Eyes Wide Open: Pupil Dilation and Sexual Orientation

A new study from Gerulf Rieger and Ritch Savin-Williams confirms the relationship between sexual desire and pupil dilation. While this relationship has been known for some time, now it is possible to measure the dilation with precision. In doing so, the authors report significant relationships between self-reported sexual orientation and the way pupils dilate in response to sexual imagery.

Read a summary of the study here, and the open access journal report here.

The authors report that males are more clear in their preferences than women, meaning that whether gay or straight, the dilation of their pupils matched closely their stated preferences. Women were more likely than men to show pupil dilation to both preferred and non-preferred images. Bisexuals also showed dilation to both male and female sexual images.

The results are not perfect in that there is variability of pupil response within sexual orientation groups. These results say nothing about causes of orientation but they do provide more evidence that the attraction component of sexual orientation is mostly involuntary.

The Evangelical Blackout of Sexual Orientation Research, Part 2

Last week, I commented on what I see as an evangelical blackout of sexual orientation research by Christian media and organizations. While I stand by that viewpoint, the situation is actually worse than a blackout. The blackout is selective; some new research is reported. However, the studies reported and the way they are reported seem designed to create a slanted picture.

A case in point. Currently, on the NARTH (National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) website, scientific advisory board member, Chris Rosik, reviews a new report from Gartrell, Bos and Goldeberg about lesbian parenting recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The headline for the review is

New Study: Daughters of Lesbian Parents More Likely to Engage in Same-Sex Behavior and Identify as Bisexual

This is definitely a new study. The blackout is not total, but as I will demonstrate, it is selective. NARTH ignores the hard science involved in the brain scan studies but finds one aspect of a small longitudinal study of lesbian parenting to report. Now that you read the headline, read what Rosik says about how the study can be used.

While this small study is valuable as a starting point for longitudinal research into same-sex parenting, professionals and policy makers should be very wary of making any meaningful conclusions from its findings.  Serious methodological limitations also argue against making sweeping generalizations.  As is the case for the vast majority of studies in this area, the sample size is quite small, constituting only 78 adolescents.  The sample of lesbian parents is self-selected and appears to be different from the general population on important demographics such as socioeconomic status and educational attainment.  Demand characteristics (i.e., external influences such as political goals that might motivate study participants to respond in a particular manner) are not considered or assessed by the study’s authors with respect to the lesbian mothers or their adolescent children.

And then…

Certainly the Gatrell, et al. (2011) study provides some intriguing though entirely non-generalizable findings that are consistent with the hypothesis that non-heterosexual experiences and identities are more common among daughters of lesbian families than those raised in heterosexual families.

First, Rosik reports, via headline, the finding that would be of concern to religious conservatives but then in the article says one cannot make such generalizations. If one cannot generalize beyond the sample, then why report the finding as if one could?

The study also found that no children were abused in lesbian homes. This finding is in contrast to heterosexual families where abuse is reported (26% of teens report physical abuse by a parent or caregiver according to national surveys). Since NARTH is commonly represented in cases against same-sex parenting, and such information is relevant to their membership, why was that fact not a part of the headline?

Another interesting finding in the study was that boys were less likely to have been sexual involved with girls in lesbian families than in straight families. Isn’t that what abstinence educators want to promote?

My point here is that NARTH leaders do keep an eye out for new research, however, their reporting of them is selective. And then when they choose to review a study, their review is selective.

I have established that NARTH is a key source of information for Christian right organizations. When some relevant studies are ignored, and others are selectively reported, it seems clear to me evangelicals are poorly served by the organizations they count on for information.

University of Utah professor: NARTH article “unscientific and irresponsible”

Does engaging in same-sex behavior cause people to become gay? NARTH Scientific Advisory Board member Chris Rosik posed this question in a recent review of a study on risk behavior among gay and bisexual men. The study, led by David Huebner at the University of Utah found that gay and bisexual men who engage in risky sexual behavior may justify subsequent risky behavior as their attitudes change in response to their actions. After reviewing the study, Rosik extended the study findings to the causes of same-sex orientation:

First, if engaging in sexual risk behavior leads to changes in beliefs and attitudes that legitimize such behavior, is it wise to encourage early self-labeling and sexual activity among male adolescents experiencing same-sex attractions? Could participation in early homosexual risk activity such as unprotected (or even protected) anal intercourse lead some adolescent boys down a path of homosexual activity and identity and away from what might have been an eventual heterosexual adjustment?

Rosik proposes that adolescent boys might alter the course of their adult sexual orientation from straight to gay by experimenting with same-sex behavior. However, Rosik’s generalization is improper according to study lead author, David Huebner. In an email, Huebner told me:

Our study examined how adults’ attitudes about condoms and their perceived peer norms about condoms each relate over time to self-reports of condom use during intercourse with casual sexual partners. Condom use is considered a preventive health behavior, and thus, our results might generalize to other preventive behaviors, such as seat belt use, exercise, smoking cessation, or breast cancer screening. Our study does not, in any way, address the development of sexual orientation during adolescence, or the development of normal, healthy sexuality among gay or straight adolescents. Any attempt to generalize our findings to those topics is unscientific and irresponsible.

Huebner’s team researched attitude changes about risk behaviors, not developmental factors in sexual orientation. Furthermore, the findings are not generalizable to the general development of attractions among teens who are attracted to the same sex.

Rosik’s question may seem like harmless speculation to some. However, many on the religious right encourage fear of gay people on the grounds that gays recruit questioning youth who would otherwise be straight. Uganda’s David Bahati justified the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill with the claims that gays are recruiting young people. Over the past two years, Bahati has promised to produce evidence of his claims that gays in Uganda systematically recruit kids. To date, he has not produced any such evidence.

Far right pundits in this country raise fears about anti-bullying programs because they might indoctrinate students into homosexuality. Linda Harvey (aka Mission America) yesterday said on her radio show that gays cultivate kids for pedophiles.

Only about 25% of NARTH’s members are clinicians or researchers with professional training or access to the original study. The rest are lay people and culture warriors who look to the NARTH website for accurate information about scientific work. Unfortunately, those readers could easily come away from his review with the perspective that research done by University of Utah researchers supports the recruitment concept of gay development. Although those with a trained or critical eye will catch the improper generalization, I suspect most will not see it. Thus, given the audience of Rosik’s review, I have to agree with Dr. Huebner and say that Rosik’s unqualified speculation is “unscientific and irresponsible.”

First study to refer to ex-gays discredited

In 2000, I presented a paper at the annual conference of the American Psychological Association outlining studies which referred to ex-gays, i.e., people who rejected gay as an identity for religious reasons. That presentation was part of a larger symposium organized by Mark Yarhouse and Doug Haldeman on religious and GLB issues. In 2002, that paper was published in the APA journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.* That was the same year I was given the Freud Award at the NARTH conference.
In that paper, I summarized a study by psychiatrist E. Mansell Pattison and his wife Myrna Loy Pattison, titled “‘Ex-gays’: Religiously Mediated Change in Homosexuals.” The Pattisons interviewed 11 men in the Melodyland church in Anaheim, CA who claimed to have changed from gay to straight. One of those men was frequent commenter here Michael Bussee. Another was Gary Cooper, the man who left that ministry and Exodus with Bussee when they both acknowledged that they had not changed their orientation. In other words, two of the 11 had not changed at all.
Today, on the Religion Dispatches website, I describe that study in more detail and interview Michael Bussee about his participation. I encourage you to go read it and comment here or there.
The study continues to be used by NARTH as well as other groups to claim sexual reorientation works. The problems with the study provide more evidence that NARTH’s use of old data (125 year landscape review) is flawed.
*Throckmorton, W. (2002). Initial empirical and clinical findings concerning the change process for ex-gays. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33, 242-248.

The Jones and Yarhouse study: What does it mean?

Let me begin by saying that I endorsed the book, Ex-Gays, A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation, by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse which contained the first report of their longitudinal study. Since the publication of the book, Jones and Yarhouse have released results of their final follow up, first in 2009 at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, and then most recently in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. With the follow up, I believe the study remains an important investigation into the interplay of religion, sexual orientation and personal identity. I give them credit for the perseverance required to explore a topic which is highly controversial and to report their findings in detail.

Since the release of the peer-reviewed article, socially conservative groups have described the study as proof that gays can change orientation. For instance, the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, one of the worst offenders, claims that the study proves gays can change and that they weren’t born gay. Also, Citizenlink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family reported:

Of the 98 subjects, more than half were reported as successful; 23 percent reported a complete change in orientation after six years. Also, 20 percent reported giving up the struggle to change.

This claim is misleading. Jones and Yarhouse did not report “complete change in orientation.” Instead they cautioned against misinterpreting their findings by saying

These results do not prove that categorical change in sexual orientation is possible for everyone or anyone, but rather that meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some. The results do not prove that no one is harmed by the attempt to change, but rather that the attempt does not appear to be harmful on average or inherently harmful. The authors urge caution in projecting success rates from these findings, as they are likely overly optimistic estimates of anticipated success. Further, it was clear that “conversion” to heterosexual adaptation was a complex phenomenon.

Regarding the changes reported by their participants, the authors offer two related explanations. One is that some of the participants changed sexual orientation to some degree and the other is that the participants changed their sexual identity. Sexual identity involves placing more emphasis on behavioral conformity to prohibitions on homosexual behavior as a means of self definition. For the Exodus participants, less temptation to engage in homosexual behavior might be taken as a signal that orientation has changed, thus allowing a different attribution about their sexuality than once believed. The authors raise these two possibilities in the abstract for the most recent paper:

The authors conducted a quasi-experimental longitudinal study spanning 6–7 years examining attempted religiously mediated sexual orientation change from homosexual orientation to heterosexual orientation. An initial sample was formed of 72 men and 26 women who were involved in a variety of Christian ministries, with measures of sexual attraction, infatuation and fantasy, and composite measures of sexual orientation and psychological distress, administered longitudinally. Evidence from the study suggested that change of homosexual orientation appears possible for some and that psychological distress did not increase on average as a result of the involvement in the change process. The authors explore methodological limitations circumscribing generalizability of the findings and alternative explanations of the findings, such as sexual identity change or adjustment.

As I read all of the literature, including my own work, I first want to disagree with the way that Citizenlink characterized the results as “complete change.” That is not at all what Jones and Yarhouse reported. Considering the dichotomy proposed by Jones and Yarhouse — change in orientation or identity – I lean toward their alternative explanation – “sexual identity change or adjustment.”  However, I believe the discussion of what their results mean needs to be broadened beyond those two possibilities. In addition to considering orientation and identity as important constructs, I believe there are other ways to account for the changes Jones and Yarhouse report which are not sufficiently addressed in their published accounts.  First, I want to make some observations about the study which influence my opinions about what the results mean.

First, and most basically, the Jones and Yarhouse study did not examine in any systematic way the efficacy of reparative therapy or any other kind of psychological therapy as a means of altering sexual orientation. The participants in the study were involved in religiously based support groups which primarily had as a goal to reinforce a traditional moral view of sexuality. Clearly, the participants hoped they would change and engaged in various religious interventions to assist that end. However, the study did not assess the role of professional therapy and cannot legitimately be used to say such therapies work.

Second, there were quite a few dropouts six to seven years into the study. While true of all longitudinal studies, the final percentages being reported should also take into account the distinct possibility that many if not most of the drop outs were not successful in their efforts to change. The study began with 98 participants and ended up with 65 who were followed up for six to seven years. Some reported that they were healed of homosexuality and just didn’t want to participate, while others said they were gay and stopped trying to change. I don’t know for sure what the dropouts mean but the fact that so many failed to complete the study needs to be a part of any discussion.

Third, ratings from men and women were combined. Given the low number of people involved I understand why this was done but the practice may inflate the assessments of change for the group. It has become well accepted that the sexuality of women is more fluid than for men. A few women experiencing large shifts could influence the group averages. Continue reading “The Jones and Yarhouse study: What does it mean?”

NARTH Report: Suicide attempts increase during sexual orientation change therapy

Writing in the second edition of NARTH’s (National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) Journal of Human Sexuality, Neil Whitehead proposed a reanalysis (NARTH summary here) of a paper by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Shroeder on potentially harmful outcomes of sexual orientation change efforts. NARTH’s headline describing the paper is

Sexual Orientation Change Efforts Do Not Lead to Increased Suicide Attempts.

Contrast NARTH’s headline with the title of my post. After examining  Whitehead’s  article, I submit that his analysis supports my title as much or more than it does NARTH’s claim.
 Shidlo and Shroeder wrote the following about suicide attempts in their 2002 report:

In examining the data, we distinguished between participants who had a history of being suicidal before conversion therapy and those who did not. Twenty-five participants had a history of suicide attempts before conversion therapy, 23 during conversion therapy, and 11 after conversion therapy. We took the subgroup of participants who reported suicide attempts and looked at suicide attempts pre-intervention, during intervention, and post-intervention to see if there was any suggestive pattern. We found that 11 participants had reported suicide attempts since the end of conversion interventions. Of these, only 3 had attempted prior to conversion therapy. Of the 11 participants, 3 had attempted during conversion therapy.

In his NARTH paper, Whitehead makes a series of assumptions about the participants in the Shidlo and Schroeder study. I think these are questionable assumptions but for sake of discussion, I will play along. First, he assumes that these suicide attempts occur over a span of 25 years (13 years pre-therapy, two years in therapy and then 10 years post-therapy). He then assumes that the attempts occurred at a constant rate over that span to calculate an expected number of suicide before, during and after therapy. Whitehead then compares his expected attempts with the actual number of attempts as reported by Shidlo and Schroeder. Whitehead summarized his findings as follows:

(a) Comparing pre-therapy, therapy, and post-therapy groups, there is overall no significant increase in suicides per unit time.
(b) There is a very clear increase in attempts during therapy.
(c) There is a trend to fewer attempts after therapy.

Using his assumptions, Whitehead wrote:

Suicide attempts reported before therapy were 25, and those reported during and after therapy combined numbered 34. The expected numbers allowing for the time periods and normalized to the above total are 30.55 and 28.44. The expectation on which this is calculated is that therapy has no effect, either positive or negative.

In this analysis, no difference shows up in suicides related to therapy when suicide attempts before therapy are compared with the time period during and after therapy. However, Whitehead does not stop there. About suicide attempts during therapy, he wrote:

For attempts before and during therapy, the observed results are 25 and 23, and the calculated expected normalized figures are 42.18 and 5.82. These are very different from the observed, and the chi-square test produces a result of p < 0.001. They are not the same, and therapy has therefore been associated with a several-fold increase in attempts.

In other words, there is a very large increase in suicide attempts during therapy. The title of my post is accurate. According to this NARTH report, sexual orientation change “therapy has therefore been associated with a several-fold increase in attempts.”
Continue reading “NARTH Report: Suicide attempts increase during sexual orientation change therapy”

Bryan Fischer's expert misleads audience on ex-gay therapy

Psychologist Tim Rampey was on the Bryan Fischer show yesterday going on about how homosexuality is not innate. He mentioned two studies which were supposed to make his point on the clip I have below – one called Calhoun’s Rat Universe and another one conducted by Alan Bell, Martin Weinberg and Sue Hammersmith.
Listen in:

Rampey described Calhoun’s Rat Universe as a possible social influence on sexual behavior. In this study, there were many breakdowns in procreation as well as other behavioral changes when the living space became overcrowded. This, of course, is a study which is only relevant to situational sexual behavior. Explaining why some people engage in sexual behavior under duress is not the same thing as explaining the development of same-sex attraction under more typical circumstances. And besides, as NARTH writers like to remind us, animals are not human.  
Then, Rampey invokes the 1981 report from Alan Bell, Martin Weinberg and Sue Hammersmith which found very little difference between the home life of gays and straights. Rampey said:

If you actually take Alan Bell’s study, the differences are huge. The number of heterosexuals who said that they were disliked or hated by their fathers was less than half than those who said such among the homosexuals.

It is really sad to see a person who criticizes drug companies for misusing research turn around and misuse it himself. That is exactly what he has done here.
I have the book, Sexual Preference, by Bell, Weinberg and Hammersmith which provides the questions used in the analysis. The authors asked gay and straight participants many questions about both parents. The closest question I could find to one asking participants if their fathers hated them was one asking if the participants hated their fathers. The authors described the response:

A minority of the homosexual respondents said they had disliked or hated their fathers, but even fewer heterosexual respondents mentioned such feelings (WHM (white homosexual males): 29%, WHTM (white heterosexual males): 12%). (p. 54)

The researchers asked many other related questions with similar results. Generally gay males described more strained relationships with their fathers than straights. However, what should we make of this?
If we are looking for a general factor from these data of why same-sex attraction occurs, we cannot assume a strained paternal relationship is the cause. First, let’s examine the implication Rampey makes that differences in ratings of paternal relation mean those differences cause the differences in sexual orientation. Rampey has made a living critiquing researchers for errors in design and interpretation, but he makes a rookie error by implying that correlation means causation.
There are other explanations for the differences observed in relationship assessment. As Bell et al point out, during their growing up years, gay males often appear more stereotypically feminine in interests and activity preferences. Fathers who do not know how to deal with this may pull away from their sons. The father – son issues, to the extent they are remembered correctly, may be a reaction to the development of same-sex interest and not the cause of it. And then relationships can really sour in adolescence when same-sex interest becomes more obvious. Consider these recollections from former clients:

“I was a daddy’s boy until about 7th grade. We did everything together and I knew he loved me. When I got into music though, he didn’t really get it. We kind of drifted until I told him I was gay and now it is pretty strained.” And from a dad: “I never suspected a thing. We were very close but when he told me he liked boys instead of girls, something in me died, I think. We are not the same now.”

Rampey then claims that the differences in Bell et al are huge. However, they are not huge, at least huge enough to explain sexual orientation. First, the absolute number of gays in Bell’s study providing answers portraying a strained relationship was infrequently over half the respondents. Just taking the question referred to by Rampey, note that 71% of gay males did not hate or dislike their fathers. On two-thirds of the questions about father, a majority of the gay males answered in the direction of a good relationship with their father. As a group, straight males described better relationships with their fathers, but rarely was the difference dramatic or indicative of large effects on adult sexual orientation.
Bell et al analyzed all of the differences and found that the only real effect of paternal relationship was if it contributed to childhood gender nonconformity. In other words, they concluded that a lack of paternal identification did not have much at all to do with homosexuality unless a boy also reported being disinterested in typical male activities and interests growing up. Bell et al said it like this:

Unfavorable relationships with fathers do seem to be connected with gender nonconformity and early homosexual experiences; nonetheless, the connection to adult sexual orientation is not a strong one…From these findings, then, we conclude that the relationship a boy has with his father cannot be said to predict very much about the sexual orientation he will develop. (p. 62).

Another problem with Rampey’s use of Bell’s data is that he did not report the additional analysis Bell conducted to separate therapy patients from non-therapy patients. If homosexuality in general is related to poor relationships with father, then this connection should be true in emotionally troubled clients as well as those gay males who do not report mental health concerns. In research, one must not generalize results to general, non-clinical populations from those seeking treatment. Understanding this, Bell’s team compared gay men who had been in therapy and gay men who had not sought treatment. For the non-therapy group, there was no relationship between detached-hostile fathers and later homosexuality; whereas for the group who had been in therapy, this variable explained more of the variance than for the entire group (8.4%). Fewer differences were noted for women.
In short, Rampey does in the domain of sexual orientation what he complains about when it comes to drug companies – uses research to paint a misleading picture.
In part two of the interview, Rampey continues to distort things when it comes to harm of ex-gay therapy saying that all APA concern comes from the Shidlo and Schroeder study. He gets some details wrong and does rightly critique the bias involved in that study. However, he completely glosses over the other indications of harm, including the recent Kirk Murphy case. This is a relevant observation because Rampey quotes a 1975 textbook citing many behavioral modification studies which prove sexual reorientation works without harm. Kirk Murphy’s family would dispute that as would I.

How much change is enough?

At risk of raising blood pressure and snark readings to risky levels, I want to say a word about orientation change. I am this morning working on a journal article about the survey of same-sex attracted, heterosexually married people I conducted with the help of Gary Welton between 2008-2010.
We asked loads of questions about attractions, fantasies, behaviors and sexual identity with lots of interesting results. One of the most striking results was the rarity of dramatic orientation change. We asked about opposite sex and same sex sexual attraction at 18, time of first marriage and currently on a scale of 0 to 100. only 4/245 men and 2/59 women rated themselves less than 10/100 at age 18 and then 90+ currently on the opposite sex attraction scale.  The numbers did not increase dramatically as I examined a more relaxed assessment of change (e.g., less than 30 at 18 and more than 70 now). Overall, the sample shifted more toward the gay side of the spectrum from ratings of self at 18 and currently, although religious affiliation tended to mute that effect some.
One of the strengths of the survey is that I was able to connect with the largely hidden group of men and women who are SSA and married via word of mouth. I also suveyed people from the Exodus member ministries and the Straight Spouse Network. The sample, while convenience, was drawn from a very wide range of sources.
The title of the post relates to the fact that the marital satisfaction for the SSA partner was pretty high. This makes me think that even a little bit of change in one aspect of sexuality (behavior, fantasies and/or attractions) seems to be enough for a large number of people to redefine themselves in ways that give themselves permission to seek opposite sex relationships.
Stay tuned…
PS – Two men went from completely straight at 18 to completely gay currently.

Is coming out always best?

I am going to look for this article later today. Looks interesting and potentially relevant to the sexual identity therapy discussions generated by the New York Times Magazine last week.

Released: 6/15/2011 12:25 PM EDT
Embargo expired: 6/20/2011 1:00 AM EDT
Source: University of Rochester

Disclosing Sexual Orientation Makes People Even Happier Than Thought, But Mainly in Supportive Settings
Newswise — Coming out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual increases emotional well-being even more than earlier research has indicated. But the psychological benefits of revealing one’s sexual identity — less anger, less depression, and higher self-esteem – are limited to supportive settings, shows a study published June 20 in Social Psychology and Personality Science.

Is the world about to end?

Preachers gonna preach.

Greg Laurie, who is probably a really nice guy, told his congregation that the 2nd coming is coming sooner than later. He thinks so due to…

…the dramatic escalation of global wars and terrorism, the push for unity or globalism, the change in world economics toward a cashless society, the unprecedented increase of killer earthquakes, and false teaching permeating the church.

I am not a historian but I bet there isn’t a dramatic escalation of wars. I suppose there could be a push for globalism but for sure, there are some countries who are going to hold out on the We Are the World remake. False teaching has been with us from the beginning; but what about those earthquakes?

The US Geological Survey must get that question a lot (Are there more earthquakes now?) because they have a page about it here.

We continue to be asked by many people throughout the world if earthquakes are on the increase. Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant.

A partial explanation may lie in the fact that in the last twenty years, we have definitely had an increase in the number of earthquakes we have been able to locate each year. This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications. In 1931, there were about 350 stations operating in the world; today, there are more than 8,000 stations and the data now comes in rapidly from these stations by electronic mail, internet and satellite. This increase in the number of stations and the more timely receipt of data has allowed us and other seismological centers to locate earthquakes more rapidly and to locate many small earthquakes which were undetected in earlier years. The NEIC now locates about 20,000 earthquakes each year or approximately 50 per day. Also, because of the improvements in communications and the increased interest in the environment and natural disasters, the public now learns about more earthquakes.

According to long-term records (since about 1900), we expect about 17 major earthquakes (7.0 – 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or above) in any given year.

Vivid events can produce illusory correlations and in this case it appears that a perception of increase is based on better recording of earthquakes rather than an increase in the actual frequency.

Besides NASA says we are all safe…