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.

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.