The Development of Sexual Orientation (page 2)
The psychological and social processes inherent in the formation of a same-sex sexual orientation have captivated researchers for decades. The period from 1970 through 1990 witnessed a proliferation of stage models that depicted the developmental pathways to the establishment of a healthy gay or lesbian identity. Cass (1979, 1984), Coleman (1982), and Troiden (1979), among others, described these developmental processes similarly: all proposed a sequence of events beginning with awareness of same-sex attraction, followed by a period of sexual experimentation and confusion. Eventually, individuals emerge from this turmoil with an internal sense of themselves as gay or lesbian. Usually, this involves labeling oneself as gay or lesbian, followed by self-disclosure to others. The final developmental milestone in this process is the achievement of a sense of pride. Thus, over time, sexual orientation shifts from being the dominant aspect of one’s identity to one component in a constellation of aspects that make up one’s identity.
Research on bisexual identity development has been slower in coming, perhaps because of the tenacity of negative stereotypes and beliefs about bisexuality. Recent models by Brown (2002) and Bradford (2004) propose that bisexual persons experience a period of initial confusion and anxiety, followed by further exploration, an active search for support from others, and eventual self-acceptance, pride, and activism (Potoczniak, 2007).
Alternative Developmental Models
Although stage models like those proposed by Cass and Coleman have been widely cited in the literature, they have also been criticized on several grounds (Diamond, 2006; Savin-Williams, 2005). Many researchers believe that conventional stage theories are too simplistic to account for the complex nature of sexuality and sexual identity and that they do not adequately reflect the extent to which sexual attractions, behaviors, and identities fluctuate throughout adolescent and adult development. Psychologists Diamond and Savin-Williams are among the critics of same-sex identity stage theories. Each espouses a more social constructionist view of sexual orientation that takes into account the impact of social forces in the making of identities. Savin-Williams (2005) argued that “unless a sexual identity model explicitly rejects universalism and includes contextual, cultural, and historic considerations it is doomed as an obsolete relic of a time when development was perceived as predetermined and universal” (p. 81). Savin-Williams (2001, 2005) proposed an alternative construct to the developmental stage models to better capture the process of sexual orientation termed differential developmental trajectories.
Savin-Williams cited examples in which people’s real-life experiences don’t seem to “fit” the theoretical models that have been proposed. For example, Dube’s (2000) research suggested that some men identify themselves as gay or bisexual without ever having had same-sex sexual experiences. Dube distinguished between gay and bisexual men who label themselves after having sexual experiences with other men (sex-centered) and those who identify themselves before having sexual contact with other men (identity-centered). Schindhelm and Hospers (2004) found confirmatory evidence of this in their sample of gay men.
Diamond (2006, 2008) has conducted longitudinal studies of young sexual minority women over the period of a decade. She found evidence of variation and fluidity in the self-reports of women about their sexuality and identities. In her 10-year follow-up in 2008, Diamond found that more women embraced a “bisexual” label or “no label” over time than claimed a “lesbian” label. As a result of her research findings, Diamond (2006, 2008) has provocatively argued against some of the stereotypes, many of which have been embedded in the research on sexual orientation:
- The nature of sexual attraction is dichotomous, exclusively oriented to either the same or the opposite sex.
- People question their sexual orientation only once during what could be tantamount to a life “crisis.”
- Bisexuality is just a phase on the way to becoming exclusively same-sex oriented.
- Embracing a “label” is necessary in order to achieve a healthy outcome.
In conclusion, Diamond (2006) recommended overhauling our views on sexuality and identity and eliminating the use of categories to describe sexual identities. She recommended that researchers explore “how specific personal-context interactions shape diverse manifestations of same-sex sexuality over time” (p. 87).
Gender Nonconformity and the Development of Sexual Orientation
Gender variance and homosexuality are assumed to be the same thing. As a matter of fact, gender nonconformity is so often associated with pre-homosexuality in children that many anxious parents seek psychiatric treatment for their children. D’Augelli, Grossman, Salter et al. (2005) note that, “gender-atypical behavior provokes parents’ concern that the youth might be lesbian or gay, and some parents react with efforts to diminish or suppress these behaviors to thwart homosexuality, especially for males” (p. 658). According to Haldeman (2000), parents are mistakenly convinced that the “additional masculinization of their boys or the increased feminization of their girls will ward off any latent or obvious tendencies toward same-sex erotic attraction” (p. 197).
In actuality, research supports the perception that sexual minority youth often adopt gender-nonconforming behaviors. Retrospective studies of adults report that large percentages of sexual minority adults had childhood histories of gender-atypical interests and behaviors. In Green’s (1987) longitudinal research, as many as two-thirds of gender- nonconforming male children ultimately grow up to identify themselves as gay or bisexual in adulthood. Cross-sectional studies also report that sexual minority adult males recall more cross-gendered behaviors, such as dressing as girls, than do heterosexual males (Bailey & Zucker, 1995; Savin-Williams, 1998). One recent study—by Rieger, Linsenmeier, Gygax, and Bailey (2008)—addressed the issue of gender identification through the analysis of childhood home movies of both heterosexual and gay and lesbian participants. Raters who were unaware of the participants’ sexual orientations judged gay and lesbian participants’ behaviors in films as significantly more gender nonconforming than were those of nongay participants.
Gender nonconformity is a central concept in Bem’s (1996) theory of the origin of same-sex sexual orientation. In his theory, Exotic Becomes Erotic (EBE), he posited that gender identity precedes and helps determine sexual orientation. Bem’s assumption is not a novel idea. Developmental theorists have long been interested in the processes involved in gender identity. Many have hypothesized that gender identity emerges early in life and probably precedes the formation of sexual identity. Kohlberg (1966), for example, argued that an understanding of gender as a permanent aspect of one’s identity is acquired somewhere between three and five years of age. Conceptions of gender are thought to remain fairly stable thereafter.
According to Bem’s EBE theory, children’s temperaments predispose them to preferences for certain kinds of play activities. Children whose preferences entail same-sex activities and same-sex friends were termed by Bem as gender conforming and those whose interests were in opposite-sex activities and opposite-sex friends were said to be gender nonconforming. Bem theorized that the experience of physiologically based arousal typically ensues when human beings encounter the unfamiliar. Feelings of arousal occur when gender-nonconforming girls are in the presence of girls, with whom they spend little time. The same is true when gender-nonconforming boys are in the presence of the “other”—in this case, other boys. This arousal becomes equated with erotic attraction toward the same sex. While there are many competing theories of the origin of same-sex sexual orientation, this particular approach emphasizes the extent to which gender nonconformity exists among sexual minority youth.
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