Fathers and Male-Dominated Heterosexuality
Typically in this society one does not inquire about the "causes" of heterosexuality, because heterosexuality is assumed to be "normal" or "given." One asks instead about the cause of homosexuality. But many liberals concerned with human rights consider it reactionary to make inquiries into the causes of homosexuality because they feel it implies that homosexuality is a disease to be cured or a type of deviance to be prevented. This creates a situation in which it becomes impossible to subject either heterosexuality or homosexuality to investigation. The liberal view holds that homosexuals and heterosexuals do not differ much from each other and that sexual preference is a private matter. Discussion of the causes of homosexual preference, the liberal contends, simply serves to perpetu-
ate discrimination. Another facet of this position is that investigation of the causes of sexual preference, especially those guided by a psychoanalytic perspective, tend unfairly to blame parents for their children's "deviance" and thus cause misery not only among homosexuals themselves but among their parents. It is this sensibility that caused the National Institute of Mental Health Task Force on Homosexuality in 1972 to list questions of "etiology" as its lowest priority.
Although I sympathize with this general stance, I nevertheless believe that sexual preference is an important area to investigate both because of the scientific "need to know" and because such knowledge can inform a feminist analysis, since heterosexuality and homosexuality are connected with male dominance. I am primarily interested in parental relationships and sexual preference because they relate to my general project of showing the extent to which the nuclear family with father as head perpetuates male dominance. My concern is not to punish or change individuals' sexual orientation or to lay responsibility for either homosexuality or heterosexuality at the feet of parents but rather to consider the implications of the findings about parents for my hypothesis concerning the father's involvement and the mother's lack of involvement in the specifically sexual aspects of gender differentiation.
The largest, best-designed, and one of the least heterosexist investigations of how sexual preference develops in both genders was conducted in the early 1970s by Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith but was not published until 1981. The subjects consisted of 979 homosexual and 477 heterosexual men and women living in the San Francisco Bay Area. The homosexuals were recruited from diverse settings to insure their being more representative of gays in the general population than had been the case in previous studies. The only possible bias is that, because of the San Francisco location and the nature of the study itself, it is overweighted with activist, as opposed to closeted, homosexuals. If anything, this bias would probably work against finding support for any hypotheses concerning parental influences, because activist homosexuals have ordinarily been opposed to psychoanalytic speculations about parental involvements.
In fact the likelihood of disconfirming psychoanalytically based hypotheses concerning parental influences on sexual preference
was increased by the authors' policy concerning "knowledge." They asked all of their homosexual respondents whether they had read any books or articles or had attended lectures on the causes of homosexuality. They then tested each homosexual-heterosexual difference that was found to see if the difference could be accounted for by exposure to these theories. If the difference could be accounted for by exposure to "theories," the authors did not report the difference. When findings appeared that applied equally to homosexuals who had and had not been exposed to the literature on homosexuality, only the figures for the unexposed homosexuals were used. These were unusual and perhaps unprecedented precautions to rule out the impact of theories and previous research findings about the causes of homosexuality on the subjects' responses. But again, the effect of these precautions is to make associations with parental relationships all the more credible if they are found.
Much of the earlier research on sexual preference was based on percentage differences between homosexuals' and heterosexuals' answers to questions concerning parental influences, gender non-conformity, peer relations, first sexual experiences, and so forth. Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith went beyond this and used "path analysis" to develop a model that included fifteen variables associated with these and other factors arranged in a temporal sequence leading up to adult sexual preference. (In path analysis the temporal sequence is supplied by the investigator on the basis of logic. The sequence may be varied to some extent to see which way explains the most variance.) As a statistical technique, path analysis cannot tell one whether the temporal sequence is correct, but it can show whether the influence of a certain variable on adult sexual preference is direct or indirect. It can also show how much influence a particular variable would have if the influence of all the other variables were controlled. Path analysis provides a considerably more stringent test of influence than simply comparing homosexual-heterosexual differences on one variable at a time because the latter procedure cannot tell us whether the association is due to the action of another related variable or to the variable in question.
The results of the analysis indicate that "gender nonconformity in childhood," especially for boys, is the major influence on sexual preference, but even here the connection is far from overwhelm-
ing. Thus males who described themselves as being different from other boys as children, as not possessing stereotypical masculine traits or as not enjoying masculine games and activities, are more likely to become homosexuals. Gender nonconformity is somewhat more salient for males than for females, whereas family relationships are more salient for females than for males.
Joseph Harry, in a study largely focused on gay culture, also reports an association between gender nonconformity in childhood and adult homosexuality from a large survey of Chicago area gay and nongay males. In fact, a major thesis of Harry's book, Gay Children Grown Up, is that while gender-role preference is "neither necessary nor sufficient" to determine sexual orientation, it does make it "more likely than not" that the person who felt himself to be a gender nonconformist or "different" earlier will be gay later (pp. 12 and 15).
The finding of an empirical connection between gender role nonconformity and homosexuality in males may lead one to question the distinction I am trying to preserve between gender and sexual orientation. I do not claim the two are unrelated—certainly they have been thought to be related, especially in male thinking— only that they should be kept analytically or conceptually distinct. Whereas Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith tend to interpret this connection between gender nonconformity and homosexual preference as suggesting a biological basis for both, Harry suggests instead that a primitive gender identity is formed very early during the period of childhood amnesia, and therefore the presumably social interactional events that caused the identity (as opposed to biological causes) are inaccessible to consciousness and cannot be uncovered. Harrys findings suggest that male homosexuals are likely to be conscious of a preference for the female gender role between the ages of two and six. After this, many males consciously try to "defeminize" in order to conform more to male gender-typed standards. They do this, Harry says, under pressure from the male peer group and to avoid their fathers disapproval (p. 23).
Overall, the Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith study disconfirms far more than it confirms about background factors in homosexuality. The authors show that almost all the alleged causes of adult sexual orientation are either nonexistent or highly exaggerated. The two positive findings they do note, however, are the
aforementioned link between gender nonconformity and the development of homosexuality and that "poor relationships with fathers seemed more important than whatever relationships men and women may have had with their mothers." Thus while hypotheses concerning mothers tended to be disconfirmed, "poor father relations" were not. "The homosexual men's generally negative relationships with their fathers and the lesbians' experiences of their fathers as detached, hostile, rejecting, and frightening displayed a very modest but direct connection to their gender-role nonconformity and to sexual elements of their development as well" (pp. 189–90). These findings support my own conclusions concerning the greater salience of fathers with respect to sexual orientation, based on my canvass of earlier studies.
The most widely accepted psychoanalytic hypothesis guiding research about parental influences on male homosexuality has been that of a triangular system characterized by a close-binding (domineering-seductive) mother and a hostile or distant father. Within this triangular system, however, the mother relationship was generally considered to be the root cause. The importance of the mother was challenged in 1965 by Eva Bene, who, in a study of nonpatient heterosexuals and homosexuals using the Bene-Anthony Family Relations test, found that more than three times as many items showed significant differences in relation to the father than to the mother. According to Bene, "Far fewer homosexual than married men thought that their fathers had been cheerful, helpful, reliable, kind or understanding, while far more felt that their fathers had no time for them, had not loved them, and had made them feel unhappy. . . . Regarding the mother, the greatest difference between the two groups was that considerably more homosexual than married men thought that their mothers used to nag." Many other researchers using nonpatient samples have also attested to the greater importance of the father relationship for men.
Although the Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith study found that a larger percentage of homosexuals than heterosexuals are close to their mothers, this variable was the least important of those that were of enough significance to be entered into the path
model. Moreover, they found no evidence whatsoever for the "seductive mother" hypothesis, and only a small fraction of respondents said their mothers had acted like girlfriends or lovers with them. But their preliminary findings show that in a number of ways prehomosexual boys have less solidary relationships with their fathers than preheterosexual boys do. Rather than trying to isolate the various aspects of this negativity, the authors used a general measure—negative relationship with father—in the path analysis. These differences with respect to fathers contribute considerably more to the overall path analysis than do the differences with respect to mothers. Thus, the authors support the findings of Bene and others about the greater importance of the fathers. This negative relationship with father is somewhat positively correlated with homosexual arousal in childhood, childhood gender nonconformity, and feeling sexually different in childhood and is negatively correlated with identification with the father.
Because homosexual subjects reported having worse relationships with their fathers when they were boys than heterosexual subjects did, the authors are unable to establish what is cause and what is effect. The data are as amenable to the interpretation that poor father relationships dispose to homosexuality as to the view that the child's being different or feeling different in the first place makes it difficult for him to maintain a good relationship with his father (p. 190). For my purposes this is not as critical a question as it may seem. The influence is likely to go both ways. The key point for now is that the father-son relationship is more associated with sexual preference than is the mother-son relationship. The data are certainly consonant with the hypothesis that fathers are more concerned about their boys being "properly masculine" than mothers are and therefore respond more negatively to a son's gender nonconformity.
There is some evidence in Joseph Harry's work to support the possibility that gay males share more basic gender characteristics with straight males than with females. Many of Harry's male subjects who rejected "masculinity" were nevertheless aggressive and competitive (nonrelational?) in acting out their version of femaleness, which involved being glamorous and seductive. He called this response "actorization." Another group of gay males, more akin to transsexuals, were nurturant and domestic. Both groups had
rather stereotyped views of what women were like. It seems to me that there was still something very male and nonrelational about the femaleness of these gay males—perhaps especially among those who were actorized. The quasi-transsexuals, by contrast, had come nearer to adopting a maternal mother identification. Even with transsexuals, however, the maternal identification is not complete. Stoller notes that when one gets to know transsexuals outside of research questionnaires and evaluation interviews, one does not find mothering impulses in the femaleness of these transsexuals or the capacity to remain in extended relationships with males. These observations suggest that the more basic aspect of gender difference is women's mothering and greater relational capacities.
Many theorists, especially the psychoanalytically oriented ones, attribute lesbianism to a reversed triangular system consisting of a hostile or distant mother and a close-binding father. Other analysts, most notably Charlotte Wolff, argue that the quality of the mother relationship alone is central in the development of lesbianism. Eva Bene and others, however, again find evidence for the greater significance of the father relationship in differentiating heterosexual women and lesbians.
Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith's research suggests the latter findings. Although they report that lesbians have more negative relationships with mothers than heterosexuals do, they conclude that the mother-daughter relationship is not basic to the development of sexual preference among females. Although they warn that the importance of the father relationship must not be overrated either, variables connected with the father are more prominent than variables connected with the mother. Variables labeled "detached, hostile father," "weak father," "mother-dominated father," "father uninvolved in family decisions" all appear in the path analysis as being somewhat connected with adult lesbianism. (Lesbians did not rate their mothers as personally more domineering than heterosexuals rated theirs, but lesbians were more likely to describe their fathers as being dominated by their mothers. This tendency reflects an unusually nondominant father rather than an unusually dominating mother.) The effects of the four variables mentioned,
however, are all indirect and sometimes contradictory. For example, there is a negative correlation between "detached, hostile father" and "mother-dominated father," but both are associated with childhood gender nonconformity and through that with homosexual arousal in childhood or adolescence.
A larger proportion of lesbians described themselves as being "masculine" when they were growing up than heterosexual women did. Feeling masculine, however, had no connection for these women with feeling dominant. In the path analysis no connection existed between the degree to which respondents said they had been dominant (or submissive) as children and their adult sexual preference. This lack of connection suggests that lesbians do not seek dominance any more than heterosexual women, although lesbians did describe themselves as being masculine in other ways. I am suggesting that lesbians may share with heterosexual women a more egalitarian orientation.
The researchers found that the majority of female respondents, whether homosexual or heterosexual, identified with their mothers and, more important, that lesbians (to the surprise of the researchers) identified less with their fathers than heterosexual women did. More homosexual women said that while they were growing up, they did not want to be like their fathers and felt very little or not at all similar to their fathers (p. 133). Although identification with the father turns out to have no importance for the development of sexual orientation among females, it is an important difference to note because it supports other evidence that more-"feminine" women may be more (not less) "father-identified" than other women.
Whereas the parents' relationship to each other had little or no effect on sexual preference in males, "negative relationship between the parents" is a factor, albeit not a very strong one in female sexual orientation. Although a majority of both homosexuals and heterosexuals had described their parents' relationship "quite positively," more homosexual than heterosexual women thought their mothers had felt little or no affection for their fathers and vice versa. This finding would fit with Bene's finding that the statements about mothers that differentiated lesbians from nonlesbians are not about the mother's attitudes toward the child but about the mother's attitudes toward her husband. Charlotte Wolff, who speaks of the great importance of the mother in lesbianism, relates
the girl's lesbianism ultimately to the mothers attitude toward men. In her version the girl realizes that the mother values males more than females, so the girl becomes insecure about her own value. The findings that lesbians are more likely to report negative interaction between their parents suggests that they may be reacting against marriage and being a wife rather than rejecting or feeling rejected by their mothers qua mothers.
There is considerable anecdotal evidence among lesbians having to do with "coming out" to their parents that suggests mothers are less "devastated" than fathers. The stories relate that mothers, after a certain amount of reacting and overreacting, usually come around to the position that as long as the daughter is a good person, functioning effectively in the world, and happy, her sexual orientation does not really matter. Mothers often say, however, "But it will kill your father" or even "Don't tell your father." Mothers as mothers feel sexual orientation is not important. Mothers as wives, however, say, "You are going to disappoint your father because you are 'rejecting' men." Mothers qua mothers can understand "rejecting men."
The Social Meaning of Sexual Preference
In their summary, Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith comment that one of the major contributions of their study is "the lack of support it gives to many of the traditional notions about the causes and development of homosexuality." Indeed, they found nothing to be very important in accounting for homosexuality except gender nonconformity and homosexual ideation and experience, all of which are at least partially connected by definition and are therefore tautological. In the end, the authors suggest that perhaps biological factors are involved, but their study was not designed to provide any direct evidence concerning how such factors might operate. They presume that if sexual preference is a biological phenomenon, no one can be blamed. These conclusions tend to fit well with the liberal stance I outlined at the beginning of this section.
Reviews of this research in the popular press have emphasized the probable biological basis of sexual preference and have emphasized the degree to which parental factors were found not to be critical. In a sense this emphasis is all to the good. Of course, par-
ents do not cause homosexuality; to say they do simply reflects the nuclear family ideology (which psychoanalytic thinking has supported), which makes the family, and no one else, including the child, responsible for how children "turn out." Because the nuclear family has until very recently been central to a majority of children's upbringing, however, it stands to reason that parents would in fact be important mediators of societal expectations. Parents themselves are representatives of basic family roles in this society: mothers, fathers, wives, and husbands. It would be highly unlikely that parents and parental relations would have no connection whatsoever to their children's orientations given the salience of the nuclear family as "ideal" in this society and given the child's almost total material and emotional dependence on parents.
What neither Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith nor the popular press were able to deal with, and did not even attempt to deal with, were the findings concerning fathers. The authors argue that their findings disconfirm those psychoanalytic explanations of homosexuality that trace it back to unresolved oedipal feelings. But this is only half true. They note that "the connection between boys' relationships with their mothers and whether they become homosexual or heterosexual is hardly worth mentioning" and that they found "no evidence that prehomosexual girls are 'Oedipal victors'—having apparently usurped their mothers' place in their fathers' affections" (p. 184). This much may indeed be true, but they do not deal with the evidence that prehomosexual boys and girls have negative relationships with their fathers.
It is impossible from this kind of data to speculate in any detail about the causes of sexual preference, either biological or psychological, but the findings concerning both male and female homosexuals are compatible with Freud's version of the Oedipus complex, which makes the father the central character for both girls and boys. In effect, "feminine," that is, heterosexual and passive-submissive, girls (Freud's normal outcome) never really give up their fathers, and masculine, that is heterosexual and active-dominant, boys (Freud's normal outcome) internalize the father's rules. I will discuss the significance of Freud's ideas for the transmission of "patriarchy" in the next chapter. The differing perceptions of the father held by homosexuals and by heterosexuals certainly suggest that the system of male dominance is somehow involved.
Heterosexuals, both male and female, are accepting male dominance or are at least coming to terms with it, whereas homosexuals are refusing to play the male game, which in this society has come to mean male-dominated heterosexuality. The reasons or more proximate causes for this refusal may be varied and have by no means been sorted out. But many lesbian feminists and some gay male feminists have increasingly come to see being homosexual as a statement of resistance to the male dominance attaching to heterosexual institutions, including male-dominated heterosexual intercourse. The negativity toward fathers found among gay males may represent a rejection of the male peer groups insistence on both heterosexuality and doing male-typed things. Joseph Harry suggests that gay males' tendency to have been loners in childhood and adolescence was a defense against the pressures they knew they would get from their male peers to do male things and be heterosexual.
In 1963 I reported data that supported the hypothesis that "feminine" women are male-"identified," in terms of "felt identification," "assumed identification," or "solidarity" with the father. In other words, girls who understood, sympathized with, and were close to their fathers were likely to be "feminine" and, not surprisingly, well adjusted in our culture. They were not well adjusted because they were like their father, but they were well adjusted because they liked and understood their father. The reverse with men and their mothers did not hold. "Courtship progress" is a case in point. The sociologist Robert Winch showed long ago that whereas males who were attached to their mothers made slow progress in courtship, females who were most attached to their fathers were most advanced in courtship, and by that measure presumably well adjusted.
Nowadays, feminists sometimes refer to a lesbian as a "woman-identified woman," meaning a woman who likes and respects women. Would a gay male ever be referred to as a "man-identified man"? I think not. As far as I know, the phrase is never used and seems meaningless. Certainly, heterosexual males are not likely to call male homosexuals "male-identified." The unspoken understandings involved in this asymmetrical usage reveal that heterosexual women and heterosexual men are both seen as being identified with men in the sense of liking and respecting men. In a male-
dominant culture, the assumption is made that a real woman (as opposed to a lesbian) needs a man, while a real man may use a woman for sex but is essentially self-sufficient with his male peers. Real women "identify" with men, and real men "identify" with men. The data I have presented is consonant with this picture—a disturbing testimony to how gender difference has become defined in terms of male dominance.