Interpreting Studies On The “Slut Gene”

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

The media has dubbed a certain gene, DRD4, the “slut gene,” interpreting limited scientific evidence to claim that this single gene is responsible for certain people’s inclinations to have lots of sex (especially if it’s adulterous sex).

One neuroscientist questions these claims, explaining why trying to trace complex human behavior to a single gene is difficult and far-fetched at best.

The DRD4 gene has been linked to socially unacceptable behaviors such as alcoholism, risky decision-making, even liberal political views. The gene is related to the production of dopamine receptors (dopamine being a neurotransmitter that influences our experiences of pleasure and reinforcement). Dopamine is produced in the brain to reward particular activities and experiences, sex among them.

But is there a direct correlation between the DRD4 (hence dopamine receptors) and sexual behavior? A highly-publicized study that combined genetic testing with questionnaires about the subjects’ sex lives found that the subjects testing positive for DRD4 tended to report more one-night stands and a higher incidence of cheating while in relationships. The people with DRD4 did not, however, report having more sex, more sexual partners, or more affairs than those who lack it.

These results, while intriguing are difficult to interpret. Are DRD4 carriers less inhibited in the performing of sexual or risky behaviors, or in the reporting of them? Perhaps they were simply more candid in discussing adultery; however, connecting candor to a single gene is as tricky a proposition as connecting specific sexual behaviors to a single gene. Culture is layered on top of genetics in complex ways that are difficult to disentangle, and sexual behavior, like any other aspect of human behavior, probably can’t be traced to a single simple biological cause.

While biological determinism–attributing any complex human behavior to a simple biological cause–tends to rub me the wrong way, as does misinterpreting preliminary results of scientific experiments, it would be amusing to just blame the “slut gene” for any misbehavior. Anyone who gets tested for it, let me know how that works out for you?

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • NeverAlcoholicJay

    Hey now, that’s neither what the study, nor the study authors quoted in the linked article claim! DRD4 is interesting for a number of reasons, and no mainstream scientist is claiming what you described them as claiming. The media, perhaps, are not the best at communicating the nuances scientists try to portray…the extreme behaviorists love media coverage like this and, rather than read the article, they say “see! we told you!”. I am not a geneticist, but none of the geneticists I know (I think) would seriously characterize this as a “slut” gene. Most know very well the limits of their science.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    That’s a fair argument, but I expect that my audience here will be more familiar with the media claims than the geneticists’ claims, and so I’m hoping to give my readers a sense of what to look out for when they’re reading the news and a topic like this comes up.

    I’m an academic too, so I know how the media can totally distort what’s going on in a discipline at any given moment. It’s a bummer, but I think it’s one of the reasons why education and outreach from academia are important.