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Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation

Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation

Janis S. Bohan
Glenda M. Russell
Vivienne Cass
Douglas C. Haldeman
Suzanne Iasenza
Fritz Klein
Allen M. Omoto
Lenore Tiefer
Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 245
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  • Book Info
    Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation
    Book Description:

    Psychology's approach to sexual orientation has long had its foundation in essentialism, which undergirds psychological theory and research as well as clinical practice and applications of psychology to public policy issues. It is only recently that psychology as a discipline has begun to entertain social constructivism as an alternative approach. Based on the belief that thoughtful dialogue can engender positive change, Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation explores the implications for psychology of both essentialist and social constructionist understandings of sexual orientation. The book opens with an introduction presenting basic theoretical frameworks, followed by three application sections dealing with clinical practice, research and theory, and public policy. In each, the discussion takes the form of a conversation, as the authors first consider essentialist and constructionist approaches to the topic at hand. These thoughts, in turn, are followed by responses from distinguished scholars chosen for their expertise in a particular area. By providing an array of comments and thoughtful responses to topics surrounding psychology's approaches to sexual orientation, this valuable study sheds new light on the contrasting views held in the field and the ways in which essentialist and constructionist understandings may be applied to specific practices and policies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2307-4
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: The Conversation Begins
    (pp. 1-10)
    Glenda M. Russell and Janis S. Bohan

    The idea for this book grew out of countless conversations between the two of us about psychology’s approach to sexual orientation. As we talked about this topic, we found ourselves alternately excited by the possibilities of rethinking sexual orientation and frustrated by the difficulty of doing so. At some point, one of us commented about how much fun and how challenging these conversations were, and the other suggested that they might form the basis for a book. The more we discussed the idea, the more it seemed appropriate to use a conversational format as a way to pursue the topic...

  5. Chapter 1 Conceptual Frameworks
    (pp. 11-30)
    Janis S. Bohan and Glenda M. Russell

    Consider these quandaries:

    A client enters psychotherapy seeking to find his “true” sexual orientation. He has had satisfying sexual and emotional relationships with women for many years but now finds himself attracted to a man.

    Researchers design a study to investigate the relationship between mental health and the level of disclosure of lesbian identity. A potential participant in the study demurs, insisting that the label “lesbian” does not match her sense of self, although she is in a long-term, exclusive relationship with another woman.

    A law intended to ensure equal rights for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals is challenged by...

  6. Chapter 2 Implications for Clinical Work
    (pp. 31-56)
    Glenda M. Russell and Janis S. Bohan

    There has been only limited discussion of the relative merits of applying essentialist and social constructionist perspectives to clinical work that focuses on sexual orientation (e.g., Hart, 1984; Richardson, 1984, 1987; Schippers, 1989; Stein, 1996). Stein has pointed out that most mental health professionals subscribe to essentialist ideas about sexuality and, therefore,

    the concerns of social constructionists have not found their way into the discourse about approaches to evaluation and treatment of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men. (Stein, 1996, p. 90; see also Cass, 1996)

    His statement could be broadened: neither has the social constructionist perspective become part of the...

  7. Chapter 3 The Best of Both Worlds: Essentialism, Social Constructionism, and Clinical Practice
    (pp. 57-70)
    Douglas C. Haldeman

    My godson, who is a thirteen-year-old soccer superstar, recently dyed his hair platinum blonde. Good as it looks, it caused me to wonder aloud to his mother, who is a developmental psychologist, how we know when adolescence is over. She replied, “When we’ve separated ourselves enough that we feel safe going back into the stew.”Not unlike where we are developmentally in LGB psychology, actually. And though the debate about cultural assimilation has been going for some time now, it has only recently come to the clinical practice of psychology. How secure are we with the cohesiveness of LGB psychology and...

  8. Chapter 4 Who Do We Want You to Be? A Commentary on Essentialist and Social Constructionist Perspectives in Clinical Work
    (pp. 71-76)
    Suzanne Iasenza

    As I read Glenda Russell and Janis Bohan’s compelling and thought-provoking chapter on essentialist and social constructionist perspectives in clinical work, I began to reflect on my twenty years of clinical experience, much of which involved working with issues of sexual orientation. I experience myself as a social constructionist and as an essentialist in the therapy room at different times, depending on the patient and where I am in my own professional and personal development. My reading thus sparked an interest in how my therapeutic stances change and according to what criteria.

    I ask different questions, as Bohan and Russell...

  9. Chapter 5 Don’t Look for Perfects: A Commentary on Clinical Work and Social Constructionism
    (pp. 77-84)
    Leonore Tiefer

    Writing this commentary raises a great irony for me. As a deep social constructionist, I see sexual orientation as an idea that emerged near the end of the nineteenth century as part of the new profession of psychiatry’s effort to busy itself segmenting the behavioral and intrapsychic world into neat little boxes of normal and abnormal. In my mind, the categories of heterosexual and homosexual cannot be separated from their historical origins—everything else is rationalization and a more or less disguised fulfillment of that original psychiatric phase.

    Fast-forward to 1998. I am writing this commentary as a clinician, that...

  10. Chapter 6 Implications for Psychological Research and Theory Building
    (pp. 85-105)
    Janis S. Bohan and Glenda M. Russell

    As we discussed in chapter 2, psychology’s approach to the topic of sexual orientation has been primarily essentialist in nature. In the previous section of the book we explored how this phenomenon affects clinical practice; here we examine its impact on psychological research and the development of psychological theory dealing with sexual orientation. As before, the aim here is to inquire how these areas of psychological work would differ were they approached from a constructionist orientation.

    The most fundamental critique of an essentialist approach to psychological research in this topic area challenges the foundational assumption that we know what sexual...

  11. Chapter 7 Bringing Psychology in from the Cold: Framing Psychological Theory and Research within a Social Constructionist Psychology Approach
    (pp. 106-128)
    Vivienne Cass

    In the last month I have counseled a number of people who appear to be oblivious to the sexual orientation categories that exist in our society. One of these, David, age 44, is a good example. Married for fifteen years with six children, he was having his first emotional and sexual relationship with another man. He described this as a “top-up” to the relationship with his wife, to whom he is close. Neither he nor his wife used the words “gay,” “heterosexual,” or “bisexual” to refer to his situation, nor did the conversation revolve around his “sexual orientation.” They simply...

  12. Chapter 8 Psychology of Sexual Orientation
    (pp. 129-138)
    Fritz Klein

    Confusion abounds!

    This book looks at some of the factors that make sexual orientation such a fuzzy and hard-to-grasp concept, one that keeps both the experts and the general population going around most of the time in circles. When it comes to sexual orientation, people are usually speaking on different levels and with different assumptions, which causes them not to understand one another. I am, therefore, delighted to contribute a chapter on the subject, one that I have studied, looked at, researched and talked about for more than 25 years.

    Let me give you three examples that exemplify the difficulty...

  13. Chapter 9 Implications for Public Policy
    (pp. 139-164)
    Glenda M. Russell and Janis S. Bohan

    One of the criticisms leveled against social constructionism is the charge that it lacks relevance to the real, material world (e.g., Bordo, 1990; Burman, 1990; Elshtain, 1982; Flax, 1990; Hartsock, 1983; Kitzinger, 1995; Weedon, 1987;Weisstein, 1993; Zita, 1988). In fact, this criticism misrepresents constructionism. To consider something as socially constructed does not divorce it from the everyday world; a phenomenon is no less something with which we must contend simply because we think of it as socially constructed. In the words of Efran and Fauber (1995), “The witches of Salem were created sheerly on the basis of attitude and belief,...

  14. Chapter 10 Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues in Public Policy: Some of the Relevance and Realities of Psychological Science
    (pp. 165-182)
    Allen M. Omoto

    The preceding chapter, on the public policy implications of essentialist and social constructionist perspectives on sexual orientation, raised a number of interesting issues related to the interplay of psychological science and public policy. In the chapter, the authors discuss changes over time in understanding sexual orientation as recognized by mental health professionals and scholars, as well as some of the implications they see of a relatively essentialist understanding of sexual orientation for policy debates on lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) rights. In particular, they focus a good deal of attention on ongoing conversations about the origin of sexual orientation and...

  15. Afterword: The Conversation Continues
    (pp. 183-210)
    Janis S. Bohan and Glenda M. Russell

    Our goal in the preceding chapters has been to engage in conversations with scholars in the field to explore the meanings and implications of essentialist and constructionist perspectives on sexual orientation. Ideally, these conversations would contain more give-and-take, a continuation and expansion and revision of the themes each chapter has raised, followed by reciprocal comments from others in the conversation. While space limitations preclude such ongoing interaction here, we hope in this afterword to suggest some elements of how the discussion might continue from here.

    In this closing chapter, we raise additional issues—and variations on previously identified themes—to...

  16. References
    (pp. 211-228)
  17. Index
    (pp. 229-234)