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 (

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.
Continue reading “Sexual identity: Our bodies tell us who we are”

I am not a part of NARTH

UPDATE (Monday morning): The references to me have been removed from the CP article…

That’s the best title I could think of after reading this article in the Christian Post: Ex-gay Convention Draws Protestors in Penn.

I suspect Stephanie Samuel just doesn’t know the area well enough to know why the way she wrote her article is quite misleading. She wrote:

NARTH, an organization with faith-based views on homosexuality, acknowledges on its website that there are those who are comfortable with their homosexual identity. It values an individual’s right to choose. But it also upholds the rights of individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction to receive effective psychological care and the right of professionals to offer that care.

Those experiencing unwanted homosexual desires and who are conflicted by their values deserve treatment and spiritual counsel, NARTH maintains.

Several faith-based groups have created treatment to help those who do not want to embrace the homosexual lifestyle. Warren Throckmorton and Mark Yarhous, (sic) both psychology experts, have crafted a framework, Sexual Identity Therapy: Proactive Framework for Managing Sexual Identity Conflicts, focused on conflicting religious values.

While NARTH encourages therapy, it maintains that it is a professional organization that only promotes practices have been proven scientifically effective. NARTH urges against claims that there is “scientific knowledge” that settles the issue of homosexuality. Instead, it encourages a broad view based upon diverse understandings of the family, of core human identity, and the meaning and purpose of human sexuality.

She also wrote about my work against bullying which seems odd in an article about NARTH. Since NARTH has not commented on bullying, it seems out of place to even mention what other groups are doing.

It is the weekend so no changes are going to be made to the article until Monday but I did write a comment on the CP wall. Here it is:

The Sexual Identity Therapy framework ( is listed above in such a way that a reader might assume it is connected with or consistent with the work of NARTH. However, there is no connection. NARTH advocates sexual reorientation whereas, our framework does not advocate orientation change. Our framework is in keeping with the guidance of the APA and other professional societies whereas NARTH work has been questioned by those same groups.

While I appreciate the mention of my work against bullying, there is again no connection between that work and the NARTH organization. If anything, NARTH promotes harmful stereotypes about gay people which do not contribute to solutions to the problems of bullying.

I repeat, I regret the mention of my work in sexual identity therapy and bullying in the same context as mention of the work of NARTH. For more information or clarifications of our work, please see and or contact me at [email protected].

You can read more about NARTH here (where and why I decided not to attend the 2006 NARTH conference) and here and reparative therapy here.