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Fact check: Ben Carson’s missteps on sexual orientation

  • March 06, 2015

Ben Carson claimed that being gay is “absolutely” a choice, and as proof he said “a lot of people” go into prison and change their sexual orientation while incarcerated. There is no evidence to support these claims.

Though no conclusive answers are available about how people arrive at their sexual orientation, there is general consensus that choice does not play a significant role. Studies have found genetics likely plays a role, as may hormonal exposure while in utero. As for prison inmates changing sexual orientation, very little research has been conducted on the subject. One small, non-representative study that did not follow inmates after release did find some inmates reported shifting their orientation while in prison.

Carson apologized for those comments, but in doing so made another mistake. He said, “We do know, however, that we are always born male and female.” This is not entirely accurate: Disorders of sex development, also known as intersex disorders, occur in about one in 4,500 births and have raised questions about the male-female gender dichotomy.


Carson, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidatespoke with CNN’s Chris Cuomo

Carson, March 4









Carson went on to say that his point about prisons “thwarts” the notion that being gay is not a choice. In fact, the scientific community remains unsure of exactly what determines sexual orientation, but choice is not a significant factor.

According to the American Psychological Association

Clinton Andersonone such survey

Anderson said the APA does “not currently take any position on the biological evidence,” but added that there is “substantial” evidence regarding biology and sexual orientation. For example, there is likely a genetic component, based upon studies of the families of homosexual men. In one such study, published in the journal Science, it was more likely that maternal uncles and male cousins of gay men were also gay; that study found it was more than 99% likely “that at least one subtype of male sexual orientation is genetically influenced.”

Another study, published in 2004 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a journal on biological sciences published by the United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences, looked at 98 homosexual and 100 heterosexual men and more than 4,000 of their relatives. The study found that female maternal relatives of homosexual men have higher fecundity — reproductive rate, or a measure of how many children someone has or can have — than female maternal relatives of heterosexuals. This could help explain what has been considered a sort of evolutionary paradox, that a genetic trait for homosexuality could be passed down.

This finding has been confirmed elsewhere, including by a 2012 study in the open-access journal PLoS One. In that paper, the authors wrote that “the total female fecundity was significantly higher in homosexual than heterosexual probands” — essentially the people being studied — “thus compensating for the reduced fecundity of homosexuals.”

Another 2012 study, published in the Quarterly Review of Biology, suggested that “epigenetic” effects occurring while in the womb may determine sexual orientation. This means that it isn’t the genes themselves dictating sexual orientation, but which genes or parts of genes are activated or expressed — something that can change based on levels of hormones to which a fetus is exposed


Carson claimed that “a lot of people” change their sexual orientation in prison. There is no evidence that this is the case.

Very little research has been done specifically on changes to sexual orientation while incarcerated. One relevant study was published in 2013 in the Prison Journal by Lauren Gibson and Christopher Hensley

Of the 142 inmates, 24 reported a change in sexual orientation from before incarceration to the present. In total, 75% of those who changed orientation changed from straight to bisexual, 12.5% changed from bisexual to straight, and 4.2% each changed from bisexual to gay, from gay to straight, and from gay to bisexual. And again, these represented only 16.9% of all the inmates who responded to the survey, and only 18% of those asked to participate (800 in total) actually responded.

Hensley, the coauthor of the paper, told us in a phone interview that this was indeed a small sample and should not be considered representative of the larger population. He also said that he has not followed up with these inmates to check what their sexual orientation was after release from prison, and that he is unaware of any studies that have examined sexual orientation before entering and after leaving prison.


Carson released an apology

Within that apology, however, Carson made another mistake. After noting that he is a “doctor trained in multiple fields of medicine,” he said: “We do know, however, that we are always born male and female.” As a doctor, he should know that strict male-female dichotomy does not reflect the current understanding of gender given the approximately one in 4,500 children

DSDs represent a number of different congenital abnormalities that can make it difficult or impossible to determine male or female gender at birth. These conditions include syndromes

Much research has gone into understanding and managing DSDs. According to one expert writing in the Journal of Clinical Research in Pediatric Endocrinology, “The psychological and social implications of gender assignment require a multidisciplinary approach” and a team of physicians across a variety of fields. Other authors, writing in Nature Reviews Endocrinology

Editor’s note:’s SciCheck feature focuses on false and misleading scientific claims that are made by partisans to influence public policy. SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.

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