As an aromantic asexual person, all three things in this book’s title have confused me at one point or another! Attraction, Love, Sex: The Inside Story examines our scientific understanding of makes humans interested in one another, romantic stylez (yes, with a Z). Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist, brings together research from psychology, biology, chemistry, and more in order to help the reader understand the physiological, psychological, and even evolutionary underpinnings of sexuality and romance. There’s a lot of good science in this book, along with some really bad science that left a bad taste in my mouth. An eARC was provided by Columbia University Press via NetGalley.
This book is organized into discrete chapters that are easy to pick up and put back down. LeVay takes us on a tour, if you will, through different aspects of sex and sexuality. Each chapter has a simple title, like “Love” or “Attraction,” yet that simplicity conceals the beguiling complexity of each topic. I really liked the structure and especially the way LeVay consistently includes a conclusions section at the end of every chapter to give us the bottom line.
What I liked: this is a book that doesn’t oversimplify and clearly acknowledges that science can be a flawed, human endeavour. As LeVay mentions various studies and the theories they support, he is ever diligent in noting if a study couldn’t be replicated or was contradicted by a more recent study. This is a practice I respect, for I find that sometimes science communicators, in their desire to distill science into a more streamlined narrative, pick one theory (or a couple of most likely theories) and present that version of the science as more settled than it actually is. Given that science is an ever-evolving discipline, LeVay’s approach to discussing these topics is a lot more transparent. In particular, I appreciated how he presented evolutionary psychology theories in a more skeptical light.
I also think this book has a great deal of useful information in its pages. For anyone just setting out to get a comprehensive overview of all things love, you could do worse than to read Attraction, Love, Sex. Even a single chapter in isolation, for example as an excerpt in a high school class, could be really useful. LeVay’s writing is skilled, and I learned all sorts of useful tidbits.
On the other hand, there were times when this book frustrated me as a queer person. Now, LeVay is gay and also, from what I can infer here, attempts to be trans inclusive. At one point he discusses sex-linked differences in the brain and includes the intriguing result that brain scans of binary trans people are often more similar to the sex they identify as rather than their sex assigned at birth (something also discussed in Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender. So I want to give LeVay some credit here. Nevertheless, I have some reservations.
First, LeVay seems to put a lot of stock in defining sexual orientation in terms of physical arousal and being able to quantify this by hooking people up to machines that measure that arousal through, say, blood flow. I understand the desire from a scientific standpoint to be able to talk about sexual orientation in a more objective, measurable way. Yet plethysmography has a troubling history (undiscussed here) linked to authorities wanting to out gay people and even then subject them to conversion therapy. More broadly, I think LeVay misses the point. While there is undoubtedly a physiological component to orientation—whether that is neurological, hormonal, genetic, etc.—like so many other emergent aspects of our identity, I don’t think we will ever be able to reduce orientation down purely to a single test or to concrete and tidy definitions like the ones he mentions here.
Second, LeVay’s treatment of asexuality is woefully inadequate. Again, credit where credit is due: he at least mentions asexuality and explicitly declares that “asexuality is not a problematic lack of sexual desire” and also states that “most asexual people are satisfied with their orientation.” So why am I dissatisfied with this mention? Simply put, even though LeVay charitably says that “asexuality should probably be thought of as a sexual orientation,” this single mention of asexuality (all of these quotations come from a single paragraph) occurs in the chapter on “Having Sex” rather than the “Orientation” or “Attraction” chapters. We are once again an afterthought, little more than a footnote—a positive, inclusive one, yes, but not much more than that.
Third, I take major issue with how LeVay characterizes trans people. LeVay uncritically draws on the work of Ray Blanchard and his theory of autogynephelia. (Julia Serano has a very cogent explanation of why Blanchard’s work is harmful, so I’ll leave that part to her.) LeVay draws a very artificial distinction between what he sees as “classical” transsexuality and autogynephilic trans women (you’ll notice that this discussion and Blanchard’s original research both focus solely on trans women, with nary a consideration for trans men or non-binary people, insert audible eye-rolling here). Just the label of “classic” sounds icky to me. As with his conversations on orientation, LeVay’s conceptions of gender identity miss the mark in a profound way.
I don’t know anything about LeVay outside of reading his Wikipedia article. It sounds like he has been a longstanding expert in the study of sexuality as it relates to neuroscience, along with an advocate for gay rights. With that in mind, I don’t want to be the uppity youngster who criticizes her elders with undue harshness.
Even so, as I sat down to write a much softer version of this review … well, I got to the part about trans people, and I found myself unable to be conciliatory. LeVay might be a towering giant in his field and have a long career behind him, but it’s irresponsible to publish remarks like this in 2023 in the current political climate around trans people. I cannot in good conscience recommend this book, because well-meaning and curious allies who read this might inadvertently think that LeVay (and by extension, Blanchard) are accurately discussing transgender people. As much as there are valuable nuggets of information elsewhere in the book, this one section alone is too problematic. Additionally, it represents the challenge of talking so broadly about a topic like this. Rather than specializing, LeVay decided to take on all of human sexuality—and even with his decades of experience in the field, that task proved to be too elusive for him to complete with reasonable fidelity.