Our bodies tell us who we are

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 Miichael Bailey which I referenced recently.

As noted above, whether these differences are innate in some way, learned early, or learned gradually through life, they appear to be real, substantial and involuntary. Furthermore, many ex-gay and ex-ex-gays testify to the perceived naturalness of the attractions to the same sex. For these individuals, if their bodies tell them who they are, I suspect they are experiencing mixed messages.

So what are we to make of the research on brain differences? Clearly, for those who are at the extreme ends of sexual orientation continuum, their brains tell them one thing and if they believe natural law, the rest of their bodies tell them something else. Here is one element of dissonance: which part of body to believe? I suppose in an interesting irony, those who go with brain are also following a naturalistic argument — if I feel it or experience it as natural, it must be supposed to be that way. Isn’t that what natural law arguments do? Read again, Dr. Nicolosi:

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.

For Dr. Nicolosi, what seems natural according to anatomy must be so. For the person arguing from brain research, what seems and feels natural surely must be so as well.

Now it does not seem to me that science can resolve this dilemma of belief and intuition. Science can collate stories of how people feel about their anatomy and inner worlds and report those results, but ultimately, it is up to the individual to weigh the evidence (which certainly includes brain reactions and body make-up) and make a decision. For reproductive anatomy to win out over brain response, one would have to argue that environment, during development, packs a pretty powerful punch in wiring the brain for sexual response. Of the two main theories (reparative drive and exotic becomes erotic), I would say EBE has more empirical support but neither describes the differentiation of brain from neutral (EBE) to gay or straight; or in the case of reparative drive theory, from basically straight to gay. Although I am not arguing for an inborn orientation, I am neither able to describe at the neurological level how the brain differences get there.

Reasoning as I am here, I suppose it might be accurate to say values tell us who we are or more precisely, we get data about who we are from what we value. From this point of view, sexual orientation could be more than what the brain does in response to triggers. It certainly would incorporate brain response and anatomy, but the guidance for action comes from chosen values and beliefs.

Here I am very close to a school of psychological thought known as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Steven Hayes is often considered the founder of ACT and has been the subject of several popular articles on the subject. Regarding values as reflection of self-direction, Dr. Hayes says:

Values are like directions on a compass. They’re never achieved, but in each and every step they influence the quality of the journey. Values dignify and make more coherent our life course—and they put pain in a proper context. It’s now about something. Let me go back to that movie A Beautiful Mind. It’s only when the hero has to decide between what he values and entanglement with insanity that it’s possible and sensible to accept the delusions; to notice them; and to abandon trying to control them—all in the service of being a husband, father, and a mathematician. In the same way, we only put down our avoidance, addictions, and mental wars because it’s costing us something dear, whatever it is that we want our lives to be about. Without that cost we would be lost.

It’s amazing how often people have never really thought about what they want in their lives. They’ve been fighting a mental war, waiting for life to start, and have never really asked or answered the question of what kind of a life they’re waiting to live. The joyful vision of ACT is that you can start living that very life NOW, with your thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations. You start that journey by asking what it is that you really want your life to be about.

Where there is conflict between givens, we step up and choose meaning. For some, there will be a synthesis of religious beliefs and sexuality; for others, the conflict will seem like competing sides where one side wins out.

Scent of a man

Another smell study, this time examining hormone and mood responses among straight women to male sweat.

This passage from an article in the London Daily Mail is provocative:

Dr Claire Wyart, of the University of California, said: “This is the first time anyone has demonstrated that a change in women’s hormonal levels is induced by sniffing an identified compound of male sweat.

“This male chemical signal, androstadienone, does cause hormonal as well as physiological and psychological changes in women.”

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience is, however, not the first to show that male sweat holds a certain appeal for the opposite sex.

A study carried out at the University of Northumbria showed that a whiff of sweat has the ability to turn a frog into a prince.

Researchers asked a group of female students to judge the attractiveness of men shown in photos. A second group of women were set the same task, but this time, unknown to them, a cloth soaked in male sweat was hidden nearby.

The women under the influence of the pheromones – released by glands including those under our arms – rated all the men as being more attractive.

Those judged as being the least attractive by the first group of women showed the biggest jump in sex appeal, with the women rating them as being almost as appealing as the best-looking men.

The only women to resist the effect of sweat were those taking the contraceptive pill.

It is thought the hormones in the Pill stop women from responding as strongly to natural signals of attraction.

Sweat also plays another important role in the mating game, with scientists believing we seek out partners whose body odour is different to our own.

Year in review – Top ten stories from 2006

As much for my own reference and recollection as anything else, I compiled this top ten list of stories from 2006. Since I am the only voter, the list is subjective and regular readers might arrange them differently or think I should have included another story over one of these. I am interested to hear any reactions along those lines. They are arranged in the order of the interest the story seemed to create here on the blog, not their actual importance in the real world.

I first note the topic which is a link to all relevant blog posts and then describe the story briefly. It’s been an eventful year, eh?

1. Gerald Schoenewolf’s NARTH article – This issue was reported widely on blogs as well as the mainstream press and seemed to generate the most interest of any of the issues I blogged about. The article on political correctness, Dr. Schoenewolf’s angry defense, and NARTH’s handling of it (removed it from the website but then allowed Dr. Schoenewolf to defend it) figured prominently in my decision not to attend the 2006 NARTH conference and the resignations of David Blakeslee and Ned Stringham from NARTH’s Scientific Advisory Board. A popular YouTube video also came about as a result. I wish a better and wiser 2007 to NARTH.

2. Richard Cohen’s media appearances – This series of posts garnered much interest from readers, with critics of ex-gay efforts delighting in Mr. Cohen’s decisions to take his reparative drive theories and techniques to the mainstream media. His appearances bewildered and divided people who support those who seek to live out conservative views of sexuality. I severed ties with PFOX over the matter due to Mr. Cohen’s association with them.

3. Joseph Berger’s NARTH article – This story preceded the controversy over Dr. Schoenewolf’s article. Reacting on the NARTH website to a San Francisco Chronicle article, Dr. Berger said that gender variant children might do well to face teasing in school in order to move them toward reality. With encouragement from Exodus and others, NARTH issued a retraction and removed the article. Much damage was done however, as Dr. Berger’s article was repeatedly and at times erroneously referred to by opponents of the Palm Springs Love Won Out conference.

4. Ted Haggard’s resignation – I did quite a few posts on this sad story and was quoted in a Denver Post article regarding the aftermath. Along with the revelation of fellow Colorado pastor, Paul Barnes, the disclosures of Rev. Haggard have prompted many in the evangelical world to reflect on how the church responds to homosexuality.

5. The return of the co-founders of Exodus – About half way through the year, I began receiving emails from Michael Bussee. Michael, one of the co-founders of Exodus International, took exception to my account of the early days of Exodus. Through some spirited and pointed exchanges, Michael and I forged a good connection via the blog and email. These exchanges eventually led to the establishment of wonderful discussions with other early movers and shakers (e.g., Robbi Kenney, Ed Hurst, Lori Rentzel) including helpful reflection on the term ex-gay.

6. Re-evaluation of the term “ex-gay” – As an aspect of the co-founders of Exodus discussion, Exodus Executive Director, Alan Chambers publicly expressed his desire to retire the term ex-gay. The discussion that ensued about the term took many tangents including the common ground discussion and built on an earlier post about what change of sexuality means. At present, it seems to me that the discussion is taking a break for the holidays. I hope to see these topics revived in the new year.

7. Swedish pheromone study and press coverage – The study was certainly news in itself as the Swedish team led by Ivanka Savic, found large differences in how the brains of lesbians and straight women were activated by what the researchers proposed were pheromone-like substances. I got involved by noting the incorrect reporting of the study from both the Associated Press and the United Press International. After I made several contacts with Dr. Savic and then the wire services, both the AP and UPI issued corrections.

8. APA President Koocher’s remarks about client self-determination – In an APA town hall meeting, guest blogger, David Blakeslee asked APA president Gerald Koocher for guidance in helping religiously conservative people who were in conflict over same-sex attraction. Dr. Koocher raised some eyebrows with his answer and subsequent clarification, published on this blog. This exchange led to an invitation from Dr. Koocher to submit my sexual identity therapy framework to the APA for a review. The entire APA convention and a NARTH inspired protest led to several posts, including the comments of APA luminary Nicholas Cummings.

9. Sexual identity therapy – I launched a blog dedicated to providing a framework for mental health interventions with people in conflict over same-sex attractions and chosen values and beliefs. The guidelines differ on several key points from gay affirmative and reparative therapy models. Related to this topic, the paper, “I am not a reparative therapist,” generated much discussion.

10. Abortion and mental health articles – In January, I wrote two articles regarding mental health consequences of abortion. These reports featured interviews with David Fergusson, David Reardon, and Nancy Russo, all prominent researchers in the field. The impetus was a report from David Fergusson’s team demonstrating some mental health risks associated with having an abortion. The interviews and attention to this topic led the APA to remove an outdated public policy information page from their website (NARTH, take note). The page is still being updated but is archived here. These reports were, as far as I can determine, the most widely distributed pieces I have written. Over 15,000 news sources worldwide ran one or both of them.

Honorable mention – The birth order effect research by Anthony Bogaert and subsequent research reports that did not find such an effect occupied my time and several posts. Research from Bearman and Bruckner and most recently the research of Frisch and Hviid found no support for the birth order effect in large and varied groups of respondents. Other issues such as the Equality Ride, Brokeback Mountain, the 60 Minutes report, Gay or Straight?, and the Foley debacle were also important. But one must stop reviewing sometime and say thanks to those who read and comment here.

Happy new year!

The eyes have it: Sexual orientation and perception of invisible images

An interesting study out Monday suggests that sexual attractions direct primary appraisal (unconscious attention). What one pays attention to may relate to one’s sexual orientation. The study, “A gender- and sexual orientation-dependent spatial attentional effect of invisible images” by Jiang, Costello, Fang, Huang & He and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science masked nude images of men and women in such a way as to make them virtually invisible. They found however, that the attention of the participants were consistent with their sexual attractions. Gay men preferred to look at nude men, straight men at nude women and women were moderately focused on nude men but with a mixed response to pictures of women. I calculated effect sizes for the differences and they are huge. Sexual orientation accounts for nearly half of the variance in attention. Along with the pheromone and serotonin challenge studies, this new work adds to the idea that sexual orientation differences are quite substantial, no matter how they came to be.

I will update this as I am able.

Another Press Snafu: The UPI misinterprets the lesbian story

As if to say, “me too!” The UPI is taking its turn at incorrectly reporting the Savic pheromone study. Here is what the UPI report said:

Lesbians like men – with major difference

WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) — Lesbians react to body odors like heterosexual men but with an important difference — they are not sexually aroused, Swedish researchers say.

In a study of lesbians who smelled a derivative of progesterone found in male sweat and an estrogen-like steroid found in female urine, the female compound activated the hypothalamus among the 12 lesbians, researchers at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute reported.

While the reaction was like that of heterosexual males, the lesbians’ response was different in that they were not sexually aroused, said the study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That differs from earlier studies by the Swedish team, which found gay men and heterosexual women react to male sweat in the same way.

“This observation could favor the view that male and female homosexuality are different,” lead researcher Ivanka Savic told The New York Times.

One problem: the Savic study states specifically that the participants did not report sexual arousal. None of them, not just the lesbians.

ADDENDUM: I requested a review and correction and I just heard from the UPI that they did so.

Just when you thought it was all about the smell

I think the study of attraction is just full of fun. What pheromones?

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