Shame and attachment loss: Going from bad to worse

Trying to keep up on the new developments in reparative therapy, I purchased NARTH’s co-founder Joseph Nicolosi’s new book, Shame and Attachment Loss: The Practical Work of Reparative Therapy. This post is not a review but more of a prep for a review. I am going to provide some excerpts and comments which may form the basis for a more formal review at a later date.

You have to get past a couple of features of Nicolosi’s writing in order to proceed. He has an annoying (to me) habit of speaking of himself in the plural (“When a man finds masculinity mysterious and exotic, and seeks it outside himself, we believe he is living in a false self…). This form reappears throughout the book. You also have to grasp the jargon being used in order to understand what he proposes (“grey zone,” “double bind,” “double loop”). In some respects, reading this book is like reading material from object relations theorists such as Masterson and Volkan. It is inside baseball to most folks who are not conversant with attachment and object relations theory.

However, this book is published by Christian publisher Intervarsity Press and makes an effort to make some of the concepts accessible to a lay and non-psychodynamic audience. To be sure, Nicolosi doesn’t leave the reader unclear about his views. Regarding homosexuality, he begins by dismissing Daryl Bem’s empirically derived theory of same-sex attraction because it does not stigmatize same-sex attraction. He then, indicates what has remained the same since his earlier books and what has changed. First, what has remained the same:

The essential principle of reparative therapy remains the same – simply stated by one client as “When a real man sees me as a real man, then I become a real man.” (p. 31)

The real man is the therapist or some other model of masculinity and then to become a real man is apparently to become straight. Simple, right?

What has changed?

Recently, reparative therapy has expanded to conceptualize homosexual attraction as more than a striving to repair gender deficits. We now see it more broadly, as a striving to repair deep self-deficits. (p.31)

Translation: If you have SSA, you are worse off than Nicolosi first believed. You are not just deficient in your sense of gender identity, but your core sense of self is a wreck too. He continues:

My longtime clinical observation suggests one repeated trend in early childhood: specifically, an accumulation of early, core emotional hurts that have led to an attachment injury. I believe that homosexuality is not only a defense against gender inferiority, but a defense against a trauma to the core self.

Beyond the previously recognized needs of same-sex identification and affirmation, we now better understand the condition as an attempt to heal an abandonment-annihilation trauma. We see homosexuality as typically an attempt to “repair” shame-afflicted longing for gender-based individuation. As such, homosexuality can be seen as a pathologic form of grieving. Adopting concepts from bereavement and grief literature, we thus turn new attention to the contributions of attachment theory and the role of shame.(p. 31-32; all italics in the original)

I suspect those adopted concepts of bereavement and grief will want to return to their original family. According to Nicolosi, men (women, what women?) are drawn to sex with men because it somehow helps them grieve the loss of attachment to important figures in their childhood, most notably the father. However, these losses are not restricted to gender concerns.

This understanding that homosexuality is a symptom of a larger issue of self-identity is supported by the almost universal complaint of clients that they feel “insecure,” “inadequate,” “a little boy in an adult world,” “out of control” and lacking relational authority. For years I have heard clients express this interpersonal powerlessness: “She upsets me, they annoy me, he doesn’t take me seriously. (p. 33)

The trauma is broader than lack of attachment to the same sex parent. He notes:

Attachment is the foundation of our self-identity. It is through the mother-child attachment that we develop our sense of self and discover who we are. Shame felt during this process of attachment and individuation subverts development of both self-identity and gender identity.

Since our clients report a core experience of not having felt “seen” by their parents for who they are, they inevitably also felt that they were not loved – at least in the deepest and most genuine sense. There is a deep perception that the parents, even though they may have been truly well-meaning, have failed to fully see, know and accept them.

Because parents are not perceived as loving them for who they are, gay men develop a “false self” to defend against the abandonment of not being truly known. Kids start doing things they think will get their parents and other people to like them but those things are not really them. When they actually move toward what they want to do, they get depressed because they fear attachment loss. This is very nearly the same concept as the “false self” and “abandonment depression” of James Masterson. Masterson is nowhere referenced in the book which is a curious oversight. I wonder if it is because Masterson writes about the same dynamics with straight people being the primary clientele.

According to Nicolosi, reparative therapy helps clients give up the false self, a feature of which is same-sex attraction, in order to experience real attachment and affirmation from “real men.” As this occurs, the homosexuality will diminish and heterosexuality will emerge.

This should be reasonably easy to test. If all of this is true, homosexuals should be unable to hold jobs, or advance in careers, or do other things which require secure object relations and attachments. And of course, this is the practical problem for the practical work of reparative therapy. Many gay, ex-gay, post-gay, and SSA people do not have lives which correspond to the predictions in this book. Nor do their lives indicate the kind of deep self-deficits which are predicted here.

This is first in a series of occasional posts on this book. Stay tuned…

Christianity Today on evangelical divide over reparative therapy

Christianity Today has an article out online today which covers familiar ground to readers here.

Written by Bobby Ross, the article notes the divisions over reparative therapy which have been accentuated by the recent APA report on sexual orientation and therapy.

No surprise here: Evangelical leaders who advocate gay reparative therapy took umbrage at a highly publicized American Psychological Association (APA) resolution that criticized such efforts.

By a 125-4 vote, the 150,000-member association’s governing council adopted a task force report in August claiming a lack of evidence that efforts to change one’s sexual orientation work.

One aspect of the 138-page resolution, however, drew praise from some Christian psychologists—and exposed a divide in the evangelical therapy community.

As we discuss here often, modest change in orientation has been reported but, in my opinion, the change paradigm for therapy and ministry is old school.

Warren Throckmorton, a counselor who believes that the Bible prohibits homosexuality, commended the task force for “clarifying the value of helping clients sort out their beliefs and work out an identity and life that fit within the clients’ beliefs.”

A one-time proponent of sexual reorientation efforts, Throckmorton said he spoke up until 2004 at conventions of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). But the Grove City College psychology professor has come to believe that changing a person’s sexual orientation is at best difficult.

Rather than focusing on reparative therapy, he has embraced “sexual identity therapy,” which focuses on helping a person live in a way that is consistent with his or her beliefs.

My issues with reparative therapy involve the lack of research support for the basic perspectives on the formation of same-sex attraction as well as the paucity of robust demonstrated outcomes.

“The reparative side sees the objective as healing the trauma [of family dysfunction] and thus curing the homosexuality,” said Throckmorton, former president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. “The sexual identity side doesn’t see the efficacy of that approach and doesn’t think change is necessary in order to help people live in congruence with their faith.”

Ross then addresses the Jones and Yarhouse study and notes Mark Yarhouse’s views on change and therapy paradigms.

Yarhouse says more Christian psychologists are providing sexual identity therapy rather than reparative therapy. He recommends “a range of options” to help believers make sense of their sexual and religious identities.

“I don’t want to discourage people from making that attempt [to change orientation],” he said. “But for most of those people, success will not be a categorical shift from gay to straight. The gains will likely be modest, more along a continuum.”

As co-author of the Sexual Identity Therapy Framework, Mark offers a balanced view of the landscape. Most of the people who consider Exodus a success have a story of congruence with their faith than tell a story of some degree of change in their sexual arousal patterns.

Alan Chambers weighs in with more of the reparative therapy side of the divide.

Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, said it is wrong to assert that sexual orientation cannot change as a result of therapy.

“That flies in the face of the testimonies of tens of thousands of people just like me,” said Chambers, a married father of two who credits God and counseling for helping him leave a homosexual lifestyle. “That’s not to say that you can flip a switch and go from gay to straight.”

Finally, NARTH’s David Pruden worries that the APA report will keep people from trying to change.

David Pruden, vice president of operations for NARTH, said the APA’s resolution likely will not affect how Christian psychologists counsel. He voiced concern, though, about its impact on potential clients.

“[This] could discourage individuals from even seeking assistance or entertaining the thought that growth or change is possible,” he said.

Well, if the proper information is disclosed to people, I doubt they will not seek assistance. However, if therapists practice in accord with the SIT Framework and recent APA guidance, they will not experience over promising or be directed to developmental theories which may not fit their lives.

New SIT Framework website and list

Late Friday afternoon might not be the best time to post this but…

I want to announce the new Sexual Identity Therapy Framework website and invite people to join the SIT Framework list serv.

Here is the listserv portal:

Click to join sexualidentitytherapy

The discussions will be geared primarily to mental health professionals but interested ministry leaders and others may find them to be of value. There may be some overlap with the blog but there will be unique material as well.

Your brain on sex

Well, maybe not your brain but this article is an intriguing review of some research relating to brain scans of sexual arousal. I have not examined the original sources yet (plan to) but wanted to put this up for some TGIF reading.

Perhaps the author was unaware of the Safron et al study but I am going to see if there are points of connection.

Thanks, Lynn David for the tip.

York, PA paper examines faith, sexuality and APA report

The York Daily Record ran a story in the September 6 print edition and then online on the 8th which examined the American Psychological Association report as well as the Jones and Yarhouse study. The article by Melissa Nann Burke included interviews from local Exodus ministries as well. Some good things here…

The men and women who come to Dan Keefer with moral distress about being gay or bisexual often seek to change because their sexual attractions conflict with their religious beliefs.

Keefer, who works at the Christian counseling center Day Seven Ministries in Lancaster, tells the men he can’t “turn them straight,” but he can help them work toward a way of living that’s congruent with their faith, he said.

“We approach it from the angle that ‘there’s hope for you,'” Keefer said.

Efforts might include choosing celibacy, learning to resist sexual urges or viewing the struggle as a way to draw closer to God. Some even go on to marry, Keefer said.

Note that hope and belief congruence are not mutually exclusive. One does not need to promote change as a means to instill hope for a value congruent life.

About the congruence model, Burke continues

For years, such an approach departed from the trend in counseling that encouraged clients to affirm their gay identities and embrace their sexuality.

That was troubling for counselors such as Dr. Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at a Christian college in Mercer County.

He encouraged the 150,000-member American Psychological Association to acknowledge that, for some people, religious identity is such an important part of their lives, it transcends sexual orientation.

“A number of us said many evangelicals are never going to affirm this. Is there any guidance for those of us dealing with them?” said Throckmorton, who teaches at Grove City College.

In a significant departure, the APA last month said it’s ethical for mental health professionals to help some people reject their same-sex urges. Indeed, it can be beneficial.

The association said counselors should explain that homosexuality isn’t a mental or developmental disorder and that there’s insufficient evidence that therapy can change sexual orientation.

I agree with the APA that some harm can come from reparative therapy.

Concerns about so-called “reparative therapy” prompted the two-year study by a task force of academics and counselors, who noted that efforts to produce change could be harmful and induce depression or suicidal tendencies.

Throckmorton said he’s worked with clients who did find harm in “change” therapies — most notably broken familial relationships.

“My particular concern is psychologists who tell people they have homosexual tendencies because of bad parenting,” he said. “I’ve worked with families who’ve been ripped apart over this.”

Here is a rather candid statement by an Exodus affiliated person:

One group that promotes the possibility of change is Exodus International, a network of ministries whose message is “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.”

In the midstate, visitors to Exodus’ Web site might be referred to Tim Winters of Elizabethtown, a lay member at Hope Community Church near Mount Joy.

“The official stance of the people at these Web sites is that they’ve changed forever. Officially, they’ll say that you turn and stay turned, and you’ve gone on to another plane. But in reality, that’s not a lot of people that happens to,” Winters said.

“You can’t say a magic prayer and make it go away. I’ve known many gay people who have walked away from the lifestyle. But it’s behavioral modification. It’s choosing to do one thing over another.”

While I wouldn’t use the term “lifestyle” to refer to gay identification, I do believe I get what this man is saying. He is describing what the APA described as “sexual orientation identity” which does change and reflects what the APA called “telic congruence.”

The quote from the psychologist indicates where the ongoing work is needed now that the work of the APA task force is complete.

Dr. Elizabeth Revell, a psychologist in Hellam Township, said she probably wouldn’t work with a client who asked her to help him shunt his sexuality to the side.

“Mine is a more gay-affirming approach. If the person says I don’t want to be gay or lesbian, I don’t do those therapies,” she said.

“The concern I have with the ‘re-orientation therapies’ is they start out by promising something (change), instead of listening to what the person’s saying they need.”

Why wouldn’t she work with the client? Because she is gay-affirming. This woman should refer to another counselor in those situations. She seems to conflate “re-orientation therapies” with what the APA recommends. I wonder if she has read the report?

The article concludes with more from Jones and Yarhouse.

Jones said the task force overlooked noteworthy research suggesting otherwise. He and a colleague last month presented a study that followed people trying to change their sexual orientation through Exodus International programs.

Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse, a psychologist at Regent University, concluded that sexual orientation may be “changable for some;” however, those in the study who reported a change to heterosexuality stipulated they weren’t without homosexual arousal.

The study also concluded that concerns over the likely harm caused by re-orientation therapy to be overstated.

“We don’t know what causes (same-sex attractions). We don’t know what the probabilities are of change. It’s a very complex situation,” Jones said.

“We ought to be a lot more hesitant about making assertions about scientific conclusions.”

With all due respect to Stanton, I think the APA report was cautious. The task force concluded that the evidence was insufficient to recommend that therapists tell clients will change with therapy. Actually, given their study, I think the APA pessimism is warranted. Where are the controlled studies showing levels of change (not satisfaction) is likely? Their study did not provide a control group which would allow an examination of the role of spontaneous change.

(PS – to readers, it seems that the end of this post was truncated by the blog software. I am looking in to where it went.)

Discover article on sexual orientation change and the APA report

Discover magazine has an online article out today which covers the APA report, NARTH and the Jones and Yarhouse study.

Here are some excerpts:

Joseph Nicolosi, a psychologist in Encino, Calif., says he can rid adults, teens, and even children of homosexuality. For nearly 30 years, he has offered a “psychodynamic” form of reparative therapy for people—mostly men—seeking to change their sexual orientation.

“If [a patient] can accept his bodily homoerotic experience while staying connected to the therapist,” he wrote in “The Paradox of Self-Acceptance,” “the sexual feeling soon transforms into something else: the recognition of deeper, pain-generated emotional needs which have nothing to do with sexuality.”

He cites the following case: A 43-year-old married accountant was recalling another man that he had seen at the airport while on a business trip. “This had awakened his sexual fantasies and dreams. I asked him to hold onto that image and observe his bodily sensations while staying connected to me. As he did, he felt an intense sexual longing. But as he followed that fantasy through an imaginary sexual scenario, quite unexpectedly, he then experienced an embodied shift to sadness, longing, and emptiness. In tears, he spoke of his sense of deep unworthiness. ‘I would just love him to be my friend! He’s the kind of guy that I always wanted to be close to. How much I just want to be friends with a guy like him.'”

This describes an aspect of the approach advocated in Nicolosi’s new book, Shame and Attachment Loss. People I have seen who have been through this approach describe it as being a chase for making sense of what they eventually come to see as an automatic reaction in search of a justification. Having said that, perhaps this gives some men a greater sense of control over their automatic impulses.

The center of this so-called “reparative therapy” is the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Its membership—around 1,100 people, according to current NARTH president Julie Harren Hamilton—is dwarfed by the APA’s 150,000 members.

Treatments follow from the assertion that homosexuality is not an innate trait, but rather a result of childhood trauma and lack of attachment to members of the same sex.

“The treatment is different for men and women,” Nicolosi, one of NARTH’s former presidents, told DISCOVER. “The principles are the same—we find that for the lesbian, there is a traumatic attachment loss with the mother, and for the males it’s a traumatic attachment loss with the fathers. We believe the male homosexual should work with a male therapist, and the lesbian should work with a woman.”

It is always difficult to know who Nicolosi is referring to when he says, “we.” Is he referring to NARTH or those who are reparative therapists, or the royal we, referring to himself? However, Hamilton seems to distance NARTH from the singular approach used by Nicolosi when she says:

These treatments take on several approaches. “Psychological care for individuals with unwanted homosexual attractions includes a variety of approaches. There are many paths that lead into and out of homosexuality,” NARTH president Julie Harren Hamilton wrote DISCOVER in an email. “Therapists who assist clients with unwanted homosexual attractions vary in their…methods, [which include] object relations, interpersonal therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, and many others.”

This would be a welcome departure for NARTH and Hamilton. On her video Homosexuality 101, she lays out the typical reparative drive explanation as the most common pathway. If NARTH truly wants to move away from the singular cause, it should make it clear what other pathways they view as possible.

Then the article turns to the Jones and Yarhouse study.

SOCE advocates have done studies in recent years to try and show that their efforts are working. One of the more influential among sexuality-change advocates was a study by two professors at Christian colleges: Mark Yarhouse, a psychology professor at Regent University, and Stanton Jones, provost and professor of psychology at Wheaton College.

The six-year study started with 98 subjects, most of whom were white, male, and religious—92 percent identified themselves as “born again.” All of the treatments were provided by Exodus International. Of the 61 who provided data in all six years, 14 of them—23 percent—reported that they had successfully converted to heterosexuality “in some form or another,” according to Jones. Meanwhile, 18 subjects—30 percent—reported that they had dis-identified as homosexuals and were now “chaste,” meaning no overt sexual activity at all. The results were based entirely on self-reported surveys.

I think Judith Glassgold’s assessment of the study was too harsh when she said:

The study was dismissed by the APA task force on multiple grounds, and held as an example of the systematic scientific problems of SOCE today. “Everything was wrong with that study,” Glassgold says. “[Yarhouse and Stanton] chose the wrong statistics to evaluate, they violated statistical laws, and they didn’t have a control group—just a small sample of people recruited from religious groups. They followed the individuals over a couple of years, but didn’t specify that the subjects should only try one intervention at a time, so they tried many at the same time. So we aren’t sure which, if any, intervention was causal.”

The reporter is a little sloppy here referring to Yarhouse and Stanton (Jones, I assume; a little later someone named Miller is named without a first name or introduction) and does not interview another person to provide another perspective. I think if anything the Jones and Yarhouse study is not very positive for sexual reorientation. Flaws aside, it does not help those who want to promote change as the proper focus of therapy or ministry.

There is a historical review of some of the behavioral sexual reorientation methods that might be new to some readers. The article notes that the polarization continues between NARTH and the APA. However, the article failed to really grasp the important news from the APA report, i.e., the respectful and appropriate treatment of religion as a diversity variable and the interface with client self-determination.

My Genes Made Me Do It and brain plasticity

Just a postscript to my earlier posts on brain plasticity and sexual orientation…

Neil Whitehead first authored his signature work, My Genes Made Me Do It in 1999. Now he maintains the book on his website saying that “It is under constant review to keep it up-to-date so readers can be asssured (sic) of its on-going relevance.”

In chapter 8, on page 6, Whitehead recommends Norman Doidge’s book on brain plasticity. He takes some of the same liberties with Doidge’s book that he does in the Anglican Mainstream article and again fails to quote what Doidge actually says about sexual orientation.

Doidge gives a neurological principle: Neurons which fire together wire together. In human sexuality this means that if something extraneous is often associated with sexual arousal it will tend to become part of it. In brain maps genital response regions lie alongside the response region for feet, and Doidge wonders if this might relate to sexual fetishes involving feet. It also becomes very reasonable to suppose that (for example) intense emotional focus on someone of the same sex might get triggered together with sexual excitement, and if frequently repeated ultimately seem to be very deeply ingrained homosexuality.

Because of brain plasticity it’s quite possible that homosexuals can become more heterosexual and heterosexuals could become homosexual, though persistent work could be needed, about equivalent to learning a new musical instrument

A prediction of plasticity principles though not mentioned by Doidge, would be that any brain structures associated with sexual activity would be much changed in those very old people for whom such activity has long ceased eg those brain regions would have shrunk and lost function.

Doidge’s conclusion about sexuality is that “Human libido is not a hard-wired 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.

There are numerous problems with Whitehead’s extension of Doidge’s ideas into the area of sexual orientation. However, I will note again that he selectively quotes the book and adds his own ideas as if they come from Doidge’s book.

Whitehead’s predictions that sexual reorientation should be as easy as learning a musical instrument should be offensive to celibate gays, ex-gays, post-gays, and ex-ex-gays. I have heard hundreds of narratives from people who sought change, are seeking change and/or congruence with their nongay-affirming religious beliefs and no one has ever described the process in those terms.

Another problem with this book is a reference to Paul Cameron’s anti-gay pamphlet, The Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do in chapter 6. He even incorrectly says the Family Research Council published the thing (Paul Cameron’s DBA Family Research Institute is the actual publisher). He quotes him two additional times in the book as well. One might understand these inclusions better if they occurred in the 1999 version. One could make the case that the degree of Cameron’s bias was not clear at that point. However, since this is an effort “under constant review,” I am assuming that the presence of these references is intentional.

Related posts:

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

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

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

This post is a follow up to the one about Neil and Briar Whitehead’s article titled, “Brain Plasticity Backs Up Orientation Change” published on the Anglican Mainstream.

In their article, the Whiteheads liken sexual reorientation to learning to play a musical instrument and proclaim that science leads us to this assumption:

Our assumption now should be, change is possible in many behaviors – sexual orientation not excluded – and extraordinary effort will produce extraordinary change.

In their article, the Whiteheads frequently quote and recommend a book by Norman Doidge called “The Brain that Changes Itself.” To prove their contention about sexual reorientation, the Whiteheads use quotes from Doidge’s book saying:

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.

These quotes come from a chapter titled “Acquiring tastes and loves” and describe human sexuality as being pretty flexible compared to other species. Doidge says “human libido is not a hardwired invariable biological urge” on page 95 and is plucked from the middle of a sentence. Here is the whole sentence:

The plasticity of this man’s sexual tastes exaggerates is general truth: that the 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.

Who is the man Doidge refers to here? While he is not named, he is described.

One homosexual man had successive relations with men from one race or ethnic group, then with those from another, and in each period he could be attracted only to men from the group that was currently “hot.”

Dr. Doidge was talking about a gay man and the variability within his sexual orientation — not about easy movements from one orientation to another. The gay man was not changing his sexual orientation but his attraction preferences. The Whiteheads leave out this aspect of the story.

The Whiteheads say that Doidge is talking about same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction. However, in the quote provided, Doidge is talking about a gay man. The Whiteheads further obscure Doidge’s views by failing to quote what he does say about sexual reorientation. On page 95 Doidge writes:

Even sexual preference can occasionally change. Though some scientists increasingly emphasize the inborn basis of our sexual preferences, it is also true that some people have heterosexual attractions for part of their lives — with no history of bisexuality — and then “add on” a homosexual attraction and vice versa.

I wonder why the Whiteheads did not quote these two sentences. This is directly on point. Quoting this section and another on page 341 would have presented Doidge’s views more clearly. This is clearly not the same perspective as is portrayed by the Whiteheads.

On page 341, Dr. Doidge provides a reference for his view about adding on sexual responsiveness to an existing orientation. He first says, it is well known that straights can engage in homosexual relations when members of the opposite sex are not present and gives prison and the military as examples. However, he then quotes an authority with no research references.

According to Richard C. Friedman, researcher on male homosexuality, when male homosexuals develop a heterosexual attraction, it is almost always an “add on” attraction, not a replacement (personal communication).

This is far cry from what the Whiteheads would have us believe about brain plasticity and sexual orientation and even about what Norman Doidge says in his book. They could have quoted what Doidge said but didn’t in favor of quotes which misrepresented what the author said. And they really did not need to wonder what Doidge thought since he spelled it out.

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

LDS scholars critique Byrd, Cox & Robinson review

Monday, I posted a statement from J. Michael Bailey, prolific sexual orientation researcher at Northwestern University, regarding what he called a “blatant misquotation” and misrepresentation of his views by Dean Byrd, Shirley Cox and Jeffrey Robinson in a 2005 book review of In Quiet Desperation. Yesterday, I posted a link to the rebuttal by In Quiet Desperation co-author, Ty Mansfield.

Today, I am posting another rebuttal to the review from Byrd et al, this time from four LDS scholars who write on gay issues – William Bradshaw, Robert A. Rees, Ron Schow, and Marybeth Raynes. You can read the review and the authors’ bios on an LDS website featuring resources for same-sex attracted people.

As with the Mansfield, I want to include excerpts and make a comment at the end.

Bradshaw et al make religious critiques of Byrd et al and then note what appears to be confirmation bias emerging in the review.

It is disturbing that Byrd, Cox and Robinson, all of whom have had extensive experience in counseling, would make judgments about both Stewart Matis and Ty Mansfield that they are in no position to make. Without knowing anything about the personality or therapeutic history of either man and based only on what evidence they find in the Matis-Mansfield narratives, they draw therapeutic conclusions, characterizing Stuart Matis as having “temperamental sensitivity,” “an obsessive preoccupation with being different,” and “perfectionism.” They assert, again without having counseled with him, that Stuart’s “story may have had a much different outcome had Stuart found. . . needed help”; they challenge the Matises’ interpretation of “their son’s attraction for other boys (‘crushes’) as somehow related to his homosexual attractions,” by stating declaratively, “They are not”; they state, “What Stuart failed to secure was competent, professional help, the kind of help that could assist him deal [sic] with very chronic, very difficult challenges.”

They conduct the same kind of arm-chair psychological analysis of Ty Mansfield: “Though Mansfield notes that his homosexual feelings have remained unchanged, this is impossible”! As they do with Stuart Matis, Byrd, Cox and Robinson, pigeonhole Mansfield as suffering from “temperamental sensitivity, obsessive introspection and perfectionism.” They seem to know Mansfield’s therapeutic experience: “Rather than seeking help, however, Mansfield seems stuck in his gender confusion”; “Mansfield has simply conceded victory to his homosexuality.” Such conclusions are as irresponsible as the medical analysis of Senator Bill Frist upon viewing videotape of the comatose Terry Shiavo. If these authors are familiar with what are surely the confidential medical and psychotherapeutic records of Matis and Mansfield, they should say so; otherwise, their analysis is not only inappropriate, it is professionally irresponsible.

A common theme among reparative influenced therapists is to see nails since the tool they have is a hammer. If you think homosexuality is caused by weak fathers, temperamental sensitivity, and/or perfectionism, then that is what you see in those who are same-sex attracted. Even if you only have a bits of information about a person, it is enough because you can always fill in the blanks.

Here the authors note the lack of documentation or data for the claims of reorientation.

Without providing adequate scholarly documentation, Byrd, Cox and Robinson refer to the success of reparative therapy (although they don’t label it as such). They contend that “many men (and women),” “many individuals,” “many people,” and “many men and women” “make successful transitions out of homosexuality.” In a review critical of others’ use of scientific evidence, one would expect some reference to a scholarly study that details exactly how many “many” is. Given the fact that Byrd was the lead person directing therapy for same sex attraction at Church Social Services during a period when many hundreds of Latter-day Saints were undergoing reparative or change therapy, one would think he would cite the findings of such therapy. It is in fact scandalous that such studies either were not undertaken or have been suppressed since the findings would help enlighten our present discussion of this subject. We are acquainted with one therapist at Church Social Services during Byrd’s tenure who did a large portion of this work in that he counseled with nearly a thousand homosexuals and whose experience contradicts the point of view taken in this review.2

The footnote #2 reads:

Our informant has told us that in over a 30 year career at LDS Family Services he worked with about 400 single men, 200 of whom left therapy after 1-2 sessions. Of the remaining 200, only 20 (10%) were able to marry. Furthermore, 19 of the 20 who married identified themselves as bisexual when they entered therapy. The quality of these marriages is unknown. Another Latter-day Saint therapist with whom we are familiar reports that of the hundreds of clients with sexual identity issues she has seen only those clearly identified as bisexual are given any chance of making successful marriages.

This seems reasonable but it is unfortunate that the mystery therapist did not step forward with some verification.

It seems clear that there are some divisions within LDS circles which are similar to what occurs in the evangelical world.