Mice, Serotonin, Sexual Preference, And You

Thanks to Wikimedia. Picture uploaded by Roger McLassus.

A recent study found that male mice are less choosy about the sex of whatever mice they mount when their serotonin levels are low. Male mice that genetically have less of the neurotransmitter serotonin are as likely to mount other male mice as they are to mount female mice, but injecting them with serotonin increases their likelihood of mounting females with greater regularity. So serotonin is clearly linked with sexual preference in male mice in some fashion… but what does this mean for the rest of us?

The author of the article summarizes the study in great detail, and thus is able to state that this study, while fascinating, cannot actually tell us much about how serotonin might affect human sexual preferences. For one thing, serotonin has been known to affect different animal species in different ways, and for another, serotonin is but one neurotransmitter in a very complex system. So more studies will be needed–preferably human-specific studies–before scientists can begin to make claims about how serotonin affects human sexual preferences, other than generally stating that serotonin probably has some effect on people’s sexual preferences… we just don’t know specifically what or how yet.

Mice and other animals already behave as though sexuality is a spectrum–something that sexuality researchers have known for a while. Male mice with normal levels of serotonin will apparently choose to mount other male mice up to 20% of the time, when presented with both females and males. This fact supports the view that sexuality is not fully biologically or chemically determined, nor is it completely socially constructed, but somewhere in the middle. Additionally, viewing sexuality as influenced by multiple factors, and existing on a spectrum, allows for a healthier attitude toward sexual preferences (as one concern of the article’s author was that groups believing homosexuality can and should be “cured” might latch onto this research and advocate for serotonin injections for those whom they believe to be unfortunately attracted to the same sex).

I agree when the author of the article states: “When your research has potential social implications, and when it can very easily be misinterpreted, it does no one any good to fling data from the ivory tower, while locking yourself in and drawing the curtains.” This is especially true for studies of sexuality, since sex acts and sexual identities are still frequently stigmatized, misunderstood, and even punished. We should certainly strive to understand sexuality better, but with the acknowledgment that such understanding will come in stages, and that scientists may need to proactively work with the public and with journalists to ensure that their results, however preliminary, are not misconstrued and used against sexual (or other) minorities.

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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.