A CRITIQUE OF BEM’S E.B.E THEORY

by Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D.


Bem's E.B.E. theory relies on two ideas characteristic of gay culture: that gender differences are arbitrary and culturally determined, and that society needs to relax its sexual boundaries.

In "Exotic Becomes Erotic: A Developmental Theory of Sexual Orientation," (Psychological Review 1996, Vol. 103, #2, pp. 320-335) and his upcoming book, Daryl Bem explains the formation of male homosexuality in a six-step sequence of events called E.B.E. theory.

A former philosophy teacher of mine had a saying: "For every complex question there is a simple answer--and it's usually wrong."

E.B.E. theory attempts to respond to a complex question with just this sort of simple answer. With its mechanistic emphasis on autonomic arousal, one wonders why the paper was not published instead in the Journal of Neuroanatomy. Bem's theory explicitly omits any intrapsychic and interpersonal explanations for homosexuality, implying that normal psychosexual development is no more complex or meaningful than stimulus-response mechanism.

He begins with (a) "biological variables," which predetermine (b) "childhood temperament," resulting in (c) "gender-inappropriate behavior," which causes the boy to (d) "feel different from same-sex peers," which creates within the boy (e) "non-specific autonomic arousal" toward other boys, which is eventually experienced as (f) "erotic/romantic attractions," as follows:

A

Biological Variables (e.g., genes, prenatal hormones)

B

Childhood Temperaments (e.g., aggression, activity level)

C

Sex-Typical/Atypical Activity & Playmate Preferences (Gender Conformity/Nonconformity)

D

Feeling Different from Opposite/Same-Sex Peers (dissimiliar, unfamiliar, exotic)

E

Nonspecific Autonomic Arousal to Opposite/Same-Sex Peers

F

Erotic/Romantic Attraction to Opposite/Same-Sex Persons (Sexual Orientation)


Thus Bem traces adult sexual orientation to childhood preferences for sex-typical or sex-atypical activities and friendships. Typical children--those who conform to the norm for their gender--grow up feeling different from the opposite sex; thus they will be attracted to the opposite sex in adulthood. On the contrary, children who grow up feeling different from their own sex in childhood will typically grow up homosexual. He cites one study in which 75% of the non-gender-conforming boys grew up to be homosexual or bisexual.

Dr. John Money's well-known book, The Sissy Boy Syndrome, describes a similar scenario, as does Zucker and Bradley's Gender Identity Disorder and Psychosexual Problems in Children and Adolescents, reviewed in the August 1996 NARTH Bulletin.

The heart of his theory, as Bem explains, is "the proposition that individuals become erotically or romantically attracted to those who were dissimilar or unfamiliar to them in childhood." Thus he sees homosexuality as nothing more or less than a biological predisposition to gender nonconformity, which leads to heightened physiological arousal in response to the perceived strangeness of the opposite sex.

I have counseled over 400 men in my work as a clinician specializing in reparative therapy of homosexuality, and I can attest that Bem's description of the childhood sequence of events is correct-- at least superficially. His theory agrees with reparative therapy's primary principle: that we are erotically attracted to what we are not identified with. Indeed, many homosexually-oriented men report the feeling of not having been "one of the boys," and having been "on the outside looking in" at male activities throughout childhood and adolescence. Most of my clients were all too familiar with their mothers, but could never understand their fathers. Even when they grew to adulthood, men remained mysteries.

But the problem is that Bem is attempting to explain the whole with a part of the whole. This is called reductionism, or as we see in E.B.E. theory, deconstructionism. Bem essentially reduces developmental psychology to a social deconstructionist view of sex, in which the ideas of heterosexuality as normal, and identification with one's own sex as normal, are deemed to be mere social constructs.

The Missing "How"

Essentially, Bem shifts the entire discourse away from established principles of psychosexual development onto the neurological mechanism of "excitability." Citing the "well-documented observation that novelty and unfamiliarity heighten arousal," he assumes autonomic arousal obliterates all other considerations.

He gives no consideration to the boy's authentic needs for acceptance, affection and approval from members of the same sex, particularly his father and male peers, and his genuine need to experience himself as a boy-like-other-boys. Nowhere is there acknowledgment of the boy's natural emotional need for attachment and identification. For Bem, even love is reduced to autonomic arousal.

He avoids the expansive vista of family systems research, clinical case histories, self-report from homosexuals transitioning to heterosexuality, and an understanding of the psychotherapeutic change process. He says nothing of the well-established psychodynamic understanding of the process of gender identification, especially through relationship with the same-sex parent (Bieber, 1962; Hatterer, 1970; Kronemeyer, 1970; Mayerson and Lief, 1965); ignores family systems and object-relations theory, and psychoanalytic/oedipal theory (Socarides, 1968); along with the well-documented, poor father-son relationship for the male homosexual (Bieber 1962). He makes no reference to van den Aardweg's (1985, 1986) deeper understanding of the meaning of same-sex peer relationships. Thus his model dismisses both subjective experience and personal meaning.

With this dismissal, he fails to understand the developmental significance of critical moments in the life of the prehomosexual boy. One such moment was described to me by a 35-year-old client:

"I recall the exact moment I knew I was gay. I was twelve years old and we were taking a shortcut to class. We were walking across the gym and through the locker room, and an older guy was coming out of the shower. He was wet and naked and I thought, Wow!"

I asked the client to again tell me exactly what his experience was. He became very pensive. Then he answered,

"The feeling was, 'Wow, I wish I was him'."

As a little boy, this client had been asthmatic and physically frail. Clearly, the "older guy" coming out of the shower was his idealized self--all that he wasn't, and wished he could be.

Unmet normal developmental needs predispose the boy to the "Wow!" experience, and later, through influences from an increasingly gay-affirming culture, these feelings are interpreted as "Therefore I must be gay." This shift occurs during the critical erotic transitional phase, when the same-sex attachment needs of the child change into erotic attraction, and identificatory strivings rooted in same-sex emotional deficit begin to feel sexual. When the client recognizes that these attractions actually represent same-sex identification needs, then the healing of homosexuality begins.

Bem says he omits consideration of the deeper developmental meaning of experience because the literature fails to establish a "coherent, experienced-based developmental theory of sexual orientation." The problem, he says, is in psychology's past attempts to "empirically measure experience." (He will make up for this lack, he says, by finding a measure for a neurological concomitant of experience.)

On a Shaky Foundation: Bell and Weinberg

Bem builds his model almost exclusively on Bell, Weinberg amd Hammersmith's Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women (1981), a study which claims to "once and for all" debunk the developmental and family factors linked to homosexuality. This study analyzes recollections of family experiences through a statistical procedure called path analysis. Originally designed for use by the hard sciences, path analysis has been called inappropriate for use in the social sciences (Brandstadter and Bernitzke, 1976).

Many writers have criticized the conclusions drawn by the Bell study (Gagnon, 1981, Reiss, 1982, DeLamater). In a review of the Bell study in Contemporary Sociology, Ira Reiss comments:

"It is hard to see how this study can 'once and for all' settle our thinking...the tendency to underplay the importance of the predictor variables, and thereby imply strong rejection of previous theories, is pervasive...there is a serious lack of theoretical development in handling the data...Overall, the book does not impress one as a development of theoretical insights into sexual preferences, but rather as an attempt to play down aspects of psychoanalytic and other, older views [emphasis added]."

Why did Bell, et al. so resoundingly dismiss the family data? Some sources see a desire to interpret the data for gay-advocacy purposes. In Gender Identity Disorder and Psychological Problems in Children and Adolescents, Zucker (1995) states:

"... we should note that the Bell, et al. study will ultimately have to be understood in a broader context--that of the sexual politics of our time." (p. 240) "... [T]heir interpretation of their data was clearly colored by political correctness...If, in fact aspects of their family interaction and relationship data showed a departure from an ideal of optimal functioning in homosexual men, Bell, et al. (1981) ... [tended] ... to minimize the observed significant effects.

"...Influenced by the zeitgeist ... [they] chose to interpret their data as showing that the glass was half empty, not half full" (p. 241).

Love as Fetish

Bem then reaches back for further supportive evidence of his E.B.E. theory to an 1887 reference explaining that "strong and vivid emotion" becomes associated with feelings of "love." He quotes a literary piece in which a man, trying to woo a woman, did so by killing her pet pigeons. Her intense arousal at the sight of the suffering pigeons contributed to her falling in love with her suitor.

He reaches back further yet to a first-century Roman handbook called "The Art of Love." In this handbook, Ovid advises any man who is interested in sexual seduction to take the woman to a gladiatorial tournament, where she would be more easily aroused with passion.

According to this "excitability" model, both homosexuality and heterosexuality are reduced to the psychology of the fetish. Fear, anger, hatred, sadism, masochism, romantic passion, enduring love--for Bem, all spring from the same source in mechanism.

The fetishes, in fact, he sees not as disorders, but as reflections of arbitrary cultural prejudices. Physical attributes not regarded by a culture as beautiful (feet, for example), when eroticized by individuals within that culture, cause that person to be (in Bem's view) unfairly burdened by being called fetishists. It seems to him that heterosexual men from our culture who love women's breasts should themselves be considered to have a fetish. But the problem with this deconstructionist view is that, as any clinician knows, the compelling drive and compulsive quality of the paraphilia is not the same as the heterosexual man's normal attraction to female anatomy. Further, he reduces all normal sexual attraction to the level of a fetish. Perhaps for Bem, love itself is mere fetish.

While conceding that he doesn't yet understand the specifics of precisely how exotic becomes erotic, he is quite satisfied to conclude:

"[I]t is sufficient to know that autonomic arousal, regardless of its source or affective tone, can subsequently be experienced cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically as erotic/romantic attraction. At that point, it is erotic/romantic attraction." (p. 326)

E.B.E. theory is an attempt to contribute to a "different but equal" developmental model of sexual orientation, treating homosexuality and heterosexuality as the same phenomenon.

To accommodate his simplistic neurological model of the person, Bem must follow with a simplistic understanding of culture. He deems culture largely responsible for sexual object-choice, due to its "social constrictions of gender," and repeatedly bemoans our "gender-polarizing culture"--but offers no non-gender-polarizing culture in contrast.

From the point of view of the gay community, Bem's model makes an important contribution in that it describes a model of homosexual development which is non-pathological. (After thirty years of marriage and two children, he recently "came out" as gay.) "Indeed," he says, "the gay community should be happy with E.B.E. theory because it views heterosexuality as no more biologically natural than homosexuality."{1}

But by viewing homosexuality as essentially the same phenomenon as homosexuality, and by putting sexual orientation and romantic love on a par with fetishes, he disregards the larger significance of human relationships. Refusing to grant that heterosexuality is the mature outcome of psychosexual development, he contradicts a simple--and I believe accurate--working definition of the term "normal": "that which functions according to its design.{2}

In support of this philosophy, he quotes his (apparently former) wife Sandra as she rather obscurely describes her apparent pansexuality:

"I am not now--and never have been--a 'heterosexual,' but neither have I been a 'lesbian' or a 'bisexual' .... The sex-of-partner dimension implicit in the three categories ... seems irrelevant to my own particular pattern of erotic attraction and sexual experiences.

"Although some of the (very few) individuals to whom I have been attracted ... have been men and some have been women, what those individuals have in common has nothing to do with either their biological sex, or mine--from which I conclude, not that I am attracted to both sexes, but that my sexuality is organized around dimensions other than sex." (p.vii)

A Society Where Everyone Could Be Everyone Else's Lover

Elaborating on his wife's personal revelation, Daryl Bem proceeds to define his own utopian society. He describes a world often championed by gay theorists--one where everyone would potentially be everyone else's lover, and gender would be insignificant. He envisions a...

"non-gender-polarizing culture that [does] not systematically estrange its children from either opposite sex, or same sex peers. Such children would not grow up to be asexual; rather, their erotic and romantic preferences would simply crystallize around a more diverse and idiosyncratic variety of attributes. Gentlemen might still prefer blondes, but some of those gentlemen (and some ladies) would prefer blondes of any sex. In the final deconstruction, then, EBE theory reduces to but one 'essential' principle: Exotic becomes erotic" (p. 332).

In the end, Bem is so taken by his own radical deconstructionist theory that he sees it as the only "given" in the development of sexual orientation. Nothing else is normal and necessary for healthy psychosexual development. Delighted by the elegance of his model, he concludes:

"That's it. Everything else is cultural overlay, including the concept of sexual orientation itself." (p. 331)

Endnotes

{1}Bem, D. Cornell Chronicle, August 29, 1996, p. 8.

{2}King, C. (1945). "The meaning of normal," Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 18, 493-501.

Bibliography

Bell, A., Weinberg, M., Hammersmith, S., (1981). Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, IL.

Bieber, I. et al. (1962). Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals. New York: Basic Books.

Brandtstadter, J. and Bernitzke, F., "The Technique of Path-Analysis: A Contribution to the Problem of Experimental Construction of Causal Models." Psychologische-Beitrage, 1976, Vol. 18(1), pp. 12-34.

DeLamater, John, "Origins of Sexual Preference," Book Review in Science, Vol. 215, March 5, 1982, pp. 1229-1230.

Gagnon, John H., "Searching for the Childhood of Eros," New York Times Book Review, Vol. 86, Dec. 13, 1981, p. 10, 37.

Hatterer, L. (1970). Changing Homosexuality in the Male. New York: McGraw Hill Book Co.

Kronemeyer, R. (1980). Overcoming Homosexuality. New York: MacMillan.

Mayerson, P. and Lief, H. (1965). Psychotherapy of homosexuals: A follow-up study. In Marmor J. (Ed.), Sexual Inversion: The Multiple Roots of Homosexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Reiss, Ira L., "Sex and Gender: Book Review," Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 4, July 1982, pp. 455-456.

Socarides, C.W. (1968). The Overt Homosexual. New York: Grune and Stratton.

van den Aardweg, G. (1985). Homosexuality and Hope: A Psychologist Talks about Treatment and Change. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books.

---------------------(1986). On the Origins and Treatment of Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Reinterpretation. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Zucker, K. J., Bradley, S. J. (1995). Gender Identity Disorder and Psychological Problems in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.