August 14, 2023 - 2:45pm

Can AI tell if you’re gay just from your viewing choices? A forthcoming radio documentary, by BBC reporter Ellie House, suggests this may be possible. House began investigating the predictive power of big data algorithms as a result of Netflix recommending her LGBTQ+ content a full six months before she began questioning her own sexuality. 

How did Netflix know? One possibility is that sexual orientation is innate, and there are cultural “tells” discernible to a pattern-recognising machine with a large dataset. Another possibility is more disorienting: that the relationship between identity and cultural preferences is uncertain, but orientation may not, in every case, be wholly innate and immutable. This would be anathema to older generations of gay rights advocates, for whom “sexual orientation” was understood as innate, and underwritten by the pursuit of real-world sexual encounters. 

But for some in this group, the whole LGBTQ+ edifice may seem as though it’s coming adrift from material reality. The number of UK and US citizens who identify as LGBTQ+ has roughly doubled over the last decade or so: from 1.6% in 2014 to 3.1% in 2020 in the UK, and from 3.4% in 2012 to 7.2% in 2022 in the US. In both cases rainbow identities are most prevalent in Gen Z: 8% in the UK, and 19% in the US. More starkly still, a recent poll at America’s elite Brown University showed 38% of students identifying as LGBTQ+. 

And yet one recent study also showed Gen Z having less sex than previous generations. So if one in four Gen Z adults has never had partnered sex, how do they know they’re LGBTQ+? 

Someone of my generation might wonder how stable a basis for identity a desire is, if it’s never acted on. But while a quarter of Gen Z adults have never had sex, still more (31%) have had virtual encounters such as sexting or cybersex. It seems plausible, then, that at least some of Gen Z’s blooming LGBTQ+ diversity is not based on real-world activity, so much as (for some at least) an aggregate self-image based on sexualised digital interactions, perhaps media preferences, or (as Katherine Dee suggests) affinity.

A generation that doesn’t view sex as even requiring an in-person partner may well be more willing to consider an interest in (for example) “LGBTQ+” storylines on Netflix as sufficient evidence of LGBTQ+ identity on its own. I can’t speculate on Ellie House, of course, but this does raise at least the theoretical possibility that a Netflix algorithm could nudge someone toward a self-professed LGBTQ+ identity that they wouldn’t otherwise have adopted. Indeed, in a controversial 2019 monograph, Females, the noted transgender activist Andrea Long Chu made something very like this suggestion, stating: “Sissy porn did make me trans.” 

But this, in turn, will have knock-on effects for the wider “LGBTQ+” movement. For example, gay rights activists have spent decades resisting conservative efforts to censor representations of same-sex relationships, on the basis that orientation is innate and movies can’t “turn someone gay”. But what if they can? More broadly, it follows that if there’s a dynamic relationship between content consumption and sexual identity, at least for some, it may not always be the case that LGBTQ+ people are “born this way”. 

This is a problem for gay rights activism. The claim that sexual orientation is innate forms the backbone of twentieth-century calls for tolerance, recognition and rights for same-sex attracted people. Without that foundation, we may find once-settled questions of rights for gay and lesbian people uncomfortably open to re-litigation. Indeed, the young lesbian whose same-sex speed dating event was recently de-venued for being open only to “adult human females” might argue that this is already happening.

But short of unplugging the internet, the radically more fluid Gen Z style relation between identity, media consumption, and embodied reality is here to stay. For an older generation of lesbian and gay activists, though, the longer-term consequences of dissolving “born this way” are only just coming into view.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.