Speaking of "taboo," it may be safe to say that as early as time the big stamp of "taboo" was placed on sexuality. It may be surprising to realize that such "taboo" extended into the scientific world. It wasn't until 1886 when the scientific study of sexuality began. Until that time, people's ideas about what was "normal" was based upon their own ideas within their own social circle, or reference group. Since then, a number of people have made some very significant contributions to the study of sexuality. As we have reached a greater understanding of sexuality, our views on sexuality have become more liberal to reflect this greater understanding of the range of variety in human sexuality, and a broader understanding of "normal". These early pioneer researchers were often faced with great skepticism by their peers at the time, but their efforts have significantly contributed to a better understanding of healthy sexuality today.
Sexual Orientation: The Historical Change In The Mental Health Perspective On Sexual Orientation
The interface between science and culture is keenly illustrated by the historical change that occurred within the professional and scientific, mental health community, regarding homosexuality. Prior to 1975, homosexuality was considered pathological. However, since then, the contemporary consensus is that homosexuality and the entire range of sexual orientation, reflect normal human variance, and has a biological etiology.
One of the first pioneers of sexual research was Alfred Kinsey, Ph.D. and he is often credited for advancing this historical change. He is considered a central figure in the history of sexual science primarily for his contributions regarding a broader understanding of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation generally reflects sexual feelings, desire, arousal, fantasy and attraction. Dr. Kinsey's major contribution to sexual science was conducting 17,000 interviews with Americans about their sex lives. Some have criticized Dr. Kinsey's research because it relied upon volunteers, creating a biased sample. This is because individuals who volunteer to participate in sex research are likely to be more liberal than those who do not volunteer to participate (and therefore, are not represented in the sample, making it biased). Nonetheless, his work provided us our first clues about what American's sex lives were really like.
One of his most famous contributions was the Kinsey Scale which is a 7-point scale, often used to measure sexual orientation. At the time when Kinsey was conducting his research, homosexuality and heterosexuality were considered mutually exclusive, separate categories: you were either straight or gay. Period. Instead, Kinsey proposed it was more correct to view sexual orientation along a continuum, rather than as an either-or category. In other words, it's not whether or not you are heterosexual or homosexual, it is how heterosexual or homosexual are you? A "0" on the Kinsey scale represents exclusive heterosexuality, while a "7" represents exclusive homosexuality, and a "3" represents bisexuality. Interestingly, this perspective on sexual orientation has strongly resurfaced over the last 10 years. Dr. Kinsey's research illuminated a greater frequency and variance in sexual orientation than was previously believed prior to scientific inquiry.
Debate and controversy about sexual orientation have a long history in the mental health world and discussions regarding whether or not sexual orientation can be changed have been around as long as homosexuality itself (Haldeman, 1994). Such debates often reflect the powerful interface between social sciences and culture. This interface is illustrated by the historical shift that occurred regarding diagnostic determinations of sexual pathology as determined by the consensus of American Psychological Association.
Prior to 1975, the consensus of the psychological community was homosexuality was an illness. In the absence of scientific study, the consensus at that time reflected the larger culture's prevailing view. Since homosexuality was considered pathological, "treatments" were discussed and devised. Doctors, therapists, and religious leaders have tried to reverse homosexuality using psychoanalytic therapy, prayer and spiritual interventions, electric shock, nausea-inducing drugs, hormone therapy, and surgery. Additionally, behavioral treatments including masturbatory reconditioning and visits to prostitutes have been used to "cure" homosexuality.
However, in 1975 the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and urged mental health professionals to work toward removing stigma from homosexuality. This was a huge accomplishment, however homosexuality was replaced with Ego-Dystonic homosexuality (defined as being homosexual but wishing not to be). This distinction was later dropped in 1987 (Haldeman, 1994).
Today, APA takes a firm stance regarding conversion therapies that try to change homosexuality, stating that there is no evidence to support the effectiveness of these "therapies." Furthermore, a vast amount of sexuality research suggests that homosexuality is not socially constructed but rather determined by biology. In fact research suggests that hormonal influences during fetal development may impact certain parts of the brain and in turn impact sexual orientation. Additionally, researchers have identified several physical differences between homosexual and heterosexual men (i.e., finger length, birth order) all of which suggest that biology is at play in determining sexual orientation. These research findings extend into the animal kingdom as researchers have suggested that physiology largely impacts sexual behavior. Researchers have demonstrated that lesions in certain areas of the male rat brain can increase female-like sexual behavior (Agmo & Ellison, 2003). Thus treating something psychologically that is biologically determined makes about as much sense as trying to use talk therapy to change the color of an individuals eyes.
Despite the fact that homosexuality is no longer considered a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association, some mental health practitioners in various disciplines still continue to try and treat homosexuality as a disorder to be "fixed". Clearly attempts to reverse or change something, implies that that something is unwanted and unhealthy (Murphy, 1992). Some of these practitioners justify their treatments based upon their own personal religious beliefs that consider homosexuality sinful. Other mental health professionals defend their attempts to change an individual's sexual orientation as a matter of free choice for the unhappy client. Sometimes the client's own personal religious choices consider homosexuality sinful. Clinicians treating these clients state that they are "value-neutral" and insist that clients have a right to choose treatments consistent with each client's own personal values. However, regardless of the reasons clinicians may have for providing these "treatments", their efforts to change something clearly implies a negative value. Thus, if the psychological profession wants to make clear the message that homosexuality is a perfectly normal orientation, clinicians who continue to support efforts to change sexual orientation provide society a contradictory message.