1 Complexities and terminology
There are two conflicting definitions in common usage:
State legislatures, gays, lesbians, mainline and liberal religious groups, mental health practitioners, human sexuality researchers and others generally define "sexual orientation" in terms of the sex of the individual that an older teen or adult finds sexually, emotionally, and spiritually attractive:
Sexual orientation thus defines a person's feelings; it is considered part of their personal makeup.
Some mental health professionals have more precise definitions which include the sex that an individual focuses their amorous thoughts, their erotic desires, their sexual fantasies and their feelings.
Sometimes asexuality is added as a fourth option; this covers individuals who have no feelings of sexual attraction. Everyone has a sexual orientation. They may be sexually active or celibate.
Some religious and social conservatives define "sexual orientation" much broader in terms of: The sex, and/or
They define sexual orientation as including one or more of the following terms:
Also included may be individuals who engage in or fantasize about a variety of paraphilias. "Paraphilia" means "beyond love" in Greek. The category includes dozen sexual desires and activities that lie outside the cultural norm and only involve a minority of adults. Examples are sadomasochism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, emetophilia, klismaphilia, etc. See Jahsonic.com for definitions of these paraphilias. 1
Some quotations from religious an social conservatives who have apparently taken this broad interpretation of sexual orientation: Judith Reisman, writing in the Fundamentalist Christian news service WorldNetDaily in the year 2000 referred to "...federal 'sexual orientation' legislation protects all 'orientations' which would include 'affectional' pedophiles, pederasts, sadists, zoophiles, coprophiles, necrophiles, and the like." 2
In their essay "Sexual Orientation: Fixed or Changeable?, The Traditional Values Coalition writes: "There are literally dozens of groups of individuals who engage in bizarre sexual behaviors and who have mental conditions known as paraphilias or behaviors known as fetishes. These include Coprophagia.... Klismaphilia... Pederasty... Sadomasochism... Diaper fetishes... Necrophilia... All of these behaviors could be considered to be 'sexual orientations' -- and many of the individuals who engage in these behaviors are working to have their peculiar sexual behaviors declared to be normal in psychiatry and in the culture at large....Pedophilia and Sadomasochism are just two of many sexual orientations that may eventually be normalized in our society." 3
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that: "Cheryl Surber stood before the City Council and passionately urged members to kill an effort to have sexual orientation covered by the citys anti- discrimination ordinances. Such an ordinance, Surber said, would force Fort Worth employers to ask all employees, 'Are you a homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, transsexual, transvestite, pedophile, rapist or celibate'?" 4
Scott Lively of NewsWithViews wrote: " 'Sexual orientation' is a highly ambiguous term loaded with hidden false assumptions. An 'orientation' describes the perspective of a subject toward an object. A sexual orientation therefore describes a person (subject) by the object toward which they are sexually attracted: a homosexual is someone oriented toward someone of the same sex, a bisexual toward both sexes, a pedophile toward children, a sado-masochist toward giving or receiving pain, etc.. By definition, there are an unlimited number of potential sexual orientations." 5
What do the terms "homosexuality" and "bisexuality" mean?
Again, there are two conflicting definitions in common usage:
Gays, lesbians, mainline and liberal religious groups, mental health practitioners, human sexuality researchers and others generally define "homosexuality" as feelings of sexual, emotional, and spiritual attraction to members of the same sex. A bisexual is a person who is attracted to both men and women. Everyone, whether heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual, can decide to be celibate, or be sexually active. Homosexuality, bisexuality and heterosexuality is part of what a person is.
Religious and social conservatives generally define "homosexuality" as a state of being sexually active with members of the same sex. Homosexuality is what a person does. The term "bisexuality" is largely ignored.
This lack of agreement on the meanings of words makes dialogue and debate very difficult.
A person who is sexually attracted to members of the same sex, but who is not sexually active is considered a homosexual by the first definition, but not by the second.
A person who is attracted to both men and women is considered a bisexual by the first definition. If they confine their sexual activity to members of the: opposite sex, they are considered a heterosexual by the second definition.
same sex, they are considered a homosexual by the second definition.
A person who is attracted to members of the same sex, was once sexually active and is now celibate is considered a homosexual by the first definition but an ex-gay by the second.
A person who is attracted to both men and women, was once sexually active with members of the same sex is considered a bisexual by the first definition, but an ex-gay by the second.
The confusion continues.
References used to prepare this essay:
"Paraphilia" at: www.jahsonic.com
Judith Reisman, "A platform for pedophiles?," WorldNetDaily, 2000-OCT-30, at: worldnetdaily.com
"Sexual Orientation: Fixed or Changeable?, The Traditional Values Coalition, at: traditionalvalues.org
Kristin N. Sullivan, "Gay Rights Effort May Be Tabled," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1998-NOV-25, at: www.sodomylaws.org
Scott Lively, "Deciphering 'Gay' Word-Speak and Language of Confusion," NewsWithViews, 2002-MAY-25, at: www.newswithviews.com
Sexual orientation from Wikipedia,
the free encyclopedia
Sexual orientation generally refers to how people of various genders create spontaneous feelings in the individual, or which orientation a person identifies with (which may be different). According to some interpretations, person's sexual behavior and sexual identity (self-identification) may or may not reflect his/her sexual orientation. For example, sexual abstinence is independent of sexual orientation in this sense. Some people who may self-identify as having a homosexual orientation engage in heterosexual behavior and even heterosexual marriages to escape social stigma. Most bisexual people have only one sexual or romantic partner at a time, and sometimes happen to have sexual and romantic partners from one only gender throughout their entire lives, despite attraction to some people of both sexes. People with heterosexual attractions may nonetheless have homosexual encounters (including involving initiation by the other party, multiple simultaneous partners, acts of deception, or other unusual social circumstances). A minority of people who self-identify as heterosexual or homosexual actually feel attracted to and engage in sexual behavior with people of both genders.
This situation is complicated further by the fact that there are several different biological and psychosocial components to gender, and a given person may not cleanly fit into a particular category. Some people even find the notion of distinct genders (and distinct sexual orientations based upon them) to be offensive. The complexities of gender are explained in the article on sex.
Sexual fetishism is orthogonal to the gender-based categories of sexual orientation listed above, though of course it may in some cases be an important part of a person's sexual identity and behavior.
Some people feel that various forms of "paraphilia", such as sexual attraction to animals, (zoophilia), furries, or inanimate objects are "alternative" sexual orientations to those listed above. Others argue that these classifications are orthogonal.
Some people use the term queer as an umbrella term to
include homosexuality and bisexuality, as well as fetishism,
non-human sexual attraction, and other "paraphilia", but it
may also be used more narrowly.
There have been different views of sexual orientation in the past. In some cases, a person was considered homosexual, for example, if and only if they had homosexual sex. This perspective still defended by some, notably in the works of the National Association on Research and Therapy for Homosexuality, a group that breaks with mainstream pyschological practice in asserting that homosexuality is a disorder.
In other cases, a person could have homosexual sex on occasion, but still be considered to be heterosexual. Some cultures, such as classic Greece and Rome, may have not classified sexual orientation (if at all) by the gender to which one is attracted, but by one's social position in relation to one's position or role during sexual activity. As heterosexual men in the United States are still expected to refrain from engaging in sexual activity with other men, a free Roman male was expected not to be penetrated, with transgressors being similarly labelled as effeminate.
The term sexual preference was used in the late 20th century by gay rights advocates promoting the view that each person should have the right to seek out the partner they prefer, whether of the opposite sex or the same sex. The term sexual orientation is now preferred by most gay rights advocates for its emphasis on fixed sexual identity, as well as countering the charge by some that their sexuality is a choice, although both terms still see use.
While heterosexuality is considered the statistical or biological norm, the concept of "normal" and "abnormal" with its connotations of sickness or moral judgment are no longer considered valid by mainstream researchers. In 1998, the American Psychological Association stated that "The reality is that homosexuality is not an illness. It does not require treatment and is not changeable." Some conservative researchers disagree, but their view is not shared by the most mainstream psychological and medical associations.
Even the belief that heterosexuality is the statistical norm has been challenged by some researchers, starting with Alfred C. Kinsey, who claimed that most people's orientation falls along a gradual scale between the two extremes of heterosexuality and homosexuality, with society influencing people to choose socio-normal sexual outlets. Opponents of Kinsey have claimed that his research methods were not objective (see Kinsey Reports), notably that Kinsey had included prison inmates as test subjects.
In a response to these and other criticisms, Paul Gebhard, Kinsey's successor as director of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research, spent years "cleaning" the Kinsey data of its purported contaminants, removing, for example, all material derived from prison populations in the basic sample. In 1979, Gebhard (with Alan B. Johnson) published The Kinsey Data: Marginal Tabulations of the 1938-1963 Interviews Conducted by the Institute for Sex Research. Their conclusion, to Gebhard's surprise he claimed, was that none of Kinsey's original estimates were significantly affected by this bias.
Some early civilizations, such as those of ancient Greece and Rome, often accepted homosexual behavior but, in general, did not make a distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality as orientations. Homosexual and heterosexual responses were considered to both be "natural" feelings that manifest to a greater or lesser degree in different individuals. The Greek civilization in particular considered it quite natural for young men to have older mentors with whom sexual interaction was accepted. A similar example was reported in Rome too, with the well known "Satyricon" by Petronius Arbiter, in which a common acceptance of pedophilia is also described. There was no serious inquiry into the causes of sexual orientation, because there was relatively little awareness of it as a concept; people were free to follow their personal inclinations. In a sense, sexual orientation is a social construct, and a relatively new one. It is most likely determined by a combination of continually interacting sociocultural influences and biological proclivities; where most in most cultures have a sexual object preference for the opposite sex, much fewer having a sexual object preference for the same sex, and even fewer having no preference. There is growing evidence of ambisexuality, or a "potentiality of bisexuality" where perhaps all people are capable of attraction to both or either sex, though it is still likely that people have sexual object preferences.
The traditional Western view that homosexuality was due to man's rebellious or fallen nature, or demonic temptation has given way to scientific explanations which regard homosexuality as natural. Scientists are now questioning the view that homosexuality is a freely made choice or "lifestyle" that one has decided to follow, and many religions are updating their theologies to conform with science.
For many years the common assumption, shared by many scientists and religious communities, was that the natural and normal human sexual orientation is exclusively for the opposite sex (heterosexual). Sexual studies carried out during and after the 1950s led psychologists and doctors to recognize homosexuality as a second exclusive orientation. Since then similar acceptance has grown for non-exclusive orientations, such as bisexuality.
Sigmund Freud famously characterized humans as naturally "polymorphously perverse," meaning either that practically any object can be a source of erotic fulfillment, or that babies are relatively indifferent to the object of erotic fulfillment. Freud argued that as the child grows, the objects of erotic fulfillment become more clearly defined and limited (whether this is the result of a biological or a social process is a matter of debate). Anthropologists have observed that around the world many people, including people within the same culture, may be oriented towards a variety of objects. Nevertheless, most scholars assume that in any given society what is considered an appropriate object of desire is highly regulated and limited. Moreover, some cultural traditions (especially religious) assert that people should have only one class of objects of desire.
According to two controversial studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) by Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, when asked to rate themselves on a continuum from completely heterosexual to completely homosexual, and when the individuals' behavior as well as their identify is analyzed, the majority of people appear to be at least somewhat bisexual, i.e., most people have some attraction to either sex, although usually one sex is preferred. According to Kinsey, only a minority (5-10%) can be considered fully heterosexual or homosexual. Conversely, only an even smaller minority can be considered fully bisexual. This led Kinsey to propose what has since become known as the Kinsey scale. Kinsey concluded that there are not "two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual.... Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into pigeonholes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects..."
More recently, attempts to define human sexuality which factor in concepts of changing sexuality over a persons lifetime and their internally perceived ideal state, such as the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid (www.bisexual.org/klein/default.asp#kleingrid ), have been put forward.
Most modern scientific surveys find that the majority of people report a mostly heterosexual orientation. However the relative percentage of the population that reports a homosexual orientation varies with differing methodologies and selection criteria. Most of these statistical findings are in the range of 2.8 to 9 percent of males, and 1 to 5 percent of females for the United States (source:  (www.colorado.edu/Economics/CEA/papers98/wp98-33.pdf ), page 24 -- this figure can be as high as 12% for some large cities and as low as 1% percent for rural areas). Almost all of these studies have found that homosexual males occur roughly at twice the rate of homosexual females. Estimates for the percentage of the population that identify as bisexual vary widely based on the type of questions asked. Some studies only consider a person bisexual if they are nearly equally attracted to both sexes, and others consider a person bisexual if they are at all attracted to the same sex (for otherwise mostly heterosexual persons) or to the opposite sex (for otherwise mostly homosexual persons). (need to find the current estimates and ranges for the percent of the population that identifies as bisexual)
A very small percentage of people are not sexually attracted to anyone (asexuality).
Neurological studies had shown that certain regions of the brain of heterosexuals are dissimilar with homosexuals, especially when looking at the studies of neuroanatomist Simon LeVay, a researcher at the Salk Institute. His research was of the brains of 41 male cadavers (19 of them homosexual.) He found that the Third Interstitial Nucleus of the Anterior Hypothalamus (INAH-3) was much smaller in homosexuals than in the heterosexual men he had also dissected.
However, LeVay stated as his conclusion: "It's important to stress what I didn't find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn't show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work. Nor did I locate a gay center in the brain. ...Since I look at adult brains, we don't know if the differences I found were there at birth or if they appeared later."  (http://www.fact-index.com/g/ge/genetic_basis_for_homosexuality.html)In addition to this, of the men LeVay used in his studies, the sexual histories the "heterosexual" men were unknown. The man considered the "dean of American sexologists," Johns Hopkins University psychologist John Money, concerning LeVay's studies, says, "Of course it [sexual orientation] is in the brain. The real question is, when did it get there? Was it prenatal, neonatal, during childhood, puberty? That we do not know."
Simon LeVay's finding points out a correlation between physiology and sexual orientation, but does not necessarily establish -- by itself alone -- a genetic basis for sexual orientation.
Much religious teaching maintains that sexual behavior should conform to moral and religious codes. For example, Christianity has traditionally considered homosexuality to be morally wrong. Recently, the level of acceptance of homosexuality within Christianity has, in general, increased.
Wider issues of sexual morality are also considered by many religions. Some religions advocate chastity or celibacy for some members, and many religions condemn incest and zoophilia. Often religious views of sexual orientation are based on considerations of what seems natural.
For more see:
Homosexuality and morality
Many people in Western societies today speak of sexual orientation as a unified and actual thing. Over the past thirty years some anthropologists, historians, and literary critics have pointed out that it in fact comprises a variety of different things, including a specific object of erotic desire, and forms of erotic fulfillment (i.e. sexual behaviors). Some scholars in Queer studies have argued that "sexual orientation" and specific sexual orientations are historical and social constructions. In 1976 the historian Michel Foucault argued that homosexuality as a concept did not exist as such in the 18th century; that people instead spoke of "sodomy" (which involved specific sexual acts regardless of the sex of the actors) as a crime that was often ignored but sometimes punished severely (see sodomy law). He further argued that it was in the 19th century that homosexuality came into existence as practitioners of emerging sciences as well as arts sought to classify and analyze different forms of sexual perversion. Finally, Foucault argues that it was this emerging discourse that allowed some to claim that homosexuality is natural, and therefore a legitimate sexual orientation.
Foucault's suggestions about Western sexuality led other historians and anthropologists to abandon the 19th century project of classifying different forms of sexual behavior or sexual orientation to a new project that asks "what is sexuality and how do people in different places and at different times understand their bodies and desires?" For example, they have argued that the famous case of some Melanesian societies in which adult men and pre-pubescent and adolescent boys engage in oral sex is not comparable to similar acts in the United States or Europe; that Melanesians do not understand or explain such acts in terms of sexual desire or as a sexual behavior, and that it in fact reflects a culture with a very different notion of sex, sexuality, and gender. Some historians have made similar claims about so-called homosexuality in ancient Greece; that behaviors that appear to be homosexual in modern Western societies may have been understood by ancient Greeks in entirely different ways.
At stake in these new views are two different points. One is the claim that human sexuality is extraordinarily plastic, and that specific notions about the body and sexuality are socially constructed. The other is the fundamentally anthropological claim of cultural relativism: that human behavior should be interpreted in the context of its cultural environment, and that the language of one culture is often inappropriate for describing practices or beliefs in another culture. A number of contemporary scholars who have come to reject Foucault's specific arguments about Western sexuality nevertheless have accepted these basic theoretical and methodological points.
Critics of the strong social constructionism view that an underlying phenomenon, sexual orientation (meaning the tendency for spontaneous erotic desires regarding specific people of a specific gender or genders) has always existed. (Usually because it is physiological in origin; this is of course controversial.) What might be a recent social invention is the notion of a particular form of sexual identity (or self-identification) distinction from orientation.
For more see:
There are many social, psychological, and political issues surrounding "identities", "identity groups", or "communities", which people of various sexual orientations affiliate themselves.
Sell, Randall L. (Dec 1997). Defining and measuring sexual orientation: a review. Archives of Sexual Behavior 26(6) 643-658. (excerpt (www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/context/defining.html )
Gil Brum, Larry McKane, and Gerry Karp. Biology -- Exploring Life, 2nd edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1994. p. 663. (About INAH-3.)
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Sexual orientation.
American Psychological Association:Answers to Your Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality (www.apa.org/pubinfo/answers.html )
Magnus Hirschfeld Archive of Sexology at the Humboldt
University in Berlin (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_orientation
It is very difficult to calculate even the approximate number of gay people, and in estimating even roughly how many gay people there are anywhere, the following points have to be kept in mind:
How many gay people are there in Britain?
Between 1989-1990, a National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) of nearly 19,000 people was undertaken in Britain. The survey examined a cross section of people throughout the country, and looked at their sexual attitudes and behaviour, including people's same sex sexual experiences. The NATSAL survey was repeated between 1999-2001; this time the subject group involved less people, at just over 11,000. The results of the study provide us with an interesting comparison of how same sex sexual behaviour is changing in Britain.
Among men they found the following results;
NATSAL I (%) 1990 NATSAL II (%) 2000
And among women they found these results;
NATSAL I (%) 1990 NATSAL II (%) 2000
The differences in the two NATSAL surveys clearly indicate the changes that have been occurring in people's same sex sexual attitudes and behaviours. The greatest change is highlighted in the increase in women who have indicated that they have had a same sex sexual experience, not necessarily including genital contact, as this increased from 2.8% in 1990 to 9.7% in 2000. More men said that they had had a same sex sexual experience too, up from 5.3% in 1990 to 8.4% in 2000, thus showing that either same sex sexual behaviour is either on the increase or that people are more willing to report it.
When looking at same sex sexual attraction, and not necessarily sexual experience, the figures have also changed over the ten-year period, with women showing the most significant difference. In 1990, 93.3% of men said they had only ever had sexual attraction towards the opposite sex, whilst by 2000 this had fallen to 91.9%. 93.6% of women in 1990 said they had only ever been attracted to men, but by 2000 this had dropped to 88.3%. From this we can therefore deduce that 11.7% of women and 8.1% of men have felt a sexual attraction towards the same sex at least once in their lives. 1, 2
How many young gay people are there in Britain?
Among men they found the following results;
NATSAL I (%) 1990 NATSAL II (%) 2000 16-17 yrs 18-19 yrs 20-24 yrs NATSAL II Average, 16-24 years
And among women they found these results;
NATSAL I (%) 1990 NATSAL II (%) 2000 16-17 yrs 18-19 yrs 20-24 yrs NATSAL II Average, 16-24 years
By adding the three figures for each category in NATSAL II, and getting an average percentage, we can at least gain some comparison between the two sets of data. The differences are again most apparent in women, especially in the sexual experience category, with the figure rising from only 3.0% in 1990 to 9.1% in 2000. The differences in men are less obvious, with the average for sexual experience for 2000 being the same as 1990, at 4.3%. What you can deduce from the male data is that same sex sexual experience does increase more rapidly over the age of 18 years; the data for 18-19 years and 20-24 years, at 5.6% and 6.3% respectively, is higher than the whole 16-24 year average of 4.3%.
How many gay people are there in America?
As well as the problems outlined above in estimating the number of gay people, the geographical size and dense population presents an additional problem for anybody trying to calculate the number of gay people in America.
However, Alfred Kinsey carried out research in the 1940s and 1950s into the sexual behaviour of 12,000 men and women in America. Although his work has been heavily criticised it remains a rare and relatively authoritative study of sexual behaviour in America.
Amongst the men he found:
Amongst the women he found:
From these results Kinsey realized that not only were few people exclusively homosexual, but also far from the vast majority, particularly of men, were exclusively heterosexual. This led him to develop an orientation scale, which had exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual at opposite ends with a wide middle range to cater for the majority of people who were neither.
More recently, data has been collected in America, during the ten-year national census, on married and unmarried-partner households. They did not ask the actual sexual orientation of the respondents, so there is no measure of single gay people, nor is their a measure of those gay people in committed relationships but not living together. Whilst the census cannot give us a figure for the number of people who are gay in America, it can inform us on how many same-sex partnership households identified themselves in the survey. The 2000 census tells us that
This can be interpreted as there being nearly 1.2 million gay people living with a same sex partner in America. This is a huge increase from the 1990 census, which identified only 145,000 same sex unmarried households. As with the NATSAL survey in the UK, there is undoubtedly a large amount of under reporting in these sorts of surveys. Possible explanations of this include continued prejudice and discrimination against gay people.3
There have been various other surveys in the US that have tried to measure numbers of gay people. An analysis of these surveys by the Human Rights Campaign came up with this conclusion.
'In the last three elections, the Voter News Service exit poll registered the gay vote between 4 percent and 5 percent. While concluding that the Census 2000 undercounted the total number of gay or lesbian households, for the purposes of this study, we estimate the gay and lesbian population at 5 percent of the total U.S. population over 18 years of age, (209,128,094). This results in an estimated total gay and lesbian population of 10,456,405. A recent study of gay and lesbian voting habits conducted by Harris Interactive determined that 30 percent of gay and lesbian people are living in a committed relationship in the same residence. Using that figure, we suggest that 3,136,921 gay or lesbian people are living in the United States in committed relationships in the same residence. '4
So, if we accept that the data presented by the Human Rights Commission is indeed indicative of the real numbers, then it shows that the census data is only showing up a small percentage of the actual number of gay people living in America. Until, however, a nationwide survey is done, asking questions on sexual attitudes and behaviour, then we can only use data and analyses, such as the ones above, to work out an answer to the question of gay people living in America.
Is homosexuality more common now?
Throughout history there have always been people who have had homosexual feelings and experiences. In fact, in some cultures, at some times, these feelings have been celebrated or at least accepted rather than stigmatised. However two major changes in most of Europe and America have taken place, which may have given the impression that homosexuality is now more prevalent than at any other time.
Images of gay and lesbian people, their lifestyles and the issues they face have become very much more visible in recent years. There are gay and lesbian characters and story-lines in soap operas (e.g. East-Enders (UK), Coronation Street (UK), Melrose Place (USA)), situation comedies (Will and Grace (USA), Absolutely Fabulous (UK)), and very powerful gay and lesbian images and image-makers in popular music and culture (e.g. Pet Shop Boys, Will Young, R.E.M, K.D.Lang,). Programs where contestants rely on public telephone votes to remain or to win have been won by out Gay and Lesbian people for example "Big Brother (UK)", "Fame Academy" and "Popstars (UK)".
At the same time there have been a series of important struggles for gay and lesbian equality. In Britain this has been marked by demands for the right to be parents (adoptive and natural), the right to fair treatment at work and so on. These have, as has often been intended, attracted considerable media, political and legal attention.
Text adapted from "Talking about Homosexuality in the Secondary School" book. The book can be downloaded for free from Printable resources
1 'National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles I', Kaye Wellings, Julia Field, Anne M. Johnson, et al, Penguin, 1994, 0140158146
2 'National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles II: Reference Tables and Summary Report', Bob Erens, Sally McManus, Alison Prescott, et al, National Centre for Social Research, 2003, 1904599028
3 'Married and Unmarried-Partner Households by Metropolitan Residence Status: 2000', United States Census 2000, US Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/
4 'Gay and Lesbian Families in the United States: Same-Sex Unmarried Partner Households. A Preliminary Analysis of 2000 United States Census Data'. August 22, 2001, David M. Smith, and Gary J. Gates, Human Rights Campaign, www.hrc.org
The mass media and the Web are filled with claims these days from religious conservatives, orthodox psychoanalysts, anti-gay organizations, and even a professional football player claiming that people with a homosexual orientation not only can become heterosexual, but also should do so.
However, claims by the Family Research Council, Charles Socarides, Joseph Nicolosi, and others of "successful" conversions through reparative therapy are filled with methodological ambiguities and questionable results (for reviews, see Haldeman, 1991, 1994; see also Haldeman's 1999 review paper is available on the web in HTML and Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format). They are also ethically suspect.
In many of these behavior-change techniques, "success" has been defined as suppression of homoerotic response or mere display of physiological ability to engage in heterosexual intercourse. Neither outcome is the same as adopting the complex set of attractions and feelings that constitute sexual orientation.
Many interventions aimed at changing sexual orientation have succeeded only in reducing or eliminating homosexual behavior rather than in creating or increasing heterosexual attractions. They have, in effect, deprived individuals of their capacity for sexual response to others. These "therapies" have often exposed their victims to electric shocks or nausea-producing drugs while showing them pictures of same-sex nudes (such techniques appear to be less common today than in the past).
Another problem in many published reports of "successful" conversion therapies is that the participants' initial sexual orientation was never adequately assessed. Many bisexuals have been mislabeled as homosexuals with the consequence that the "successes" reported for the conversions actually have occurred among bisexuals who were highly motivated to adopt a heterosexual behavior pattern.
The extent to which people have actually changed their behavior even within the confines of these inadequate operational definitions often has not been systematically assessed. Instead, only self reports of patients or therapists' subjective impressions have been available. More rigorous objective assessments (e.g., behavioral indicators over an extended period of time) have been lacking (Coleman, 1982; Haldeman, 1991, 1994; Martin, 1984).1
Some psychoanalysts claim to have conducted empirical research demonstrating that their "therapies" are able to change gay people into heterosexuals. Their studies have multiple flaws, including a lack of safeguards against bias and a lack of control groups. Rather than having patients evaluated by an independent third party who is unaware of which patients received the "reparative therapy," these studies are simply compilations of self-reports from psychoanalysts who are attempting to change their patients' sexual orientation (and who are highly motivated to report "success").
And even if we accept these studies' claim that change has occurred, they do not provide any evidence that such change resulted from a particular therapy. Individuals who changed might well have done so anyway, even without therapy.
The 2001 APA Convention Papers
Furor Erupts Over Study On Sexual Orientation, an article by Ken Hausman in the APA's Psychiatric News (July 6, 2001)
Claims about the "success" of conversion therapies have appeared mainly in the mass media and on the World Wide Web, rather than in high-quality, peer-reviewed scientific journals. A 2000 paper by Joseph Nicolosi and his colleagues was published in Psychological Reports. Psychological Reports is also the major outlet for Paul Cameron, the discredited antigay psychologist. As detailed elsewhere on this site, Psychological Reports has very low prestige among researchers and a low rejection rate. In addition, unlike other psychological journals, it charges its authors a fee to publish their papers.
However, in May of 2001, two papers on the topic of conversion therapies were presented at the American Psychiatric Association's annual convention. One paper, by Dr. Robert Spitzer, reported findings from 45-minute telephone interviews with 143 men and 57 women who had sought help to change their sexual orientation. He found that 66 percent of the men and 44 percent of the women had achieved "good heterosexual functioning" and he attributed this to the interventions.
The Spitzer study was immediately criticized on several grounds. For example, the sample consisted predominantly of activists recruited from "ex-gay" and anti-gay organizations. About two thirds were referred to Spitzer by so-called "ex-gay ministries," such as Exodus, or by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Of those who participated, 78 percent had spoken publicly in favor of efforts to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality.
This is a potential weakness of the study because activists are highly motivated to report that they successfully changed their sexual orientation. Consequently, they may present an inaccurate impression of themselves to researchers. Dr. Spitzer took the activists' testimonials at face value, with no checks on the reliability or validity of their self-reports. In his relatively brief interviews with them, Dr. Spitzer may not have been able to detect factual errors or misstatements intentional or inadvertent by the activists.
Dr. Spitzer's study also appears to suffer from some of the same methodological flaws as the published studies discussed above. For example, only a minority of the participants (about 40%) were exclusively attracted to partners of the same sex before they attempted to change. As noted above, including bisexuals in studies evaluating the outcomes of conversion therapies tends to inflate the proportion of "successes."
Dr. Spitzer did not claim that his findings could be generalized to the gay and lesbian population at large. Indeed, he was quoted in the New York Times as saying that, despite the findings from his study, the number of homosexuals who could successfully become heterosexual was likely to be "pretty low." He also conceded that participants in his study were "unusually religious" and were not necessarily representative of most gay men and lesbians in the United States.
The second APA paper, presented by Dr. Ariel Shidlo and Dr. Michael Schroeder, reported findings from a study of 202 homosexuals who were recruited through the Internet and direct mailings to groups advocating conversion therapy. Most of the participants (178, or 88%) reported that efforts to change their sexual orientation had failed. Only 6 (3%) achieved what the researchers considered a heterosexual shift. Drs. Shidlo and Schroeder also reported that many respondents were harmed by the attempt to change.
The research by Drs. Shidlo and Schroeder has recently been published (Schroeder & Shidlo, 2001; Shidlo & Schroeder, 2002). Dr. Spitzer's research is currently being reviewed for publication.
An Analogy To better appreciate the potential flaws in Dr. Spitzer's study, consider an analogous situation.
Suppose a pharmaceutical company claims that a new vitamin supplement can change left-handed people to right-handers. Mainstream medical organizations express their opposition to the vitamin, saying that it causes harm to many people who use it, and noting that there is no reason for left-handed people to try to change.
To test the drug company's claim, a researcher conducts brief telephone interviews with people who have used the product. He recruits most of his research participants from a list (provided by the drug company) of individuals who claim to have used the vitamin and have given public testimonials on behalf of the drug company. Many of those people say that they tried the vitamin because they felt miserable as left-handers in a right-handed world, and that they are now functioning as right-handers (although many report occasional thoughts about using their left hand).
The researcher's data consist entirely of the one-time telephone interviews. He does no follow-up interviews to assess the consistency of the users' stories. Nor does he conduct face-to-face assessments with standardized measures to assess whether the vitamin users have actually become right-handed. Meanwhile, another research team reports data from a different study, in which they found that the vitamin supplement did not change most left-handers to right-handers, and that many people who tried the vitamin suffered serious negative side effects.
In such a situation, we would want to ask several questions. How reliable are the reports of vitamin users who were recruited through the drug company? What about the many people who were harmed by the vitamin? Why is it important for left-handers to become right-handed in the first place?
We can raise similar questions about Dr. Spitzer's study.
How reliable are the reports of people recruited through Exodus and NARTH?
For those who did change, how do we know that they would not have changed their sexual orientation anyway, even without some form of therapy?
What about the many people who have been harmed by conversion therapies?
Why is it important for gay men and lesbians to become heterosexual in the first place? Doesn't the real problem lie in society's hostility toward people who are homosexual or bisexual?
Indeed, even if conversion therapies could be shown to change sexual orientation in a small number of cases, there are strong arguments that doing so is unethical. For example, Dr. Gerald Davison (1991), a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, argued that change-of-orientation programs are ethically improper, and that their availability only confirms professional and societal biases against homosexuality.
The Mainstream Position
For more than a quarter-century, the major professional associations of mental health practitioners and researchers in the United States have recognized that homosexuality is not a mental illness. They are highly critical of attempts to change sexual orientation.
The American Psychiatric Association's official web site notes that: "There is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of 'reparative therapy' as a treatment to change one's sexual orientation.... There are a few reports in the literature of efforts to use psychotherapeutic and counseling techniques to treat persons troubled by their homosexuality who desire to become heterosexual; however, results have not been conclusive, nor have they been replicated. There is no evidence that any treatment can change a homosexual person's deep seated sexual feelings for others of the same sex. Clinical experience suggests that any person who seeks conversion therapy may be doing so because of social bias that has resulted in internalized homophobia, and that gay men and lesbians who have accepted their sexual orientation positively are better adjusted than those who have not done so."
Text of the 1997 resolution
The American Psychiatric Association's Position Statements on conversion therapy are posted on their web site.
At its meeting in August, 1997, the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming its longtime position that homosexuality is not a disorder and raising serious questions about so-called reparative therapies. In particular, the APA resolution raised the question of whether it is ethically possible for a psychologist to conduct conversion therapy with individuals who are not capable of informed consent, including minors.
In 1998, at its December 11-12 meeting, the American Psychiatric Association Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed a position statement opposing reparative therapy. According to the 1998 position statement:
"The potential risks of 'reparative therapy' are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient."
"Many patients who have undergone 'reparative therapy' relate that they were inaccurately told that homosexuals are lonely, unhappy individuals who never achieve acceptance or satisfaction."
"The possibility that the person might achieve happiness and satisfying interpersonal relationships as a gay man or lesbian is not presented, nor are alternative approaches to dealing with the effects of societal stigmatization discussed."
"Therefore, the American Psychiatric Association opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon a prior assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes that in the course of ongoing psychiatric treatment, there may be appropriate clinical indications for attempting to change sexual behaviors."
In summary, scientific data are lacking to show that behavior modification techniques effectively change individuals' sexual orientations from homosexual to heterosexual. The relatively small number of attempts that have been adequately documented appear to have been largely unsuccessful.
Does this mean that no one ever changes his or her orientation from homosexual to heterosexual through the use of such techniques? Not necessarily. It is possible that some individuals who enter such therapies eventually make such a change, although there is no evidence for a cause-and-effect relationship. Those people might have changed their sexual orientation without the therapy.
However, so-called reparative therapy techniques premised on the assumption that homosexuality is a form of psychopathology appear to do much more harm than good. And even if conversion therapies were shown to be successful in more than a relative handful of cases, they would remain ethically questionable.
The mainstream view in psychology and psychiatry is that people who are troubled about their homosexual orientation have internalized society's prejudice against homosexuality, and that the appropriate task of a therapist is to help them to overcome those prejudices and to lead a happy and satisfying life as a gay man or lesbian.
1. Claims by religious organizations to have changed homosexuals to heterosexuals generally have not been documented in such a way as to permit their critical evaluation. For more discussion of them, see Haldeman (1991, 1994). (return to text)
"Ex-Gay Leader Confronted In Gay Bar" from the Southern Voice (September 23, 2000).
John Paulk, "a prominent ex-gay leader once featured as 'going straight' on the cover of Newsweek magazine, was confronted and photographed" patronizing a gay bar in Washington, D.C. According to the Exodus web site (currently inactive), he subsequently was removed as Chairman of the Board of Exodus North America.
Calculated Compassion: How the Ex-Gay Movement Serves the
Right's Attack on Democracy (Political Research
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