Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The "born that way" myth

At the end of November, 2008, I wrote a three-part ramble on some questions surrounding the origins of same-sex attraction (SSA) called “Challenging the Conventional Wisdom”. Although I’ve left it posted, and occasionally refer back to it, it’s not the clearest, most concise effort I’ve ever made. As such, I don’t ever refer to it in posts on other blogs.

However, one paragraph definitely bears repeating:

If homosexuality is not an innate orientation, present at conception, we must still realize that—for the most part—it’s also not … a matter of conscious choice, born of a desire to be different. Rather, if—as the reparative therapists inform us—homosexuality is one of many symptoms of certain childhood traumas, then it is a seeking-out of reconnection with the world of the gender that they were pushed out of. To indulge ourselves in a language that treats them as inferior or intentionally evil is to exacerbate the trauma and separation.
Over at CatholicHerald.co.uk, Stuart Reid has posted an interesting response to a cri de coeur from a Catholic traditionalist who is a chaste homosexual. It begins with a link to a discussion on Father Z’s blog What Does the Prayer Really Say which bears on the question of the “born that way” argument. (Yes, I have a couple of comments there.) But he really brings up the discussion as a prelude:

My own view is that most homosexuals are born that way. I believe it instinctively. I also believe it because many gay people say it is the case, and I see no reason for disbelieving them. I do not, however, believe that being born that way makes gay sex right. Nor do homosexuals necessarily believe that. Last March I received a letter from a homosexual traditionalist who did not believe it. But he did not like the attitude of some Catholics to gays, and rebuked me for having written in my Charterhouse column that homosexuals formed a “rich and privileged minority”.

“… I can’t for the life of me understand why you think that some homosexuals are ‘a rich and privileged minority’. Often the opposite is true. I, for example, am not rich. I live a rather empty and lonely life, never fully able to be who I am, for, yes, I encounter prejudice often (especially at church). I will never have the privilege of fathering children, or of having a loving relationship ….

“Many ‘gays’ such as myself go to church and try to lead a good (and chaste) life. I try to live by the precepts of the Church I love.

“It is quite hurtful when our priests talk of the ‘evil of homosexuality’ in the same breath as abortion, prostitution, etc, as if there are no ‘gays’ in the congregation at all! As I am sure you are aware, finding oneself homosexual is not a choice, whereas these other situations are avoidable ….”

The question of whether homosexuality is truly a choice bears discussion because a lot of gay activism predicates itself on the firmly-held conviction that homosexuality is “natural”, that gay people are in fact “born that way”. If SSA is “hard-wired” into the human personality, then a cure is impossible and even undesirable. Gary Greenberg, a practicing psychotherapist, writes in MotherJones.com, “All the major psychotherapy guilds have barred their members from researching or practicing reparative therapy on the grounds that it is inherently unethical to treat something that is not a disease, that it contributes to oppression by pathologizing [sic] homosexuality, and that it is dangerous to patients whose self-esteem can only suffer when they try to change something about themselves that they can’t (and shouldn’t have to) change” [emphasis mine].

Here we must make a very necessary distinction between a predisposition and what Dr. A. Dean Byrd calls “the essentialist argument that homosexuality is biologically determined, and is therefore not amenable to change”. To speak of a predisposition is to speak of a degree to which the dice are loaded in a particular direction: a predisposition makes a particular behavior more probable but not inevitable. To sustain the essentialist argument, one must be able to show a biological trigger so heavily connected to SSA that to find one without the other would be astonishing.

Unfortunately for gay-rights activists and their supporters in the mental health professions, the evidence for such a trigger hasn’t yet been found. As Dr. Greenberg (rather grudgingly) admits, “While scientists have found intriguing biological differences between gay and straight people, the evidence so far stops well short of proving that we are born with a sexual orientation that we will have for life. Even more important, some research shows that sexual orientation is more fluid than we have come to think, that people … can and do move across customary sexual orientation boundaries, that there are ex-straights as well as ex-gays” [again, emphasis mine]. And Dr. Byrd maintains, “Even the gay-activist researchers themselves who studies have been used by the media to trumpet the message that homosexuality is biologically determined do not support the ‘born that way’ myth.” He cites as an example Dean Hamer, the author of the controversial “gay gene” study, who declared, “We knew that genes were only part of the answer. We assumed the environment also played a role in sexual orientation, as it does in most, if not all behaviors ....” Without such a trigger, the argument that SSA is natural and thus neither needs nor admits of a cure is severely weakened.

As Reid says, many if not most homosexuals claim they were born with the orientation, and that they never knew a time when they weren’t attracted to people of the same sex. Nevertheless, without impugning the sincerity and integrity of these people, I distrust this claim. Memory is a very flexible thing, vulnerable to modification and repression as demanded by one’s psychological needs; it’s far too easy to retroject one’s adult perspective and motivations into childhood events, and to “forget” or discount countervailing experiences. Moreover, since most people aren’t born clinical psychiatrists, many can’t see influential connections between their social or familial lives and their behavioral choices.

Psychologist Dr. Julie Harren offers this model:

• Genes + Brain Wiring + Prenatal Hormonal Environment = Temperament

• Parents + Peers + Experiences = Environment

• Temperament + Environment = Homosexual Orientation

Because of the complexity of the model, it’s easy to overstate the degree to which free will plays a role in the development of SSA. Certainly, it’s not the conscious and deliberate intent of most parents and peers to make the individual gay … often, it’s the exact opposite. Nor can we discount the marked influence of adult predators, who reproduce their kind in a manner analogous to vampires. I think it’s fair to say that most people who suffer SSA end up in that state mostly by accident.

Nonetheless, that SSA is a sexual dysfunction ought not to be debatable, let alone deniable. Homosexuality is only “natural” in the sense that it arises without conscious intervention, and only to the degree that it does arise without conscious intent. Denial that SSA is a disorder requires the implicit, unrealistic belief that sexual urges have no biological role to play, that they represent an inexplicable itch one must occasionally scratch but which have no more purpose than does the appendix.[*] A more mature, objective consideration tells us that SSA, at the very least, acts against the person’s ability to pass on his/her genes by directing sexual urges towards non-reproductive unions, making it a survival-negative trait. Moreover, the high correlative connection between SSA, abusive/self-destructive behaviors and emotional disorders points to SSA as a symptom of deeper psychological issues that require attention and treatment.

Doctor Greenberg holds it unethical to treat something that’s not a disease; well and good. It’s also unethical to ignore evidence that points to a behavior as physically, socially and emotionally unhealthy; if it’s unhealthy, then it’s a valid mental health issue which manipulative references to “oppression” merely obfuscates. If further evidence also shows that the behavior isn’t cemented into the psyche, that it can in fact change with or without treatment, then it’s unethical to discourage treatment and punish or ostracize therapists who offer it.

Reid ends his piece with the mournful observation, “… [W]hat my friend says is sobering. Life is infinitely sad. Good and bad alike, we mourn and weep in this vale of tears. But self-denying homosexuals—homosexuals who try to live by the Church’s teaching—often have a lot more to mourn and weep about than the rest of us.” The cruel irony is that, for many, the tears would not have been necessary had not the major mental-health guilds abandoned treatment efforts, removed homosexuality from their lists of disorders, and uncritically adopted the “born that way” myth.
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[*]In fact, while most scientists consider the appendix a vestigial organ, evolutionary baggage whose original purpose is lost, recent research suggests it may play a secondary role in maintaining beneficial bacteria.

9 comments:

  1. I greatly enjoyed your discussion above. I agree with most of what you have said, with one salient exception:

    "Nonetheless, that SSA is a sexual dysfunction ought not to be debatable, let alone deniable. Homosexuality is only “natural” in the sense that it arises without conscious intervention, and only to the degree that it does arise without conscious intent. "

    I would profoundly disagree with this in thinking of how society can intentionally promote homosexuality or bisexuality (or any other type of sexuality, such as sex with minors), thus homosexuality can arise out of conscious intervention, along with social conditioning.

    This can be done intentionally, and it does impact people who may be susceptible to this kind of message or social conditioning, as well as having an impact on the individual who is doing the promoting, legitimizing, etc. of homosexuality.

    Then, how someone thinks about their sexual feelings can also impact these very same sexual feelings, plus other attitudes and behaviors. So an individual can intensify or deform a number of sexual feelings in themselves, and the degree of intentionality or awareness with which this is all done can vary.

    I hope I have been minimally articulate in this brief comment, I felt I was lacking the proper words to express what I wanted to point out. Let's say it's more properly a draft.

    I look forward to reading more of your writings.

    Alessandra

    http://socimages.blogsome.com/

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  2. Alessandra: Thanks for your reply. My whole point in conditioning the statement ("only to the degree that it does arise without conscious intent") was to acknowledge that homosexuality is sometimes—heck, often—deliberately produced and encouraged by homosexual predators who "seduce" young men. To this extent, homosexuals can be said to reproduce in a manner analogous to vampires (negative connotations fully intended). I'll cheerfully grant to anyone who demands it that heterosexuals can be equally guilty of such predations; just look at how the porn universe creates and sustains the attitude that teenage girls simply pant for older men to have sex with them. The thrust of the statement, though, is that the attempt to prove homosexuality "natural" from the behavior of other animals depends on a definition of "natural" that is incomplete and which doesn't lead anywhere in terms of moral philosophy.

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  3. My whole point in conditioning the statement ("only to the degree that it does arise without conscious intent") was to acknowledge that homosexuality is sometimes—heck, often—deliberately produced and encouraged by homosexual predators who "seduce" young men.
    ==========
    Yes, and we can definitely add that the same is true for homosexual or bisexual women, who either try to seduce, to encourage it, or, if unsuccessful, insist on sexually harassing heterosexual women.

    "The thrust of the statement, though, is that the attempt to prove homosexuality "natural" from the behavior of other animals depends on a definition of "natural" that is incomplete and which doesn't lead anywhere in terms of moral philosophy. "

    My reply to the the claim that homosexuality is "natural" is that everything that happens to any natural creature can only be natural. This includes incest, genocide, murder, etc. Anything and everything is natural, so that is not saying much, it's an empty legitimization attempt.

    Given that the word "natural" is used by people who want to normalize homosexuality as something that is "good" (simply because it happens) and a "harmless product" of a particular biological development, my reply to that claim is first that there is nothing good about homosexuality. Ask a liberal what is good about homosexuality and they can never point out anything good about it.

    As for the claim that homosexuality in humans is justified because there are some animals who display some kind of homosexual behavior, there are so many flaws with this, that it's easy to shoot down. The most common flaw is to ignore all the other types of savage behaviors we find in animals or the enormous differences between us and other species.

    The second flaw, like the "homosexual" Bonobo claim, is that liberals will often claim an animal is homosexual when it's a completely different phenomenon that may include some kind of sexual activity with animals of the same sex.

    See my comment here:
    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/09/fired-in-a-crowded-theater

    Regards,
    Alessandra

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Sorry, didn't proof-read enough ....

    Y'know, Alessandra, I get the feeling we're both saying essentially the same thing and holding the same position, but our manners of expressing it are getting in the way. Case in point:

    "My reply to the the claim that homosexuality is 'natural' is that everything that happens to any natural creature can only be natural. This includes incest, genocide, murder, etc. Anything and everything is natural, so that is not saying much, it's an empty legitimization attempt."

    QED. I normally give myself a limit of 1,500 words, so occasionally I have to contract an argument to its bare essentials. You've successfully unpacked it; you get the door prize. (I also read your comment in First Things. Very well put; do you have a blog I can read?) Homosexuality is natural? So is schizophrenia, spina bifida, kleptomania and Chicago Cubs fandom. "Natural" doesn't necessarily—or even predominantly—equal "good", "healthy" or "wise". Also, animals don't "prefer" or "choose" same-sex relations. In some cases, it seems to be physiological oddities in one animal that trigger the release of different pheromones, attracting animals of the same sex; in some cases, it seems to be more of an alpha-male demonstration of dominance ... more of a rape than anything else. Certainly we can't speak of a dog attempting procreation with your leg as a "choice" or a "preference"!

    The sum of all this is: I agree with you. Really.

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  6. Hi,

    Maybe my comments (or what you imagined were my motives) weren't very clear to you. I wasn't writing because we disagree, but mostly because we agree and I was just adding another element to the subject that I thought was important.

    This is my blog:
    http://socimages.blogsome.com/

    Your comments will be very welcome!

    Regards,
    Alessandra

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  7. I don't know what your policy is on posting comments on old blog entries, so I apologize in advance if I'm not supposed to do so.

    First, I need to be clear in my intent: I do not disagree with your points, but rather I am looking for any and all potential perceived holes in them so that by resolving them I can have a more concrete case in my own head. In other words, I'm going to play devil's advocate here.

    If I understand correctly, it seems one of the points, put in the simplest of words, is that homosexuality is a sexual dysfunction because it grinds against the reproductive purpose of sex.

    However, if the above statement isn't a mistake of over-simplification on my part, could it not also be said by the opposition that then asexuality is a dysfunction as well? This would put celibacy in the same camp as homosexuality -- practitioners of both in need of therapy. Granted the asexual isn't misusing sex, but perhaps the opponent would claim non-use is a sort of misuse, if we're looking at it purely through a "use as designed" lens. Non-use certainly defies reproductive programming just as much as misuse, in that both lead to the same end.

    If there's a line we can clearly draw there, I think it would help cement the case further.

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  8. @ James: Commenting on old posts is fine. On some of the old posts, since there were comments on them prior to my signing on with IntenseDebate, they're still handled by Blogger, and I have those set up for automatic moderation, so you may not see them posted right away.

    Getting into the meat of your query: If I understand you correctly, you're really speaking of chastity and celibacy rather than asexuality. Asexuality is a dysfunction, and the Church is wary of ordaining men who dislike or are afraid of sex. Think of it this way: Sacrifices are gifts, and no religion known offers to its gods gifts that are worthless or despicable. Neither chastity nor celibacy needs to be motivated by asexuality, nor can it be validly ascribed to the chaste and the celibate a priori.

    Now, in many if not most cultures, begetting and raising children is a duty of the citizen; a possible case could be made that deliberate celibacy is a step away from one's civic responsibility to contribute to the survival of the community. Certainly Freud thought that celibacy is psychologically unnatural (but then, he was a religious skeptic, so that probably colored his analysis).

    The Catholic response, however, is that the religious celibate contributes to the welfare of the community in other ways. Moreover, if we are to classify gay sex as an abuse of the reproductive imperative, then what valid option do we have for him/her if permanent chastity is forbidden? (This takes as granted the postulate that the person afflicted with SSA is truly incapable of having straight sex, which is not true of a number of homosexuals.)

    Now, there are people for whom lifelong celibacy would be a mistake — at the least, an onerous burden — and St. Paul recognizes this fact in 1 Cor 7:1-7; in his own discussion of celibacy (Mt 19:11-12), Jesus also recognizes that such restraint isn't a gift given to everyone. But overall, the "disuse = abuse" argument is simply bad logic; it's like saying "If you own a gun, you must fire it at least once!" You can't get a positive requirement out of a negative restriction.

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  9. "Positive requirement out of a negative restriction" -- good way to word it, thank you.

    Actually, I had no idea the Catholic Church regarded asexuality that way as far as celibacy is concerned. I understand the reasoning.

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