Article

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen


Neurohormonal Wars

Old questions and dubious debates in the psychology of gender.

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This may sound like a recycling of the old Victorian double standard for people of the "respectable" classes—i.e., pretend to follow the rules and have secret sexual dalliances on the side. But the article's author also interviewed evangelical therapists Warren Throckmorton and Mark Yarhouse, of Grove City College and Regent University respectively. They too work with conservative Christian (mainly male) clients who are dealing with same-sex attraction, but who want their sexual identity and behavior to be disciplined by their commitment to historic Christian norms. They are given support for pursuing a celibate lifestyle, and sometimes even marriage and parenthood, provided that the wife is fully informed and supportive of the project. (Full disclosure: Mark Yarhouse was an undergraduate psychology student of mine about twenty years ago.)

And in fact, the APA task force saw this approach—Throckmorton and Yarhouse call it "Sexual-identity Therapy"—as a viable option. Its chairwoman, Judith Glassgold, was quoted in the article as saying, "People might want to develop an identity that fits with what their religion proscribes. Or they might want to be celibate rather than identify as a gay person. Some people prioritize their religion over their sexuality, like priests and nuns. That's an identity." She added that while gay activist and religious therapists mostly agree that attraction and arousal cannot be turned off or on at will, "What we can work on is self-acceptance, identity integration, and reducing stigma." As if to underscore this affirmation of identity fluidity, the Times magazine article was followed by another, in which a gay rights activist described a visit to an erstwhile friend and fellow activist who, in the wake of a health scare, found God, renounced his longtime homosexual identity, and ended up at a Bible college in Wyoming. The article's author conceded that this might just not be a case of someone "denying his true (i.e., gay) identity." His friend, he concluded, "might call me some day to say he was gay after all … but I doubt that will happen any time soon."[4]

A Brief Sermon on Method

Debates about the fixity vs. fluidity of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gendered behaviors take a different form in the academy than in the pastor's or therapist's office, though the latter are clearly influenced by what they think are conclusions drawn in the former. The phrase "what they think" is important, because clear scientific conclusions are not easy to come by. To begin with, most people understand that the gold standard for clinical research—medical or psychological—is the double-blind experiment. Thus, when a new drug is being tested, participants with the relevant medical condition are first randomly assigned to drug or placebo (fake drug) conditions in order to control for any pre-existing individual differences. Then, as the experiment proceeds, in order to control for what are known as "expectancy effects," neither those who take or evaluate the effects of drug vs. placebo know which participants are in which condition: this is the "double blind" piece. At the end of the trial, only if there is a statistically significant difference in improvement between the two groups can the new drug be considered for marketing.

Can we use this research design for tracing causality when we're comparing not the effects of drug vs. placebo, but the effects of biology vs. environment on gendered behavior? Imagine designing a clinical trial to determine whether boys are hard-wired to be more aggressive than girls, or girls more nurturing than boys. First, we'd have to randomly assign babies to be one sex or another, apart from all the other chromosomal baggage they come with. This we can't do: girls and boys come as genetic package deals, and once conceived their genetic and environmental legacies are so intertwined that the effects are inseparable. If you think that it's pre- or post-natal hormones (like estrogen and testosterone) more than unmediated genes that create behavioral sex differences, then you'd need a double-blind design in which you systematically interfere (or not) with the hormonal development of randomly divided groups of children, then trace the behavioral results. Most people agree that it's acceptable to do this with rodents or monkeys, but not with humans—though it bears remembering that the Nazis did similar human experiments under the sinister rubric of uncovering "truth in nature."

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