Friday, April 01, 2005

Bem on the Development of Sexual Orientation

I read something yesterday that surprised me. It was anti-gay psychologist Warren Throckmorton, posting on the Internet, saying: You really should examine the work of Daryl Bem at Cornell University concerning the interaction of environment and biological factors on sexual attractions.

Well, I spent a lot of time in graduate school studying and dissecting Bem's theory of self-perception, an early theoretical challenge to Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory, but I was not familiar with his research on sexual orientation. So I thought, cool, let's see what he says.

I found a very informative paper from Psychological Review, which I admit I subscribe to, and it comes quarterly but I just don't seem to keep up with the journals like I used to. Luckily, Bem had a PDF of this 1996 article on his web site (the APA does not usually let you publish their articles on the net, I suspect this is an act of defiance on his part). This paper summarizes Bem's theory of sexual orientation -- by the way, Psych Review is a very prestigious APA journal that publishes long, in-depth reviews of mature research programs. He begins:
The question "What causes homosexuality?" is both politically suspect and scientifically misconceived. Politically suspect because it is so frequently motivated by an agenda of prevention and cure. Scientifically misconceived because it presumes that heterosexuality is so well understood, so obviously the "natural" evolutionary consequence of reproductive advantage, that only deviations from it are theoretically problematic. Freud himself did not so presume: "[ Heterosexuality ] is also a problem that needs elucidation and is not a self-evident fact based upon an attraction that is ultimately of a chemical nature" (Freud, 1905/1962, pp. I 1-12). Exotic Becomes Erotic: A Developmental Theory of Sexual Orientation

All righty now. Looks like this Bem feller's gonna take us fer a ride, ain't he? "Motivated by an agenda of prevention and cure," he says. Wow, that would be Throckmorton himself, wouldn't it? [Note to the uninitiated: this whole post is steeped in irony. Warren Throckmorton is a psychologist who panders to the religious right, writing and speaking constantly that homosexuality can be treated in psychotherapy, which puts him at odds with the entire profession of counselors and therapists. The fact that he recommends Bem is really just a sign that he knows that those who read his junk-science are too ignorant to check his sources.]

And this is going to get hairy, because Daryl Bem is no small-town huckster trying to simplify a complicated issue into black and white. No, he is going to make this hard, he's going to throw away all his assumptions and look at this topic freshly.
Accordingly, this article proposes a developmental theory of erotic/romantic attraction that provides the same basic account for both opposite-sex and same-sex desire--and for both men and women. In addition to finding such parsimony politically, scientifically, and aesthetically satisfying, I believe that it can also be sustained by the evidence.

The academic discourse on sexual orientation is currently dominated by the biological essentialists--who can point to a corpus of evidence linking sexual orientation to genes, prenatal hormones, and brain neuroanatomy--and the social constructionists- who can point to a corpus of historical and anthropological evidence showing that the very concept of sexual orientation is a culture-bound notion (De Cecco & Elia, 1993). The personality, clinical, and developmental theorists who once dominated the discourse on this topic have fallen conspicuously silent. Some have probably become closet converts to biology because they cannot point to a coherent corpus of evidence that supports an experience-based account of sexual orientation. This would be understandable; experience-based theories have not fared well empirically in recent years.

Bem then reviews some research, pointing out that
The data ... failed to support any of several possible accounts based on mechanisms of learning or conditioning, including the popular layperson's "seduction" theory of homosexuality.

In particular, the kinds of sexual encounters that would presumably serve as the basis for such learning or conditioning typically occurred after, rather than before, the individual experienced the relevant sexual feelings, Gay men and lesbians, for example, had typically not participated in any "advanced" sexual activities with persons of the same sex until about 3 years after they had become aware of same-sex attractions. Moreover, they neither lacked opposite-sex sexual experiences during their childhood and adolescent years nor found them unpleasant.

And finally, there was no support for "labeling" theory, which suggests that individuals might adopt a homosexual orientation as a consequence of being labeled homosexual or sexually different by others as they were growing up. Although gay men and lesbians were, in fact, more likely to report that they had been so labeled, the path analysis revealed the differential labeling to be the result of an emerging homosexual orientation rather than a cause of or even a secondary contributor to it.

I apologize for quoting so extensively from this scholarly paper. But I think it is important for participants in this dialogue to get a feeling for the extent to which these topics have already been studied, and a feel for the tone of the academic discussion.

The idea that a health education class is going to turn kids gay, so that they all catch AIDS and die, and so we'd better sue the schools right now before it happens, is a very primitive one that does not really deserve attention. These are actually interesting and very complex topics, deserving better than parochial slogan-slinging.

Bem agrees that there is a genetic factor in homosexuality, but theorizes that the genetic effect is indirect. I can't go into it entirely in the length of a blog post, and you'd have to understand some stuff about misattribution of arousal and other arcane psychological stuff, but suffice it to say, Bem theorizes that the biological factors affect childhood behavior, which then affects what stimuli the individual will find erotically attractive later in life.

Most interesting, Bem -- whose marriage to Sandra Bem was an exercise in feminist ideals that has been written about extensively -- considers the usual dichotomy of gay/straight to be rather unimportant, from a scientific point of view. It is a relatively recent social construct, he says, but a poor descriptor of human sexuality. Instead, Bem proposes that there are two paths, a homoerotic one and a heteroerotic one. Theoretically these two dimensions are independent:
Empirically, however, the two dimensions are likely to be negatively correlated in a gender-polarizing culture like ours in which most individuals come to be familiar with one sex while being estranged from the other...

Culture thus influences not only the structure and distribution of sexual orientation in a society but also how its natives, including its biological and behavioral scientists, think about sexual orientation. Like the natives of any gender-polarizing culture, we have learned to look at the world through the lenses of gender, to impose the male-female dichotomy on virtually every aspect of life, especially sexuality. Which brings us, finally, to the most deeply embedded cultural assumption of all--that sexual orientation is necessarily based on sex.

Very interesting, Bem suggests that the polarization of sexuality is something learned, something cultural, and that people have a general erotic tendency which could fixate on any kind of partner (his comments about the ducks in this article are great).

Finally, he quotes a statement from his wife and notes that it suggests
... the shape that sexual orientation might assume in a non-gender-polarizing culture, a culture that did not systematically estrange its children from either opposite-sex or same-sex peers. Such children would not grow up to be asexual; rather, their erotic and romantic preferences would simply crystallize around a more diverse and idiosyncratic variety of attributes. Gentlemen might still prefer blonds, but some of those gentlemen (and some ladies) would prefer blonds of any sex.

The Bems chose to raise their own children in a non-gender-polarizing home. Not everyone in our society has the fortitude to swim upstream like that, but they show it can be done.

The MCPS sex education curriculum is extremely conservative, compared to these ideas that Dr. Throckmorton has recommended to us. It depends on old-fashioned assumptions of polarization, and describes sexual orientation in the ways that mainstream Americans think of it. The controversy, of course, is that the curriculum intends to discuss sexual orientation at all. It is clearly an important step toward tolerance and understanding, and an important chunk of education for our children that should not be left out.


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