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Causes of Homosexuality: Past and Present Understandings

Lorraine Benuto, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

It may be safe to say that as early as time the big stamp of "taboo" was placed on sexuality. It may be surprising to realize that such "taboo" extended into the scientific world. It wasn't until 1886 when the scientific study of sexuality began. Until that time, people's ideas about what was "normal" was based upon their own ideas within their social circle, or reference group. Since then, many people have made some very significant contributions to the study of sexuality. As we have reached a greater understanding of sexuality, our views have become more liberal. This reflects the greater understanding of the range of variety in human sexuality, and a broader understanding of "normal". These early researchers were often faced with great doubt by their peers at the time. However, their efforts have significantly contributed to a better understanding of healthy sexuality today.

very old book Sexual Orientation: The Historical Change in the Mental Health Perspective on Sexual Orientation

The interaction between science and culture is clearly shown by the historical change that happened within the professional, scientific, and mental health community, regarding homosexuality. Prior to 1975, homosexuality was considered pathological (evil, unnatural, or an illness). However, since then, the modern agreement is that homosexuality and the entire range of sexual orientation, reflect normal human differences, and has a basis in human biology.

One of the first pioneers of sexual research was Alfred Kinsey, Ph.D. He is often credited for advancing this historical change. He is considered a central figure in the history of sexual science primarily for his contributions regarding a broader understanding of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation generally reflects sexual feelings, desire, arousal, fantasy and attraction. Dr. Kinsey's major contribution to sexual science was conducting 17,000 interviews with Americans about their sex lives. Some have criticized his research because it relied upon volunteers, creating a biased sample. This is because people who volunteer to participate in sex research are likely to be more liberal than those who do not volunteer to participate. Therefore, those who do not participate are not represented in the sample, which makes it biased. Nonetheless, his work provided us our first clues about what Americans sex lives were really like.

One of his most famous contributions was the Kinsey Scale. This is a 7-point scale, that is often used to measure sexual orientation. At the time when he was conducting his research, homosexuality and heterosexuality were considered mutually exclusive, separate categories. You were either straight or gay. Instead, Kinsey proposed it was more correct to view sexual orientation along a continuum or scale, rather than as an either-or category. It's not whether you are heterosexual or homosexual, it is how heterosexual or homosexual you are. A "0" on the Kinsey scale represents exclusive heterosexuality, while a "7" represents exclusive homosexuality, and a "3" represents bisexuality. Interestingly, this perspective on sexual orientation has strongly resurfaced over the last 20 years. Dr. Kinsey's research showed a greater frequency and variance in sexual orientation than was previously believed prior to his work.

Debate and controversy about sexual orientation have a long history in the mental health world. Discussions regarding whether sexual orientation can be changed have been around as long as homosexuality itself (Haldeman, 1994). Such debates often reflect the powerful interaction between social sciences and culture. This is shown by the historical shift that happened regarding diagnostic criteria of sexual pathology (illness) as determined by the American Psychological Association.

Prior to 1975, the general agreement of the psychological community was that homosexuality was an illness. Since there was little research in this area, this agreement reflected the larger culture's dominant view. Since homosexuality was considered an illness, "treatments" were discussed and created. Doctors, therapists, and religious leaders have tried to reverse homosexuality using psychoanalytic therapy, prayer and spiritual interventions, electric shock, nausea-inducing drugs, hormone therapy, and surgery. Additionally, behavioral treatments including masturbatory reconditioning and visits to prostitutes have been used to try to "cure" homosexuality.

However, in 1975 the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. They urged mental health professionals to work toward removing stigma from homosexuality. This was a huge accomplishment. However, homosexuality was replaced with Ego-Dystonic homosexuality (defined as being homosexual but wishing not to be). This was later dropped in 1987 (Haldeman, 1994).

Today, APA takes a firm stance regarding conversion therapies that try to change homosexuality. They have stated that there is no evidence to support the effectiveness of these "therapies." Furthermore, a vast amount of sexuality research suggests that homosexuality is determined by biology. Research suggests that hormonal influences during fetal development may impact certain parts of the brain and that may then impact sexual orientation. Additionally, researchers have identified several physical differences between homosexual and heterosexual men, such as finger length and birth order. These physical differences suggest that biology is at play in determining sexual orientation. These research findings extend into the animal kingdom as researchers have suggested that physiology largely impacts sexual behavior. Researchers have demonstrated that lesions in certain areas of the male rat brain can increase female-like sexual behavior (Agmo & Ellison, 2003). Thus, treating something psychologically that is biologically determined makes about as much sense as trying to use talk therapy to change the color of a person's eyes.

Despite the fact that homosexuality is no longer considered a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association, some mental health practitioners in various fields still continue to try and treat homosexuality as a disorder to be "fixed". Clearly attempts to reverse or change something, implies that that something is unwanted and unhealthy (Murphy, 1992). Some of these practitioners justify their treatments based upon their own personal religious beliefs that consider homosexuality sinful. Other mental health professionals defend their attempts to change a person's sexual orientation as a matter of free choice for the unhappy client. Sometimes the client's own personal religious choices consider homosexuality sinful. Clinicians treating these clients state that they are "value-neutral" and insist that clients have a right to choose treatments consistent with each client's own personal values. However, regardless of the reasons clinicians may have for providing these "treatments." their efforts to change something clearly implies a negative value. Thus, if the psychological profession wants to make clear the message that homosexuality is a perfectly normal orientation, those clinicians who continue to support efforts to change sexual orientation provide society a conflicting message.