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Conversations About Psychology and Sexual OrientationReview - Conversations About Psychology and Sexual Orientation
by Janis S. Bohan and Glenda M. Russell with Vivienne Cass, Douglas C. Heldeman, Suzanne Iasenza, Fritz Klein, Allen M. Omoto, and Leonore Tiefer
New York University Press, 1999
Review by Suzanne M. Johnson, Ph.D.
Feb 14th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 7)

Conversations About Psychology and Sexual Orientation is a relatively brief book considering the breadth of the subject matter. What is the contribution of psychology to the study and understanding of sexual orientation? What are the assumptions held within psychology when studying sexual orientation and treating individuals clinically who present conflict, confusion, or questions about their sexual identity? What is psychology's role in setting or affecting public policy regarding legislation effecting gay, lesbian, and bi-sexually identified people? These are the questions addressed.

Using what can be at times a rather cumbersome theoretical starting point and basis for discussion throughout the book, Bohan and Russell set out to compare and contrast the traditional essentialist position held within psychology when examining sexual orientation (and for that matter any dimension of the human experience) and the more contemporary position of social constructionism. Elaborate and sometimes tedious detail is given to the details of each position. In essence, essentialism is seen as ultimately a poor theoretical position for examining human experience. It is seen as oversimplifying and overgeneralizing what is likely to be a far more complicated reality. Can sexual orientation be dichotomized or trichotomized using convenient labels of heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual and accurately represent the myriad of human sexual experience? It is the position of this book that the answer is an emphatic no. Social constructionism is seen as the far more desirable position from which to operate. Viewing human experience on a continuum and a case by case or individual basis is presented as the more strategic and more accurate strategy.

I am left with considerable ambivalence regarding the ultimate usefulness of the social constructionist perspective despite the thorough treatment by the authors of the position and frequent interesting comparisons to essentialism. However, the one area where the social constructionist perspective is convincingly clear and preferred is in the section regarding clinical practice. The several chapters directed to clinical practice are especially poignant in directing clinicians to examine their own assumptions regarding sexual orientation. Is the clinician’s assumption that there is one true orientation that a person must find, embrace and learn to accept? If so, holding this essentialist perspective will guide the clinical process leading clients to examine their lives to uncover their true and fixed sexual identity. If, however, the clinician works from a social constructionist perspective the process will move in quite a different way. Sexual identity or orientation is seen as something that is malleable, changeable, and fluid. It is possible that at different points in one's life one could view oneself in divergent ways regarding sexual orientation or perhaps even avoid assigning labels all together. The chapters exploring clinical practice are, by far, the most practical of the book. All clinicians who have clients with issues regarding their sexual identities would benefit from this read.

Having said that, I still hold an overall ambivalence toward the social constructionist perspective as presented in this book. This is particularly true of the two sections of the book concerning the social constructionist implication for research and public policy. My ambivalence is enhanced by the insightful observation made by Allen M. Omoto, in his chapter on lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues in public policy, regarding the role of critically examining essentialism and social constructionism:

intellectual discussion about essentialist and constructionist perspective on homosexuality may be simply that - intellectual discussions to be hashed out about among experts with relatively few implications for policy development, except for what may be politically convenient or expedient at a given time. There is a gap, I think, between what researchers, theorists, and even practitioners view as important or critical issues in the development of understanding sexual orientation and the concern of lobbyists, activists, and politicians who work for LGB rights. (p. 173). The low point of Conversations About Psychology and Sexual Orientation occurs in chapter 9 exploring psychological research implications for public policy written by Bohan and Russell. The content of their discussion is certainly full of details. The authors discuss and endorse the mainstream of research and scientific inquiry, which has historically and predominantly criticized an essentialist position as being ultimately detrimental to the causes of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. However, this is to misrepresent and misunderstand the usefulness of the essentialist perspective within research and also to misrepresent what the process of scientific inquiry. Their view is usefully countered by another comment by Omoto: On logical and scientific grounds, seeking to understand the causes of a phenomenon does not explicitly or even implicitly suggest anything about the value or meaning of the phenomenon. Hence seeking to understand the causes of sexuality, and homosexuality in particular, need not imply that certain practices or 'orientations' are problematic or inferior, or otherwise deviant. (p.166). Social constructionism is a useful tool like any other - including essentialism. To hold exclusively to either one or some other viewpoint is narrow and ultimately incomplete.

From a researcher's point of view one is left with a familiar and frustrating phenomenon within the human experience that need not have terms like social constructionism and essentialism tied to them. The phenomenon is the struggle to understand human experiences and to find ways to convey that understanding. One could use a social constructionist perspective and render primarily qualitative data; data that would most accurately describe that individual's experience but with little ability to generalize the results or observation to others. One could alternatively use an essentialist viewpoint and render general, assumed fixed, descriptive categories of lesbian, gay, and bisexual, allowing individuals to find where they most accurately fit, understanding that these individuals will never completely be satisfied with how the general descriptions depict people of that type as they are, after all, individuals.

Suffice it say that social constructionism undoubtedly renders the most accurate and real description of an individual's experiences within their understanding of their sexual orientation. Social constructionism, however, lacks a respected and valid position today within the scientific world of psychological research and the broader cultural understanding of sexual orientation, which fuels this very research. Herein lies the ultimate ambivalence toward social constructionism as being seen as a tool which could potentially replace and change the dimensions of research on human sexuality. It will not occur and should not occur exclusively. Both perspectives have value and should be taken into account. As Omoto states: "Shifting from an essentialist to a constructionist perspective may have the salutatory effect of inviting greater discussion of issues within the LGB community, but at the same time it may open up greater possibilities for disagreement from LGB detractors and supporters." (p. 169).

In sum, Conversations About Psychology and Sexual Orientation, leaves a mixed impression. For the clinician with clients presenting issues regarding their sexual orientation, this book will be extremely useful. For researchers within psychology and public policy workers this book may well be seen as a frequently frustrating academic exercise that leaves little to work from and little new information about sexual orientation that has not already been a point of discussion or debate. If anything is clear from reading this book, it is the need for further and considerable research from all perspectives to increase our understanding of sexual orientation and the fixed and/or fluid nature of that aspect of self, keeping the understanding that, like any other aspect of human experience, complete understanding and explanation will never be achieved.
 
 

Suzanne M. Johnson, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Psychology at Dowling College on Long Island, New York. She is currently completing a book with Elizabeth O'Connor, Ph.D. entitled Parenting Guide for Lesbian Mothers for Guilford Publishing. Dr. Johnson and Dr. O'Connor are also conducting the largest national study, to date, of gay and lesbian headed families to be published by New York University Press in 2001 entitled The Gay Baby Boom: A Psychological Perspective.   Useful link explaining some of the terms in this review: The Human Sexuality Web: Sexual Identity, by Ken Jett

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