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Debunking Freud Part II- The Origins of Male Homosexuality

August 31, 2010 2 comments

This article is one of the many articles that will focus on exposing some of the fallacies in Freud’s theoretical make-up. Other posts in this series can be found through the following links:

1. Debunking Freud Part I- Unconscious Homosexuality

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Freud and da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmund Freud. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Bettmann/Corbis

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Freud’s personal views on homosexuality, if compared to what his contemporaries believed, were liberal. According to a response letter he send to a mother who was worried about her son’s homosexual behavior,  he thought that homosexuality was neither a vice nor a degradation, but something most normal people experience:

Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them. (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime – and a cruelty, too.

(I am not a graphologist, but after comparing this letter to a page of a letter sent to Fliess on September 21, 1897, which I found in Peter Gay’s biography about Freud, the handwriting seems authentic. )

Although Freud was a maverick in theorizing, how did he come to accept homosexuality as a natural part of our sexual development? From what I gather, everything started with the man who made this painting:

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa

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In 1910, after about a year from his trip to the US, Freud decided to write something on Leonardo da Vinci. The outcome of that decision was a novelette whose purpose was to expose a psychoanalytic study on Leonardo. Freud acknowledged that this endeavor was very tentative and his findings were based on a scarcity of biographical materials. Nevertheless, he established the framework of his book on a rumination about childhood that Leonardo left in one of his notebooks.  Freud took that childhood contemplation and elaborated an artistic interpretation from it. First, here is Leo’s legacy to Freud:

It seems…that I was destined to occupy myself so thoroughly with a vulture, for it comes to my mind as a very early memory that, as I was in my cradle, a vulture came down to me, opened my mouth with its tails, and stuck me many times with its tail against my lips.

Freud, who was an erudite  in religion and history, knew that the symbol for vulture was a hieroglyph for mother in ancient Egypt. Since Leonardo was an illegitimate child, Freud called him, romantically, the “vulture child.” Later on, Freud speculated that Leonardo had a very affectionate mother, and that passionate maternal love, coupled with the experience of not having a father, had an important influence on is early development. However, because of the over-protective and excessive love from her mother, Leonardo was subjected to too much femininity, which set the stage for his homosexuality. But that explained only the inception process of homosexuality. Full blown homosexual behavior comes later on in life, after the child finally becomes an adult and tends to repress his love for his mother and inadvertently identifies with her. Additionally, another important factor that plays a role in becoming a homosexual is anal eroticism. Anal eroticism comes from a fixation during the anal stage of psychosexual development.

This theory about the origins of homosexuality seems far-fetched. It was based on a vague account that Leonardo left behind, to which Freud found mainly an artistic interpretation. The book is replete with lyricism, so its appeal is understandable. Nevertheless, the conjectures Freud made are not entirely scientific.

The Evidence

In order to give some validity to Freud’s claims, we need to find if there is any evidence that support the fact that males from the homosexual community had  (1)  careless or missing fathers, (2) overly affective mothers,  (3)  strong maternal identification, and (4) some characteristics that relate to anal fixation.

1&2. Is there a presence of an intimate relationship with the mother and lack of intimacy with a father in a male homosexual?

A summary of the studies pertaining to this question has been included in a book by Fisher and Greenberg. Most of the studies tried to find a correlation between homosexuality and early childhood experiences by using questionnaires.  Braaten and Darling (1965) did a study on thirty four homosexual and control samples of college students by using questionnaires and MMPI. Their conclusions support Freud’s assertions: the mothers of homosexuals had an intimate relationship with their sons, while fathers were mainly detached and showed little attention to them.

Nevertheless, some studies (Terman & Miles, 1936; Jonas, 1944; O’Connor, 1964) found that the relationship between the fathers of homosexuals and their sons often contained a great deal of hostility, even brutality, which could at least hint us that there might be another explanation why homosexual men have such strenuous relationships with their fathers (Will you love the hand that hits you?). Additionally, most of the studies described by Fisher and Greenberg have used convenience samples from psychiatric yards, or samples that had an interest in establishing Freud’s validity (in Bieber et al. (1962) surveys were delivered to psychoanalysts who were asked questions about a large sample of homosexual men that they have treated), which significantly diminishes their external validity. Also, none of the studies examined the cultural component of homosexuality. Maybe fathers detested or ignored their homosexual sons because society does not approve homosexual tendencies and expects them to react coldly or brutally to it? This would mean that parents’ behavior could be the result of their child’s homosexuality and not, as Freud suspected, the other way around. Still, considering that these are correlational studies, no type of causal link can be inferred about the relationship between homosexuals and their parents.

3. Does the male homosexual child identify with the mother?

Objective evidence in these respects is almost nonexistent. I found only one study by Chang and Block (1960) that shows identification with the mother among male homosexuals. In the study, Chang and Block gave to twenty male homosexuals and twenty controls a list of adjectives and asked them to describe which of them could be attached to the following concepts: ideal self, mother, father, and self. They found that homosexuals gave themselves similar adjectives they gave to mothers.  A series of summaries of other studies in Fisher and Greenberg, while focusing on the identification question, looked at the masculinity-femininity dimension. (That is why Braaten and Darling (1965) have employed MMPI, because it looks on the aspect of femininity-masculinity.)  They found that homosexual men are more feminine than heterosexual men. Even so, there is not enough evidence to substantiate that the score on masculinity-dimension is also a measure of identification.

4. Are homosexual men anally fixated?

There is no evidence of anal fixation or anal eroticism.

Conclusions

So, most male homosexuals do have hostile relationships with their fathers and intimate relationships with their mothers. But this correlation tells us nothing about the origins of homosexuality. The hostile or indifferent attitude from fathers could well be the result of the child’s homosexuality. Evidence showing identification with the mother and anal fixation is scarce and rarely corroborates Freud’s theory.

Can you guess who is the man with the cigar?

References

Braaten, L. J., & Darling, C. D. (1965). “Overt and covert homosexual problems among male college students.” Genetic Psychology Monographs, 269-330.

Chang, J. & Block, J. (1960). “A study of identification in male homosexuals.” Journal of Consulting Psychology, 24.  doi: 10.1037/h0046046
Freud (1964). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. New York: Norton.

Jonas, C. H., (1944). “An objective approach to the personality and environment in homosexuality.” Psychiatric Quarterly, 18.

O’Connor, P. J., (1967). “Aetiological factors in homosexuality as seen in Royal Air Force psychiatric practice.” British Journal of Psychiatry, 16 .

Terman, L. M., & Miles, C. (1962). Sex and personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Debunking Freud Part 1- Unconscious Homosexuality

August 28, 2010 2 comments

This article is one of the many articles that will focus on exposing some of the fallacies in Freud’s theoretical make-up. I shall try as much as possible not to bring any ad hominem attacks against Freud and delineate the difference between his opinion as part of a theory  and his opinion as part of his personal belief system, even though there is considerable overlap between the two:)

Unconcious Homosexuality

Martin, although a relatively affluent person who has had a great deal of accomplishments in his life, felt that his existence was not worth all the material belongings he bought over the years, and that his relationships with other people, which he considered less fulfilling because they were based on collegiality and not on affinity, brought him no pleasure. In order to ease this gradual downturn in his life, Martin decided to seek the help of a psychoanalyst.

Over the course of several weeks Martin shared his life story with his therapist. Eventually the relationship between him and the therapist progressed to the level where Martin had absolutely no restraints in telling and retelling some of the worries that continuously vexed him.  After a month or two of treatment, when the sufferer-healer relationship was well established,  the psychoanalyst decided to probe Martin about his sexual behavior. Martin, lying on the soft, therapeutic couch, who now fully trusted the bespectacled person behind him, told everything he knew, as candidly as one possibly could do:

“I had a great deal of women in my life. Some of them have kindled some interest in me, but for the most part the attraction was sexual. There was a time, when I was in my 20s, that I wouldn’t spend one night without a woman in bed. Quite frankly, I felt a lot of pleasure from these encounters, and did not have second-thoughts about experimenting when it comes to sex. Even now I am sexually very healthy.”

While Martin tells his account, the session is suddenly interrupted by the practitioner’s secretary. Apparently, against all conventions, the healer has to leave the room to attend to some important matter.  Martin, bored, notices that the therapist left his notes behind. Unable to restrain his curiosity, he  picks up the notebook filled with scribbles and leafs to the last page. He reads:

Possibility of unconscious homosexuality.

After the therapist comes back, Martin indignantly throws the notebook in his face. “I am not gay!”…. While he slams the door, the psychoanalyst picks up the notebook and writes this final note:

unconscious homosexuality in the patient confirmed.

The account above, although fictional, reveals through the psychoanalyst’s behavior Freud’s reaction towards repressing homosexual drives. According to Freud, when a patient experiences a very intense heterosexual life,  it can be argued that this intensity helps repress unconscious homosexuality.  Moreover, if you as an individual do not experience even a slight attraction to other persons of the same-sex, then this complete absence of attraction is another proof that you are unconsciously repressing your homosexuality. The problem with this explanation is that it is unfalsifiable. If Martin would argue with his therapist and continue to defend his heterosexuality, then the rejoinder from Freud would be that Martin is rationalizing and is further repressing his homosexual drives. So, Martin is left with the choice of denying his sexual attraction to other men and thus proving that the therapist is right or with accepting his homosexuality and again validating Freud’s claims. No win-win game here.

Additionally, Freud believed that this unconscious homosexuality comes to surface in subtle ways. For example, if a man praises another man’s suit, then this could be evidence of unconscious homosexuality. Also, if a man likes to spend his time in the company of other men in a non-sexual way, then we have more evidence of repressed homosexual penchants. On this theoretical framework, Freud at one point considered that monks are particularly prone to unconscious homosexuality.

Gay Reichs

In the next post we will review Freud’s personal views about homosexuality and the evidence related to the theoretical view that support/falsify Freud’s claims about the origins of homosexuality.

References

Freud, S. (1962). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Vol 3. J. Strachey, (Ed.).  London: Hogarth.

______ (1964). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. New York: Norton.

Fromm, E. (1980) Greatness and limitations of Freud’s thought. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. {The book was originally published in Germany under the title Sigmund Freud Psychoanalyse–Grosse und Grezen}

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