Cover of the first edition
|Authors||Alan P. Bell, Martin S. Weinberg, Sue Kiefer Hammersmith|
|Published||1981 (Indiana University Press)|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Authors||Alan P. Bell, Martin S. Weinberg, Sue Kiefer Hammersmith|
|Published||1981 (Mitchell Beazley International Limited)|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women is a 1981 book about the development of sexual orientation by psychologist Alan P. Bell and sociologists Martin S. Weinberg and Sue Kiefer Hammersmith, in which Bell et al. reevaluate what were then widely held ideas about the origins of heterosexuality and homosexuality, sometimes rejecting entirely the factors proposed as causes, and in other cases concluding that their importance had been exaggerated. Produced with the help of the American National Institute of Mental Health, the study was a publication of the Institute for Sex Research. Together with its separately published Statistical Appendix, Sexual Preference was culmination of a series of books including Homosexuality: An Annotated Bibliography (1972) and Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women (1978), both co-authored by Bell and Weinberg.
Using data derived from interviews conducted in 1969 and 1970 with subjects in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bell et al. attempted to test explanations of sexual orientation put forward by psychoanalysts and social scientists. While homosexual men were more likely than heterosexual men to have felt especially close to their mothers, this had almost no effect on the development of male homosexuality. Poor father-son relationships appeared to be weakly connected to male homosexuality. Homosexual women were more likely than heterosexual women to describe their relationships with their mothers as negative, and to have detached or hostile fathers, but only the latter factor seemed significant. In both sexes, but especially in men, homosexuality was connected to "Childhood Gender Nonconformity", which was a measure partly of behavior more typical of the opposite sex and partly of subjective feelings of masculinity and femininity. Sexual abuse and labeling by others played no significant role. Bell et al. concluded that psychoanalytic explanations of sexual orientation are inadequate. They suggested that while bisexuality is subject to influence by social learning, the development of heterosexuality and homosexuality may have a biological basis, possibly influenced by hormonal factors. They hoped that demonstrating a biological basis to homosexuality would lead to greater tolerance of gay people.
Seen as likely to provoke controversy even before its publication, Sexual Preference received considerable media attention in 1981, and several mixed or negative reviews in that and the following year. Critics questioned Bell et al.′s reliance upon a statistical technique, originally developed for use in the biological sciences, called path analysis, disputed the representativeness of their sample of homosexuals, and pointed out the difficulty and potential unreliability of adult recall of childhood feeling, as well as the vague and general nature of the questions Bell et al. asked their research subjects. Nevertheless, some reviewers complimented Sexual Preference for its authors' challenge to established views about the causes of homosexuality, and the book eventually came to be considered a classic work. It is one of the most frequently cited retrospective studies relating to sexual orientation, credited by psychologists with disproving psychoanalytic theories about the development of homosexuality, though also subject to differing interpretations. In the 2009 document "Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation", the American Psychological Association credited Bell et al. with helping to discredit theories attributing sexual orientation to family dynamics or trauma.
Together with its separately published Statistical Appendix, Sexual Preference was the culmination of a series of books including Homosexuality: An Annotated Bibliography (1972) and Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women (1978), both authored jointly by Bell and Weinberg. The study was supported by the United States National Institute of Mental Health, Indiana University, the Institute for Sex Research, and the Glide Foundation. Persons assisting the study included gay rights activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, sociologists John Gagnon and William Simon, and anthropologist Paul Gebhard.
"Respondents were asked to rate their sexual feelings and behaviors on the seven-point Kinsey Scale, which ranges from 'exclusively heterosexual' (a score of 0) to 'exclusively homosexual' (a score of 6). Respondents' sexual feelings scores were then averaged with their sexual behaviors scores. Those with a combined score of 2 or more were classified as homosexual; those with a combined score of less than 2, heterosexual."
The study's data were derived from interviews conducted in 1969 and 1970 with "979 homosexual and 477 heterosexual men and women living in the San Francisco Bay Area." Homosexuals were recruited from locations such as gay bars and bathhouses, public parks, beaches, and toilets, while heterosexuals were obtained through random sampling. The interview schedule included approximately 200 questions. Most offered respondents a limited number of possible answers, though some allowed respondents to answer as they wished. Bell et al. maintained that since most of their heterosexual respondents were exclusively heterosexual, and most of their homosexual respondents were predominantly or exclusively homosexual, the division of respondents into heterosexuals and homosexuals represented "a natural division" between respondents.
Bell et al.′s objective was to test the explanations of how people become heterosexual or homosexual proposed by psychoanalysts and social scientists, to provide a firm scientific basis to thinking about sexual development and definitively refute mistaken theories. They wrote that the most notable proposed explanations of homosexuality were psychoanalytic theories attributing it to a failure to resolve Oedipal conflicts. In their view, theories about the origins of sexual orientation had usually not been rigorously tested prior to their study, partly because of the stigma associated with homosexuality and partly because some of the theories, including those advanced by psychoanalysts, use concepts which are hard to "pin down and operationalize." Bell et al. anticipated that psychologists and psychoanalysts would object to their work on methodological grounds, such as that no attempt was made to access unconscious material, or that the interviews, which lasted only a few hours as opposed to the hundreds of hours involved in an analysis, could never reveal what truly occurred in someone′s childhood. They argued, however, that the fact that their data was not obtained from clinical sources was a strength, that attempting to access unconscious material risks selective interpretation of the data, and that "if the differences between homosexual and heterosexual patterns of development are really as great as psychoanalytic theory claims" then such differences would be reflected to at least some extent in the reports of their respondents.
Aware that some scholars might reject any view of the development of homosexuality resembling psychoanalytic theory and object to studies that appear to take it seriously, Bell et al. noted that while they gave psychoanalytic theory considerable attention, many of the variables used in their statistical analyses pertained to "experiences occurring outside our respondents′ original households", including relationships with peers, labeling by others, dating experiences, and sexual experiences. They added that it was not easy to answer objections to the use of retrospective data, given the unresolved issue of how accurate their respondents′ recollections of childhood were, and that even a longitudinal study would have been open to question. Bell et al. observed that some gay rights activists might object to their study on principle, and suspect them of being motivated by a desire to find a way to prevent homosexuality and reduce its incidence, while other critics might regret their involvement in a tradition of inquiry that has so far supported the majority view that homosexuality is a perversion or deviation, and be concerned that their study would be used to reinforce social prejudice against homosexuals. In response to these potential criticisms, Bell et al. argued that ideas about the development of homosexuality contribute to prejudice against homosexuals, and that so long as "the heterosexual majority" accepted largely untested theories that see homosexuality as the result of a bad upbringing, their negative attitudes toward homosexuals would never change.
Bell et al. considered their sample of homosexual adults more representative than those used in previous studies, and argued that the fact that they examined blacks separately from whites, and men separately from women, helped them to determine the extent to which patterns of homosexual and heterosexual development depend on race and sex. They wrote that while Bell, a psychologist and therapist, was "relatively supportive of psychodynamic theory", Weinberg and Hammersmith were sociologists with a different theoretical perspective. They argued that their varying outlooks counteracted any bias due to their respective backgrounds. Bell et al. did not believe that completing their study earlier would have altered their findings. Believing that familiarity with scientific theories about homosexuality might bias their respondents′ answers, Bell et al. did not report results that could be explained through exposure to books, articles or scientific lectures about homosexuality. They used path analysis, a statistical technique originally developed for use in the biological sciences, to try to establish which factors were most important. Path analysis required dividing "the independent variables into sequential stages, according to the time when their influences are most likely to occur." The dependent variable Bell et al. wanted to explain, adult sexual preference, went at the final stage.
Bell et al. found that homosexual men were more likely than heterosexual men to have felt especially close to their mothers. Male respondents who were unusually close to their mothers were more likely to describe themselves as having been feminine children, but only a minority of boys with this kind of background became homosexual. Bell et al. concluded that male homosexuality is not the "result of an unusually strong maternal identification", and that mothers have only a small influence on their sons′ psychosexual development. Homosexual men were less likely to give positive descriptions of their fathers, but more likely to have negative feelings toward their fathers, to dislike, hate, or fail to feel close to them, or to consider them hostile or detached. They were also more likely to feel more similar to their mothers than to their fathers, or to prefer to be like their mothers. Bell et al. concluded that, "Unfavorable relationships with fathers" have a weak connection to "gender nonconformity and early homosexual experiences".
Few male respondents had engaged in childhood sex play, and it did not seem to be important in the development of homosexuality. Homosexual men were less likely to report having enjoyed boys' activities such as football and to see themselves as having been very masculine while growing up, but more likely to enjoy stereotypical girls' activities. Three variables (dislike of typical boys' activities, enjoying typical girls' activities, and feelings of masculinity or femininity) were combined into a composite measure called "Childhood Gender Nonconformity", which proved to be the most important developmental variable. It appeared to make male respondents less likely to feel attraction to the opposite sex during childhood, but more likely to feel sexually different from other boys, experience homosexual arousal and activities, and become homosexual as adults. Homosexual men were more likely to recall having felt different from other boys their age, or to say that they felt different because they did not like sport, or because they were not interested in girls or were sexually interested in other boys. They were also more likely to report feeling different because they had stereotypical feminine traits or interests. Feeling different during childhood appeared to be irrelevant, but feeling different for gender reasons during adolescence had "modest total effects". Boys who felt sexually different were more likely to become homosexual as adults, whether they began to feel that way during childhood or adolescence. While homosexual men were more likely to have been labeled sexually different or homosexual before the age of 19, this apparently played no significant role in the development of sexual orientation.
Homosexual men tended to have had their first homosexual encounter at a younger age, and were more likely to have their first encounters with friends or acquaintances rather than strangers. The data did not support the idea that homosexual males are likely to have been seduced by older men. Homosexual activity involving genital contact in childhood was connected to adult homosexuality, though only weakly; homosexual arousal during childhood or adolescence was a stronger predictor of adult homosexuality. Heterosexual arousal during childhood was a moderate predictor of adult heterosexuality. Phenomena associated with sexual maturation, such as the age of first ejaculation, did not seem to be important, and neither did parental attitudes toward sex. Respondents' opportunities to engage in sex with persons of the opposite or the same sex did not seem to be an important influence on the sexual preference they developed, and sexual experiences with persons of both the same and the opposite sex were common among both homosexuals and heterosexuals. Sexual feelings appeared to be more important than sexual behavior as an indicator of adult sexual preference.
Homosexual women were more likely to describe their relationships with their mothers as negative, and their mothers as having been hostile or rejecting. These measures were combined into a single measure, "Hostile-Rejecting Mother", which appeared to have only minimal influence on the development of sexual preference. Homosexual women were less likely to describe their mothers as having been pleasant people. This and two other connected variables were combined into a composite measure called "Unpleasant Mother", which had a weak and indirect connection with adult homosexuality. Homosexual women identified less strongly with their mothers, though this appeared to have very little influence on adult sexual preference, having only indirect effects, dependent upon its encouragement of childhood gender nonconformity. Homosexual women gave less favorable descriptions of their relationships with their fathers, and were more likely to have negative feelings toward them, and to describe them as having been hostile or detached. These variables were combined into a measure called "Detached-Hostile Father", which appeared to encourage childhood gender nonconformity and adolescent homosexual involvement. Homosexual women were less likely to identify with their fathers, but the "Identification with Father" variable appeared to be unimportant.
Few female respondents reported engaging in sex play with their siblings, and it seemed to have no role in the development of sexual preference. Homosexual women were less likely to report having enjoyed typical girls' activities, but more likely to report having enjoyed typical boys' activities, such as football, and to describe themselves as having been very masculine while they were growing up. These and other variables were combined into a "Childhood Gender Nonconformity" measure, which proved to be the second strongest predictor of homosexuality. Bell et al. noted, however, that childhood gender nonconformity did not seem to have been important in the way proposed by psychoanalytic theory, in that it was not a crucial link between family influences and their respondents' sense of womanhood, and nor was it explained by relationships within the family. Homosexual women were more likely to recall having felt different from other girls their age during grade school and high school years, and to say that they felt different because they were more masculine than other girls, more interested in sports, or not interested in boys. Homosexual women were also more likely to have felt sexually different. However, these feelings did not appear to play a role in the development of female homosexuality. Homosexual women, unlike heterosexual women, were sometimes labeled sexually different or homosexual before the age of 19, but such labeling also appeared to play no significant role in the development of female homosexuality.
Homosexual arousal in childhood appeared to predict adult homosexuality, while homosexual activities and arousal during adolescence had a very strong connection with adult homosexuality. Rape and sexual molestation did not appear to be significant in the development of homosexuality. Heterosexual arousal during childhood had a very small effect on adult sexual preference. Homosexual women were more likely to have their first homosexual encounter before their first heterosexual encounter. Phenomena associated with physical maturation, such as the age at which menstruation began, did not appear to play a significant role in the development of sexual preference, while parental attitudes toward sex and failure to enjoy early heterosexual activity also seemed unimportant. Sexual feelings seemed important in the development of adult homosexuality.
The results for black men were in general the same as those for white men, except that while the "Identification with Father" variable had some significance for white men, it had none for black men, and whereas for white men pre-adult sexual feelings were important in the development of adult homosexuality, childhood and adolescent sexual activities were important for black men. Bell et al. suggested that this finding could show that black males became homosexual due to their early homosexual activities, which was consistent with a learning theory interpretation, but that alternatively it might reflect "the freer sexual attitude of the black community", which could have allowed their black respondents to act on their sexual inclinations at an earlier age than their white respondents. The findings for black women were very similar to those for white women.
Bell et al. rejected many accepted ideas about the development of homosexuality. They concluded that psychodynamic theories exaggerate the role of parents in the development of their sons' sexual orientation, and that the psychoanalytic model that attributed male homosexuality to dominant mothers and weak fathers is inadequate, there being barely any connection between boys' relationships with their mothers and the development of homosexuality. Bell et al. found the idea that "cold, detached" fathers and poor father-son relationships predispose boys toward homosexuality more plausible, but emphasized that these factors have only an indirect connection to sexual preference. Bell et al. suggested that relationships with parents might play a greater role in the development of female homosexuality, although they found having a cold or distant father less significant as a cause of female than of male homosexuality. They also rejected various sociological theories, such as the idea that homosexuality results from labeling by others. Overall, they concluded that sexual preference is likely to be already determined by the time boys and girls reach adolescence, and that there is a powerful link between gender nonconformity and the development of homosexuality in both sexes, but especially in men. Though stressing that their model "applies only to extant theories and does not create new ones", Bell et al. wrote that they had identified "a pattern of feelings and reactions within the child that cannot be traced back to a single social or psychological root".
Different kinds of homosexuals were compared to see whether they had differing developmental histories. The "Identification with Father" variable appeared to be important in the development of homosexuality among effeminate, but not non-effeminate, white homosexual men. Bell et al. noted that failure to identify with the father might serve to encourage effeminacy, but that alternatively boys who were effeminate for other reasons might find it difficult to identify with their fathers. Pre-adult homosexual behavior was more important among men who were not effeminate. Bell et al. suggested that for effeminate males early homosexual feelings were the only important predictor of adult homosexuality, while other males were influenced by a combination of homosexual feelings and other factors. Comparing white bisexual men and white homosexual men, Bell et al. found that for the bisexuals sexual preference was much less strongly connected with pre-adult sexual feelings. Based on this and other findings, they concluded that exclusive homosexuality tends to emerge from a "deep-seated predisposition" but that bisexuality is "more subject to influence by social and sexual learning." Exclusively homosexual white men tended to report that they had not identified with their fathers, but there was no significant tendency for white bisexual men not to identify with their fathers. Only white homosexual men who had undergone psychotherapy had "paternal variables" that were consistent with what clinicians had considered typical of homosexual males.
Among whites, gender nonconformity appeared to be important in the development of homosexuality among masculine homosexual women, but not among homosexual women who were not masculine, while adolescent homosexual involvement was important for non-masculine homosexual women but not masculine homosexual women. Bisexual women appeared to be more influenced by involvement in homosexual genital activities in childhood than exclusively homosexual women, but unlike exclusively homosexual women, their homosexual preference did not appear related to inability to experience heterosexual arousal in childhood. Childhood gender nonconformity appeared more significant for exclusively homosexual women than for bisexual women, and more significant for women who had been in psychotherapy than for women who had not.
Bell et al. wrote that while there was an ongoing debate over the origins of homosexuality, there is evidence supporting the view that homosexuality has a biological basis, and that hormonal factors could be involved. Though they acknowledged that their study did not have the necessary data to explain how sexual preference might be related to biology, Bell et al. wrote that their findings were consistent with what one would expect to find if sexual preference had a biological basis. They suggested that biological factors probably have a more powerful influence on exclusive homosexuals than on bisexuals, and that if there is a biological basis to homosexuality, it probably accounts for gender nonconformity as well as sexual orientation. They also proposed that the "familial factors commonly thought to account for homosexuality" may actually result from the way parents react to their prehomosexual children. Bell et al. argued that demonstrating that homosexuality is biologically innate would lead to greater social tolerance, and help to relieve parents of gay people of guilt. They expressed hope that researchers would eventually produce more definitive answers about the origins of homosexuality.
In August 1981, prior to the publication of Sexual Preference, Jane E. Brody wrote in The New York Times that the study was "likely to arouse controversy not only because of its findings, which the authors expect to anger both the psychoanalytic and the homosexual communities, but also because it relies on the memories of those interviewed and on a statistical technique called path analysis that is subject to misuse and can only explore existing notions, not create new ones." According to Brody, Bell said that he expected the study "to be condemned from both sides - by the radical gays for even looking into the subject and by the analysts who may say we're trying to paint a glowing picture of homosexuality." Brody quoted psychologist John DeCecco calling Sexual Preference "very dubious on a theoretical basis and on the basis of how reliable and valid is asking people about their childhood", and psychoanalyst Irving Bieber describing Bell et al.′s findings as "totally disparate" with his experience from psychiatric consultation.
Sexual Preference attracted considerable media attention in the last half of 1981. During 1981, it was reviewed positively in Psychology Today by historian Paul Robinson and negatively in The New York Times by sociologist John Gagnon, while in 1982 it received negative reviews from author Michael Ignatieff in the London Review of Books, psychologist Clarence Tripp in the The Journal of Sex Research, and sociologist Ira Reiss in Contemporary Sociology, and a mixed review from sociologist John DeLamater in Science. Reviewers faulted the work on numerous grounds. Robinson, Gagnon, Reiss and DeLamater suggested that its authors' conclusions were open to criticism because their study was based on an unrepresentative or dubiously representative sample of homosexuals. Gagnon, Reiss, and DeLamater believed that additional problems included the reliance on path analysis and adult recall of early childhood feeling, with Gagnon criticizing the former for over-emphasizing differences between heterosexual and homosexual patterns of development, and the latter as inconsistent with all recent research on memory. Gagnon criticized Bell et al.′s "unsupported notion that the respondents' observations relating to certain behaviors and attitudes should be grouped together". DeLamater wrote that Bell et al.′s path analysis involved "arbitrary classification and sequencing of variables". Gagnon and Reiss noted that Bell et al.′s questions were vague and general, Gagnon suggesting that respondents' answers might reflect a subsequent reconstruction of events rather than an accurate recall of childhood. Gagnon, Ignatieff and DeLamater criticized Bell et al.′s failure to provide new biological evidence.
Despite his criticisms of the book, which included the suggestion that Bell et al. might have misidentified gender nonconformity as a cause of homosexuality, rather than as one of its expressions, Robinson nevertheless found it a "superb" work that answered the question of how people become heterosexual or homosexual better than any previous study, disqualified most previous answers, and exhibited "the empirical conscientiousness of Kinsey at his best". He maintained that the study's empirical foundation and statistical procedures gave its findings "unprecedented trustworthiness", and credited Bell et al. with documenting the "intellectual poverty" of psychoanalytic hypotheses about homosexuality. He lamented that unlike the Kinsey Reports, which gained popular attention, Sexual Preference "seems destined for academic oblivion."
Gagnon concluded that Sexual Preference was a politically motivated study and would inevitably be received as a political and moral statement. Ignatieff suggested that Bell et al.′s conclusion that family upbringing and factors such as labeling have little measurable effect on adult sexual orientation may only prove that questionnaires cannot uncover the roots of sexual orientation, adding that even if their conclusion was correct it would not justify their additional claim that homosexuality is biologically innate. Ignatieff criticized Bell et al. for assuming "that a theory of the biological determination of sexuality simply does away with the question of the limit of our responsibility as agents for our sexual orientation". DeLamater wrote that Sexual Preference benefited from Bell et al.′s "eclectic theoretical basis", which drew from the psychodynamic model, social learning theory, "sociological models that emphasize the importance of peer relationships", and labeling theory. However, while DeLamater accepted Bell et al.′s claim that their work was methodologically superior to prior work on homosexuals, he hesitated to endorse their conclusions, because of the many aspects of their study he considered problematic.
Tripp wrote in the May 1982 issue of The Journal of Sex Research that Sexual Preference would likely be seen as "a shock and a disappointment", since its authors abandoned many of Alfred Kinsey's methods and conclusions and in some cases even misrepresented them. Tripp criticized Bell et al. for ignoring Kinsey's "warning to avoid theory and to try to make careful first-hand observations" and for attempting to test the validity of psychoanalytic theories, observing that the ideas they sought to test had already "long since lost credibility among professionals". While Tripp nevertheless believed that Bell et al. had rendered a valuable service by showing that such theories are unsupported, he rejected their argument that since psychoanalytic ideas are incorrect the origins of sexual orientation must be genetic and hormonal, noting that in order to reason that way they had to ignore the work of sex researchers such as Frank Beach. Tripp also accused Bell et al. of citing low quality and unreplicated hormone studies, ignoring evidence relating homosexuality to early puberty, and substituting "inductive for deductive methods". In the same issue, Bell et al. replied to Tripp′s review, accusing him of "factual errors and misrepresentations", including "false statements about our data analysis, misrepresentations of our conclusions, and ridiculous criticisms of the scientific method itself." Tripp responded in the November 1982 issue of The Journal of Sex Research, accusing Bell et al. of making personal attacks, and attempting to refute them on specific points.
Reiss concluded that Sexual Preference "has value for suggesting directions and the likely worth of ideas", but that given its shortcomings there was no way in which its authors could definitively resolve the issues they explored, despite their claim to "once and for all" discredit some theoretical ideas about homosexuality. Reiss wrote that Bell et al. had an "arbitrary and rigid conception" of what could be done with their data, lacked "theoretical development" in its handling, and deliberately minimized the importance of the predictor variables they used to test psychoanalytic and other theories. He was unconvinced by their conclusion that sexual orientation has a biological basis, calling it unpersuasive.
DeCecco dismissed both Sexual Preference and Bell and Weinberg's previous study Homosexualities, writing that while their authors presented them as "definitive studies of homosexuality", they were hurried retreats "behind computer statistics" and suffered from the "theoretical blindness" that has dominated research on homosexuality in the United States since the early 1970s. He contrasted Bell and Weinberg's work unfavorably with that of European thinkers whom he credited with "provocative theoretical speculations", mentioning philosophers Michel Foucault and Guy Hocquenghem, gay rights activist Mario Mieli, sexologist Martin Dannecker, and historian and sociologist Jeffrey Weeks.
In the November 1982 issue of Siecus Report, published by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, Bell wrote that his finding that "parent-child relationships" are less influential in the development of sexual orientation than "many people have supposed" left him astonished, adding that while in Sexual Preference he and his co-authors presented their data without speculation, he now felt free to engage in "theoretical supposition." Bell argued that in order to understand adult sexual behavior it is necessary to understand early sexual feelings, which involve "romantic attachments", with men who do not see themselves as "typically masculine" being more likely to experience such attachments toward other men. Bell argued that falling in love is a more important criterion of sexual orientation than sexual behavior, and that it can be understood as "the anticipation of self-completion through merger with the love object" and a "quest for androgyny" through the "integration of the masculine and feminine components of ourselves through the psychological incorporation of the greater preponderance of masculine or feminine characteristics one supposes are possessed by the object of our romantic feelings." Bell suggested that early romantic and subsequent erotic attachments tend to be focused on people "perceived as essentially different".
Gay rights activist Dennis Altman wrote that Bell et al.′s conclusion that there is a powerful link between gender nonconformity and the development of homosexuality depended on the memories of their respondents, who were likely to have been influenced by social expectations about how homosexuals should conform to gender roles. Altman observed that Bell et al.′s data was collected in 1969 and 1970, prior to the "growth of the modern gay movement and the development of the macho style among gay men". Altman criticized Bell et al. for confusing "social roles with what is inborn", thereby underestimating the extent to which masculinity and femininity are social constructs.
Psychologist William Paul and sex researcher James D. Weinrich wrote that Sexual Preference documented social diversity extremely well and was the largest study conducted specifically on homosexuality, but that it was limited by the problems Bell et al. encountered in trying to obtain a representative sample. Paul and Weinrich suggested that because Bell et al. collected their data in 1969, they may have missed "growing cultural developments in the gay younger generation of the late 1960s and early 1970s."
Sociologist Thomas Ford Hoult wrote that Bell et al.′s conclusion that childhood gender nonconformity and adult sexual orientation have a biological basis is a "legitimate hypothetical assertion", but one that it is not confirmed by their failure to find a direct connection between sexual orientation and parent-child interaction.
Psychologists Paul H. Van Wyk and Chrisann S. Geist wrote that Bell et al. question a scientific consensus, established by the work of researchers such as the psychologists Heino Meyer-Bahlburg and John Money, that biological factors "exert at most a predisposing rather than a determining influence" on the development of sexual orientation. Using their subject pool, which was obtained from the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University and consisted of people interviewed between 1938 and 1963, Van Wyk and Geist produced results that they described as generally very similar to those of Bell et al.: "In each case, sexual experience variables accounted for the most variance, followed by gender-related variables and family-related variables, in that order." However, Van Wyk and Geist observed that there were some significant differences, which could have been partly a result of the different methodology employed. In their view, the most important of five methodological differences was that their outcome variable was "based solely on overt behavor" whereas that of Bell et al. "is an average of subjective preference and overt behavior." They noted that Bell et al. "excluded from their model variables that did not apply to everyone in their sample", which made it impossible to judge the effects of "idiosyncratic and unique sexual and nonsexual experiences".
Gynecologist William Masters, sexologist Virginia E. Johnson and author Robert C. Kolodny wrote that Sexual Preference is an important study of homosexuality, "probably the most extensive one done to date", and that it provided no support for psychoanalyst Bieber's theory of homosexuality. Weeks called Sexual Preference "the Kinsey Institute's final publication on homosexuality" and suggested that like sociobiologists and others who have attempted to find a biological explanation for social behavior Bell et al. had an "urge to fill a conceptual gap" that is stronger than their "adherence to theoretical consistency and political judgment". Weeks wrote that Bell et al. "carefully explore the evidence (or lack of it) for the aetiology of homosexuality", but added that unlike Kinsey they failed to consider the possibility "that homosexuality might not be a unitary phenomenon with a single causative explanation". Weeks criticized Bell et al. for concluding that if a social or psychological explanation of homosexuality cannot be found then a biological explanation must exist, describing the argument as "a rhetorical device" that results in "an intellectual closure which obstructs further questioning." Sociologists Frederick L. Whitam and Robin Mathy, writing in Male Homosexuality in Four Societies (1985), criticized Bell et al. for reporting mainly on their white subjects, generally ignoring the blacks.
Sexologist Richard Green wrote that Sexual Preference is one of several studies, including Bieber et al.′s Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals (1962), to have found strained relationships between fathers and homosexual sons. He added that a "gnawing question" in these studies is what percent of heterosexuals give answers more typical of homosexuals and what percent of homosexuals give answers more typical of heterosexuals, and that such "contradictory" outcomes require explanation.
Psychoanalyst Richard C. Friedman wrote that Bell et al. had a "radically different point of view" from that of Bieber and the other authors of Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals (1962), adding that it was thus "especially striking that the findings of both studies were in basic agreement with regard to childhood gender identity / gender role abnormalities in pre-homosexual children." Friedman noted that Bell et al.′s "interpretations of psychohistorical information" have been criticized by Gerard J. M. van den Aardweg. He called their claim that path analysis made it possible to discriminate among influences on homosexuality and to give each a particular weight at a particular time of childhood development "unlikely", since no "approach to data interpretation can convert retrospective methods to prospective methods". Friedman wrote that "the meaning of data depends on the models one uses to interpret them", and that the models used by Bell et al. differ from models accepted by "psychodynamically oriented investigators."
Sociologist Miriam M. Johnson wrote that Bell et al.′s study was the "largest, best-designed, and one of the least heterosexist investigations" of the development of sexual preference. In her view, the study′s "only possible bias" is that because of its nature and San Francisco location "activist" homosexuals were over-represented. Johnson argued that "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." Johnson concluded, however, that the study′s credibility was enhanced by the fact that Bell et al. took into account whether their respondents had been exposed to books or articles about the etiology of homosexuality, and disregarded results when they could be explained by such exposure. Johnson credited Bell et al. with showing that "almost all the alleged causes of adult sexual orientation are either nonexistent or highly exaggerated", and wrote that their finding that their respondents′ relationships with their fathers were more important than their relationships with their mothers supported her own conclusions. Johnson wrote that Bell et al.′s claim that they had refuted psychoanalytic theories that attribute homosexuality to an unresolved Oedipus complex was only "half true", given the father findings.
Philosopher Michael Ruse wrote in Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry (1988) that Bell et al.′s findings about the parental backgrounds of heterosexuals and homosexuals were "slanted in the way a Freudian would expect", adding that many other studies have pointed to very similar conclusions. Ruse argued that there is much to support Bell et al.′s conclusion that Freudian explanations of homosexuality confuse the direction of cause and effect and that the cold and distant relationships gay men report having with their fathers are a result of parental reactions to effeminate or sensitive sons. However, he noted that the accuracy of Bell et al.′s findings is open to doubt for many reasons: their subjects could have been unwittingly giving them the answers they wanted to hear, failed to remember accurately, or suppressed painful childhood memories.
Psychologist Seymour Fisher called Sexual Preference a high quality and large scale study, writing that despite their "highly skeptical" attitude toward Freudian theory, Bell et al.′s findings match certain of Sigmund Freud′s predictions about how homosexual men view their parents. According to Fisher, Bell et al.′s data clearly indicate that "negative father" had a detectable impact on "gender nonconformity and early homosexual experience" for men, despite their claim that there is no strong connection. While Fisher maintained that Bell et al., like other investigators, "do not provide the information to evaluate Freud′s rather vague statements concerning how the homosexual woman would perceive mother", he wrote that their data does support Freud′s expectation that homosexual women perceive their fathers in "negative, frustrating terms", and that among the studies he evaluated theirs was "one of the most supportive". He viewed Bell et al.′s findings about lesbianism as especially significant since their study was published in 1981 and had one of the "largest diverse samples." Fisher wrote that while Bell et al. deliberately minimized the overall importance of the father factor in the development of female homosexuality, "a clear significant effect does emerge from their data." Fisher argued that Bell et al.′s finding that recalled patterns of relationships with mother and father predicted homosexual preferences during adolescence, but not the likelihood of being primarily homosexual as an adult, could be explained by the fact that only a limited proportion of those willing to engage in "homosexual intimacy" during their earlier years can find satisfactory opportunities to do so as they leave adolescence. He observed that if this explanation is correct, it would make it more difficult to find correlations between early parent-child relationships and "later overt homosexuality."
Authors Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen called Sexual Preference a "pathbreaking study" which shows that parents are not "to blame for their 'sexually messed up' children."
Philosopher Edward Stein wrote that Bell et al.′s data refutes at least naïve versions of the "first encounter" hypothesis, according to which a person's sexual orientation is determined by the sex of the first person he or she has sex with. Psychologist John C. Gonsiorek and sex researcher Weinrich wrote that Bell et al., like Green, Money, and most other experts, believe that sexual orientation is set by early childhood. Gonsiorek and Weinrich described Bell et al. as "essentialists", who, like some other authors, but unlike supporters of social constructionism, maintain that "homosexual desire, identity, and persons exist as real in some form, in different cultures and historical eras". Psychologists Gonsiorek and Douglas C. Haldeman credited Bell et al. with disproving psychoanalytic theories about the development of homosexuality.
Philosopher Frederick Suppe called Sexual Preference a very important study, writing that Bell et al. failed to duplicate the findings of Bieber et al. or the predictions of symbolic interactionism, labeling theory, and societal reaction theory approaches. He wrote that while highly biased, their sample of homosexuals was nevertheless "the most diverse and representative" ever made. He argued that biased samples can be adequate for the purposes of refuting theories propounded in other studies "so long as the types of subjects used in those other studies constitute a subsample of the replicative study′s sample and the latter's population does not go beyond the claimed scope of the replicated studies." He maintained that Bell et al.′s study meets these requirements, that their use of path analysis was "thoroughly appropriate", and that their procedures for developing a composite etiology model, which contained "virtually all paths advanced in the literature", are legitimate. He argued that the only plausible basis for disputing that the study definitively refutes "social learning theories of homosexual etiology" is to challenge the adequacy of Bell et al.′s models and the questions they used. He wrote that while Bell et al. did not use the same specific questions that Bieber et al. employed, they did use "a large number of questions directed at the same concerns." He noted that Bell et al.′s data regarding subjects′ negative feelings toward and relationships with their fathers were based on open-ended interview questions, adding that it would have been preferable had they employed the same "structured-answer questions" used in Bieber et al.′s earlier study. He argued that since Bell et al. were attempting to test not only Bieber et al.′s views but most social learning theories of sexual orientation, including questions from every study would have made their interview schedule too long. He rejected Bell et al.′s claim that their study supports a biological explanation of sexual orientation. He wrote that since Bell et al.′s study, research into the "social causes of homosexuality" has become "moribund."
Psychologist Kenneth Zucker and psychiatrist Susan Bradley called Sexual Preference a "classic study", writing that its data are consistent with those of previous clinical research, including Bieber et al.′s Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals (1962). Zucker and Bradley maintained that Bell et al.′s finding that "detached-hostile father" is relatively characteristic of a majority of the white homosexual men in their study and a minority of white heterosexual men is quite similar to what was reported by Bieber et al.. Zucker and Bradley wrote that the way in which Bell et al. conducted aspects of their inquiry was heavily influenced by the psychoanalytic perspective that views homosexuality as a mental disorder and explains it in terms of family dynamics, which was dominant in the late 1960s when Bell et al.′s study was being planned. Zucker and Bradley wrote that the study must be understood in the context of sexual politics. They suggested that because homosexuality had been delisted as a mental disorder for eight years by the time Sexual Preference was published, Bell et al. "were in a quandary" if their data "showed a departure from an ideal of optimal functioning in homosexual men". Zucker and Bradley argued that, because of their concern for homosexuals, and also influenced by political correctness, Bell et al. deliberately minimized the "observed significant effects" shown by their study, though they noted that this was also in part an objective interpretation of weak effects. Zucker and Bradley wrote that prior to Bell et al.′s study, researchers had become aware that phenomena usually interpreted as parents influencing their children could be interpreted instead as the reverse, and that Bell et al. recognized that "the direction of effects" was a "problematic aspect of their research design". In Zucker and Bradley′s view, resolving the "direction-of-effects issue" raised by Bell et al. through retrospective studies comparing homosexual with heterosexual men will be difficult, and that until then the issue will remain "a matter of theoretical taste."
Social psychologist Daryl Bem wrote in Psychological Review that Bell et al. provide the most important data concerning "experience-based theories" of the development of sexual orientation, including "the classical psychoanalytic account", as well as views that attribute the origins of sexual orientation to learning, conditioning, seduction, or labeling. According to Bem, Bell et al.′s findings yield such theories "virtually no support", and their finding that "no family variables" are "strongly implicated in the development of sexual orientation for either men or women" is "consistent with accumulating evidence that family variables account for much less of the environmental variance in personality than previously thought". Bem proposed a hypothesis that he refers to as "Exotic becomes erotic": children feel different from either their same-sex peers or opposite-sex peers and therefore eroticize them, leading to homosexuality and heterosexuality respectively. Bem referred to Bell et al.′s finding that gay men and lesbians were significantly more likely to recall having felt different from same-sex children during the grade-school years, and to other studies that drew similar conclusions. Bem maintained that Bell′s view, published in Siecus Report, that people become erotically attracted to those who are different from them out of a "quest for androgyny" does not accurately characterize the data and that "even if it did, it would constitute only a description of them, not an explanation". Bem rejected Bell et al.′s conclusion that sexual orientation is biologically innate.
Philosopher Timothy F. Murphy wrote that Sexual Preference is an important study of homosexuality, which like other studies should be regarded as part of a scientific process of "measuring the adequacy of hypotheses and evidence" rather than as a "window opening on veridical truth". Author John Heidenry suggested that it was the most important book on sexuality published in the early 1980s, writing that Bell et al. "analyzed every known hypothesis, idea, or suggestion about the origins of homosexuality and found most of them were wrong." Heidenry credited Bell et al. with avoiding the biases of many previous studies, which had drawn their samples from unrepresentative sources such as psychotherapy patients or prison populations. He observed that their conclusion that homosexuality may have a biological basis placed them in opposition to Kinsey's views, and that they ignored research that correlated the origins of same-sex preference with factors such as time of puberty, the amount of early sex, and masturbatory patterns.
Letitia Anne Peplau et al. wrote in a critique of Bem's "exotic becomes erotic" hypothesis published in Psychological Review that Bell et al. recruited heterosexuals and homosexuals through non-comparable methods, and that while it is unknown how this and the retrospective nature of the data affected Bell et al.′s findings, "they may have exaggerated the extent of true differences between heterosexual and homosexual respondents." Peplau et al. argued that Bell et al.′s data does not support Bem′s hypothesis. Bem, in a defense of his hypothesis published in the same issue of Psychological Review, wrote that in their path analysis Bell et al. engaged in "an unfortunate dichotomization of the dependent variable, sexual orientation ... grouping the bisexual and homosexual respondents into the same category." In his view, while this procedure "might have seemed reasonable on a priori grounds ... it should have been abandoned as soon as the researchers saw the results of their own subanalyses, which made it clear that the bisexual respondents were not only very different from their exclusively homosexual counterparts but actually were more like the heterosexual respondents in theoretically critical ways." Bem argued that by grouping together the bisexuals and homosexuals Bell et al. "reduced many of the correlations and increased the likelihood that important antecedent variables would be erroneously eliminated during the recursive process of discarding the weaker correlates from successive iterations of the path model."
Anthropologist Gilbert Herdt wrote that Sexual Preference, like the Kinsey scale, places "too much emphasis upon discreet acts of sex and not enough stress upon the cultural context and total developmental outcomes to which those acts are related." Herdt called the study a "quantitative sociological" survey of homosexuality that decontextualizes "the culture and lives at issue". Herdt argued, following anthropologist Ruth Benedict, that all developmental changes need to be viewed in the context of social structure.
Philosopher Stein wrote in The Mismeasure of Desire (1999) that Sexual Preference is one of the most detailed and frequently cited retrospective studies relating to sexual orientation. In Stein's view, while the study has been criticized on various grounds, including that all of its subjects were living in San Francisco, arguably an atypical place with respect to the sexual orientation of its inhabitants, Bell et al.′s conclusions about "experiential theories" have been accepted. He wrote that the study failed to support theories relating homosexuality to early sexual experience and family dynamics, showed no difference between gay and straight men in the strength of their attachment to their mothers, and found only a weak connection between unfavorable relationships with the father and male homosexuality and gender nonconformity, with similar findings for women. Stein observed that many other studies have been conducted on childhood gender nonconformity partly because of Bell et al.′s finding that it is related to homosexuality.
Peplau et al. wrote that while Bell et al.′s suggestion that biological factors have a stronger influence on exclusive homosexuality than they have on bisexuality may seem plausible, it has not been directly tested and appears to conflict with available evidence, such as that concerning prenatal hormone exposure.
Psychologists Stanton L. Jones and Mark Yarhouse called Sexual Preference a famous study, writing that Bell et al.′s data suggest that mothers have only a weak influence on the development of homosexuality, and that their work is therefore "sometimes thought of as the study that discredited the psychoanalytic theory." Jones and Yarhouse observed that in Bell et al.′s sample "considerably more homosexual males reported fathers who were detached or not affectionate than did heterosexual men". They concluded that, "While clearly not providing definitive support for the psychoanalytic hypothesis, this study is surely not the refutation of that hypothesis that it is sometimes supposed to be."
In 2002, The New York Times quoted historian and gay rights activist Martin Duberman as saying that Sexual Preference resulted from "the most ambitious study of male homosexuality ever attempted", and that together with Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women the book "refuted a large number of previous studies that gay men were social misfits". Historian Laurie Guy observed that Sexual Preference relied on adult recollection of childhood, a type of evidence that had been criticized by Gagnon and Simon as long ago as 1973. Guy argued that gay rights organizations in New Zealand over-relied upon the work in the debate that preceded the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986, writing that while important, it was only one study, and as such did not support gay rights activist claims that "all evidence" shows that sexual orientation is fixed early in life. Psychologist Bruce Rind credited Bell et al. with disproving psychoanalytic theories about the development of homosexuality, along with the idea that childhood seduction causes homosexuality. Psychologist Yarhouse wrote that while the Bell et al. study is cited by proponents of a biological explanation, it relies on retrospective memory recall, which can be unreliable. The American Psychological Association, in "Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation", a document released in 2009, credited Bell et al. and other authors with discrediting theories claiming that sexual orientation is caused by family dynamics or trauma. Neuroscientist Simon LeVay wrote in Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why (2010) that statistical studies of large numbers of subjects support Freud′s view that on average gay men are more likely than straight men to describe their relationships with their mothers as close and their relationships with their fathers as distant or hostile; he cited Bell et al. in support of this claim.