(First posted October 1, 2007)
Warning: Long post…
This post could be part three of the series on sexual identity therapy and neutrality but I chose this title because I want to focus on one specific issue, at least in my mind, with telling psychotherapy clients that “our bodies tell us who we are.” Saying something like this to a client is the expression of a natural law argument that is expressed by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi in his article “Why I Am Not a Neutral Therapist.”
Our Bodies Tell Us Who We Are
Philosophically, I am an essentialist — not a social constructionist: I believe that gender identity and sexual orientation are grounded in biological reality. The body tells us who we are, and we cannot “construct” — assemble or disassemble — a different reality in which gender and sexual identity are out of synchrony with biology.
The belief that humanity is designed for heterosexuality has been shaped by age-old religious and cultural forces, which must be respected as a welcome aspect of intellectual diversity. Our belief is not a “phobia” or pathological fear.
Natural-law philosophy says this view derives from mankind’s collective, intuitive knowledge; a sort of natural, instinctive conscience. This would explain why so many people — even the nonreligious — sense that a gay identity is a false construct.
Clients who already believe a natural law argument would most likely look for a therapist who believed as Dr. Nicolosi does. In that case, I do not see how he could be accused of imposing his values on the client; clients who are committed to this perspective (many conservatives, for example) might not work well with a therapist who did not articulate a similar view. On the worldview front, I suspect many people are directed by their spiritual advisors to look for counselors who are amenable to the teaching of their church. I also suspect, that feminists look for feminist therapists and so on. This will no doubt continue no matter what the professions pronounce.
What I want to raise now are some issues with the natural law argument. Specifically, I propose that if we know who we are via our bodies, then a fairly solid argument can be made against Dr. Nicolosi’s conclusions. He argues that genitalia and procreative capacity is the definer of correct identity. However, there is more to body than genitals and secondary sex characteristics. Brain is a part of body. As an organ of the body, the way the brain functions and is organized must be important as well. I am not here talking about psychological constructionism or the constructed opinion of a person that he/she is gay or straight, male or female. I am talking about the automatic response of the brain to triggers both sexual and otherwise that differentiate gay and straight people. In the research available, brain reactions differentiate people based on sexual preferences. In other words, if the body tells us who we are, and brain is body, then our brains tell us whether we like the same sex, the opposite one, or both. And our brains do this well before we have time to think about it.
I have written before about the pheromone studies conducted by a team led by Ivanka Savic from Sweden. Here is what I wrote about their study of lesbians:
This study shows that sexual orientation at the extreme (5-6 Kinsey scale) differentiates how the brain responds to a putative pheromone. The response from lesbians is not as clear cut as gay males. Lesbians process estrogen derived pheromones both in the normal olfactory fashion and via the hypothalamus (a link in the sexual response). The participants did not experience any sexual response so it is interesting that these lesbians’ brains registered the pheromones in a different way than did straight women. Lesbians were somewhat like straight men but not exactly like them. The reference is: Berglund, H., Lindstro”m, P., & Savic, I. (2006). Brain response to putative pheromones in lesbian women. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science, Early Edition (www.pnas.org).
I also reviewed their initial study of males:
• The study does show involuntary hypothalamic response associated with self-assessed sexual orientation
• The study shows that gay males do react to the estrogen condition but in a different manner than they react to the testosterone condition
• The study cannot shed light on the complicated question of whether sexual orientation of the participants is hard wired.
• The brains of these participants may have acquired a sexual response to these chemicals as the result of past sexual experience. In other word, the response described in this study could well have been learned.
• If these results hold up, this could explain why varying sexual attractions seem so “natural.” Also, such conditioning could give insight into why changing sexual attractions is often experienced by those changing sexual preferences as a process of unlearning responses to environmental triggers.
There are other lines of research that also find large involuntary differences in brain response or perceptual response associated with sexual attractions. I could add the brain imaging work of Michael Bailey which I referenced recently.
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