Lesbians and pheromones, Part 2. Email from Ivanka Savic

Here is an email I sent to Dr. Ivanka Savic today about the study of lesbians’ response to putative pheromones. My note is in italics and Dr. Savic’s reply is in bold letters.

Dr. Savic:
The Associated Press story came out today about your study and I think they have reported it incorrectly.

First I am wondering if you can help me understand things more clearly. I am enclosing a link to the AP report: http://www.forbes.com/entrepreneurs/feeds/ap/2006/05/08/ap2729698.html

First, in the report the reporter writes: “It’s a finding that adds weight to the idea that homosexuality has a physical underpinning and is not learned behavior.”

THIS IS INCORRECT AND NOT STATED IN THE PAPER

As I understand your article in PNAS, you specifically offer learning as a hypothesis for your findings. Isn’t this true? I believe the reporter is misleading on that point.

THIS IS VERY UNFORTUNATE; AND YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT

Second, the AP report says: “In lesbians, both male and female hormones were processed the same, in the basic odor processing circuits, Savic and her team reported.” I understand that the study did show that AND (male condition) was processed akin to other odors by lesbians. But wasn’t there also some hypothalamic processing of EST (female condition) by lesbians?

YES! AND ALSO CONJUNCTIONAL ANALYSIS SHOWED A COMMON HYPOTHALAMIC CLUSTER IN THE HYPOTHALAMUS:

It was weaker and apparently not in the anterior hypothalamus but didn’t you also find dorsomedial and paraventricular hypothalamic activation? So it would be inaccurate, would it not, to say “both male and female hormones were processed the same?”

YOU ARE FULLY CORRECT

THANK YOU VERY MUCH. HOW DO I ACCESS THE AP REPORT??

Ivanka Savic

ADDENDUM: Someone posted and asked why I changed the AP wording when I wrote to Dr. Savic. I did not change it but it appears the AP did from saying homosexuality had a “physical underpinning” to a “physical basis.”

The Evangelical Blackout of Research on Sexual Orientation

Of late, I have given several talks to a variety of evangelical groups about the current research on sexual orientation. Along the way, I have been contacted by evangelicals who ask about the current status of sexual orientation research. After the conversations and speeches, many questions come up. One question I hear after almost all of these conversations is: Why haven’t we seen anything about these studies?

Many of the questioners read evangelical publications and consume evangelical media. However, they don’t know anything about the brain research of Ivanka Savic in Sweden (2005, 2006, 2008) or Adam Safron and colleagues at Northwestern University (since 2005). Their knowledge of research stops at Dean Hamer or Simon Levay (both published studies in the 1990s).  They know there is no gay gene but they don’t know about the significant brain, perceptual and cognitive differences reported within the past six years by various researchers around the world.

Many evangelicals believe homosexuality is due to abuse. Some will say with confidence that gays are more likely to be abused than straights but they are unaware of the actual magnitudes of difference. However, they are unaware of the 2009 study by Wilson and Widom which found no relationship between abuse and having a gay partner for men or women (men were more likely to have had at least one gay experience in their adult lives but not a recent partner). They are unaware of the 2010 work of Wells and colleagues in New Zealand that found 81.6% of gays reported no sexual abuse in their lives. Abuse is also higher among gender non-conforming children, whether gay or straight. Given that gays are more likely to be gender non-conforming in their histories, it seems likely that greater reports of abuse among gays relate in part to gender non-conformity, and have little, if anything, to do with cause of attractions for the majority of people who are same-sex attracted.

Many evangelicals I speak to think that change of orientation is pretty common and the evidence is being suppressed by the gay-friendly media. Some of them will point to the Jones and Yarhouse study of Exodus participants. Some will even say that over half of the participants changed orientation. When I explain to them what change means in the context of the study, they are surprised. Then I point out a study, also by Mark Yarhouse, that found no change in orientation for men and women in mixed orientation marriages. They wonder why that study was not reported in the media. I wonder the same thing.

I could be wrong but I don’t think any of the studies to which I have referred here have been reported in the Christian press. The Jones and Yarhouse study was reported widely, but the Yarhouse study showing no change among sexual minorities in mixed orientation couples – which is more recent – was not reported anywhere. NARTH – a group of mostly lay people but which claims to be a scientific group – has no information on the 2008 study by Savic and Lindstrom showing clear structural differences in the brain associated with sexual orientation differences. Shouldn’t a scientific organization which claims to be interested in the science of sexual orientation report information which is relevant to sexual orientation? That omission is only one of many.

Many evangelicals get their information from NARTH through groups like Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Exodus International, etc. Others get information from Christian media. However, these studies are not reported in these places. No wonder most evangelicals approach sexual orientation with a 1990s mindset. It is as if the evangelical world is in blackout mode when it comes to current studies on sexual orientation.

I suspect the culture war is to blame. It cannot be because sexual orientation is not news. The issue comes up in the Presidential campaigns and other news all the time. However, evangelicals are quite unprepared to discuss this very current topic with the most recent and best scholarship.

In my view, Christian media and organizations have a responsibility to provide this information to their readers and consumers. Given the backlog of unreported studies, there is plenty of material for their reporting.

Sexual identity: Our bodies tell us who we are

(First posted October 1, 2007)

Warning: Long post…

This post could be part three of the series on sexual identity therapy and neutrality but I chose this title because I want to focus on one specific issue, at least in my mind, with telling psychotherapy clients that “our bodies tell us who we are.” Saying something like this to a client is the expression of a natural law argument that is expressed by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi in his article “Why I Am Not a Neutral Therapist.”

Our Bodies Tell Us Who We Are

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.

The belief that humanity is designed for heterosexuality has been shaped by age-old religious and cultural forces, which must be respected as a welcome aspect of intellectual diversity. Our belief is not a “phobia” or pathological fear.

Natural-law philosophy says this view derives from mankind’s collective, intuitive knowledge; a sort of natural, instinctive conscience. This would explain why so many people — even the nonreligious — sense that a gay identity is a false construct.

Clients who already believe a natural law argument would most likely look for a therapist who believed as Dr. Nicolosi does. In that case, I do not see how he could be accused of imposing his values on the client; clients who are committed to this perspective (many conservatives, for example) might not work well with a therapist who did not articulate a similar view. On the worldview front, I suspect many people are directed by their spiritual advisors to look for counselors who are amenable to the teaching of their church. I also suspect, that feminists look for feminist therapists and so on. This will no doubt continue no matter what the professions pronounce.

What I want to raise now are some issues with the natural law argument. Specifically, I propose that if we know who we are via our bodies, then a fairly solid argument can be made against Dr. Nicolosi’s conclusions. He argues that genitalia and procreative capacity is the definer of correct identity. However, there is more to body than genitals and secondary sex characteristics. Brain is a part of body. As an organ of the body, the way the brain functions and is organized must be important as well. I am not here talking about psychological constructionism or the constructed opinion of a person that he/she is gay or straight, male or female. I am talking about the automatic response of the brain to triggers both sexual and otherwise that differentiate gay and straight people. In the research available, brain reactions differentiate people based on sexual preferences. In other words, if the body tells us who we are, and brain is body, then our brains tell us whether we like the same sex, the opposite one, or both. And our brains do this well before we have time to think about it.

I have written before about the pheromone studies conducted by a team led by Ivanka Savic from Sweden. Here is what I wrote about their study of lesbians:

This study shows that sexual orientation at the extreme (5-6 Kinsey scale) differentiates how the brain responds to a putative pheromone. The response from lesbians is not as clear cut as gay males. Lesbians process estrogen derived pheromones both in the normal olfactory fashion and via the hypothalamus (a link in the sexual response). The participants did not experience any sexual response so it is interesting that these lesbians’ brains registered the pheromones in a different way than did straight women. Lesbians were somewhat like straight men but not exactly like them. The reference is: Berglund, H., Lindstro”m, P., & Savic, I. (2006). Brain response to putative pheromones in lesbian women. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science, Early Edition (www.pnas.org).

I also reviewed their initial study of males:

• The study does show involuntary hypothalamic response associated with self-assessed sexual orientation

• The study shows that gay males do react to the estrogen condition but in a different manner than they react to the testosterone condition

• The study cannot shed light on the complicated question of whether sexual orientation of the participants is hard wired.

• The brains of these participants may have acquired a sexual response to these chemicals as the result of past sexual experience. In other word, the response described in this study could well have been learned.

• If these results hold up, this could explain why varying sexual attractions seem so “natural.” Also, such conditioning could give insight into why changing sexual attractions is often experienced by those changing sexual preferences as a process of unlearning responses to environmental triggers.

There are other lines of research that also find large involuntary differences in brain response or perceptual response associated with sexual attractions. I could add the brain imaging work of Michael Bailey which I referenced recently.

(more…)

Factsaboutyouth.com: A critical review

Yesterday, Focus on the Family’s Citizenlink promoted a new website from the American College of Pediatrics, called Facts About Youth which purports to be 

a resource created by health professionals to provide policymakers, parents and youth with the most current medical and psychological facts about sexual development.

The website makes additional claims about the information presented.

Amid debate in the medical and mental health fields concerning the causes and proper approaches to youth with non-heterosexual attractions, Facts is a non-political, non-religious channel presenting the most current facts on the subject. Facts is committed to advancing a school environment in which all students will experience the opportunity to achieve optimal health and safety, even in the midst of differing worldviews. Facts is intended to be a resource to promote the factual and respectful discussion of these potentially divisive issues. This is a web site for and about youth and their needs.

 While there may be some useful information here, I do not agree with much of what is claimed. The essential claims are that the site is “a non-political, non-religious channel presenting the most current facts on the subject.” In fact, the presentation is one-sided with old research and reparative theory dominating the content.

Following the link “homosexuality,” one reads what seems like a fair statement regarding causes of same-sex orientation. 

Clinical and scientific research suggests that the causes of homosexuality, or same-sex attraction, are multi-factorial with environment and temperament playing the strongest roles.

If one understands environment broadly as nurture and temperament broadly as nature, then this is a pretty obvious statement about the influence of both experience and biology. However, pretty quickly you find out that on this website, the terms mean whatever reparative drive theory say they mean. More on that in a bit.

The website purports to offer current research in a non-political channel. However, the reference list on the homosexuality page negates that claim. The first two references come from the NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) website and are not studies but summaries of studies and the third is from NARTH board member George Rekers, published in a book by Julie Hamilton, NARTH president. Whatever one thinks of NARTH, one must concede that the organization is most certainly not impartial on the subject.

The list of additional resources is anything but current. There are 13 references listed, all but two of them were published prior to 2001. Those older references have been updated by newer work but you wouldn’t know it by reading here. The most current facts are not here, nor are they referenced here.

The references are also quite selective with four pertaining to child abuse, four relating to gender nonconformity/gender identity, one being a very dated (1993) critique of biological theories, one being a reference which actually undermines one aspect of reparative theory, one 1988 review of the link between homosexuality and mental disorders and two non-research books on the politics of homosexuality. This page alone is enough to discredit the claim that the page is current and non-political. The references are old and very selectively presented. There are no references on this page to the recent brain studies (e.g., Savic and Lindstrom, 2008), the brain scan work of Safron, et al, Wilson and Widom’s prospective child abuse study, Andrew Francis’s 2008 study of family factors and sexuality, findings of greater than expected X chromosome skewing in mothers of some gay males, or attentional differences related to sexual orientation.

Some newer research could have been presented which would have supported at least a broader environmental set of influences but these too were omitted. For instance, one of the newer and larger twin studies found

Overall, the environment shared by twins (including familial and societal attitudes) explained 0-17% of the choice of sexual partner, genetic factors 18-39% and the unique environment 61-66%. The individual’s unique environment includes, for example, circumstances during pregnancy and childbirth, physical and psychological trauma (e.g., accidents, violence, and disease), peer groups, and sexual experiences.

In fact, twin researchers are not sure what an individual’s unique environment involves. It may be that subtle differences (e.g., chorions) in the pre-natal environment of twins account for some of that variance. In any case, looking around the website reveals another bias which may limit even more what “facts” will be presented.

To wit, the two links which purport to provide a “more in depth analysis” about what causes homosexuality lead to Julie Hamilton’s Homosexuality 101 and a Family Research Councilarticle which defends reparative theory. The organizations which the ACP refer readers to are PFOX, NARTH, Freetobeme.com (a religious resource), the Ex-gay educators caucus of the NEA, and JONAH (Jewish – that’s religious, right?). All of these groups promote the same reparative narrative of how homosexuality develops.

There are so many problems with the site that I have to be selective. For instance, regarding lifespan of homosexuals, the site states:

The only epidemiological study to date on the life span of gay men concluded that gay and bisexual men lose up to 20 years of life expectancy.

One may think this is a reference to Paul Cameron but when one clicks the link, instead there is a summary of Hogg et al’s 1997 Canadian study. However, again this site does not live up to the claim of providing the most current facts on the topic. In a 2001 follow up letter commenting on their study, Hogg et al said:

In contrast, if we were to repeat this analysis today the life expectancy of gay and bisexual men would be greatly improved. Deaths from HIV infection have declined dramatically in this population since 1996. As we have previously reported there has been a threefold decrease in mortality in Vancouver as well as in other parts of British Columbia. (p. 1499).

In other words, the prior results may not be accurate in that location today nor were even these results meant to be generalized to all gay men. Furthermore, there is another epidemiological study which is more current. Morten Frisch and Henrik Brønnum-Hansen, in a 2009 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, evaluated data from Denmark and concluded that mortality for homosexual men marrying after 1996 is virtually the same as for heterosexual men in Denmark. This is the most current information but you won’t find it on the factsaboutyouth.com website.

Finally, the site has a section on change therapy. I am not sure why this is needed since the authors say most confused kids will end up straight. Anyway, the section here repeats NARTH’s views about change therapy and lo and behold references my 1998 review of the literature on conversion therapy — except now the link isn’t live since I recently asked NARTH to remove my articles from the NARTH website.  The mistake I made in that review is the same one NARTH makes in their recent paper and that this website makes. In my review, I summarized every study or anecdote I could find on reorientation without regard for the quality of the research methods (e.g., sampling, design, etc.). There are so many problems with the early research, most notably the absence of control groups, reliance on anecdotes and follow ups that I do not view that review as anything more than suggestive of the need for further research. If anything, I have come to see that efforts to change are most frequently efforts to bring one’s behavior and desires in line with religious beliefs or social expectations.

On the change therapy page, the statements about modalities would no doubt be confusing to a teen trying to get through this site, with unsubstatiated references to EMDR, reparative and Imago therapy. There are no controlled studies of these methods for purposes of sexual reorientation. Mentioning EMDR, etc., is all the more striking when you consider that a medical group hosts this project. Can you imagine pediatricians choosing drugs or medical treatments based on the kind of evidence provided here?

One more observation: I am confused by the denial of religious influence on this site. If done differently, I might support a conservative group of docs who wanted to encourage youth to consider the role of faith and family in making sense of their same-sex attractions. However, this site avoids that discussion and pretends that the resources listed are not associated with the religious right. I would prefer that the group simply declare their views directly. Physicians should recognize the important role of religious faith and for those people who believe at their core that homosexual behavior is wrong, there should be alternatives. This site however, provides only limited information and limited options and falls far short of the stated objectives.

An additional problem: The ACP website misrepresents Francis Collins. The website makes it seems as though Collins believes in sexual reorientation because he does not believe homosexuality is predetermined by a gene or genes. However, he actually said this to Exgaywatch:

It troubles me greatly to learn that anything I have written would cause anguish for you or others who are seeking answers to the basis of homosexuality. The words quoted by NARTH all come from the Appendix to my book “The Language of God” (pp. 260-263), but have been juxtaposed in a way that suggests a somewhat different conclusion that I intended. I would urge anyone who is concerned about the meaning to refer back to the original text.

The evidence we have at present strongly supports the proposition that there are hereditary factors in male homosexuality — the observation that an identical twin of a male homosexual has approximately a 20% likelihood of also being gay points to this conclusion, since that is 10 times the population incidence. But the fact that the answer is not 100% also suggests that other factors besides DNA must be involved. That certainly doesn’t imply, however, that those other undefined factors are inherently alterable.

Your note indicated that your real interest is in the truth. And this is about all that we really know. No one has yet identified an actual gene that contributes to the hereditary component (the reports about a gene on the X chromosome from the 1990s have not held up), but it is likely that such genes will be found in the next few years.

Collins confirmed the accuracy of this statement to me in a separate email. Note that he says his words were juxtaposed to create a different meaning than he intended. Also, note that lack of genetic predetermination does not mean that orientation is generally alterable.

Brain plasticity and sexual orientation: Train it to gain it?

This article about brain plasticity by Neil and Briar Whitehead posted on Anglican Mainstream caught my attention for several reasons. Some relate to classes I teach but for this post, I am interested in discussion surrounding the main reason the Whiteheads wrote about neuroscience: sexual reorientation.

I have a few questions.

Sex and gender researchers working in the belief that the brain and its functions were more less set, believed they might find evidence that homosexuality was hard-wired in the brain. They looked for signs that parts of the brain used in sexual activity were different in homosexuals and heterosexuals, that, for example parts of a homosexual male brain might be more like a woman’s.

Almost without exception these numerous studies produced contradictory conclusions, and were not replicable. Although gay activism sought to use some of these findings to argue homosexuality was biologically ingrained, the most that can be said scientifically about them is that IF any differences exist they are probably the result of homosexual behavior rather than the cause of it. But it is clear now that no-one is stuck with the type of brain they were born with. Our assumption now should be, change is possible in many behaviors – sexual orientation not excluded – and extraordinary effort will produce extraordinary change.

I don’t agree with this assessment of the state of research. We are on the beginning edge of research regarding sexual orientation differences in the brain and some of those differences seem striking. The work of Savic in particular has found some differences in gay and straight males in areas of the brain which may or may not be modified by experience. This study was just last year; there has not been time to publish replications. What research do the Whiteheads refer to here? This is an ongoing process which the Whiteheads describe as though the research program was in some mature state with many contradictory studies. I believe this is a extremely premature statement:

the most that can be said scientifically about them is that IF any differences exist they are probably the result of homosexual behavior rather than the cause of it.

What evidence has been demonstrated that sexual behavior can make these differences? I would like to know what studies have contradicted the Savic research and other studies which demonstrate brain differences, not just in symmetry but responses to sweat, serotonin and visual cues.

The Whiteheads then discuss brain training, noting that musicians and cab drivers have enlarged areas of the brain which are used for the specific tasks used frequently. They then leap to sex.

Monkey experiments have shown that artificial exercise of three digits on the hand increases the area of the brain asso­ciated with those fingers and decreases the other regions proportionately.(1) Violinists have a grossly enlarged area of the brain devoted to the fingers of their left hands. Those who learn a juggling routine for three months produce observable small changes in the small-scale structure of the brain, and these changes reverse when they stop.(3)

London taxi drivers have an enlarged area of the brain dealing with navigation. Is this innate? No. London bus drivers on set routes did not have this enlarged area, and on retirement of the taxi drivers, the brain area involved diminished.(6) Taxi-drivers were not born that way, but developed the brain area through huge amounts of navigation and learning, and only maintained it through constant use. We change our brains at the micro-level through the way we exercise, and anything we do repetitively espe­cially if associated with pleasure (e.g.) sexual activity. So, if brain scientists did find real differences between the brains of homosexuals and heterosexuals, this was probably the result of different sexual behaviors, not the cause of them.

Do we have any research that demonstrates brain areas which enlarge based on frequent sex? Or straight sex or gay sex? I know of none and the Whiteheads offer none but this appears to be what they are suggesting. They also suggest that gay and straight sex might bulk up different brain areas thus reflecting activity rather than causing it. I know of no research which indicates different brain areas for sexual arousal. This study by Safron et al seems to provide evidence against such an idea.

Now here is where stand up comics should get some material.

Doidge sums up the extraordinary plasticity of the brain with the words, Use it or lose it. (Or, for those trying to drop an unwanted behavior, Don’t use it, and you’ll lose it.)

Even if part of the brain is strongly associated with a particular sexuality it should be possible to change it. Stopping a sexual activity and avoiding stimulation of that brain region, and plunging into some other intense brain activity for months would lead to a diminishing of the intensity of that sexual response. Months is about the timescale of first significant change. That can be true for learning a musical instrument too!

Doidge’s conclusion about sexuality is that “Human libido is not a hardwired invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters.” and “It’s a use-it-or-lose-it brain, even where sexual desire and love are concerned.” This would apply both to same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction.

If we train hard enough, an activity can become automatic and we pay it less conscious attention. That is particularly true of playing a musical instrument. Many of the basic techniques like chords, scales and arpeggios, are so deeply learnt that we don’t think about the details and indeed can’t if the music is fast. Details of driving, throwing a ball, reading, even tying shoelaces don’t and often can’t demand full attention. Anything we do often, we often end up doing automatically. In the same way it can seem that sexual orientation is so deeply embedded that it is innate. But, really, it is no more innate than any complex skill we have worked at to the point where we can do it without thinking e.g. seemingly automatic placement of left-hand fingers on guitar strings to produce a C chord.

Hey, what did you do this summer? Well, I learned to play the…

Changing sexual orientation is like learning to play a musical instrument? Should we have straight lessons? Community colleges could offer them in their continuing education departments. New slogan: “We put the adult in adult development!”

I apparently will need to get this book by Doidge. Whitehead doesn’t offer any of the research Doidge relies on for his startling new discovery about music instruments and sex. I wonder if there are any such studies. Whatever techniques Doidge is aware of, perhaps he ought to share them with Exodus since the changes reported by Jones and Yarhouse do not seem to reflect this new found brain plasticity. (I made this modification here because I have since learned that Doidge does not advocate any techniques of orientation change.).

I suspect this passage in the Whitehead article is deeply insulting to many ex-gays and ex-ex-gays alike (New reparative therapy slogans: “Just train it!” “You’ve got to train it to gain it”). How many such persons have essentially followed this approach: don’t use and you’ll lose it. However, they didn’t lose it.

The Whiteheads then suggest that male and female differences are largely due to experience after birth:

Male and female behavior – let alone ho­mosexuality and heterosexuality – is apparently not hardwired into the brain at birth. In fact, only one quar­ter of the brain is formed in a new-born child; the rest is developed through learning and experience (environ­mental input). We can be confident that whatever male/female differences exist in adult brains (and, no doubt, more will be found at some stage), they will be largely shaped by learning and behavior.

I think researchers in hormones might quarrel with this. I am aware of a recent study which found associations between fetal testosterone levels and sex-typed behavior at age 8.5. Testosterone has an organizing function in the brain prenatally but it is unclear whether it does at or before puberty. There is way too much unknown I believe, for dogmatism here. As with the rest of the claims, I would like to see this research much more than studies about driving and music.

The Whiteheads conclude:

Anatomy is not destiny; change is always possible. The brain is plastic and is in a constant state of change. Indeed the question is rather: what change is not possible?

Well, at the end, an idea is all we have. Essentially, the Whiteheads suggest that because brain plasticity has been associated with driving, musical training and regaining use of motor function, it should be true of sexual orientation change as well. As noted, there are some problems with his facts and no direct evidence for the hyperbolic title of this article.

UPDATE: My comments above about Norman Doidge’s book were made prior to reviewing it. I have since been able to read through parts of it and believe it is a valuable contribution for a lay audience. He does not offer techniques of sexual reorientation nor does he liken orientation change to learning a musical instrument. Neil and Briar Whitehead make those far-fetched connections, not Dr. Doidge. My reaction to the book was solely based on the selective quotations from the Whiteheads. I am sorry if anyone made an impression regarding Doidge’s book based on this post. Readers are encouraged to read the related posts linked below.

Related Posts:

NARTH authors again mislead readers: More on brain plasticity and sexual orientation

My Genes Made Me Do It and brain plasticity

Reparative therapy information

I have done several articles and numerous posts on reparative drive theory and related issues. This page serves to bring those together in one place. The format for now will provide the link and a brief explanation of the post or article.

I Am Not a Reparative Therapist – This article was controversial at the time and is a good starting point to understand some of my concerns about reparative drive theory and related therapy.

Sometimes I am referred to as a reparative therapist which is inaccurate. I recently made that even clearer with this article published on Crosswalk.com and elsewhere which questions the theory’s helpfulness in counseling and ministry.

Research and reparative drive theory

Within the psychoanalytic tradition, several views of homosexual etiology have been proposed. As noted here, Freud believed homosexuality was a developmental arrest. However, he did not think change was likely nor psychologically necessary. If a boy did not identify with father as a resolution to the Oedipal drama, he would likely identify with mother thus preferring males as sexual objects. Some later psychoanalytic writers have looked to the mother-son relationship as crucial (would the son develop an engulfment phobia surrounding women because of mom), whereas others, such as the reparative drive theorists have put the focus on father (if the father and son do not bond well, then the boy will seek to reconnect with masculinity via homosexual attraction/behavior). Joseph Nicolosi tells fathers, “If you don’t hug your son, some other man will.”

A focus on the mother and the father is common in reparative drive theory and is referred to as the “classic triadic model.” This means that reparative therapist believe the family structure which is common to homosexual males is a too-close, smother-mother and a distant or hostile father who ridicules, diminishes or ignores the son’s developing masculinity.

Direct tests of the reparative drive theory

I have privately and publicly asked proponents of reparative drive theory for the three best studies which support the theory. The most frequent response I have gotten is the Bieber et al (1963) study and to review the book by Fisher and Greenberg (1996).

In this 2007 post (Psychoanalytic theory and the etiology of homosexuality: What does research say?), I review what Fisher and Greenberg found in their examination of research on cause. About the research they said:

The post-1977 material we have reviewed concerning male homosexuality has narrowed the apparent support for Freud’s formulation in this area. Previously, we regarded the empirical data to be congruent with with Freud’s theory that male homosexuality derives from too much closeness to mother and a distant negative relationship with father. As noted, the increased pool of data available reinforces the concept of the negative father but fails to support the idea of the overly close, seductive mother…So we are left with only one of the major elements in Freud’s original formula concerning the parental vectors that are involved in moving a male child toward homosexuality. This reduction in confirmed points on the graph makes it all too easy to conjure up alternative theories of homosexuality that could incorporate the “negative father” data…There would be no need to appeal to the Oedipal image of a son competing with his father for mother’s love.

Note that Greenberg and Fisher dismiss one corner of the classic triadic model. To these authors, who originally believed the research supported the model, the body of research between 1977-1995 did not support the classic model. Even though some studies (not all) found more negativity between fathers and homosexual sons that heterosexual sons, the explanation for this is not of necessity causal. In other words, the father-son relationship problems could have derived from the fact that the son disclosed homosexuality. Also, possible is the fact that the father perceived some difference in the son (related to developing homosexuality) which led to a rocky relationship.

I address Bieber et al briefly in the I Am Not a Reparative Therapist paper. I am working on a post which more directly critiques the study. There are many flaws in Bieber, namely, the sample of homosexuals were all clinical patients with personality disorders, schizophrenia, etc. Any attributions about homosexuality and their parenting would have to be confounded by the fact that home life of these people may have been troubling and contribute to the multiple problems that brought them to therapy. There are reasons from later research to believe that the group of people who seek therapy related to homosexuality is likely to have more troubling parent-child relationships than those who do not seek therapy.

Although Bieber believed he had proven the classic triad, 76 of Bieber’s 106 homosexual subjects did not fit the triadic pattern. A majority of men had some disturbance in the home but the typical pattern was not so typical.

Nottebaum et al. (2000) asked gay and participants in Exodus International ex-gay ministries if they had good relationships with their mothers and fathers while growing up. Generally, Exodus ministries promote the view that homosexuality is the result of the classic family triad. The gay male/lesbian participants described a significantly better relationship with parents than did the Exodus group. The Exodus males, more so than the females, said their parental relationships were poor.

Seutter and Rovers surveyed 130 heterosexual and 24 homosexual seminarians to examine differences in perceptions of parents. There were no difference between groups on maternal relationships and sense of being intimidated by their fathers. There was a moderate difference between groups on a dimension they called intimacy with father, with homosexually attracted participants feeling less intimate. Again, as in past studies, there was considerable overlap between gay and straight groups, with some gay seminarians feeling very close to their fathers and some straight men describing a lack of intimacy. Also, there was no check on which came first making it impossible to specify direction of causation.

Andrew Francis released a study in 2008 which demonstrated very little effect of parenting and family dynamics on sexual attraction or behavior. Reparative drive theory predicts that disrupted parenting and family should lead to more homosexuality. This study did not find that, rather:

Francis also examined family structure and found more trivial associations. For instance, he found a 3.8% increase in the likelihood of ever having a same-sex sexual partner among those who did not live with either parent. In contrast to reparative theory expectations, he reported that identifying as less than 100% heterosexual for males was associated with living with only dad. No romantic attraction or same-sex behavior was reported for males living with only mother.

There were other factors which Francis reported but the real take home point from this study is how little any of these variables predict sexual orientation. This study undermines reparative drive theory due to the unremarkable performance of the parental variables to predict orientation. One would expect to find great differences between male heterosexual participants and same-sex attracted participants if fathering/mothering were crucial to male sexual orientation as Joe Nicolosi teaches. In fact in this YouTube video, Nicolosi says that the main factor in the development of male homosexuality is a distant or hostile father.

The Francis article finds very little predictive power in family dynamics of any kind. There is no predictive power at all for those whose parents are separated. Living with dad should insulate against a homosexual outcome and living with mom alone should enhance the likelihood of same-sex attraction and/or behavior. In this sample, it does not.

Ivanka Savic introduced a series of studies which compromise the reparative drive notions. The first series demonstrating that brain responses to putative pheromones predict sexual orientation in men, and (somewhat less so) in women.

Sexual abuse and sexual orientation: A prospective study – Reparative therapy predicts that attachment disruptions set up a situation where the person seeks to repair the detachment from the same-sex gender parent with defensive longing. From this foundation, one would expect that abused and/or neglected children would be more likely to demonstrate homosexuality in some form. However, in this 2009 report by Widom and Wilson, this result did not show up. The authors knew the abuse and neglect histories of their participants and interviewed them about sexual behavior. They did find an association between male sexual abuse and later homosexual behavior, but it was not huge. They did not find a significant relationship between neglect and homosexuality. The authors noted:

These results were consistent for men and women and support the conclusions of Bell et al (1981) that early parenting experiences, positive or negative, play little direct role in the development of sexual orientation. Among women, we also found no associations between childhood sexual abuse and same-sex relationships.

Multiple factors involved in sexual orientation: New study – The authors of this study (Niklas Långström, Qazi Rahman, Eva Carlström & Paul Lichtenstein) provided this summary of results:

“The results show, that familial and public attitudes might be less important for our sexual behaviour than previously suggested”, says Associate Professor Niklas Långström, one of the involved researchers. “Instead, genetic factors and the individual’s unique biological and social environments play the biggest role. Studies like this are needed to improve our basic understanding of sexuality and to inform the public debate.”

Overall, the environment shared by twins (including familial and societal attitudes) explained 0-17% of the choice of sexual partner, genetic factors 18-39% and the unique environment 61-66%. The individual’s unique environment includes, for example, circumstances during pregnancy and childbirth, physical and psychological trauma (e.g., accidents, violence, and disease), peer groups, and sexual experiences.

This at first may sound promising for reparative theory advocates. However, while for some people unfavorable attachments could be relevant, the study indicated that there was no one set of environmental experiences which associated with homosexuality, as predicted by reparative theory. In fact, common family experiences of twins did not show up at all for men and only slightly for women.

Posts on the theory

Reparative therapy for females – Discounts Janelle Hallman’s thesis that lesbians do not have “selves.”

Father – Son estrangement – This brief post quotes research on father-son relationships in general and how that relates to the thesis that male homosexuals have poor relationships with their fathers. Straights have such poor relationships too.

Queer theories for the straight guise

Many people want to know why they experience same-sex attraction. Reparative drive theory provides a narrative but it may not be correct. In Why Do I Have These Feelings? I examine how this pressure for a narrative may be misleading.

Masculinity and reparative therapy

Mankind Project clarifies stance on reparative therapy – Reparative therapists often refer clients to activities and groups which promise to enhance masculinity as a means of reducing same-sex attractions. Macho Man group Mankind Project clarifies that the New Warriors Training Adventure is not a form of reparative therapy.

Sexual identity Therapy and Reparative Therapy

As I wrote here, sexual identity therapy and reparative therapy as described by Dr. Nicolosi are not compatible. Reparative therapy begins with the idea that homosexuality always derives from deficient childhood experiences and tells clients this theory. If the client does not buy it at first, the client eventually changes his mind or leaves therapy. In sexual identity therapy, clients are not given a narrative or a prescription and are provided with the totality of evidence regarding causation and change.

In Sexual identity therapy: Is neutrality a bad thing? I take up the approach of reparative therapists to impose a narrative about childhood experiences and present adjustment on clients.

Sexual identity therapy and neutrality, part one

Sexual identity therapy and neutrality, part two

Use of research

Confirmation bias is an issue for all who work in theoretical matters. Humans seek information which confirms previously held ideas and ignore or forget data which do not confirm our views. I have several posts where I have pointed this out with specific studies and topics.

In 2008, NARTH released a “fact sheet” regarding female homosexuality. I critiqued this paper in two parts. Part one was a general review of the paper and the misleading aspects of it. Part two, specifically examined claims regarding sexual abuse and female homosexuality.

NARTH Fact Sheet on Female Homosexual Development, Part One

NARTH Fact Sheet on Female Homosexual Development, Part Two – Child Sexual Abuse

Regarding the efficacy of reparative therapy, this post about NARTH’s use of Shidlo and Schroeder’s study of harm stands out. Facilitated by Neil Whitehead’s reanalyis of Shidlo and Schroeder’s work which did not reach statistical significance, reparative therapist and NARTH president, Julie Hamilton suggests that reparative therapy reduces suicidality. One may believe that but the Shidlo and Schroeder cannot be used to make that claim.

Lisa Diamond is well-respected research from the University of Utah who researches the sexuality of women, especially sexual fluidity. Her work is sometimes cited by NARTH as evidence for change. However, she believes they mislead people in the way they use it as I noted in a November, 2008 post.

Stay tuned for updates…

Study examines brain differences related to sexual orientation

This post summarizes a new study by Ivanka Savic and Per Lindstrom, titled “PET and MRI show differences in cerebral asymmetry and functional connectivity between homo- and heterosexual subjects” and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. This is being reported widely in the press.

The abstract reads

Cerebral responses to putative pheromones and objects of sexual attraction were recently found to differ between homo- and heterosexual subjects. Although this observation may merely mirror perceptional differences, it raises the intriguing question as to whether certain sexually dimorphic features in the brain may differ between individuals of the same sex but different sexual orientation. We addressed this issue by studying hemispheric asymmetry and functional connectivity, two parameters that in previous publications have shown specific sex differences. Ninety subjects [25 heterosexual men (HeM) and women (HeW), and 20 homosexual men (HoM) and women (HoW)] were investigated with magnetic resonance volumetry of cerebral and cerebellar hemispheres. Fifty of them also participated in PET measurements of cerebral blood flow, used for analyses of functional connections from the right and left amygdalae. HeM and HoW showed a rightward cerebral asymmetry, whereas volumes of the cerebral hemispheres were symmetrical in HoM and HeW. No cerebellar asymmetries were found. Homosexual subjects also showed sex-atypical amygdale connections. In HoM, as in HeW, the connections were more widespread from the left amygdala; in HoW and HeM, on the other hand, from the right amygdala. Furthermore, in HoM and HeW the connections were primarily displayed with the contralateral amygdale and the anterior cingulate, in HeM and HoW with the caudate, putamen, and the prefrontal cortex. The present study shows sex-atypical cerebral asymmetry and functional connections in homosexual subjects. The results cannot be primarily ascribed to learned effects, and they suggest a linkage to neurobiological entities.

Past research has found that male and female brains are different, on average. This research finds that two brain measures differ based on sexual orientation: cerebral symmetry and how the amygdala functions. First, they confirm a previously reported sex differences in cerebral size asymmetry. In straight men, the right hemisphere is greater than the left and in women, they are the same size. Savic and Lindstrom find in contrast that gays are sex-atypical: the hemispheres are the same size in gay men and for lesbians, the right hemisphere is larger than the left. This is not unexpected given the previous differences in verbal skills (favoring gay males over straights) and visuospatial tasks (favoring straight males).

The amygdala is often researched in relation to the role it plays in emotion and anxiety. Recent research indicates that the right amygdala activates in men and the left in women during the processing of emotion. From these locations in the amygdala then connections are made to other regions in brain which again are different in men and women. In women, the connections may be more likely to activate emotion, whereas in men action may be the more likely result. Again, Savic and Lindstrom found sex atypical function for gays and lesbians. Gay men looked like straight women and lesbians looked like straight men, albeit the similarity was less for the lesbians.

What does this mean? The authors are cautious in their discussion and make some points which could support multiple theoretical perspectives. The authors examined aspects of brain functioning not known to be related to sexual behavior or attraction in order to reduce the possibility that sexual experience contributed to the development of the differences. In other words, it is unlikely that being homo or heterosexual caused these differences. The differences likely precede awareness of sexual orientation, according to the authors. I would agree that it seems unlikely that there is anything about sexual fantasy or behavior that could rewire the amygdala or change the size of the right hemisphere.

On the other hand, Savic and Lindstrom are not proposing that these differences cause the sexual orientation differences. Those familiar with Daryl Bem’s exotic becomes erotic theory will see how these brain differences could support his theory. It is plausible that these brain differences are involved in the gender atypical behavior so commonly and strongly associated with the development of adult homosexual orientation. Gender atypical behavior could be an associated feature of a same-sex orientation, a kind of sign of homosexual orientation or in the EBE account, gender atypical behavior and interest could predispose people to sexual regard the same sex as the other sex during pubescence.

Savic and Lindstrom propose three potential mechanisms for these differences. They note:

The mechanisms behind the present observations are unknown. In accordance with discussions about the sexual dimorphism of the brain, three factors have to be taken into account: environmental effects, genetics, and sex hormonal influences.

These are the usual suspects, genes, environment and hormones. Savic and Lindstrom dismiss genetic factors for reasons I cannot quite figure out. They say,

As to the genetic factors, the current view is that they may play a role in male homosexuality, but they seem to be insignificant for female homosexuality. Genetic factors, therefore, appear less probable as the major common denominator for all group differences observed here.

About environment, they observe that sex-based brain differences have been observed at birth and in children. However, cerebral maturation continues through puberty, especially in boys. Thus, social and environmental factors could play a role in how these differences or other differences not assessed here develop in individuals. They are not certain however and note:

However, to attribute such effects to the present results would require a detailed comprehension of how specific environmental factors relate to the four groups investigated, and how they affect various cerebral circuits. In the light of currently available information this can only be speculative.

In other words, we do not know what environmental factors could be influential on brain differentiation for male and female with sex typical and atypical brain structure and function. The authors are either unaware of Bem’s EBE theory or do not see it as relevant to their findings. Clearly, the researchers wanted to rule out the role of sexual behavior and preference as being the driver for the differences between gays and straight that they found in their pheromone studies. Here they believe they have found clear neurological differences which in some manner relate to the differences in sexual preferences.

The authors seem more disposed to hormonal mechanisms. They discuss hormonal factors in animals, but correctly note that the relevance to humans “remains to be clarified.” They conclude:

The present study does not allow narrowing of potential explanations, which are probably multifactorial, including interplay between pre- and postnatal testosterone and estrogen, the androgen and estrogen receptors, and the testosterone-degrading enzyme aromatase. It nevertheless contributes to the ongoing discussion about sexual orientation by showing that homosexual men and women differed from the same-sex controls and showed features of the opposite sex in two mutually independent cerebral variables, which, in contrast to those studied previously, were not related to sexual attraction. The observations cannot be easily attributed to perception or behavior. Whether they may relate to processes laid down during the fetal or postnatal development is an open question.

In a post to come, I want to bring together the Langstrom et al study of Swedish twins and the Savic & Lindstrom study. We have many coming to the conclusion that brain differences confirm innate sexual orientation. However, studies of twins seems to demonstrate a role for a variety of environmental factors which operate differently for different people.

UPDATE: In the paragraph above, where I mention “environmental factors,” I am not referring to parenting and childhood trauma. I believe the research on these topics rule those factors out as general causes of homosexual development. For some very small number of people, particular women, those factors may lead to a kind of homosexual adaptation but I do not believe they lead to same sex attraction which occurs prior to any homosexual behavior.

The studies showing brain differences are compelling and indicate a lack of choice in sexual feelings and a spontaneous emergence of those feelings.

Multiple factors involved in sexual orientation: New study

A new study released online with Archives of Sexual Behavior and via press release today propose a relatively small role for family attitudes in the direction of sexual attraction, with more of the explanation being factors not shared by siblings.

Society’s attitudes have little impact on choice of sexual partner

[PRESS RELEASE 16 June 2008] A unique new study from the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institute (KI) suggests that the attitude of families and the public have little impact on if adults decide to have sex with persons of the same or the opposite sex. Instead, hereditary factors and the individual’s unique experiences have the strongest influence on our choice of sexual partners.

The study is the largest in the world so far and was performed in collaboration with the Queen Mary University of London. More than 7,600 Swedish twins (men and women) aged 20-47 years responded to a 2005 – 2006 survey of health, behaviour, and sexuality. Seven percent of the twins had ever had a same-sex sexual partner.

“The results show, that familial and public attitudes might be less important for our sexual behaviour than previously suggested”, says Associate Professor Niklas Långström, one of the involved researchers. “Instead, genetic factors and the individual’s unique biological and social environments play the biggest role. Studies like this are needed to improve our basic understanding of sexuality and to inform the public debate.”

The conclusions apply equally well to why people only have sex with persons of the opposite sex as to why we have sex with same-sex partners. However, the conclusions are more difficult to transfer to countries where non-heterosexual behaviour remains prohibited.

Overall, the environment shared by twins (including familial and societal attitudes) explained 0-17% of the choice of sexual partner, genetic factors 18-39% and the unique environment 61-66%. The individual’s unique environment includes, for example, circumstances during pregnancy and childbirth, physical and psychological trauma (e.g., accidents, violence, and disease), peer groups, and sexual experiences.

Publication:

Niklas Långström, Qazi Rahman, Eva Carlström, Paul Lichtenstein, “Genetic and Environmental Effects on Same-sex Sexual Behaviour: A Population Study of Twins in Sweden.” Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 7 June 2008, doi 10.1007/s10508-008-9386-1

This is more evidence that different factors operate differently for different people. In discussing sexual orientation, it may be that individual narratives have validity for the individual but cannot be generalized widely. Where have I heard that before?

Another news item is circulating today with what appears to be a mix of new and old research on brain structure and sexual orientation.

UPDATE – There is indeed new research from Ivanka Savic’s team in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. The study, titled “PET and MRI show differences in cerebral asymmetry

and functional connectivity between homo- and heterosexual subjects” by Ivanka Savic and Per Lindstrom is not yet published but I have a copy and am reviewing it.

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