Sex, science, and social work.
Article Type: Editorial
Subject: Social science research (Analysis)
Sex (Psychology) (Social aspects)
Social case work (Practice)
Author: Howard, Matthew O.
Pub Date: 12/01/2010
Publication: Name: Social Work Research Publisher: National Association of Social Workers Audience: Academic; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 National Association of Social Workers ISSN: 1070-5309
Issue: Date: Dec, 2010 Source Volume: 34 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 200 Management dynamics
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 244404445
Full Text: In 2007, the National Academy of Scholars (NAS) published The Scandal of Social Work Education, a report contending that social work education had become politicized to the extent that "dogma, tendentiousness, and coerced intellectual conformity were becoming integral to the definition of the field" (NAS, 2007a, p. 4). Comparing contemporary social work education "against traditional academic ideals of open-inquiry, partisan disengagement, and intellectual pluralism," the report concluded, "the results are scandalous" (NAS, 2007b, p. 1). Is it true, as the NAS report suggested, that social work education is characteristically dogmatic and doctrinaire, occasionally compromising students' first amendment rights and subverting "the intellectual foundations on which the modern university is based--the honest, rigorous, and, to the extent possible, open-minded search for truth" (NAS, 2007b, p. 1)? Unfortunately, I believe it is.

Tenaciously held but critically unexamined beliefs also corrupt the scientific process in social work and allied fields. Researchers may act (consciously or unconsciously) in ways that reinforce their ideological biases. "True believers" ignore empirical findings at odds with their beliefs or artfully reinterpret even the most damning results in terms that support their favored positions. Prevailing paradigmatic accounts of social problems and proponents of those accounts frequently close off some avenues of inquiry altogether, particularly in cases in which new theories and data might undermine entrenched and politically useful perspectives.

Several key areas of research related to human sexuality provide useful examples of the stultifying effects of rigid ideological beliefs on scientific progress.


Susan Clancy ignited a firestorm of criticism with the publication of her book The Trauma Myth (2009), a research-based polemic repudiating the traumatogenic theory--the dominant theory in the CSA area for nearly 40 years. The traumatogenic theory purportedly explained the manner by which CSA produces adverse long-term consequences and was founded on three key assumptions: long-term effects of CSA are primarily a function of trauma experienced at the time of abuse; effects of such trauma on functioning later in life are direct in nature; and CSA varies in the extent to which it is traumatizing, with greater severity of trauma leading to more deleterious long-term outcomes (Clancy, 2009).

Clancy cited her own research and that of other investigators to argue that most victims of CSA were not subjected to violence or otherwise traumatized at the time of their victimization but, rather, typically experienced feelings of confusion. She also identified a far greater role for indirect than for direct effects of CSA on functional outcomes in adulthood. Once victims fully appreciated the nature of their CSA experiences (usually in adolescence or young adulthood), they frequently reported that they felt betrayed by the abuser, blamed themselves for the abuse, and felt ashamed of their involvement in the CSA event(s). Disclosures of CSA were often greeted with disbelief or minimization of the effects or nature of the reported abuse, or the victim was outright blamed for the abuse.

Clancy (2009) contended that although the traumatogenic theory has done much to heighten society's awareness of CSA, it has done little for victims--in part because it does not accurately characterize the nature of most victims' abuse experiences or the processes by which CSA produces adverse outcomes in adulthood:

Soon after she began publishing the research on which The Trauma Myth was based, Clancy (2009) has reported,

Clancy had dared to challenge the dominant orthodoxy of the CSA field, a theory that had proven politically and scientifically useful (in terms of increased research funding), despite the fact that it did not appear to accurately reflect important aspects of the CSA experiences and their consequences.


In an effort to account for rape from an evolutionary perspective, Thornhill and Palmer (2000) first critiqued what they termed "the social science explanation of rape." Core premises of the social science explanation, by far the most widely accepted theory of rape since the 1970s, are that rape is learned behavior, motivated principally by the desire to dominate and control (not sexual desire), and therefore more prevalent in patriarchal societies. Thornhill and Palmer (2000) concluded that "it is difficult to overestimate the power the 'not sex' theory of rape continues to have," although major shortcomings of the theory include the following:

Thornhill and Palmer believe that rape is an adaptation (or by-product of an adaptation) selected for in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens. Male and female humans are believed to have developed

substantially different and potentially conflicting reproductive strategies stemming largely from the significant disparity in minimum investment for a successful reproductive event. Women are noted to have a much greater obligatory investment and far greater potential associated vulnerability associated with reproduction relative to men. In addition, the reproductive life-span is significantly shorter in women. The results of these disparities are said to have resulted in males tending to demonstrate reproductive strategies emphasizing maximizing numbers of mating opportunities over quality of mate or at least pursuing a sort of "dual strategy" wherein the male invests for a period of time more in one woman while still taking advantage of extra-pair bond matings whenever possible. Females, however, are, as a result of the greater obligate investment and greater degree of associated vulnerability likely to be significantly more selective with regard to mates emphasizing both genetic quality as well as a willingness on the part of the male to invest in her and her offspring. (Mullen, 2000, p. 2).

From the evolutionary perspective, rape may be a by-product of male humans' evolutionarily conditioned predilections for opportunistic sex and aggression or an adaptation expressed in specific environmental contexts, selected for because it circumvents constraints imposed by female mating selectivity. A key assumption of the evolutionary view is that rape provided reproductive advantages to men who engaged in the behavior.

Thornhill and Palmer's theory has, predictably, come under intense public and scientific attack over the past decade. Criticisms range from those emphasizing the insensitive and unnecessarily provocative tone of their writing, to the purposed failure of the theory to account for male-on-male rape or cross-cultural differences in the prevalence of rape, to serious concerns regarding the authors' interpretation of data putatively supportive of their position (Malik, 2000;Wertheim, 2000). One critic suggested that Thornhill and Palmer's (2000) book A Natural History of Rape is, itself, a work of advocacy, not science (Coyne & Berry, 2000); in this vein, it is evident that scientists such as Thornhill and Palmer and Wilson (1998) have envisioned a far more prominent role for sociobiological theories of human behavior (and policy prescriptions based on these perspectives) than exists currently.

Despite its limitations and unsettling view of human nature, Thornhill and Palmer's (2000) book did raise numerous serious questions regarding the validity of the social science explanation of rape. We may legitimately ask, for example, to what extent there are data that convincingly discount a role for sexual motivation in the commission of rape--and, given the apparent paucity of such data, whether sociopolitical factors rather than scientific validity have given rise to the social science perspective and maintained its primacy in this area for nearly 40 years.


Cheryl Weill's (2009) recent book Nature's Choice: What Science Reveals about the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation examined evidence pertaining to the leading contemporary etiological theory of sexual orientation, the gestational "neurohormonal" theory, originally proposed nearly a quarter century ago (Ellis & Ames, 1987). The neurohormonal theory assumes that

sexual orientation in all mammals is primarily determined by the degree to which the brain is exposed to testosterone and other sex hormones while brain development is taking place. Furthermore, hormonal and neurological variables operating during gestation are the primary determinants of sexual orientation. The theory predicts that the result for women would be increasing levels of testosterone leading to lesbianism. For males, the initial interpretation would be that gay men develop due to reduced levels of testosterone ... with respect to women, the theory has been accurate as far as it goes. For men, the theory appears to account for only a fraction of the data and may not apply to a separate subfraction of gay men. (Weill, 2009, p. 54)

The neurohormonal theory incorporates five key predictions, one of which is that homosexuality should evidence a significant degree of heritability. Based on her book-length review of the literature, Weill (2009) concluded that

Twin studies reviewed by Weill indicated that approximately 50% of the same-sex identical twin pairs of homosexual men and women were heterosexual. Thus, although twin study data support a significant role for genetics in the etiology of sexual orientation (concordance rates for dizygotic twins--who share 50% of their genes on average--were 22% for men and 16% for women), they also clearly indicate that factors other than genes are at play. Epigenetic, intrauterine, and other environmental factors could also explain why sexual orientation seems, to many observers, fixed from birth. Weill noted that data supporting a social learning model of the etiology of sexual orientation have not been published, whereas some data are available that support the absence of social learning effects (for example, one cited study of 500 children raised by lesbian and heterosexual mothers did not find significant differences between the groups with regard to the children's later gender identity or sexual orientation). Summarizing the results of this study, Weill (2009) concluded that "it appears that no data indicate that one's sexual orientation is significantly influenced by postnatal social interactions" (p. 188). In the absence of significantly more evidence, this conclusion is premature. Weill also resorted to fallacious reasoning (specifically, argumentum ad baculum) by suggesting that Ellis and Ames's (1987) prediction that "attempts to alter sexual orientation after birth should be minimally effective" has been confirmed merely because it is "generally accepted and supported by both the American Psychiatric Association ... and American Psychological Association" (p. 53). One has only to recall that it was not all that long ago that the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a disorder.

It seems to have become a truism in social work that sexual orientation is fixed at birth and, thereafter, immutable. This assumption may well prove to be accurate, but as an empirical question, it is, at present, unresolved.


What lessons can we derive from this provocative review of ideology and its effects on scientific progress in social work? One lesson may be that theories often emerge and persist, even when scientifically unsupported or invalidated, because they serve important sociopolitical functions or are personally appealing. The traumatogenic theory underscored the seriousness of CSA and its long-term consequences, which had, hitherto, been largely socially invisible. The social science explanation of rape offered an account of rape that was consonant with valid feminist criticisms that women were oppressed and often subjected to abuse and discrimination solely on the basis of sex. The neurohormonal theory of sexual orientation may have become widely accepted because its characterization of sexual orientation as fixed at birth renders moralistic criticisms of homosexual individuals moot--particularly those raised by fundamental religious groups, given that the notion of sin is necessarily founded on the idea that individuals are free to choose among different behaviors and identities and are, therefore, responsible for those choices.

Invalid theories may also persist because serious personal and professional costs are exacted on researchers who challenge ascendant ideologies. Clancy (2009) has described the ostracism she experienced after publishing the research that led her to write The Trauma Myth. Thornhill and Palmer are persona non grata in much of the academic world. Scholars suggesting that we do not yet know whether sexual orientation is entirely fixed at birth for all people are likely to be shunned in many academic settings. Although all scientists are presumably committed to the pursuit of truth--wherever it leads them--in practice, too few are willing to take on unsupported ideologies when they may pay a heavy price for doing so.

It is also important to note that our ethical positions as a profession are not contingent on scientific findings. CSA and rape are abhorrent acts, whatever their causes, and our profession rightfully regards discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation improper under any circumstances. As social work scientists, we must be guided by a search for the truth wherever it leads us, but the personal and professional ethical stances we take are contingent on a different set of considerations: those having to do with what is right, good, and best for our citizens, nation, and world.


Clancy, S.A. (2009). The trauma myth: The truth About the sexual Abuse of children--and its aftermath. New York: Basic Books.

Coyne, J.A., & Berry, A. (2000, March 9). Rape as an adaptation [Review of the book A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion]. Nature, 404, 121-122.

Ellis, L., & Ames, M.A. (1987). Neurohormonal functioning and sexual orientation: A theory of homosexuality--heterosexuality. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 233-258.

Malik, K. (2000). Randy Thornhill & Craig, Palmer: A Natural History of Rape ]Book review]. Retrieved from nhill&palmer.html

Mullen, D.J. (2000). Review--A Natural History of Rape [Book review]. Retrieved from: http:// php?tTpe=book&id-273

National Academy of Scholars. (2007a). The Scandal of social work education. Retrieved from

National Academy of Scholars. (2007b, September 11). The scandal of social work education NAS study. Retrieved from cfm?doctype_code=Article&doc_id=26

Thornhill, R., & Palmer, C.T. (2000). A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Weill, C. L. (2009). Nature's choice: What science reveals about the biological origins of sexual orientation. New York: Routledge.

Wertheim, M. (2000). Born to rape? Retrieved from http:// index.html

Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Matthew O. Howard, PhD, is Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599; e-mail:
First, and most obviously, sexual abuse, for most
   victims is not [a] traumatic experience when it
   happens. Second, clearly the harm sexual abuse
   causes is not direct and immediate; before it
   begins to damage victims, it has to be understood
   ("reconceptualized") and that often occurs many
   years after the actual abuse. Third, the cause
   of the damage appears to have nothing to do
   with any objective characteristics of the abuse
   vis-a-vis trauma and everything to do with the
   aftermath--specifically, with how victims come
   to feel about themselves and others and how
   these feelings influence their emotions, cognition,
   and behavior. (pp. 142-143)

all hell broke loose. I was bombarded with accusations
   that I was hurting victims even more
   than they already had been and that I was a
   friend of pedophiles. I was vilified by many in
   my own scientific community. Some colleagues
   and graduate students stopped talking to me. A
   well-meaning professor told me to pick another
   research topic because I was going to rule myself
   out of a job in academia. Some felt my research
   had a political agenda, one biased against victims.
   (pp. 77-78)

The assumptions it makes about human nature
   are not compatible with current knowledge
   about evolution; its assertion that rape is not
   sexually motivated is based on arguments that
   cannot withstand skeptical analysis; its predictions
   are not consistent with cross-cultural data
   on human rape; and it does not account for the
   occurrence of rape in other species. (p. 128)

"at present, we do not have enough data to
   determine whether all male and female homosexuality
   is influenced or determined by genes.
   We must remain open to the likelihood that
   some fraction of homosexuality in both males
   and females occurs independently of a gene or
   genes. (p. 52)
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