Book Review| Encouraging Heterosexuality: Helping Children Develop a Traditional Sexual Orientation, by Douglas A. Abbott and A. Dean Byrd

J.S. and S.M. Stearmer

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2010)






            Can parents orient their children towards heterosexuality?  And if so, how would they go about doing this?  These are the questions that motivated the authors of this short, 80 page book.  Byrd is a licensed clinical psychologist as well as the President of the Thrasher Research Fund and a member of the University of Utah School of Medicine faculty with appointments in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and in the Department of Psychiatry. Abbott is a professor of Child, Youth & Family studies at the University of Nebraska, with special cross-cultural research studies on families enduring traumatic events in India, Israel and Palestine.

            Defining the concept of “sexual orientation,” to refer to a person’s consistent and persistent desire for sexual gratification, they also present their three primary (and controversial) propositions on page 3: “First, we posit that heterosexuality is innate and natural and that heterosexuality is the most healthy and functional sexual orientation. Second, we propose that one’s sexual orientation can be fostered and encouraged early in development to strengthen a child’s heterosexual potential. Third, we believe that if something goes awry in the person’s psychological-social-biological environment and he or she engages in homosexual behavior, that person can return to a heterosexual orientation.” 

            Byrd and Abbott prefer to use the term “sexual preference” rather than “sexual orientation” because “preference” suggests both choice and the possibility of change, whereas “orientation” implies biological predestination.  (This somewhat contradicts the very title of their book, which mentions “orientation.”) The authors make their argument using both scientific information and religious doctrine, declaring that scientific data alone is insufficient to understand and evaluate complex human behavior such as sexual preference.

            The justification for a faith-informed approach is warranted, note the authors, by a series of foundational assumptions concerning the nature of reality. The first assumption is that there exists a spiritual world which is beyond the scientific method, and that knowledge can be attained through this spiritual medium as well as by empirical evidence. Second, the authors believe heterosexuality is innate and homosexuality is primarily a learned behavior.  Third, the authors assert that homosexuality is not a mental illness but an adaptation to circumstances in one’s life that involves moral choice. Fourth, they believe that widespread social acceptance of homosexuality will undermine the viability and desirability of the two-parent, heterosexual family, which is lamentable because that model is preferable and more advantageous to children.  Fifth, and most controversially, they believe that acceptance and legal recognition of homosexual behavior will lead the exploitation of children by adults.  In this regard, they refer to several publications and practices where adult-child sex is depicted seen as healthy rather than harmful or abusive.  This was perhaps for us the most disturbing information.  Their citation of evidence of an organized defense of adult-child sex practices was very convincing and merits further study.  But the topic of adult-child sex should be a concern for heterosexuals as well – for the abuse of children, whether boys or girls, by adults, whether men or woman, is the product of a promiscuous culture, not exclusively a homosexual culture.

            Helpfully, Abbott and Byrd also include a section near the beginning of their book where basic concepts relating to sexuality are defined, which prepares the reader to understand the scientific information in following chapters.  For example, we learned the difference between homophobic attitudes and heterosexism, “heterosexism” being a word with which we were not yet familiar.  The authors believe that heterosexism is a more correct term to use with regard to the attitudes of the general population that oppose homosexual behaviors, rather than “homophobic,” since a phobia denotes a fear of something, whereas heterosexism more correctly ascribes a preferential attitude towards heterosexuality based on a person’s worldview.  On page 16 the authors also present a new concept they have developed called Sexual Preference Uncertainty. They use this term to describe an individual who has questions or concerns about the object of his or her sexual desires. Abbott and Byrd argue that this uncertainty exists due to misconceptions about human sexuality, gender identity, and gender role behaviors.  This is not a common term used in scientific literature, however, because current theory postulates that a heterosexual who feels confusion over sexual preference is really a latent homosexual or bisexual in orientation and that preference has nothing to do with the issue.

            Abbott and Byrd list all of their assumptions upfront in an effort to be honest. This is designed to create the impression that the rest of what they present is based on hard scientific evidence.  We are not sure this conclusion can be justified, as the remainder of this review demonstrates.

            The authors contrast the “accepted” view of homosexuality with their alternative explanation. This debate is significant because the “gay gene” argument, which is the accepted understanding in popular culture, is a crucial sticking point of the gay rights agenda and anyone seeking to challenge the theory of the gay gene needs to have their scientific facts lined up.  Abbott and Byrd then present the reader with their own theory of homosexuality. This theory combines biological predispositions (not a gay gene, however), environmental factors and moral agency. The authors explain that when they use the word genes they are referring to genetically based physical or personality traits that may influence a person’s temperament and social interaction, but they are not referring to biology as a direct, causative agent. On pages 48-52 the authors present three models to illustrate their theory and how the three factors of biology, environment and agency variously interact to produce various outcomes in the development of homosexuality. They caution the reader that these models are simplistic and that the final outcome of homosexuality cannot be reduced to the simple presence or absence of any of these factors as other unidentified factors may also be influential.

            With their alternative theory of homosexuality in place, the authors then turn to the task of providing practical advice to parents, clergy, and others who desire to support heterosexual preference in children.  Also presented are arguments from ex-gays and other supporters of “healing” from homosexual behaviors. Abbott and Byrd finish by recognizing that their book is not the last word on this contentious and sensitive issue: “we acknowledge the limitations of our thesis.  We admit we don’t have all the answers, and that our perspective is, after all, only our interpretation of the scientific data and the application of our personal religious beliefs.” [1]

           Turning to our assessment of the book, first and of least important in our critique, there are some non-existent citations and incorrect data. For instance, the age of consent of sex for minors listed on page 11 has a few incorrect – or incorrectly noted - ages of concern. The authors do not explain what is meant by “consent” in these countries. The assumption is that this is the age at which youth can consent to sex with adults.  However, we found contradictory information listed in online databases, such as

            Our main objections, however, concern the framing of the argument, the minimization of some of the current literature in favor of articles that supported their recommendations – and most importantly, while we are also LDS, we disagreed with those recommendations.  What follows is an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the substance of the authors’ arguments.

            For example, as mentioned above, a major strength is that the first half of the book engages the reader in a discussion of the current terminology, scientific studies, and various viewpoints in the debate on sexual preference and sexual orientation.  While the title may lead you to believe that it is primarily a self-help book for heterosexual parents wanting to promote heterosexuality in their homes, the majority of the book provides both scientific and religious support for why it is acceptable for parents to do this if that is their desire. The overview of the scientific literature gives the book a more academic feel but that is a bit of a misconception.  For instance, the authors fall short in covering some of the most important relevant literature that contradicts their positions – such as research on prenatal hormone variations done by Mark Breedlove. [2]  In omitting some very important scientific literature, Abbott and Byrd do a disservice to the less informed reader, who will come away thinking they have the whole story when in reality they are lacking some important empirical information. 

            The authors do a good job counteracting the pervasive efforts in the world today that try to convince parents that they are wrong, bigoted, and hateful for wanting to encourage a particular sexual preference in their children. To that end, this book provides scientific and religious support for why parents are entitled, even justified, to encourage heterosexuality in their children if their religious beliefs lead them in that direction.  The foundation of this position rests in the glaringly contradictory positions that various advocacy, academic and medical professionals have staked out over the years. A review of the whole corpus of literature will affirm that all is not yet settled. The most widely adopted models now recognize that there are combinations of influences that may result in a individual turning out/choosing a homosexual lifestyle. Based on the concept that several various factors influence the outcome, parents can have some “hope” that they can help set the stage for heterosexual behavior.

            We were pleased that the authors introduce, and strongly support, the agency/freedom of choice factor into the sexual preference/orientation argument.  Moral agency is so inconvenient to scientific debate.  For religious persons who believe in the divine responsibility of free agency, and are taught to love and not judge, agency is an important consideration in the forming of societal laws and cultural expectations.  Boyd K. Packer is quoted on page 3 as saying, “The word tolerance is invoked as though it overrules everything else. Tolerance may be a virtue, but it is not the commanding one.  There is a difference between what one is and what one does.  What one is may deserve unlimited tolerance, what one does, only a measured amount. A virtue when pressed to the extreme may turn into a vice.”

            Perhaps by design, Abbott and Byrd do not address more fully the debate over “ex-gays” as well as some scientific studies and surveys that disagree on the numbers reporting self-identified exclusive homosexuals.  Another issue not tackled in earnest concerns why so many gays and lesbians appear not to follow the model they have posited. To this, the authors merely suggest that self-identifying homosexuals misremember the process by which they developed their sexual preferences. While this may be true, it is just as likely not true. The reader feels the need for more evidence at this and other points in their argument.

            Their “Assumption 2” – that heterosexuality is the innate design for humankind – actually becomes a bit problematic in their hands. They define heterosexuality in terms of very specific and dichotomous male-female roles. While they claim that they do not intend to force men and women into specific roles, their entire book is laden with assumptions about what activities boys and girls should engage in and which ones you should be concerned about. This leads to our largest complaint about the book. It falls into a standard pattern of favoring old social norms which have led to a patriarchal system that promotes an unhealthy male dominant position in the family and in society. While we understand the authors' concern with the development of a pervasive, promiscuous homosexual culture, we simply cannot support a return to lifestyles, no matter how traditional, that are equally detrimental to the half of the human population.

            The most unsettling part of the book was the pervasive and incorrect “behavior” stereotyping not only of gays in general, but also of both genders in particular.  There are inconsistencies regarding the role of gender behavior in the volume.  On the one hand, societal reactions to “atypical” gender behavior are seen as a negative influence on children, but one of the suggestions to “fixing” homosexual preferences is to help a child conform to “typical” gender behavior.  Wouldn’t a better approach be to encourage not only the child, but society as well, that it is better to not assign “typical” gender behaviors that make a child feel like they have to fit a certain mold? Do activities or personality traits really define a gender?  Or have we forced these things to define gender?  Do we really become “genderless” by allowing that most traits or interests can be found and accepted in both genders? We believe the answer is no, and that the world would be impoverished if such a rigid gender role system were readopted.

           For example, a young man we knew talked about how he was the only Mormon male in his high school, and the high school was in an area whether the gender roles for young men including lots of drinking, lots of swearing, lots of brawling, and lots of promiscuity.  Since he rejected all of these things, he was labeled a homosexual by his peers.  He talks about how he even for a moment wondered if he was homosexual, but was able to regroup and assert that his behaviors were completely in accordance with his religion's standard of hetereosexual manhood.  But this young man wonders about other young men who do not have the support of an organized religion's opposing conception of manhood.  Wouldn't such a young man fall prey to sincerely suspecting he must be homosexual because of such rigid gender role expectations?  The book does not address how such rigidity, especially when the role expectations are pernicious, may actually foster greater self-identification with homosexuality than otherwise.

            As a further example, in the list of activities on page 61 that boys and girls may enjoy doing together, or that might be considered okay for both genders to engage in, not one of those listed is a “typical” female activity. i.e. cooking, art, playacting.  Yet the main point of a recent book on parenting by LDS author Lynnae Allred is that all forms of play are good for children and parents of both genders to engage in and in fact that this creates healthier kids than those that are forced into certain activities. [3]

            Other gender inconsistencies are found in the discussion about creating happy marriages on page 60.  The authors state that love and respect are the foundations of a good, heterosexual marriage, assuring the reader that a marriage with a wife who is an “athlete and a civil engineer while the father may be a musician who cannot throw a spiral pass . . . [who] display somewhat atypical gender behaviors . . . is no cause for alarm.”  But wait a minute!  In the very next section on page 61, parents are encouraged to direct their children into “traditional gender identity and gender roles.”

            So on the one hand, forcing “typical gender behavior” conformity seems to lead to sexual preference/identity issues, and therefore the authors rightly imply this would not be a good thing for parents to do.  But on the other hand, the authors suggest that to prevent or change certain sexual preference/identity issues, one needs to enforce typical gender behavior!  It can’t be both ways – it cannot cause a problem and also fix it.  We would suggest that the authors need to focus on promoting loving and respectful family behaviors that have nothing to do with “typical” or “atypical” gender behavior (and in fact strike such suggestions from their very vocabulary) rather than confuse parents (and, in turn, their children) further.

            There is also a problem with the assumption by the authors that heterosexual couples are the only ones that show love and respect. Love and respect can also be the foundation of other marital arrangements. If “love and respect” alone are the foundation that allows “normal” children to grow up, then we should have little to fear from many homosexual unions. A more robust argument would be to build on philosopher Sylviane Agsiniski’s work that the foundation of humanity is both the face of the man and the face of the woman, together. That is, humanity itself is anchored in the duality of the sexes, and one cannot bequeath a legacy of humanity to a child by erasing their literal descent from both males and females.

            In his book “The Gendered Society,” Michael Kimmel suggests that there are significant negative effects on societies that have expectations for, and promote, rigid gender role conformity. [4]  Dr. Taylor Hartman in “The Color Code” further supports this by asserting that all four dominant personality traits examined in the book are found in roughly equal proportions among both genders. [5]  If both genders share personality traits, then there really is no “typical” male or female personality, or "typical" male or female interests or skills, other than what society ascribes to these. This is not to say that men and women are the same; they are not. But we know less about what men and women "should be like" than we sometimes presume. For example, while there are certainly some biological functions such as pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding that are exclusively performed by women, we are told that nurturing in the family can and should be performed by both genders. We would do better to emphasize the need for the child to be raised in a loving, gender-equal home where both boys and girls are encouraged by their heterosexual parents to be all that they can be, and to truly value both sexes, not stereotype them.

            The other highly unsettling element of the book is found in the parenting recommendations that follow from the authors’ understanding of gender roles as comparatively rigid. While their advice on this score may give parents something to do and make them feel like they are stacking the odds in favor of heterosexuality, it is just as likely, and in our opinion more likely based on other research by sociologists such as Kimmel, that they will drive more children into homosexuality because of the inflexible gender stereotypes that pervade this theory. Between the 1930’s and 1970’s, such sex role theory was quite popular – it was promoted by people such as Terman and Miles, George W. Henry, Sanford et all, and Talcott Parsons. [6]  Since then, sex role theory has fallen out of favor based on initial research, since expanded, by Joseph Pleck in his book “The Myth of Masculinity." [7] It’s ironic that on the one hand the authors would like to completely reject innate sexual preference (the gay gene), but then go on to assert that “typical” gender behaviors are the sole product of nature and nothing to do with nurture!           

            We hope that any reader will consider this statement by the authors on page 79: “[We] are confident that there are important truths in this book.  Nevertheless, study these things out in your own mind.  Consider the scientific evidence and the religious arguments. Integrate these two sources of information with your own values and insights.”  This is an important step for any person desiring an understanding of this very difficult topic, particularly for religious persons who may wish to show Christ-like love to their fellowmen, but still live in accordance with God’s laws and uphold virtuous standards in society.  The debate is not over – far from it.  With this book, Abbott and Byrd have provided another source of conversation for interested persons on either side of the closet door.



[1] Douglas A. Abbott and A. Dean Byrd. (2009), Encouraging Heterosexuality: Helping Children Develop a Traditional Sexual Orientation. Orem: Millennial Press, p. 5. [Back to manuscript]

[2] Michael S. Kimmel (2008), The Gendered Society, Third Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 46. [Back to manuscript]

[3] Lynnae W. Allred. (2007), Piggyback Rides and Slippery Slides: How to Have Fun Raising First-Rate Children, Springville: Cedar Fort, Inc. [Back to manuscript]

[4] Kimmel, op cit., p. 189-192; 302-307. [Back to manuscript]

[5] Taylor Hartman (1998), The Color Code: A New Way to See Yourself, Your Relationships, and Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 29. [Back to manuscript]

[6] Kimmel, op cit., chapter 4. [Back to manuscript]

[7] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Stearmer J.S. and S.M. Stearmer (2010) "Book Review| Encouraging Heterosexuality: Helping Children Develop a Traditional Sexual Orientation," SquareTwo, Vol .3 No. 1 (Spring),, accessed [give access date].

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