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Future Concerns with Genetic Research into Human Sexuality

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Updated April 04, 2010

The focus, even in this preliminary research, on erections is disconcerting. The gene studied was chosen based on its implication in erections in rats. Erections, while easy to study, and obviously tied to sexual function, are hardly the richest site for human sexuality, broadly defined. The final destination of any journey can be largely determined by the first few steps taken. In this case, the initial direction, while understandable, may be cause for concern.

This research is combining two vastly different disciplines, using tools that are equally different in their sophistication. On the one hand, we have the highly focused technology and knowledge required to measure and map alleles on a human gene. On the other hand we have rough social psychology measures of sexual arousal, desire, and function, terms that to this day defy universal definitions. What sort of knowledge will be produced out of such a shotgun wedding?

Of course another area of concern is where such research will lead, or end up. The supposed discovery a gene that defines sexual arousal, desire, or orientation, will quickly be followed by those who would like to select these genes out of (or into) the population. In addition to picking the sex and color of your future child’s eyes, will we be able to determine how often they’ll want to have sex, and who they’ll want to have sex with? It seems unlikely, but worth considering.

At the same time, the possibilities of this research are exciting. While the current researchers are interested in the implications of their research for clinicians working with individuals with sexual dysfunction, I find the metaphoric possibilities far more exciting. It could be argued that much sex research is reductive in its approach to sexuality, choosing to focus on small parts and often ignoring the whole, with the result being a less complicated view of sexuality. While genetic research is, in some sense, the ultimate reduction, in another sense, it offers an exciting metaphor for the practically infinite possibilities of sexual expression.

Of course all this hope for a deeper more complicated understanding of sexuality arrived at through an understanding of the genetic components of sexuality, can be dashed with the stroke of a pen. No sooner had this study been released than the Daily Mail reported on the study with a headline boldly proclaiming that "Being a sex addict is in your genes". Of course the article proceeded to admit that the research doesn't suggest this at all, but it took advantage of the opportunity to run a picture of the actor Michael Douglas.

Where this research will go next is anyone's guess. What seems clear is that a multi-disciplinary team of researchers will be needed to unpack the various potential meaning of these complicated findings, and the process will be a slow one.

Reference:
IZ. Ben Zion, R. Tessler, L. Cohen, et. al. Polymorphisms in the dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4) contribute to individual differences in human sexual behavior: desire, arousal and sexual function. Molecular Psychiatry, April 2006

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