Multiple pathways to sexual orientation, Part 1

On other threads, we have discussed why reparative therapy vignettes and ex-gay testimonies are so often alike. I have suggested that there are different causal pathways which lead to different sexual orientation outcomes. Also, therapists like Joe Nicolosi and Richard Cohen have strong public positions which promote a particular causal narrative. Clients who may have histories in line with those narratives seek counseling from those therapists. The same dynamic likely occurs in Exodus ministries where unhappy people seek help based on reading or hearing public testimonies.

People seeking help for unhappiness might be more likely to have life circumstances which they view as causal. Therapists looking for such causes ask questions which validate the hunches. It seems easy enough to imagine how therapists and clients can arrive at a common narrative without even trying to do so.

Same-sex attracted people who have not been traumatized in some way often react with puzzlement and frustration when, like palm readers, therapists go through a litany of questions about non-existent past trauma, seeking some confirmation of the predicted narrative. Eventually small, forgotten hurts and deprivations are identified as evidence for the expected patterns.

While I believe this occurs often, I have no idea how often. I also am pretty sure that the histories of some people are relevant to their sexual attractions. The research on the variability of pathways to sexual orientation is sparse but there is some and it demonstrates that on average same-sex attracted people who seek help of some kind (therapy or Exodus) recall more troubling relationships with parents than same-sex attracted people who have not sought therapy or ministry help.

The primary reference in this regard is Bell, Weinberg & Hammersmith (1981) Sexual preference: Its development in men and women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. An important section on the differences between clinical and nonclinical groups is reprinted here from pages 202-203.

Homosexuals in Therapy

More than half of the WHMs [white homosexual males] (58%) said that at one time or another they had sought help for a personal or emotional problem from a professional counselor such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Most previous studies of the development of male homosexuality have been based on the reports of homosexuals “in treatment,” and many scholars have tried to generalize their findings to other homosexuals as well. When our own findings failed to support so many widely held clinical views, we were curious to see whether the reports of respondents who had been in therapy would differ from those made by respondents who had never sought professional counseling or therapy.

What we found was that those respondents “ever in treatment” did indeed have the kinds of paternal variables in their model that were consistent with what clinicians have always thought to be typical of homosexual males. The path model of those “never in treatment,” on the other hand, either did not contain such variables or showed their influence to be weaker. For example, as the literature suggests, the “therapy” group tended to have Detached-Hostile Father (t.e.= .29), a variable that is tied to the son’s gender nonconformity and early homosexual experiences. This variable does not even appear in the model for the men who have never been in therapy, however. Moreover, although the “nontherapy” group had more Negative Relationships with their Fathers, this variable (t.e.= .11) did not influence their gender nonconformity at all. In addition, two other variables that were important for the therapy group — Cold father and Negative Image of Father — do not appear at all for the nontherapy males. Although the rest of the path model is much the same for both groups, clearly the model for the therapy group corresponds much more closely to the way fathers have been considered in theories about the etiology of male homosexuality.

How might this discrepancy be explained? On the one hand, it could be supposed that cold, detached fathers make for troubled sons who are likely to seek psychological treatment at some point in their lives. Likewise, it could be argued that “therapy” often involves an “education” of client by the therapist in which the client comes to believe what the therapist supposes must be true of the client’s parents. Alternatively, it could also be argued that fathers tend to withdraw (become detached) from psychologically troubled sons, who are later to seek psychological counseling.

Whatever the case may be, at least on the basis of what our respondents could remember about their parents, Cold or Detached-Hostile Fathers cannot be regarded as important in the development of male homosexuality in general, since their alleged influence does not even appear among those who neve sought therapy or counseling. Finally, it should be noted that the differences between the therapy and non-therapy groups do not stem from differences between these two groups in terms of effeminacy or bisexuality. We found no significant correlations between being exclusively homosexual and having been in therapy, the more effeminate WHMs were only somewhat more likely than the non-effeminate WHMs ever to have been in therapy (64% versus 54%).

Bell et al, also compared WHMs and WHTMs (white, heterosexual males) who had and had not been in therapy. The findings regarding these comparisons are not drawn out in the same manner as above. However, there is a footnote on page 202 briefly describing the analysis.

The path analysis on which these findings were based included all the white heterosexual males, whether or not they had been “in treatment.” Separate analyses, one comparing only those WHMs and WHTMs “ever in treatment” and and one comparing those WHMs and WHTMs “never in treatment” replicated the results reported above.

For women, the picture was somewhat different. The authors noted that 2/3rds of the WHW had been in therapy and then on page 209, they wrote:

We do find some differences between the path model for the women who had been in therapy and those who had not. Notably, Childhood Gender Nonconformity appears to have been a more important factor for the respondents who had been in therapy or counseling (t.e.= .71 versus .52 for the women who had never been in therapy or counseling.)

In addition, the path model for the homosexual women who had in therapy or counseling includes two variables pertaining to a sense of estrangement or unhappiness while they were growing up: Unhappiness in Adolescence (B=.14) and Felt Different from Other Girls in High School (B=.11). The path model for the nontherapy group contains no comparable measures.

Finally the path model for the women who had been in therapy or counseling includes two variables pertaining to an unhappy recollection of the mothers: Negative Relationship with Mothers (t.e. = .24) and Unpleasant Mother (t.e. = .22). The nontherapy group on the other hand, appear to have been slightly more influenced by their fathers. Their path shows significant — but weak — paths from Weak Father (t.e. = .20), Aloof Father (t.e. = .14), Controlling Father (t.e. = -.10), and Mother Dominated Father (t.e. = .14). Otherwise, the differences between the women in therapy or counseling and those with no such experience show little pattern.

In the path analysis procedure used in Bell et al’s research, the “t.e.” you see repeated throughout this passage refers to the “total effect” of one variable on another, in this case sexual preference. Think of it as a measure of the strength of effect of each variable mentioned and sexual orientation, with the larger numbers representing a larger effect. While there are many points we could discuss here, the primary reason for this series is to examine the possibility that multiple paths exist which yield the direction of sexual attractions. A practical implication is that therapists who frequently counsel those who are seeking help probably get a skewed picture of same-sex attracted people in general. Another implication is the effects noted by the reparative drive theorists are not huge and must rely on other pre- and post-natal factors. Also, those who take a solely biological perspective should expand the complexity of their model to consider that the sexual behavior of some people are influenced by certain environment experiences.

The next posts in this series will include additional research as well as more results from Bell et al. Some research does find differences between gay and straight groups on developmental recollections. What do these differences mean? Stay tuned…

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  • David Blakeslee

    An old study, not produced by any agent of NARTH, which reasonably accounts for the theory that Joe holds so dear…

    Joe could be completely right about those clients who present to his office…

    If we could just get him to speak as a scientist practitioner, instead of a culture warrior it would be so helpful…chunks of the data support him.

  • Well, perhaps about 1/3 to 2/3 of them…or some percentage thereof.

    The historical events are similar to what he predicts but this does not in itself prove causality. More about that in the coming posts.

  • David Blakeslee

    Never causality…that is the exaggerated claim of Nicolosi.

  • Lynn David

    Or such psychologists could be manufacturing the needed memories in their patients.

  • Richard Cronin

    Hi newbie here.

    My summary of the feelings here expressed is thus:

    Warren at one time was big into there being an enviormental cause of Hs but now reckons that it could be (A) that some are Hs because of enviroment and some are so because of something pre-natal or (B) all Hs’s are so because of both.

    Most of the commentators on here think that it’s all pre-natal.

    And theres a bunch of folk out there (exodus, narth etc) who think it’s all enviromental.

    Would that be about right?

    Great blog warren, ive been looking for some one at the cutting edge of this debate who also had a fair share of self-awarness of possible bias.

  • That is roughly correct although on here you never know exactly what is going to come up 🙂

    I have always been open to pre-natal causes but didn’t see the data supporting the idea until within the last 2-3 years. I think there are different pathways to homosexual behavior but feel like there might be a predispostion to homosexual desire which requires any number of environmental contexts to actualize. But that is just what I think today.

    We are probably divided about even on pre- and post-natal causes.

  • Lynn David – That is possible although from what I know of the players that might be more likely of Cohen than Nicolosi. I say that because Cohen likes to beat pillows and scream which is associated with recovered memory “therapy.”

  • Ann

    But that is just what I think today.

    Dr. Throckmorton,

    Wait a minute – isn’t this a privilege exclusive only to women?

  • David Blakeslee

    @ Richard Cronin:

    “And theres a bunch of folk out there (exodus, narth etc) who think it’s all enviromental. ”

    I think you make an error here that even Warren makes…which is to focus in a distorted way on the assertions of NARTH and Exodus.

    Both hold a multifaceted view of the development of SSA…biology+early development (hormonal)+early object relations+peer interactions correlate with SSA.

    With a focus on change in the intensity of feelings and bringing behavior under control, all they can focus on is environmental influences…because it is the only thing that we have some control of, the biology, temperment and hormonal influences have already occured.

    It is not reasonable, as thoughtful people, to ignore the comprehensive statements of those who concern us when such comprehensive statements fit the existing data (Reparative Theory, for all its flaws as applied by Joe, includes a biological, tempermental precurser to SSA).

    Straw men do not serve us.

    Although they simplify the argument in our favor and make us feel superior.

    • PS – I would like to see Joe’s statements about the temperamental precursor being biological. Such a precursor is not necessary nor is it sufficient in his view. The potent component that is necessary and sufficient is a trauma with the same-sex parent.

  • @David Blakeslee:

    If one is to summarize, then one must come to Richard’s conclusion. Of course there are some under the Exodus and NARTH umbrella who think and speak about multiple causes. However, when one examines the lion’s share of materials and when one looks at public statements, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they say multicausal without knowing what they mean.

  • Pathia

    Are all of these studies about adults? I’m wondering about stats of kids that were in therapy and now are adults.

    To be honest the main reason I’m in therapy now, is because I was in therapy as a child. The damage was so great I have to ‘undo’ the previous attempts.

  • Debbie Thurman

    I would like to see Joe’s statements about the temperamental precursor being biological. Such a precursor is not necessary nor is it sufficient in his view. The potent component that is necessary and sufficient is a trauma with the same-sex parent.

    I’ve never seen him addressing this anywhere, but I do find this statement of Joe’s interesting:

    Philosophically, I am an essentialist — not a social constructionist: I believe that gender identity and sexual orientation are grounded in biological reality. The body tells us who we are, and we cannot “construct” — assemble or disassemble — a different reality in which gender and sexual identity are out of synchrony with biology.

    That appears in his essay, “Why I Am Not a Neutral Therapist” at the NARTH web site ( I’ve not seen essentialism used quite that way before. He turns the tables. If you read his entire essay for the context, it makes sense. He believes everyone is born heterosexual.

    A Christian would say that we are born into a fallen world, tainted with original sin. That leaves open all possibilities for the origins of same-sex attraction. But it also essentially takes origin out of the picture as it becomes immaterial for those seeking wholeness through knowing God. Does it matter why a man is born blind or deaf or deformed? His infirmity does not define him or keep him from knowing God. In fact, it may be the very thing that draws him toward God. Regardless of whether or not SSA has biological precursors, all those who don’t want it feel the same pain. If it were part of their design, why would that be?

  • David Blakeslee

    You may view Joe as NARTH…but I have not and do not.

    Joe may view Joe as NARTH…but I have not and do not.

    Byrd’s public statement suggests he does not view Joe as NARTH.

    It is an understandable error in communication when your intervention is environmental to overemphasize environmental solutions (reparative therapy)….

    NARTH and others need to emphasize that their solution is only partially successful because it deals with only part of the cause, for part of the people.

    Emphasizing biology or prenatal development is under explored by NARTH.

    This is common for psychodynamic, interpersonal therapies and religion generally…it is, for these world views, about what I can change and what I have control over…

  • Debbie Thurman

    Joe is a co-founder of NARTH, so they’d better get their stuff together over there.

    This is common for psychodynamic, interpersonal therapies and religion generally…it is, for these world views, about what I can change and what I have control over…

    Or what God has control over?

  • David Blakeslee

    Joe is co-founder, past president and the “face” of NARTH…

    It is time for the other egos at NARTH to assert themselves to form an Identity larger than Joe’s.

  • Lynn David

    Warren… That is possible although from what I know of the players that might be more likely of Cohen than Nicolosi. I say that because Cohen likes to beat pillows and scream which is associated with recovered memory “therapy.”

    Yeah, it would more likely be that Nicolosi would make his reparative drive mountain out of ant and mole hills of minor everyday trifles of one’s early life experiences.

  • Lynn David

    If the NARTH and Exodus viewpoint is that their are biological predispositions which encourage or trigger homosexual orientations then their rhetoric and their backers – FotF, AFA, FRC, TWC, etc… – are simply lying.