The biology of human psychosexual differentiation

Horm Behav. 2006 Nov;50(4):589-601. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2006.06.011. Epub 2006 Jul 25.


Most attempts to identify biological underpinnings of gender identity and sexual orientation in humans have investigated effects of sex steroids, so pivotal in the differentiation of the genitalia, showing strong parallels between animals and the human. The information on humans is derived from the so-called 'experiments of nature', clinical entities with a lesser-than-normal androgen exposure in XY subjects and a higher than normal androgen exposure in XX subjects. Prenatal androgenization appears to predispose to a male gender identity development, but apparently not decisively since 40-50% of 46,XY intersexed children with a history of prenatal androgen exposure do not develop a male gender identity. Obviously, male-to-female transsexuals, with a normal androgen exposure prenatally (there is no serious evidence to the contrary) develop a female gender identity, through unknown biological mechanisms apparently overriding the effects of prenatal androgens. The latest studies in 46, XX subjects exposed to prenatal androgens show that prenatal androgenization of 46,XX fetuses leads to marked masculinization of later gender-related behavior but does not lead to gender confusion/dysphoria. The example of female-to-male transsexuals, without evidence of prenatal androgen exposure, indicates that a male gender identity can develop without a significant androgen stimulus. So we are far away from any comprehensive understanding of hormonal imprinting on gender identity formation. Brain studies in homosexuals have not held up in replication studies or are in need of replication in transsexuals. Genetic studies and the fraternal birth order hypothesis provide indications of familial clustering of homosexuality but in many homosexuals these genetic patterns cannot be identified. The biological explanations advanced for the birth order hypothesis lack any experimental support.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / physiology
  • Birth Order / psychology
  • Female
  • Gender Identity*
  • Homosexuality / physiology
  • Homosexuality / psychology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Psychosexual Development*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sexual Behavior* / physiology
  • Sexual Behavior* / psychology
  • Transsexualism


  • Androgens