Sexual Preferences: Nature, Nurture, or Neither?

When I was eleven years old and newly-pubescent, I found teenage boys to be totally sexually irresistible, especially the religious ones complete with their sunnah beards (bonus if it was a fist-length hanafi one). Sometimes, a man who didn’t have the hallmarks of religiosity as I understood them (which were lowered gaze, longer facial hair, short-to-no mustache, long and loose clothing) would catch my eye, but that was fairly rare. The more “Muslim”-looking a young man was, the more likely I was to both look once and then snap my gaze quickly away so as to avoid sinning.

text reading 'Think i'm hot? Well so is HELL! LOWER YOUR GAZE!'
I tried to follow this but you know, horny teen.


A decade and a half later and, well, that’s not quite the case anymore. I pat my teenage brothers’ religious friends on the head; they’re kids to me, not crush-worthy peers. As for the adult men who sport enough aspects of that pious look, they remind me of family and my religious past rather than make my blood run hot. I look away from them with a slight sense of panic rather than shyness at my own audacity of attraction.

Meta Time: Stop for a moment and consider whether you doubted anything about what I said in the previous paragraph, especially the part where I talk about the connection between who I was as a person and my sexual tastes.

Now ask yourself about your own sexual preferences.

There is an intuitive sense that many people have that human sexual preferences are innate. No one likes to think that their sexuality (or anything about their likes and dislikes, for that matter) was somehow influenced by the circumstances surrounding them. We like to think that we are rational, independently-minded human beings who have desires based on some intrinsic sense of what we want and don’t want, and that said intrinsic set of desires, while as independent as our thinking, is both irrational and non-negotiable.

Yet desires and preferences clearly change with time. I went from lusting after to dismissing visually-“Muslim” men in the short span of a year. Religion also factored into the way I dealt with my far less hetero side. Although I’ve always had crushes on girls and women, I thought more about the male than the female types that I found attractive because that’s who I knew I could grow up to become engaged to and then marry. For the longest time, I didn’t even realize that the feelings I had for DFAB folks were anything out of the ordinary, since female-socialized people tend to be affectionate and use terms like “girlfriend” with each other without anyone blinking an eyelash at us. These days, I find myself noticing non-men far more than men for various reasons.

Less personally, the societal views of what is and isn’t attractive in a partner have changed dramatically over time for people of any gender but especially in the case of those caught in the crossfire of the heterosexual male gaze. My ample flesh, especially the part of it concentrated around my hips, would have garnered me many a proposal just a century ago in the cultural context in which I exist. Today, people express surprise when I tell them that someone with a body like mine has ever had a man attracted to me, let alone has had sex or relationships.

What changed? There is absolutely no scientific evidence that, around 100 years ago, there was a sudden shift in the Western heterosexual male genetic code that made them innately more attracted to skinnier rather than larger women. What did change was the way by which wealth was marked in society. Being rich was once associated with being indolent and consuming copious amounts of calories, thus leading to weight gain, while being poor was associated with emaciation and starvation. In a post-industrial society, that script has flipped: the wealthy are the ones with the leisure time necessary to exercise and eat higher-quality (and lower-calorie-density) foods, while the less-wealthy eat more convenient (and calorically-rich) foods and work more hours at mostly-sedentary jobs. Classism (and frankly snobbery) plays a distinct role in what people find appealing and unappealing in sexual partners.

The answer to where sexual preferences (or a lack of them) is far more complex than simply “nature”, “nurture”, or “neither” for at least one person on this planet. I suspect that the same is true for others as well.

Sexual Preferences: Nature, Nurture, or Neither?

17 thoughts on “Sexual Preferences: Nature, Nurture, or Neither?

  1. 1

    I’m one of those people who can say in retrospect that my sexual orientation was very definite and glaringly obvious by the time I was six. The odd thing is, I remember the exact moment it started, quite suddenly, like a switch being flipped, and no, I wasn’t undergoing early puberty or anything! It was different from that. It doesn’t feel like a choice, and of course, I don’t know where it comes from. The fact that something is innate doesn’t mean it’s written in stone and the fact that something’s acquired doesn’t mean it can be unacquired, so I guess I find some of the nature/nurture debates a bit academic. Not uninteresting, just less charged with consequence than some people seem to imagine.

          1. @Anne and Heina

            Well, depending on your philosophy of “gender”, those might be referring to the same things. I often find that “gender” is redundant, it’s just a different language/jargon for saying the same things we could say with other words.

          2. Talking in terms of gender or “orientation” is like taking a low resolution picture, while listing out all of your hundreds of preferences would be like taking a high resolution picture of the same thing.

            Change a few of the preferences, and the low resolution picture will look the same. But change enough of them and suddenly even the low resolution picture looks very different than it did before.

  2. 2

    My orientation was set from age 5 on, yet I can’t say the same for my gender. It’s less complicated for me to identify as a gay cis woman, so that’s what I do. My gender is somewhat fluid. I dunno *shrugs*

  3. xyz

    Yep, this is my experience in so many ways as well in terms of preferences. I’ve never been a person who “has a type” or anything, and some recent experiences even have me wondering if I am actually straight (only attracted to men) or attracted to masculinity in general, including anyone who is masculine of center. I can equally imagine that some people have more fixed patterns of attraction, but are those “innate”? I doubt it for so many reasons.

  4. 4

    Well, speaking for myself, my prefereces are largely based on personality, with the rest followng the general social mores. So I’d go way more towards nurture than anythig else.

  5. 5

    You’ve got a good point about many of our aesthetic preferences (like fat or thin) actually being class prejudice. Another one among us pale folks is the idea of tanning. Back when most work was done outdoors, being lily-white and pale was a way of bragging that you were rich enough to spend your time indoors. Just about the time that most people began spending most of their time indoors, suddenly it became sexy to show that you were wealthy enough to spend time lying around in the sun or a tanning booth. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

  6. 6

    Preferences of any type definitely change, so I see no reason why people shouldn’t experience changes in terms of what they find attractive, or that tastes on a social/cultural wide level wouldn’t change as well.

    Media definitely impacts what we learn we are supposed to find attractive and appealing, but I also wonder if the internet isn’t providing a space for people with dissenting preferences, and perhaps a means of feeling more comfortable with them and less judged for going against the norm?

  7. 7

    Well, a lot of folks’ sexual preferences include things that are items of industrial mass production and yes, current trends.
    Since I love going to the sauna, and since Germans love to be naked I couldn’t help noticing how pubic hair in young women has disappeared over the last years. I think the last time we went to the spa I was the only woman there the entire day on this side of sixty who had pubic hair. But 50, 100 years ago pubic hair was soooo hot.*

    That’s why I’m very sceptical about uncritical sex positivity: All those ideas, kinks and preferences don’t exist in a vacuum. Which doesn’t mean you’Re a bad person for having them the same way you’re not a bad person for enjoying an item of cultural production that has problematic elements. But it’s not off limits for criticiam and analysis.

    *The expression “the beaver” for pubic hair comes from the custom of CanCan dancers to sew beaver fur into the crotch of their drawers so the men would think they were seeing pubic hair, because normally drawers were open between the legs. You wore them under your corset and you could hardly strip naked every time you needed to pee. TMI: That was the weirdest sensation ever: peeing through a hole in your panties.

  8. 8

    Now ask yourself about your own sexual preferences.

    So I did ask myself about my own preferences.

    I’ve always had a predilection for slim, dark-haired women with delicate features and pale complexion. Add to this a good dose of self-assurance, stubbornness and a strong character and you will have the picture. Almost all my crushes (starting with the kindergarten) were on such girls.

    Nature or nurture? In my case I would opt for the family pattern. As long as I can remember, the women which mattered – the women in my family (my grandmother, my mother, my aunts) – were like that. “Delicate dark flowers”, you could say … but in domestic affairs there was absolutely no doubt who belongs to the ruling class. Men generally accepted the situation (although with some grumbling). Anyway, the expectations were not particularly high; the most important one was to keep drinking under control. Apart from that, as my grandmother was so fond of saying, “it’s quite enough if the guy is just a bit more handsome than the devil”.

    Ah, the joys of replicating the pattern! Two dark-haired girls with delicate features and pale complexion live with me right now. The younger one says “I want a new piercing now. You tell mom at once that I want it! Dad? DAD?!!!” Two superpowers at war – devastation, annihilation and scorched earth. I try to make myself invisible but no, there is no chance: two pairs of brown eyes look at me accusingly.

    Nature, nurture or a free choice? Should I say to myself “’Tis your own fault, George Dandin” or is it just … the pattern?

    Be that as it may, the expectations are not high. Surely I can manage. Surely I qualify. After all, I keep drinking under control. I might also be just a bit more handsome than the devil.

  9. 9

    My excellent Sociology of Sexuality professor used food preferences as a parallel example for sexual preferences. We tend to internalize food preferences and treat them as innate. They can even cause unintended physical reactions, such as gagging or vomiting if encountering foods one dislikes. And yet, with the exception of certain genetic differences in taste sensation (or, more precisely, expression of receptors for certain compounds in different kinds of foods, which are not located only in the tongue and sensations of which are not perceived solely as “taste”), like the one that impacts perception of cilantro, food preferences are mostly socialized, and they can and do change over time.

  10. 10

    Yeah, I can’t even see how to argue that sexual preferences (as opposed to orientation, which you note) are not almost wholly the product of environmental factors and input. In addition to the social cues about what ‘should’ be desirable (such as your early affinity for traits indicating a pious Muslim), there’s also those wonderful moments of puberty when you first become aware of your own sexuality in the first place. I’d be interested to see a formal study, but I’m willing to bet that the stimuli that lead to someone’s first real sexual arousal will also be prominent in their later fantasies and attractions. The first person you got a crush on is likely to imprint on your psyche, giving you a basic template for future attractions.

    And of course, our remarkable ability to create post-hoc justifications for our momentary preferences would play into this. You start out liking Suzy or George and so you decide after the fact that you enjoy Suzy’s buzzcut or George’s long blond braid, and after that, you look for other girls with butchy short hair, or dudes with long hair kept neatly, and that’s your ‘preference’.

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