GTea Break

Interview: Doctor Dick Swaab

The truth about those 'smoking makes babies gay' headlines

Last month, there were a number of reports about a "controversial" new book from Dutch neuroscientist Dr Dick Swaab. The articles claimed that Dr Swaab thought a baby exposed to stress, smoking and drugs while inside the womb could have an affect on its sexuality later in life. Dr Dick Swaab and his book, We Are Our Brains' were derided by many for inferring that smoking could turn your child gay.

We decided to get to the bottom of this story with an interview with Swaab himself and found him to be a affable, progressive scientist who has not only written an enlightening book, but firmly thinks that we should do everything possible to combat prejudice against LGBTQ people.

Proving once again that we shouldn't believe everything we read, studies and scientific research are huge and all too often a tiny facet of a large piece of research gets taken and written about out of context.

In his book he describes the notion of homosexuality as a choice as “outdated”, and went on to write that “The idea that our social environment shapes our sexual orientation has led to mass persecution. The Nazi notion, as expressed by Hitler himself, that homosexuality was as infectious as the plague, led to the unimaginable in Germany: first voluntary castrations, then compulsory castrations, and finally the systematic murder of homosexuals in concentration camps. An important argument against the idea that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice” or caused by environmental factors is the demonstrable impossibility of ridding people of their homosexuality.”

He continued by using the examples of lobotomies and electroshock therapy and genuinely believes that the idea of homosexuality as a choice is harmful to society...

GT: Do you think that it is important to tell expectant mothers that smoking can affect your child's sexual orientation?
Dr Swaab: I think the point of smoking in relation to the child becoming gay is very minor. Smoking whilst pregnant affects the child in many ways which are more important. The mother should not smoke during pregnancy full stop.

You don't actually say much about smoking whilst pregnant affecting sexual orientation in your book. Are you annoyed that the UK media focused on this so heavily instead of the positive message of acceptance in your book?
It’s half a sentence I think! It was picked up everywhere; it's quite astounding. I think that this sort of thing occurs with the internet; they comment on comments on comments on the internet without reading the book – it's how it goes.

Do you think that this will encourage people to blame the mothers for children being gay?
No, this is not my intention. It's to warn people before pregnancy for many reasons. It would be nonsense to not talk about it. If something chemically influences the child's brain we should talk about it. Sexual orientation is determined by many structural and functional differences in the brain, all of which develop in the womb during the second half of pregnancy. They aren’t caused by the behavior of dominant mothers, who are the traditional scapegoats in this context. Just for the record, I made a habit over the years of asking the medical students I taught, around 250 at a time, which of them did NOT have a dominant mother. No one ever raised their hand.

Do you think that your book will change how people perceive smoking mothers?
For some people, but it's not the main focus of the book. It's important because if you understand things scientifically the emotions disappear and we simply understand and accept people.

Is the notion that sexuality is a choice harmful?
I see no evidence whatsoever that sexuality is a choice. Churches claim that it's a wrong choice. People are blamed for a choice made for them in the womb. I cannot see the advantage of saying that it is a choice. It’s actually harmful because fundamentalists blame people for it. We did away with the notion of it being a choice in the the Netherlands 25 years ago! There's a sexual difference in men and women. Men are bisexual 5-10% of the time and women are 50%. More women are bisexual than men. Again, it's not a choice.

What is the main message of your book?
I think that the main message is that we're all different. We should accept this. People should live by how their brain has formed with no restrictions. We should accept that some humans are bisexual, pansexual and gay. We should let people live how they want to long as it doesn't harm other people. The state should let people live in freedom.

Words: Helena Horton (@helenashead)

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