is openly homosexual, they shouldn’t be teaching in the classroom and he holds the same position on an unmarried woman who’s sleeping with her boyfriend — she shouldn’t be in the classroom.” DeMint did not apparently state his position on whether sexually active unmarried male teachers should be similarly removed from classrooms.

My interest was piqued because there are questions in the GSS about allowing gays to teach. We can see how many people in the country agree with DeMint. How the proportion has changed over the years, and also the demographic correlates of variation in attitudes. Additionally, I wanted to compare attitudes to allowing homosexuals to teach with allowing anti-religionists and racists to teach. First, over time:


It’s immediately obvious that the gay rights movement has fostered more tolerance for homosexuality. The anti-religious, less so. And racists really haven’t become anymore popular over the years. Let’s break it down by various demographics. But first, note that I am going to constrain the time of survey to 2002 and later, when views seem to have stabilized:


The raw values are below. But observe that the majority of conservatives and those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God would accede to a homosexual teaching in school. Times a changin’….

Allow to teach….
Demographic Racist Anti-religionist Homosexual
Male 52 64 78
Female 45 62 81
White 51 65 81
Black 41 53 75
Liberal 54 73 87
Moderate 48 62 82
Conservative 45 56 74
Protestant 45 57 74
Catholic 51 62 84
No Religion 54 81 90
High School 46 60 79
Bachelor 57 77 92
Graduate 58 83 94
Bible is Word of God 41 47 66
Bible is Inspired Word 50 67 85
Bible is Book of Fables 59 80 91
• Category: Science • Tags: Data Analysis, GSS, Homosexuality 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"