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The Neglected Phenomenon of Female Homosexuality

by Seward Hiltner

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 29, 1974, pp. 591-593. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Whenever the word "homosexuality" is mentioned, more than 90 per cent of the listeners or readers will assume that the reference is to males. In the first report by Alfred C. Kinsey and his colleagues on male sexual behavior in the U.S., one of the items that provided maximum shock value was the "cumulative incidence" figure of 37 per cent for homosexual acts. That meant that 37 per cent of the men interviewed reported having, at some age and on at least one occasion, a homosexual experience.

At that time Kinsey estimated that the percentage of more-or-less exclusively homosexual males in our white population was about 4 per cent. But the report made a most useful contribution: a scale of points from zero to six, with the zero representing those males demonstrating no homosexual interest or activity whatever, and the six representing those of exclusively homosexual orientation. Later students of the subject, including Kinsey’s successors, are now inclined to include most of the men ranked at five and some of those at four in the blanket category "homosexual," which of course considerably raises the predominantly homosexual proportion of the male population.

Some excellent studies of male homosexuality have been done since Kinsey. Judd Marmor and others have used both clinical and other data to show that male homosexuals as a group are no less mentally healthy, by the usual criteria, than heterosexuals -- except insofar as blanket discriminatory social attitudes render them so. Evelyn Hooker has pioneered in studies of the social patterns and relationships of male homosexuals. The differentiation of homosexual orientation from gender identity (for females as well as males) has been increasingly recognized, and a highly competent summing up is available in Man and Woman: Boy and Girl, by John Money and Anke A. Ehrhardt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972).

As to the causes of homosexuality in males, there is so far no conclusive evidence that, physiological or biochemical factors are involved (but it may eventually be found that some such factors are contributory), and there is general agreement that homosexual patterns are "learned." But the complexities of that "learning" are very poorly understood. Otherwise competent journalistic reports on research findings about male homosexuality, such as Peter and Barbara Wyden’s Growing Up Straight (Stein & Day, 1968), confound the picture for the public by appealing to the fears of middle-class parents; further, they profess (without foundation) to show that parents can educate their children away from the possibility of becoming homosexual.

Along with the centering of the research and writing (and propaganda) almost entirely on male homosexuality, there have been some tacit assumptions about female homosexuality: that it is infrequent (Kinsey put the figure at half that for men); that its causes will automatically be made clear if those for males are disclosed; and that most female homosexuals are unattractive or dominating women who could not get a man. In addition to these fallacious assumptions, and perhaps even overshadowing them, is the fact that, contrasted with the antagonistic attitude, in general toward male homosexuals, society is not really much concerned about those few "inadequate" females who fall into homosexual patterns. Partly because of all that, and because money for research on homosexuality is virtually nonexistent (the present federal administration has cut back sharply even the small previous allocation, and private foundations seem frightened of the subject), nearly all studies have continued to be of male homosexuals.

A genuine advance toward the understanding of homosexuality in females has been made in the publication of Lesbianism, by David H. Rosen (Charles C Thomas, 1974), a psychiatrist at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Francisco and a member of the University of California’s department of psychiatry. The book’s excellent foreword is by Evelyn Hooker, who chaired the HEW study commission on homosexuality in 1967-68 (its findings were released only in 1972). She commends the work, and rightly so, primarily for its "comprehensive critical review of the literature" (there have been about 15 studies of female homosexuals who were not patients) and for its 26 summarized case studies. Averaging about one page each, the case studies were collected by the author outside his clinical practice and with the cooperation of the Daughters of Bilitis, an organization of female homosexual persons. Quite properly, the author has done the statistical work that his small sample warrants, but the case studies tell more than the statistics. All the participants cooperated voluntarily.

Although Rosen did not use a control group in relation to his 26 nonpatient subjects, and although some of them had problems, he succeeds in considerable measure in demonstrating his principal thesis that "female homosexuality is not an illness but ‘a way of life.’ " His respondents varied as to their position on the Kinsey scale, some maintaining sexual relations with both males and females, while others had never had sexual relations with a male. They also showed wide variation in the duration of commitment to a single partner. One of Rosen’s most significant findings (supporting a suggestion by Kinsey) was that the later pattern these women followed had been greatly influenced by their first sexual experience. If that experience was a satisfactory one with another woman or girl, the chances of moving toward homosexuality were increased. They were also increased if the first experience had been an unsatisfactory one with a man or boy.

As one woman cited in the book explained her early experience: "I met a boy and ‘went steady’ with him for nine months. We were very much interested in each other -- sex would have developed later. My parents were afraid of my interest in him, so they put a sudden stop to our romance. I did not want to date another boy." I can recall a young woman with whom I counseled years ago about her homosexual relationship with a teacher. She told me: "My parents warned me against boys. But they never said anything about girls, and I never thought there was anything wrong with my relationship to the teacher -- until later."

Just last month the American Psychiatric Association, voting on a recommendation from its board of trustees, dropped homosexuality as such from its list of mental disorders. The vote was about 60 per cent to 40 per cent. Still retained in the mental illness category is "sexual orientation disturbance," which might involve homosexuals who are disturbed by their condition or who want to change it. While psychiatrists will, of course, be available to help people with a homosexual orientation if they want such help, the APA’s decision is a clear disclaimer of responsibility for changing homosexual persons who are not troubled by their orientation and whose behavior is not socially irresponsible.

For many human predicaments, classification as "illness" has been a gesture of hope and acceptance. "Alienists" became psychiatrists when "insanity" gave way to mental illness. In the sense that an illness is something that runs a course and is fatal if there is no recovery, homosexuality is no illness. By that same standard, a host of personality problems are not illnesses. In the sense that an illness is something the person had no part in initiating, it is probable that homosexual persons are less ill than people who get colds, ulcers, lung cancer and housemaid’s knee.

But when "illness" is used for name-calling purposes, to rule out such use is plainly a move in the right direction. On Christian ethical grounds, I would recommend that all laws making criminal offenses of acts between consenting homosexual adults be repealed and that there be no blanket job discrimination against homosexual persons of either sex; further, I contend that exclusion of homosexual persons from churches (unless they are pushed out for a reason that would apply to heterosexuals in identical fashion) is untenable. But I would not be prepared to say, as the increasing quantities of homosexual propaganda want us to, that the one problem about homosexuals is their civil rights in the larger sense.

The constructive suggestions in Rosen’s book are confined to the no-illness point of view, along with a plea for more research, which, of course, is needed. But there are other phenomena that have come to attention in recent years about homosexual behavior among women -- phenomena which, even though lacking careful study, are suggestive enough to warrant, preliminary comment.

The respected Masters and Johnson studies have made crystal clear that most women (unless impeded by specific disease or restrained by social standards) have the capacity for far more orgasms than even the prize male stud can claim. Some interesting findings have been brought out by the two or three competent studies of so-called "group sex," in which the participants are mainly married couples. It seems that a couple usually enters into such activity on the urging of the husband; however, if the pattern lasts as long as a few months, most of the wives discover that they enjoy sexual relations with women as well as with men. A typical group-sex evening seems to find the men racing at the start, then dropping out one by one, but enjoying watching the women continue until it is time to go home. (Such groups forbid both feelings and expressions of affection.) So far as is known, most of these women, after group sex is left behind, seldom if ever again engage in homosexual activity. They never think of themselves as "homosexual." Also of interest concerning the married groups studied is the fact that male homosexuality has been completely absent,

I have been trying to imagine what a "pansexualist" utopia would be like if absolutely all taboos on sexual activity were removed except those involving injury, exploitation, coercion, and the like. If females -- perhaps even girls before puberty -- had the psychic inclination to realize their full orgasmic potentialities, then there would have to be sexual acts between females, and these would far outnumber all heterosexual acts and all male homosexual acts combined! For any woman psychically tuned up to use all her capabilities for orgasm all the time, sexual relations with males would become, comparatively speaking, "breaks" in the "normative" female-to-female pattern.

Before dismissing the above fantasy too quickly, let the reader think about why it is that our society seems so little concerned over female homosexuality, has regarded it so lightly, and has no idea of the amount of female sexual activity engaged in by women who are not admitted homosexuals. A woman bent on such full sexuality would have little or no time left over for babies and housekeeping, not to mention a job. In this instance, even nonbelievers in "natural law" might argue that nature, or perhaps evolution, has triumphed over unbridled instinct; otherwise the race would have perished on Lesbos. And maybe some of that is true. But is it not likely that our male-dominated society "represses," in Freud’s sense, the realization that women guided by instinct and pleasure alone could cause far more havoc than men motivated by the same factors? Is not our apparent tolerance and indifference probably a means of protection for the male ego?

More and more church groups seem to be feeling a bit guilt-stricken about blanket condemnation of homosexuality and especially of homosexual persons. Thinking perhaps of how they once condemned alcoholics instead of trying to accept and help them, they have become open to discussions and not infrequently have invited homosexual persons to speak. The trouble is that such encounters pit an indefensible and outmoded legalism against a propaganda line that says, basically, that there is no problem about homosexuals except that of civil rights. That is a bit like the John Birch Society’s getting qualms of conscience, inviting Brezhnev in for a discussion, and then wrestling over whether to retreat to its previous position or to advance all the way to the Kremlin.

It is proper and timely that our interest be awakened in the personhood of homosexual individuals who have no wish to change their sexual orientation -- and let us not forget the women. But there is a need to be thoughtful about the overall issues involved.


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