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Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation

Janis Bohan, Glenda Russell

Publication Year: 1999

Psychology's approach to sexual orientation has long had its foundation in essentialism, which undergirds psychological theory and research as well as clinical practice and applications of psychology to public policy issues. It is only recently that psychology as a discipline has begun to entertain social constructivism as an alternative approach.

Based on the belief that thoughtful dialogue can engender positive change, Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation explores the implications for psychology of both essentialist and social constructionist understandings of sexual orientation. The book opens with an introduction presenting basic theoretical frameworks, followed by three application sections dealing with clinical practice, research and theory, and public policy. In each, the discussion takes the form of a conversation, as the authors first consider essentialist and constructionist approaches to the topic at hand. These thoughts, in turn, are followed by responses from distinguished scholars chosen for their expertise in a particular area.

By providing an array of comments and thoughtful responses to topics surrounding psychology's approaches to sexual orientation, this valuable study sheds new light on the contrasting views held in the field and the ways in which essentialist and constructionist understandings may be applied to specific practices and policies.

Published by: NYU Press



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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-10

The idea for this book grew out of countless conversations between the two of us about psychology’s approach to sexual orientation. As we talked about this topic, we found ourselves alternately excited by the possibilities of rethinking sexual orientation and frustrated by the difficulty of doing so. At some point, one of us commented about how much fun and how challenging these conversations were, and...

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Chapter 1: Conceptual Frameworks

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pp. 11-30

In certain domains of discourse regarding sexual orientation, we can find vigorous attempts to address quandaries such as these. Most such attempts lie outside the field of psychology, but increasingly they are finding their way into the psychological literature. At the heart of many such discussions is an appeal to a distinction between essentialist...

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Chapter 2: Implications for Clinical Work

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pp. 31-56

There has been only limited discussion of the relative merits of applying essentialist and social constructionist perspectives to clinical work that focuses on sexual orientation (e.g., Hart, 1984; Richardson, 1984, 1987; Schippers, 1989; Stein, 1996). Stein has pointed out that most mental health professionals subscribe to essentialist ideas about sexuality...

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Chapter 3: The Best of Both Worlds: Essentialism, Social Constructionism, and Clinical Practice

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pp. 57-70

My godson, who is a thirteen-year-old soccer superstar, recently dyed his hair platinum blonde. Good as it looks, it caused me to wonder aloud to his mother, who is a developmental psychologist, how we know when adolescence is over. She replied, “When we’ve separated ourselves enough that we feel safe going back into the stew.”Not unlike where we are developmentally in LGB psychology, actually. And...

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Chapter 4: Who Do We Want You to Be? : A Commentary on Essentialist and Social Constructionist

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pp. 71-76

As I read Glenda Russell and Janis Bohan’s compelling and thought-provoking chapter on essentialist and social constructionist perspectives in clinical work, I began to reflect on my twenty years of clinical experience, much of which involved working with issues of sexual orientation. I experience myself as a social constructionist and as an essentialist in the therapy room at different times, depending on the patient and where I am in my own professional and personal development. My...

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Chapter 5: Don’t Look for Perfects: A Commentary on Clinical Work and Social Constructionism

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pp. 77-84

Writing this commentary raises a great irony for me. As a deep social constructionist, I see sexual orientation as an idea that emerged near the end of the nineteenth century as part of the new profession of psychiatry’s effort to busy itself segmenting the behavioral and intrapsychic world into neat little boxes of normal and abnormal. In my mind, the categories of heterosexual and homosexual cannot...

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Chapter 6: Implications for Psychological Research and Theory Building

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pp. 85-105

As we discussed in chapter 2, psychology’s approach to the topic of sexual orientation has been primarily essentialist in nature. In the previous section of the book we explored how this phenomenon affects clinical practice; here we examine its impact on psychological research and the development of psychological theory dealing...

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Chapter 7: Bringing Psychology in from the Cold: Framing Psychological Theory and Research within a Social Constructionist Psychology Approach

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pp. 106-128

In the last month I have counseled a number of people who appear to be oblivious to the sexual orientation categories that exist in our society. One of these, David, age 44, is a good example. Married for fifteen years with six children, he was having his first emotional and sexual relationship with another man. He described this...

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Chapter 8: Psychology of Sexual Orientation

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pp. 129-138

Confusion abounds! This book looks at some of the factors that make sexual orientation such a fuzzy and hard-to-grasp concept, one that keeps both the experts and the general population going around most of the time in circles. When it comes to sexual orientation, people...

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Chapter 9: Implications for Public Policy

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pp. 139-164

One of the criticisms leveled against social constructionism is the charge that it lacks relevance to the real, material world (e.g., Bordo, 1990; Burman, 1990; Elshtain, 1982; Flax, 1990; Hartsock, 1983; Kitzinger, 1995; Weedon, 1987;Weisstein, 1993; Zita, 1988). In fact, this criticism misrepresents constructionism. To consider something...

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Chapter 10: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues in Public Policy: Some of the Relevance and Realities of Psychological Science

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pp. 165-182

The preceding chapter, on the public policy implications of essentialist and social constructionist perspectives on sexual orientation, raised a number of interesting issues related to the interplay of psychological science and public policy. In the chapter, the authors discuss changes over time in understanding sexual orientation as recognized by mental health professionals and scholars, as well as some of the implications...

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Afterword: The Conversation Continues

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pp. 183-209

Our goal in the preceding chapters has been to engage in conversations with scholars in the field to explore the meanings and implications of essentialist and constructionist perspectives on sexual orientation. Ideally, these conversations would contain more give-and-take, a continuation and expansion and revision of the themes each chapter...


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pp. 211-228


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pp. 229-233

E-ISBN-13: 9780814723074
E-ISBN-10: 0814723071
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814713242
Print-ISBN-10: 0814713246

Page Count: 244
Publication Year: 1999

OCLC Number: 50745274
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Psychotherapy.
  • Gays -- Mental health services.
  • Bisexuals -- Mental health services.
  • Sexual orientation -- Psychological aspects.
  • Bisexuality -- Psychological aspects.
  • Homosexuality -- Psychological aspects.
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