Roots of reparative therapy – Sandor Rado and the reparative adjustment

This week I am surveying some roots of reparative drive theory – the view that homosexuality is a reparative, but pathological, response to a broken attachment with one’s same-sex parent. For reparative therapists, same-sex attraction is an attempt to gain connection to the appropriate sense of gender lost or defended against due to poor attachment with the same sex parent.

While Freud had several things to say about homosexuality, he often wrote about sexual departure from heterosexuality in terms of failure during the Oedipal phase of psychosexual development. In the case of homosexuality, a young boy might come to identify with mother due to unwillingness or inability to give up the mother’s love. He may identify with her to the degree that he wishes to possess what she possesses, a man. There is more to Freud’s views on this but my point here is not to offer a comprehensive account. I want to move to those who revised his views of sexuality, today in particular, Sandor Rado.

In objecting to Freud’s views of bisexuality, Rado introduced the concept of non-heterosexual behavior as a “reparative adjustment.” In a 1940 paper, Rado wrote:

The basic problem, to state it briefly, is to determine the factors that cause the individual to apply aberrant forms of stimulation to his standard genital equipment. Following up this line of inquiry, we find that the chief causal factor is the affect of anxiety, which inhibits standard stimulation and compels the “ego action system in the individual” to bring forth an altered scheme of stimulation as a “reparative adjustment” (12, IJ).

Both the inhibitory and thereparative processes begin far back in early childhood, leading up to the picture which we encounter in the adult. The reparative adjustment may allow the individual several alternatives of morbid stimulation, or may take the form of a rigid and inexorable pattern on which he depends for gratification. This approach, of which we can give here only the barest suggestion, has in practice unfolded a wealth of clinical details leading to a theory that is free of inconsistency and that serves as a reliable guide to treatment. (p. 466)

In this paper, Rado does not drawn out what kind of reparation takes place in various forms of non-heterosexual behavior. He does conclude that whatever they are, they start in childhood and they in some way increase anxiety which requires a reparative adjustment. Anxiety is the culprit that make gays. Nicolosi has his “Grey Zone” which sounds like Rado’s anxiety; and as we all know, straights are, as a rule, relaxed and anxiety free.

On the other hand, Rado does not completely┬ádiscount “constitutional factors,” which apparently open the door for biological influence. In fact, Rado seems more open minded to these factors than his heirs at NARTH.

It also demands a change in outlook toward the underlying problem of constitution. If we assume, as we must, that constitutional factors may have an influence on morbid sex developments, we are now justified in considering this influence to be of two kinds: one preparing the ground for the inhibitory action of anxiety, the other modulating the course of the reparative adjustment. In considering the factors so involved we must not overlook the possibility of general, i.e., non-sexual factors, as well as innate defects of the sexual action system of as yet unknown character. It is well to recall, lest we underestimate this eventuality, that we are still in the dark even as regards the physiological mechanism of such an elementary phenomenon as sexual attraction. Still another possibility is of course the presence of elements of the action system of the opposite sex such as reflexes, or rather chains of reflexes, susceptible to resuscitation by hormones or other agents. However, not until somatic research has disclosed such elements shall we be able to determine by psychological methods their role in shaping morbid sex behavior. (p. 467)

Rado here shows much more respect for biological influences than demonstrated by today’s reparative therapists. Rado assumes (without empirical evidence) a reparative mechanism but to his credit, he recognizes that biological factors would have to┬ámediate the response. In other words, homosexuality, even for Rado, is more complex than a set of family dynamics or a specific kind of attachment break. If environmental factors have any relevance, they would surely be mediated by nature.

Rado also noted that at the time almost nothing was known about brain and sexual attraction. He seemed open to being corrected in his thinking based on what he called somatic research. He also called upon psychoanalysts to give deference to researchers in discovering and elucidating the biological elements of sexuality.

We do know much more about sexuality now and have brain studies which demonstrate significant differences associated with sexual orientation. In my view, NARTH supporters only incorporate one aspect of Rado’s suggestions. They ignore his tentative approach and righteous consideration of biological determinants.