Bem's Exotic Becomes Erotic Theory
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The Exotic Becomes Erotic (EBE) theory of sexual orientation was first published by Cornell University professor and respected social psychologist Daryl J. Bem, Ph.D in 1996. It takes a very controversial stance on sexual orientation, claiming that both homo- and heterosexuality are caused not directly by genes per se but rather only indirectly through biological factors. It is ultimately through a specific modal process that most men and women follow throughout childhood and adolescence that determines their sexual preferences in adulthood. This theory takes into account the gender-polarizing tendencies of our culture as well as problematic political agendas that often pervade other theories of sexual orientation.
Overview of Exotic Becomes Erotic Theory
The central claim behind Bem’s Exotic Becomes Erotic (EBE) theory is that individuals become romantically or erotically attracted to individuals whom they viewed as different or exotic to themselves in childhood and adolescence. Bem outlines a temporal sequence of events that occur in a person’s life which supposedly leads to his or her sexual orientation. The sequence of events is summarized as follows:
Stage 1 (A to B): Biological/prenatal variables - Biological factors, such as the prenatal hormones to which we are exposed, do not directly cause us to become gay or heterosexual but rather merely determine our childhood temperaments (ex: aggressive, calm, sensitive, etc.).
Stage 2 (B to C): Childhood temperaments; sex-typical/atypical activity - The temperaments we develop as children predispose us to enjoy certain activities and behaviors over others. One child might enjoy rough and tumble play (male-typical activities), while another might prefer to socialize quietly or play with jacks or hopscotch (female-typical activities) (Bem, 1997). These behaviors also include seeking out playmates that enjoy similar activities. Children who prefer sex-typical activities and same-sex playmates are therefore “gender-conforming,” while those who favor sex-atypical activities and opposite-sex peers are “gender-nonconforming.”
Stage 3 (C to D): Feeling different from opposite/same-sex peers - Gender-conforming children will perceive opposite-sex peers as unfamiliar and exotic, thus causing them to feel different from this group. Gender-nonconforming children, however, who have had little interaction with same-sex peers, will feel different from them and therefore view this group as exotic.
Stage 4 (D to E): Nonspecific physiological arousal to opposite/same-sex peers - These feelings of unfamiliarity produce heightened physiological arousal, “nonspecific” because often the arousal will not necessarily be consciously felt. For the male-typical child, it may be felt as antipathy toward girls; for the female-typical child, it may be felt as timidity or apprehension in the presence of boys (Kimmel, 82).
Stage 5 (E to F): Erotic/Romantic attraction to opposite/same-sex persons - The physiological arousal felt in childhood and adolescence is transformed into erotic/romantic attraction towards opposite/same-sex peers in later adulthood.
Evidence for EBE Theory
Empirical evidence supporting the EBE theory was found in a study conducted in San Francisco of approximately 1,000 homosexual and 500 heterosexual men and women. The study found that childhood gender conformity or non-conformity was not only the largest, but also only significant childhood predictor of later sexual orientation (Kimmel, 84). According to the results, approximately 70 percent of gay men and lesbian women felt different from same-sex peers in childhood, compared with only 38 percent heterosexual males and 51 percent heterosexual females. Furthermore, homosexual men and women tended to cite more gender-related differences from their same-sex peers (men as children did not like sports, while women were more interested in sports or were more masculine than other girls). On the other hand, heterosexual participants were more likely to attribute feeling different in childhood to non-gender related reasons, such as being poorer, less intelligent, more introverted, or dissimilar in physical appearance. Numerous other studies have also confirmed this finding that gay men and lesbian women are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to recall gender-nonconforming behaviors and interests in childhood (Bem, 1997).
Other evidence that supports Bem’s belief that unfamiliarity can lead to attraction is the notion that childhood familiarity has been proven to be antithetical to later erotic/romantic feelings (Kimmel, 85).” Various cross-cultural circumstances have been inspected in which close-contact and familiarity with certain peers in childhood does not result in attraction towards this group in adulthood. One specific example which corroborates this idea is that of the Sambian culture in New Guinea. Due to the cultural belief that manhood can only be attained through ingesting the semen of their elders, Sambian boys spend many years in close sexual contact with older males. Despite this fact, it has been found that all but a small minority of men have no problem entering later into heterosexual relationships. Applying this example to the EBE theory, the close familiarity in which these homosexual activities occur in childhood prevents the development of homoerotic feelings later in life.
How Does Exotic Become Erotic? The Two-Factor Theory of Emotion
The heart of the EBE theory lies in the necessary conversion of exotic into erotic feelings, and therefore relies heavily on the two-factor theory of emotion. In the 1960’s Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer proposed that emotion has two components (Baumeister & Bushman, 186). When an emotional stimulus activates the sympathetic nervous system, physiological arousal occurs as the first component. The second component is the “cognitive label,” which is determined through our cognitive appraisal of the surrounding circumstances. So while the arousal of our sympathetic nervous system provides the cues that we are feeling emotional, it is our subjective assessment of the situation that ultimately determines what emotion we are feeling (Kimmel, 86). This two-factor theory of how we experience emotion makes it very easy for us to misjudge or misattribute the cause of our arousal. Many studies have shown that arousal, regardless of the cause, is often mislabeled as sexual arousal. Thus, an adolescent reflecting on his/her physiological arousal towards opposite/same-sex peers (due to unfamiliarity) will over time interpret it as erotic/romantic attraction to these peers.
Criticism of EBE Theory
While many social psychologists support Bem’s theory, others refuse to accept it as a valid explanation for sexual orientation. For instance, some believe Bem’s theory is too oversimplified, providing a straightforward answer to an extremely complex question. As one critic states, “Bem's theory explicitly omits any intrapsychic and interpersonal explanations for homosexuality, implying that normal psychosexual development is no more complex or meaningful than stimulus-response mechanism (Nicolosi, 2002).” Another concern raised against Bem’s theory is that it may encourage an antigay agenda of prevention and “cure” (Bem, 1997). Because the theory asserts that sexual orientation is formed through childhood experiences rather than through direct biological factors, it may lead parents to attempt “prevention” of homosexuality by discouraging their gender-nonconforming children from engaging in sex-atypical behaviors.
Daryl Bem’s controversial theory of sexual orientation is one that seeks to deconstruct the traditional concepts of sexuality and highlight society’s gender-polarizing tendencies. Due to the values our culture has impressed upon us, we have grown accustomed to “[looking] at the world through the lenses of gender…to [imposing] the male/female dichotomy on virtually every aspect of life, especially sexuality (Kimmel, 91).” It seems it is Bem’s belief that if we were to live in a less gender-polarizing world, there would be more fluidity in sexual orientation; sexual orientation would not even necessarily be based on a person’s biological sex. As Sandra Bem, psychologist and wife of Daryl Bem, remarked, “Although some of the (very few) individuals to whom I have been attracted…have been men and some have been women, what those individuals have in common has nothing to do with either their biological sex or mine—from which I conclude, not that I am attracted to both sexes, but that my sexuality is organized around dimensions other than sex (Kimmel, 91).” Because we do live in a strongly gender-polarized culture, however, we are obligated to delineate our sexuality in black-and-white, male-or-female terms. This is a fact which Bem has acknowledged and incorporated in his Exotic Becomes Erotic theory.
Baumeister, Roy F., and Brad J. Bushman. Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2007.
Bem, Daryl J. "Exotic Becomes Erotic: Explaining the Enigma of Sexual Orientation." American Psychological Association annual meeting. Chicago. Abstracts of Recent Bem Articles. 1997. <http://dbem.ws/online_pubs.html#sexual%20orientation>.
Dixit, Jay, and Peter Doskoch. "The exotic becomes the erotic?" Psychology Today. Dec. 1996. Fall 2008 <http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-19961201-000009.html>.
Kimmel, Michael S. Gendered Society Reader, The. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2003. 82-94.
Nicolosi, Joseph. "A Critique of Bem’s E.B.E. Theory." Leadership University. July-Aug. 2002. National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. Fall 2008 <http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/narth/critique.html>.