Sexual function, the brain and homosexuality: We may be getting something terribly wrong!


Sexuality corresponds to the most basic function of all organisms on earth. Nutrition, metabolism, movement and all the other superior cognitive features that we encounter in human beings can actually be thought of as mechanisms that help the biological function of reproduction in all living things, to ensure the successful transmission of genes to the next generation. I realize this may sound a bit strange to normal people, but this is the biological reality. The most important function of the biological body is to make the continuation of the species possible by passing on genes to the next generation.

When the most basic biological function is reproduction, all the functions related to reproduction are fundamental determinants of the behavior of living beings. In the same way, when you look at the control center of the nervous system called the brain, this basic rule also applies there. The circuits, cells, connections and chemical communicators involved in reproduction have a very pronounced influence on the behavior of living beings. This influence can go so far that the individual can be sacrificed for the sake of the species, as in the case of some insect species where males are fed to females after mating. The vast majority of behavior in the living world, apart from feeding, is related to reproduction, courtship and mating.

Sexual reproduction is based on two sexes, male and female, combining special cells called “sex cells” by various methods. This union can take the form of sexual intercourse or, as in fish, the meeting of sperm and eggs outside the body. This basic process, which is carried out in millions of species using highly complex and diverse methods, is the basis of the diversity of life and its ability to adapt to changing conditions. Compared to asexual reproduction, in which copies of the same organism are created, sexual reproduction, in which different combinations from the male and female are combined, opens up almost limitless possibilities for diversity.

Let’s look at the situation in humans: In a nutshell, in the course of normal sexual development, we have two sexes, male and female. This process, which begins in the womb, leads to the emergence of gender characteristics even in the womb, under the influence of sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, depending on their levels and release rhythms. In the first weeks, all babies in the womb are genderless, or rather they are all girls at first. When the sex systems of male babies begin to develop and the amount of the hormone called testosterone increases, the baby begins to undergo changes that will turn it into a boy. An important remnant of this process are the nipples in boys. If you are wondering why men who do not normally breastfeed have nipples, the answer is because of this late-onset gender differentiation. The breasts are formed before the baby in the womb becomes a boy, but during the development of the male baby, the biological equipment for the formation of breast tissue, which will later swell with fatty tissue, no longer develops and regresses. Therefore, although men do not have breasts, they still have a nipple as a remnant.

This gender development, which begins with hormones, affects not only the body but also the brain. As the sexual organs in the body take shape, changes specific to male and female babies begin to occur in the brain. Perhaps the best known of these is that the left half of the brain develops slightly more slowly in male babies than in female babies. This small difference in development is due to the hormone testosterone, which is responsible for many of the basic behavioral differences between boys and girls in the years after birth.

A more in-depth look at the brains of male and female babies reveals significant differences, especially in the hypothalamus region of the brain, which controls the hormone system. These changes, which begin in the womb in the second half of pregnancy, ensure that male and female brains have different characteristics, especially in details.

The most important differences in the male and female brain can be roughly listed as follows:

Corpus callosum: The corpus callosum, a thick bundle of nerve cell extensions connecting the two brain halves, is larger in women than in men. This causes the connections between the two brain halves to be more intense in women.
Amygdala Although reports on the amygdala, the fear, stress and alarm region of our brain, have mixed results, there are many signs that it is different between men and women. We know that the right and left amygdala work differently in men and women, and that it is generally more active in emotional evaluation in women.
Hippocampus The hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory formation, navigation and emotions, is one of the regions that show significant differences between men and women. Due to the different functioning of this region, for example, learning increases in men under mild stress, while it decreases in women. The dominant hippocampus is also different in men and women. In men, the left hippocampus is dominant, while in women the right hippocampus is more active. In addition, the hippocampus, where new nerve cells are produced the most, is more active in men in this respect.
Frontal lobe: Our forebrain is divided into many functional areas and their functions are not yet clear. But some parts of this area seem to be organized differently in men and women. For example, the ventromedila prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), which is important in social and emotional learning processes, is more active on the right side in men and on the left side in women. Damage to some specialized areas, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, can cause significant functional deficits in men but not in women.
Anterior cingulate cortex: One of the areas for controlling behavior and decision-making, the ACC has less neural tissue in men, which is interpreted as one of the underlying reasons for men’s slightly more aggressive behavior.
Brain cortex Women have more cerebral cortex, or “gray matter”, than men in many functional brain regions. But the total number of cells here is higher in men.
White matter: The white matter, which consists of nerve cell extensions that connect distant areas of the brain, is also thicker in some areas in women.
Hypothalamus: In the hypothalamus, the top control center of our brain’s autonomic nervous system and hormone system, there are many regions known to differ between the sexes. The most basic of these are:

The suprachiasmatic nucleus, the biological clock center in our brain, is twice as large in men than in women (Swaab, 2014)
INAH3 (interstitial nucleus; sexually dimorphic nucleus – SDN) in the anterior hypothalamus is significantly larger in males than females at all ages (Allen et al., 1989).

Why does homosexuality happen?

First, a mini dictionary:
Heterosexual (heterosexual): A person with normal sexual or romantic attraction to the opposite sex
Homosexual/Homosexual (homosexual): A person who is sexually or romantically attracted to people of their apparent biological sex.
Bisexual (bisexual): A person who is sexually or romantically attracted to both genders.
Transsexual (transsexual): A person who is unable to reconcile with their external gender and transitions to the sexual characteristics of the opposite sex, usually through medical intervention.
Gay: A homosexual person (male or female).
Lesbian: Female homosexual

First, let me share the basic conclusion: The brains of homosexual individuals are vastly different from the brains of their outwardly gendered counterparts. Many structures that are formed and developed in the womb are more similar to the brain structure of the opposite sex in homosexual individuals than in their same-sex counterparts.

Some brain differences between homosexual and heterosexual individuals can be summarized as follows:

  • The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is larger in homosexual men than in heterosexual men (Swaab, 2014). This finding suggests a homosexual-specific structural change in the SCN nucleus.
  • The INAH-3 nucleus is between the size of men and women in homosexual men (LeVay, 1991).
  • The connection just above the hypothalamus, which connects the right and left temporal lobes internally, is also significantly larger in gay men (Swaab, 2014).
  • The corpus callosum connection of gay men is larger than that of heterosexual men, as is the case for women (Swaab, 2014).

Not only structural differences, but also functional differences. Functional differences are differences in how the brain responds to certain stimuli. Here are some of the most important functional differences:

  • Sexual pheromones (odor messengers) from men cause hypothalamic activity in heterosexual women and homosexual men. However, this activity is not seen in heterosexual men (Swaab, 2014).
  • Heterosexual women and gay men have more connections between the amygdala and other brain regions than heterosexual men and lesbians (Swaab, 2014).
  • In heterosexual men and lesbians, there is much more intense activity in the thalamus and prefrontal cortex when shown a photograph of a woman’s face. In homosexual men and heterosexual women, similar activity occurs when shown photos of male faces (Swaab, 2014).

These are some of the main differences that have been demonstrated. When these functional and structural differences of homosexual and heterosexual individuals are considered in general, an interesting and simple picture emerges: The brain characteristics of gay men and heterosexual women and gay women and heterosexual men are similar. In other words, regardless of their external gender, a homosexual individual is born with the brain characteristics of the opposite sex.

All of these structures are formed in the womb in the second half of pregnancy and their development is entirely related to the processes in the womb. Moreover, all of the brain structures mentioned belong to unconscious internal management systems that control hormone systems and our autonomous functions without our will. It is well known that changes in these do not depend on environmental conditions during upbringing. So the experimental and observational findings, of which this is only a partial list, clearly show that sexual orientation is not a choice, at least not in people with this kind of brain structure. Homosexuality and transsexuality are, as is clear from this, a natural consequence of the biological structure we are talking about…

There are also some environmental factors that increase the likelihood of children becoming homosexual. Some of these are

  • Taking synthetic estrogen to prevent miscarriage during pregnancy
  • Nicotine and amphetamine intake during pregnancy
  • In boys who have more than one older brother, immune reactions developed by the mother against her previous male babies can lead to altered sexual functioning in subsequent boys (Swaab, 2014).

It is important to emphasize one important point here. There is a widespread belief that homosexual tendencies are related to the environment or upbringing, but there is no scientific evidence or observation to support this. For example, children raised by same-sex couples do not show an increased rate of homosexuality. In general, it is unlikely that homosexuality can be seen as a “lifestyle choice or preference”.

Homosexuality as a “disease”(?)

The origins of the definition of homosexuality as a disease date back to the late 19th century in the West. In the 1950s and 60s, it was common practice among US psychiatrists to use aversion therapies to treat homosexuals (a practice that was even the subject of Stanley Kubrick’s cynical film A Clockwork Orange). In the second edition of the DSM in 1968, which is considered a basic guide for the diagnosis and classification of mental illnesses, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness. Homosexuals had already been considered sinners and excluded from the church since the 19th century, and after the Enlightenment, the term “sin” was transformed into the term “disease”. In 1978, members of the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality as a disease from the DSM, but replaced it with the term “sexual orientation disorder”. In 1981, this was also removed and homosexuality was no longer recognized as a disease in the DSM. Although different practices and understandings still persist, therapies for gay people in the West nowadays mainly use techniques to help people accept their sexual identity.

In short, today, homosexuality, transsexuality and other forms of sexual orientation are no longer classified as “diseases” on a global scale. Especially when it comes to psychiatric conditions, the definition of illness evolves and changes very quickly according to the social codes of society. Although we cannot know what will happen tomorrow, as of today, homosexuality is not a “disease” from a scientific point of view.

The difference between bisexuality and homosexuality
Bisexual men and women are attracted to both sexes. Homosexuals, on the other hand, are only sexually or romantically attracted to people of the same gender as they are. Bisexuality and homosexuality are therefore two fundamentally different phenomena. In studies of bisexuals, we do not find many of the biological findings mentioned earlier for homosexuality. The brain structure of bisexual men and women is more similar to heterosexuals in terms of the differences I have just listed (Van Wyk and Geist, 1995). Therefore, if we talk about a “preference” in terms of sexual orientation, bisexuality is more appropriate to be considered as a preference. In homosexuality, on the other hand, preference and choice are largely out of the question; it is the natural guidance of biological circuits.

Why does homosexuality exist?

Homosexual behavior, which normally does not serve reproductive functions and is seen as negative for the continuation of the species, continues to occur not only in humans but in many other species. There is no definitive biological explanation for this; the most likely and plausible reason is that genetic traits associated with homosexuality may increase sexual activity and reproductive chances in carrier individuals who do not cause homosexual behavior. We see something similar in mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. Mild versions of these can lead people to have an inquisitive, exploratory and creative mind. This is a positive trait for the survival of the species, which is preserved for generations. Of course, extreme behavioral changes, such as schizophrenia and severe autism, can be considered a biological price to pay for this diversity.

In the animal kingdom, homosexual behavior has so far been demonstrated in over 1,500 species, from insects to mammals. Roy and Silo, male penguins living in pairs at the New York Zoo, are the most well-known examples. Female rats that develop side by side with male rats in the womb can show mating behavior with females in adulthood. This is attributed to the excess testosterone they receive in utero. Some birds live in trios and quadruplets with more than one male and female together. In bonobo monkeys, the closest species to humans, this practice is also very common and is used for peace and calming rather than sexual purposes. Many animal species, including elephants, macaque monkeys, giraffes, swans and whales, have homosexual contact for various purposes. Anyone who watches bulls being led to slaughter in slaughterhouses can observe that in that stressful environment, many male individuals engage in mating behavior with each other. Studies on the brains of male cattle riding each other in Montana show that these animals exhibit the same differences as human homosexuals. When we look at all of these examples, homosexuality seems to be a natural variation with a relatively low rate (Swaab, 2014).

For whatever reasons and benefits, we are only just beginning to understand sexual orientation and its behavioral causes. The issue of homosexuality, which has been a widespread problem in many cultures around the world for hundreds of years, especially in the west after the 19th century and in eastern societies today, needs to be reconsidered with these new scientific findings.

What is the place of this issue in religion (Islam)?

Many reactions and discourses about homosexuality are actually rooted in religiously based beliefs and traditions. Many people are convinced that the issue of homosexuality, especially in Islam, has been dealt with once and for all. There is no shortage of people who are firmly of the opinion that homosexuality is a social anomaly and should be punished in many ways, including death or imprisonment.

In Islamic jurisprudence, there are some jurisprudential provisions regarding individuals who are born hermaphrodites, which we know in medicine as “hermaphrodites”. We also know that they are called “hünsa” as an intermediate gender. However, hermaphroditism is a very different developmental gender disorder from homosexuality. Therefore, hermaphroditism, which is already medically practiced in a manner similar to the provisions of religious jurisprudence, does not include any provisions for homosexuality.

In many traditional Islamic approaches, homosexuality is punished, imprisoned or put to death. However, there is no conclusive evidence from the Qur’an and the practices of the Prophet (PBUH) to support this position. On the contrary, the example of the tribe of Lot, an example often cited from the Qur’an on the subject of homosexuality, actually speaks of a completely different issue when read carefully. The Qur’an tells us that the men of the tribe of Lot were tormented because they “left women and turned to men with lust”. In other words, the men of Lot were “bisexuals” who were not homosexuals and who normally lusted after women, but who turned to men only for pleasurable/hedonic purposes. I have already mentioned that there are many fundamental biological differences between bisexuality and homosexuality, so it makes no sense to draw conclusions from these examples about homosexuals who are attracted to men but not to women. After all, men who are attracted to men and women who are attracted to women due to an innate structural difference are already outside the example of Lot (Arslan, 2015).

Moreover, an example to the contrary, albeit a weak one, is found in the hadith sources. According to an anecdote from al-Waqidi, which is also found in other hadith sources, two “sexless” slaves named Mati and Hit were living together in Asr al-Saadat and the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) did not interfere with them. Some commentators say they were “hünsa”, meaning hermaphrodites, while others say they were “muhannes”, meaning homosexuals. Mati and Hit, who normally lived with the Companions, were talking one day when the Prophet (PBUH) overheard them talking about women with lust and sent them to a place close to Medina. They would only come to Medina on Fridays to buy provisions and then return to their hometown (Arslan, 2015).

More importantly, when one of the Companions said “kill them”, the Prophet (PBUH) clearly stated that he could not kill anyone who was a Muslim. This is an interesting anecdote that is told in roughly similar ways in different hadith sources and is open to interpretation.

What is forbidden in Islam?

Islam focuses on the protection of the progeny as one of the most important principles and strictly prohibits adultery. The prohibition of adultery is aimed at preventing not only the act itself, but also the genealogical problems of the children that may arise as a result of the act. Apart from that, as mentioned in the Qur’anic parable of Lot, “exceeding the limit” in sexual pleasure, or “indulging in pleasures beyond the enjoyment that is naturally given to human beings” is strictly forbidden. Other than that, we do not find any other prohibition in the Qur’an.

Homosexuals, whether male or female, are human beings who are born with different sexual drives. Given the fact that human beings cannot control their impulses and emotions and can only control them to a very limited extent, imposing punishments and sanctions on a person simply because he or she is homosexual is a cruelty against nature. Today, with many scientific methods that did not exist in the past, we now know much more about people’s sexual behavior and their biological equipment. But despite this, we still cannot get rid of the interpretations produced with the limited knowledge of centuries ago and their modern-day adaptations that have gone through a thousand and one distortions. In the light of our current knowledge, forcing a homosexual individual to be “normal” is not much different from forcing a left-handed child to use his right hand, or telling a person who was born without feet that he cannot perform ablution because he cannot wash his feet.

It is time to think long and hard about this issue, without resorting to shortcuts…

What then are Muslims to do in cases of homosexuality?

In the light of this information, imagine that you have a homosexual child. What would you do? The Muslim position on homosexuality is as clear and simple as the answer to this question. Knowledge, good manners, humanity and faith will determine how we approach homosexuality, which is a diversity of creation that exists as a matter of nature and is willed by Allah, even if it is outside the norm and outside our feelings and thoughts. We know what disasters memorized ideologies have inflicted on people in every period of history. Many slogans and ideologies that have not been questioned with reason have led and continue to lead millions of people to the bloodshed of millions of their fellow human beings. Therefore, as human beings, especially as Muslims, we should think very seriously and evaluate the available “data” very carefully before reacting and making a judgment. Maybe a hundred years ago or five hundred years ago, persecuting a human being whom Allah “intended to create in such a way” just because of his creation could be excused to some extent due to ignorance; but today, in a period when we have so much knowledge, we need to leave the comfort of being sure that we are doing the right thing with the memorization of the past.

Of course, I do not lose sight of the fact that homosexuality has become one of the important strongholds of the secular worldview, one of the important points of imposition, because the “pride parade/gay pride” demonstrations, especially the one organized in Istanbul during the Ramadan month of 2015, included all kinds of immorality, transgression and defamation of social values. But remembering once again Aliya Izzetbegovic’s words “to be the teacher of the earth, one must be the student of the heavens”, I think that at least Muslims should not base their behavior on “immorality”. If the literate people of the Islamic world can produce new and pioneering ijtihad/interpretations on such a fundamental and controversial issue as homosexuality, it is not difficult to see a glimmer of hope for homosexuals who are marginalized and marginalized in many parts of the world, especially by the Christian church and traditionalist schools of Islam.

The first thing to do is to distinguish between homosexuals and people who engage in different sexual pursuits for arbitrary and hedonistic purposes. As the difference between bisexuality and homosexuality becomes clearer, I hope that we will be able to make cooler assessments of the issue. Homosexual children can show activities contrary to their external gender from a very young age, and this begins to manifest itself at an early age. Therefore, before condemning and persecuting people, it would be the wisest, most humane and Islamic way to use medical and scientific means.

To summarize, when we look at the Qur’an, from the point of view of Islam, no coercive or exclusionary provision can be made for homosexuals who live as they are and who want to live their lives comfortably like everyone else as a matter of their nature, as long as they do not impose on others, as long as they do not engage in activities that violate the morals of society. This issue needs to be reconsidered by focusing on why homosexuality exists as a biological variation in all living beings and whether it can have an “advantage” in humans. And I believe that addressing such thorny issues, which have been neglected for a long time, will pave the way for Islamic intellectuals to produce ointments for many of the world’s bleeding divisions. Because rote memorization is of no use to any of us.

As human beings, as long as we stay away from knowledge and up-to-date information, as long as we do not make knowledge production a fundamental concern, we unfortunately have no choice but to remain buried in the swamp of tradition and memorization. The Holy Qur’an, with its transcendental address, continues to warn us all against the same danger at all times; it is up to us whether we listen or not…

Selected references:
Van Wyk PH, Geist CS (1995). “Biology of Bisexuality: Critique and Observations”. Journal of Homosexuality28 (3–4): 357–373. doi:10.1300/J082v28n03_11.PMID 7560936.
Allen LS; Hines M; Shryne JE; Gorski RA (1989). “Two sexually dimorphic cell groups in the human brain.”. J Neurosci 9 (2): 497–506. PMID 2918374.
LeVay, S (Aug 30, 1991). “A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men.”. Science 253 (5023): 1034–7.doi:10.1126/science.1887219. PMID 1887219.
Dick Swaab (2014) We are our brains: From womb to Alzheimer’s, Spiegel & Grau; S. 55-105.
Esat Arslan (2015) Şeriat Mekke’de tamamlandı. Kapı yayınları; S. 135-139.

Why does one burn books?
Which one is your religion?


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