Nature? Nurture? The debate about what causes same-sex attractions in males is endless - and so far, unresolved. This much is true: we simply do not know for certain what causes it!
In the last issue of "Counseling Insights", I discussed how "sensitivity" seems to play an important role - one that may have existed from birth (i.e., "nature"). While there is absolutely no evidence of a "gay gene" that automatically makes males develop same-sex attractions (ssa), many such males express that they "have always been extra sensitive" (i.e., extra sensitive to physical aggression, to verbal critique from authority figures, and to the creative senses). But is there a developmental (i.e., "nurture") explanation of why young males might become extra sensitive? Those who ascribe to "psychoanalytic theories" believe there is.
By now, you have heard it stated thousands of times: "male homosexuality is caused by a domineering mother and a detached or critical father". This psychoanalytical/attachment/object-relations theory presumes that the improper interactions of the parents ultimately hinder the normal heterosexual development of the boy. Such theories have been around since Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and have commanded "top billing" in explaining what causes males to have ssa. Acceptance of these developmental theories is so prevalent that many clinicians, Christian counseling organizations, and clergy assume it to be true. It might be. Or, not.
Elizabeth Moberly and Dr. Joseph Nicolosi are credited for developing a type of psychoanalytical theory known as "Reparative Therapy". This approach has become extremely popular in the past decade, and is sometimes referred to as "reorientation" or "conversion" therapy.
Reparative Therapy maintains that a young boy's insecure attachment to his mother sets the boy up to avoid conflict and interpersonal challenges (i.e., becoming timid and unassertive). Furthermore, the over-controlling mother hinders the boy's ability to become attached to his father - a key ingredient (according to Reparative Therapy) in how the boy relates to his own masculinity. The young boy's heterosexual development is further debilitated when he perceives the father as being detached or hostile. As the theory goes, in order for the young boy to protect himself from "hostile" males, the boy develops shyness around both dad and male peers. Thus, the young boy fails to act in masculine-aggressive ways (e.g., contact sports). Then (theoretically), as the boy reaches puberty he begins sexualizing those whom he is most fascinated by - other males! Reparative Therapy maintains that when a male understands that his ssa is primarily the result of early relationships with mom and dad, he can then begin associating differently with males - resulting in a conversion of his sexual orientation.
Whew - that's a lot of theory!
But does this theory fully explain what caused you or me to have same-sex attractions? Well, there is some evidence that supports this theory ... and some that does not.
Let's start with what research says about the impact of mothers on "causing" ssa. A 2006 study by Dickson & Byrd found that ssa males regarded their mothers as significantly less "loving", more "demanding", and more "rejecting" than did males who exclusively had opposite-sex attractions (osa). But, could it be that the ssa males were actually just more "sensitive" toward their mom's demeanor - as compared to the mother actually being harsh? Who knows! It should be noted that not all ssa males felt poorly toward their mothers. Indeed, many mothers are viewed as very loving by their ssa sons - so loving that theorists claim this hindered the boy from properly attaching to his father. Clearly, not all ssa males react the same to their mothers!
Now let's see if the father is the "cause" of a boy's eventual development of ssa. In the study previously cited, both ssa and osa sons primarily attached to their mothers far more than to their fathers. In short, all males seem to have difficulty primarily relating to their dads! It should also be noted that perhaps dads do not relate well to their ssa sons because the son's temperament and behaviors are too dissimilar from his own.
Furthermore, in a famous 2007 study by Jones & Yarhouse of 98 ssa subjects (72 of whom were males), they found that 61 subjects perceived their childhood relationship with their father to be either "not at all close" or "not very close". The flip-side of that research, though, is that 33 of the subjects perceived their relationship with dad to be either "somewhat close" or "very close". Clearly, not all ssa males had poor relationships with their fathers!
Does it matter whether a young boy has a loving relationship with his mother and father? Well, of course! Many, many clients of mine fit the "classical" psychoanalytical relationship with their parents. They report mothers as being controlling and critical, while having fathers who were largely absent or harsh in tone. Tragically, some of these parents were clearly abusive - emotionally, verbally, physically, and even sexually, with their sons [note: more about "abuse" in the next issue of "Counseling Insights"]. Is it helpful for the ssa male to "make sense" out of his past? You betcha! Do poor relationships with parents affect a young boy's self-esteem? One could easily conclude "yes!" Should an ssa male strive to correct some early wounds from childhood? No doubt! Should that ssa male refuse to take the blame for the existence of his same-sex attractions? Absolutely!!
But is it true that the cause of ssa in males is due to "domineering mothers and detached or critical fathers"? Does the ssa male have to accept that belief in order to change? To me, that's a stretch. I will let you decide for yourself, based upon your own life experience. Could it be possible that most boys relate less well to their fathers? I have many, many clients of mine who have "father wounds" - and they have never experienced any erotic attractions to their own gender. Could it be possible that ssa males were simply more "sensitive" to negative feedback that they received from either parent? Perhaps.
I acknowledge that I am not a Reparative Therapist, but that does not mean I do not have tremendous respect of that theory and therapy. Indeed, we may one day discover that their theory was correct. Or not. For now, though, we only know that we simply do not know for certain what causes a male to develop same-sex attractions.
Personally, I know of some fathers out there who got a "bum rap" from sons who blamed their same-sex attractions on their father.
Like my dad.