There is a long and ignoble tradition of speculating on psychological matters. In the times of the ancients a common anxiety disorder called globus hystericus was attributed to a uterus wandering around in the woman’s body and settling down in the throat. The symptoms of globus are a sense of difficulty swallowing, as if there is a lump in the throat. You can see the reasoning here. This particular idea ignored the fact that globus occurred sometimes in men and in pregnant women, where there could be no mistaking where the uterus was. Similar explanations are given for a variety of illnesses throughout history; and I recommend reading them for amusement, if you have nothing better to do. It seemed to me that psychological speculation came to a head with Freud. That is because I was around during the time that Freud’s ideas had a death grip on psychiatry, during the sixties. Even at that time his thoughts about the death instinct were being ignored by acolytes. Still current were ideas like the Oedipal complex, which, according to Freud, was the basis of all neurosis. Psychoanalysts were running all of the best academic institutions at that time, including Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I took my psychiatric residency.
Within three days of my beginning my residency I had earned a reputation for being “anti-analytic.” This was unfair since I didn’t know enough to be anti-analytic, or anti-anything. It took years before I became truly anti-analytic. This is what happened those first three days:
Surrounded by some of the brightest people I have ever known, I listened as a teacher explained psychoanalytic thought. He drew a horizontal line on the blackboard and pointed above the line
“This is the conscious mind,” he said. Then he pointed below the line and said, “This is the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious is the exact opposite of the conscious.”
Then we talked about that for an hour. I thought I understood what he was saying, namely, that sometimes we are unaware of what we are truly feeling. We are motivated in our actions by impulses that are “unconscious” and sometimes contrary to what we think is motivating us.
The second day the same teacher drew the same line on the same blackboard.
“This is the conscious,” he said, pointing above the line. Then he pointed below the line and said, “This is the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious is the exact opposite of the conscious.”
Then we talked for another hour. I was getting a little fidgety. Everyone around me seemed to me to be paying scrupulous attention; but I was distracted by an echo in the room. The teacher seemed to me to be saying the same thing over and over. I started to doodle.
The next day, we were all gathered around while the same teacher drew the same horizontal line on the same blackboard. He pointed above the line.
“This is the conscious,” he said. Then he pointed below the line and said, “This is the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious is the exact opposite of the conscious.”
I held up my hand. “Does that mean when I think I want an ice-cream soda, I really don’t want an ice cream soda?”
That was enough. For the next six years, interrupted by two years in the army, I was treated as an apostate. I went through the three years of residency, a year of child fellowship, and two additional years of research with children, considered vaguely suspect.
I would recommend to everyone that they ignore psychological speculation. In fact, most psychological statements that seem to reflect experimental evidence can probably be ignored also. Take, for example, a number of studies that have suggested that people can read minds during dream states, or that someone can predict the fall of dice. Who would study these things in the first place? Only someone who had a pretty good hunch that such things were possible, even if they did violate the laws of physics. An investigator who believes something strongly will come up with experimental evidence supporting that thesis; and these results are likely to intrigue lay people and annoy everyone else for years before further work invalidates them.
Having made the case for ignoring speculation, I would like to offer up some speculations about the causes of homosexuality. I don’t suppose I know any more about this than anyone else, but I have been thinking about the matter for the last fifty years.
Freud, come to think of it, had his own speculations about the causes of homosexuality. Male homosexuality, of course. Freud had given up long ago trying to understand women, homosexual or not. As I remember, this is the way the homosexual story went. A passive, uninvolved father and an overbearing and over-solicitous mother led sons to become homosexual. Although not all the time. I read articles around the same time that attributed schizophrenia and/or obesity to the same family constellation.
I offer my speculations on the causes of homosexuality with the thought that they cannot make less sense than those that have already been advanced by others.
I take the conventional view that homosexuality and heterosexuality fall in a continuum with some people at one end of the continuum, obligatory homosexuals, and at the other end obligatory heterosexuals. These are people so inclined one way or the other that sex with the wrong sex is distasteful and almost impossible. Everyone else is somewhere in the middle-- judging by their fantasies, occasional experiences with the wrong sex, and so on. Some people are exactly in the middle. Some people are more or less in the middle. Circumstances will determine how such people behave. For instance, in the all male communities of the prison population or of religious orders, men who regard themselves as heterosexual may engage in homosexual acts. Still, most people think of themselves either as unequivocally homosexual or heterosexual.
It is sometimes asserted for religious reasons that an unequivocal ly homosexual man or woman can be “cured,” that is, persuaded to engage exclusively in heterosexual behavior. If the stakes are high enough, (if the alternative is being stoned to death, for instance,) I think that outcome is certainly possible. It would be like walking backwards for the rest of their lives. Is that possible? Sure. But what for? Even if such a person were threatened with an eternity in hell (and he truly believed that, which I do not think is often the case) he could walk backwards most of the time; but I would still expect him to walk forward, the natural way, every once in a while when no one was looking.
Everyone has sexual fantasies, a kind of story which is sexually exciting. They are determined by myriad small experiences growing up. They are tremendously varied; and I think they explain why somebody is more or less heterosexual or more or less homosexual. It is not remarkable that someone should be somewhat more one way than another. Of course, the interesting question is exactly which experiences push a person one way or the other.
I mentioned in a previous blog post a set of identical twins who grew up together in the same household who were, nevertheless, discordant for sexual orientation; that is, one was exclusively homosexual and the other exclusively heterosexual. How could two people who were identical genetically and grew up integrated into the same family be so different?
First of all, identical twins are only about 99% identical genetically. There are small differences which could conceivably make an infant just slightly more or less sensitive to certain influences, however obscure those influences might be. Secondly, their environment in utero is not exactly the same. Depending on the shape of the placenta, there might be a difference in the amount of blood each twin receives. Indeed, there are subtle differences in the children even at the time they are born. One may weigh just slightly less than the other. By the time they are born, identical twins are not truly identical. That is why very soon each can be recognized by his parents.
Third, their family environment is not exactly the same. If one child gets sick and the other does not, that child will be treated differently, at least for a while, perhaps during a critical time. If one child cries a little louder or more often than the other, or if one child smiles at a time when the other does not, the environment of each child begins to diverge subtly as parents and others respond to them differently. In turn they react differently. In such a way even identical twins come to have different personalities.
Imagine two babies, perhaps identical, as two very large rocks poised on top of a very steep hill. This hill represents their development as sexual persons. There are other hills that represent other aspects of their development as particular human beings, but we will pretend that all these other aspects of personality develop separately. These two very large rocks start off right next to each other, but not exactly in the same space. The hill is slanted steeply in a particular direction, more towards the side of the hill that represents heterosexuality (Heterosexuality is the most common sexual destination.) On the other side of the hill, down at the bottom, is homosexuality. A wind comes up and the rocks are dislodged. They start rolling down the hill slowly but bounce up against small rocks which push them in a particular direction, where they bounce off other small rocks which may push them back in the first direction or still farther the other way. The rocks pick up speed, and their paths diverge. Most of the time these rocks bounce back and forth and end up somewhere in the middle, more often on the heterosexual side because that is the way the hill slopes. But sometimes, the bounces each rock takes push them further and further apart, and they end up at the bottom of the hill nowhere near each other, on opposite sides of the hill. In such a way one identical twin ends up heterosexual and the other homosexual. Even though they started close together at the top of the hill. Actually, in real life, they never arrive all the way down the hill. Events that occur when they are grown can still affect them. Another stone can move the rock further in one direction or another, but less dramatically. Unless it is a really big stone.
So, what are the circumstances—the small events—that can push a child more towards one sexual orientation than another?
Each child—every child—is bombarded by a world of sensory experiences: being held, cleaned, fondled, moved about, touched and stimulated in a hundred ways. The child tastes the world and smells the world. These are also sensual experiences. Male babies get erections. Females experience something similar. Smells, in particular, are associated with sexual feelings all up and down the animal kingdom. Human beings are more sensitive to smells than they realize. Witness the fact that women who live together begin to menstruate at the same time, this physiological coordination being controlled, apparently, by smell.
I think such early experiences, which may include simply smelling something pleasant or unpleasant in the company of a particular adult, incline a child to become more and more sensitive to similar experiences. If they are pleasurable, those experiences may become sexually charged, although not in any obvious way. If they are associated with a parent of a particular sex, they may form the basis of a developing sexual orientation. These experiences are like those small rocks that determine where the big rocks end up.
These sensual experiences are the ordinary experiences of childhood. They are subtle, and I think predicting exactly which experiences are determinative is impossible.
So, what good are speculations that cannot evolve into predictions? Not much. I warned you. Some day some new technology may come along that will discern a tiny center in the brain, near the hypothalamus, or whatever, that governs sexual orientation; and we will see, finally, what turns it on and off. But not now. (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog