Okay, in this blog post I’m going to be talking about “nature” to mean “stuff that happens before you leave the womb, like genetics and epigenetics and womb environment and stuff” and “nurture” to mean “stuff that happens after you leave the womb, like your parents and who your friends are and The Patriarchy and stuff.” I realize this is vastly oversimplified and all the biologists and psychologists in the audience are tearing their hair out.
Given this definition: I think that the kinds of people one is sexually attracted to are primarily the result of nurture, not nature.
As the Internet has shown, people are attracted to a lot of really weird shit. I mean, there exist people who are sexually attracted to cartoon ponies. Lots of them. I find it extremely difficult to figure out how anything even vaguely nature-y would lead a physical attraction to cartoon ponies. Like, sure, you could maybe explain liking humanoid cartoons because they’re heavily caricatured and thus a superstimulus of traits you find attractive because of nature, but what the fuck kind of attractive trait is a cartoon pony stimulating? Mane color? So nurture definitely influences people’s sexuality at least some.
“Well,” you might say, “so a few weirdos have a sexuality that is pretty clearly nurture-related. But surely nurture wouldn’t affect, as a completely random example, an entire society for a thousand years!” To which I say: footbinding. To me– just like to any other modern American– footbinding is less attractive and more incredibly squicky body horror. But men wrote poems about the beauty of lotus feet; for a thousand years families crippled their daughters so they would be beautiful. I mean. That is serious commitment there. Your options here are “sexually is culturally influenced in an enormous way,” “for some reason Chinese people evolved to find footbinding beautiful and no one else did and they’ve mysteriously stopped in the past hundred years,” or “Chinese people spent a thousand years breaking their daughters’ feet for no reason.”
There is also more circumstantial evidence! What people are sexually attracted to changes very quickly. In the 1920s, women wore breast binders to flatten their chests; today, Ask Men heralds their hottest woman of 2012‘s cleavage and “obvious assets.” Within less than a century, in the same country, we went from an ideal woman who had A cups to an ideal woman with F cups, both of which presumably reflect the desires of the average man of the time equally well. (…Seriously? F cups? That poor woman.) Admittedly, while genetics can’t change that fast, some nature-y things could (hi epigenetics), so it isn’t perfect.
Also, people are often attracted to traits that offer no fitness-maximizing benefit at all. The Victorians fetishized the tragically beautiful woman dying of tuberculosis. It is difficult in the extreme to imagine how dying of tuberculosis maximizes one’s ability to have healthy offspring. Or if you want to get closer to home– look at the nigh-universal geek male thing for girls in glasses. Having eye trouble is not obviously fitness-maximizing; on the other hand, glasses are a common signal in Western culture for intelligence, so liking girls with glasses is a logical outgrowth of liking smart girls. Of course, there are a lot of things that are nature-influenced and not fitness-maximizing– genetic drift is a thing– so this is not conclusive evidence.
On the other hand, look at the most proverbially born this way kind of sexual attraction: homosexuality. Twin studies have shown that between 17% and 39% of one’s sexual orientation is explained by genetics. While womb environment (especially prenatal hormone levels), which falls into my “nature” category, is also hypothesized to have an effect, that’s not a great case for the Born This Way side.
So. Here is my Grand Theory of Sexual Attraction: what people are attracted to might be based partially on nature, especially for things like sexual orientation, but it is primarily a result of this miasma of individual psychology, peer group, media, porn, early sexual partners, et cetera, et cetera. A lot of that stuff is influenced by cultural artifacts such as the patriarchy and beauty constructs on a level that might be hard to see on an individual level but is clearly evident on a population level. Women’s attraction to socially dominant men is a result of patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or fixable; it just is.