In sexual, as in all other areas of life, it is important to distinguish between "attraction" and "behaviour." This point is emphasized by practically every author who writes on the subject.
Our attraction to various kinds of food can be so intense that the mere smell of it causes our body to react physically. The sight of a piece of chocolate cake can make our mouth salivate. Broccoli may have the opposite effect.
But it is one thing to say that a person is attracted to chocolate. It is quite another to say that she is actually eating chocolate. If she values her health, she will rather frequently resist the temptation and refrain from letting her attraction result in over-consumption of the delicacy.
When it comes to matters of sex, the situation is very similar. One must make a "clear distinction between a man being sexually attracted to women other than his wife and the carrying out of that attraction by having intercourse with these other women," says James Burtness in the Summer 1994 issue of Word & World.
Attraction is largely involuntary. One does not choose to be attracted—one just is. Sexual stimuli trigger sexual arousal. One has relatively little control over such things. However a person who has been aroused can and should act responsibly by controlling their feelings and channeling them to result in acceptable sexual behaviour under appropriate circumstances. Behaviour is a matter of personal choice.
The advent of the discipline of psychoanalysis brought an awareness of something much deeper than sexual attraction at work in the human psyche. The technical term "sexual orientation" has been coined to express this newly-gained insight. While everyone experiences sexual attraction, such attraction manifests itself in two opposite directions. The term "heterosexual orientation" identifies sexual attraction between two people of the opposite gender, while the term "homosexual orientation" designates sexual attraction between two people of the same gender.
According to experts in the field, one's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. It is normal for a heterosexual person to be attracted to a person of the opposite gender, just as it is normal for a gay person to be attracted to a person of the same gender. Both the attraction as well as the direction (orientation) of that attraction are understood to be matters over which a person has little or no control.
One cannot help feeling the way one does. A gay person cannot stop being attracted to members of the same sex any more than a straight person can stop being attracted toward members of the opposite sex.
On the other hand, behaviour is very much a personal responsibility. Both gay and straight can and should decide not to let their attraction lead to questionable behaviour. We will pursue this issue later.
Since the idea of sexual orientation has appeared only with the advent of the Freudian era, it is safe to say that in previous centuries, including biblical times, such an idea would have been incomprehensible. It was simply assumed that every person was heterosexual by nature. Engaging in sexual behaviour with a person of the same sex could thus be variously regarded as unnatural, violence, insult, domination, etc., the result of a deliberate choice to "exchange" one role for another.
Dating back to Kinsey, the available evidence suggests that a person is not either homosexual or heterosexual, but that homosexuality and heterosexuality are a matter of degree. The Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University has developed a seven-point scale of measurement. At one end of the scale are people who are exclusively homosexual, while at the other end of the continuum are people who are exclusively heterosexual. Surveys have indicated that relatively few people fall at either end of the scale, and that most of us find ourselves somewhere in between the two poles.
This fact in itself is not surprising. Very few things in life are either all black or all white. They contain shades of grey. For example, at what point does a person deserve the designation of liar or gossip or slanderer? If as Matthew 5:28 says "everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart," then the percentage of adulterers has suddenly increased exponentially.
If it is true that homosexual and heterosexual tendencies are present in various proportions in most, if not in all of us, it follows that whether a given person is regarded as gay or straight depends largely on the criteria one uses for defining homosexuality and heterosexuality. What about a person who at one time or another has felt some attraction for a member of the same sex? Is such a person to be regarded as queer or as straight? At what point in the scale does one begin to be categorized as one or the other?
This leaves us with an additional conundrum. What are we to say about people who, according to the Kinsey scale, fall approximately at mid-point (point 3)between the two extremes? These persons are now called bisexuals. By definition, they can experience sexual attraction to either or both sexes.
These matters are too complicated for us to deal with in the context of these studies, although they require attention whenever one makes pronouncements about homosexuals. For purposes of our discussion, it would appear advisable to reserve the use of the term homosexual for persons who feel little or no attraction for members of the opposite sex. However please be aware that the decision to do so will have implications for what is to be said later about the stability of sexual orientation.
There is much debate among the experts regarding the origin of one's sexual orientation. However the prevailing view now is that a person's sexual orientation is a result of a complex combination of factors, some of which may be due to heredity and some to outside influence or experience.
In Making Moral Decisions, Paul Jersild says that, "it is clear that gays and lesbians discover their sexual preference rather than consciously willing to be homosexual."
Gays and lesbians usually report that they discovered, by about the seventh or eighth grade, around the age of puberty, that they were not attracted to members of the opposite sex the way most of their friends seemed to be. At about the same time, they became aware that they were strangely attracted in a sexual way to members of their own sex. This discovery usually comes gradually, probably because it is often difficult to know what behaviour is within the normal range for gays and straight persons.
The Freudian interpretation held that homosexuality is the result of an arrested psychological development due to a domineering mother and a distant father. This view is still quite widespread, and it causes great anguish for parents who are made to feel guilty over the possibility that they might have done something to bring about their son's or daughter's homosexual orientation.
Those who experience strong homosexual tendencies are usually bewildered by their experience. They need the help of dictionaries and counsellors to come to terms with their struggles.
At this stage many contemplate suicide. B. R. Simon Rosser cites studies which report significantly higher rates of suicide attempts on the part of homosexual youth. This suggests that gays do not as a rule choose to be gays, but would be willing to pay quite a price to escape that reality. It also suggests that for many of them it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change their sexual orientation.
One must consider the possibility that homosexuality may have a genetic basis. However this question has not been definitely settled. The nature/nurture relationship is notoriously difficult to unravel. One needs to ask not only whether there is a genetic cause at all, but also whether that cause constitutes a genetic variation (which affects such things as hair color, eye color, and left-handedness), or whether it is a case of genetic mutation (such as causes physiological defects like Huntington's Disease).
James Burtness suspects that these questions will not be answerable even when the human genome project is completed and all the DNA has been mapped. After surveying an extensive array of research literature, including the study of monozygotic (identical) twins, Rosser concludes, "Taken together, these studies suggest that genetic factors contribute significantly, but not exclusively, to sexual orientation development."
No absolute answers are available. However one thing is becoming very clear. For many people, homosexual orientation is not a matter of choice, just as for most of us, heterosexual orientation is not negotiable.
Is sexual orientation subject to modification? That question is hotly debated. A number of organizations such as Exodus International have made it their objective to help people "escape from homosexuality." Many scholars and counsellors regard such efforts as misguided. Yet many therapists report a high success rate in their attempt to "heal" homosexuals and to help them to go straight.
Is homosexuality a disorder?
To begin we must address a fundamental question. Can homosexuality be regarded as a disorder? If one speaks of an "escape" or a "cure" or "treatment" of gays and lesbians, that assumes that homosexuality is an illness or a prison. This assumption is open to debate.
Many gays and lesbians are plagued with self-doubt and suffer from psychological trauma. While this should not be denied, we must remember that many heterosexuals also are plagued with self-doubt and suffer from psychological trauma. So we need to be clear about the essential question: Is homosexuality as such a disorder?
We must avoid stereotypes. Homosexuality is not to be equated with disorder. From personal experience many of us know or know about gays and lesbians who are well-adjusted and highly respectable human beings and exemplary citizens. Often they are gifted artists and very bright intellectuals. So we must at least acknowledge that there are well-adjusted homosexuals.
In 1974, the Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of pathological conditions and mental disorders. They stated that "homosexuality per se implies no impairment of judgment, stability, reliability or general social or vocational capabilities." That decision was not unanimously accepted even by the general membership of the association. No group of scholars or professionals ever agrees 100% on anything.
There are many conflicting claims about the curability of homosexuality.
In Such Were Some of You, Kevin Linehan, a homosexual, insists that he has changed and is convinced that others can change, too. There are also family counsellors who claim a high success rate with their gay clients.
John F. Harvey in his extensive book, The Truth About Homosexuality, issued with ecclesiastical approval, produces detailed arguments and a collection of case histories to explode what he calls "two popular myths," namely that sexual orientation is genetically caused and that it cannot be changed. He explains in detail that those devout Catholics who want to change, can. However he admits to a less than perfect success rate. He reports that those who "have not been able to change their orientation have been able to live a life of sexual abstinence by divine grace and group support."
"Can a same-sex orientation be changed? Experience does not encourage an optimistic answer," says Mary Borhek in Coming Out to Parents. Her comments are made on the basis of personal experience and after she reviewed the contradictory claims about the curability of homosexuality.
The Winnipeg Free Press reported that Dr. Gerald C. Davidson had developed an "orgiasmic reorientation" technique which at one time enjoyed a great deal of attention. However Davidson gave it up and called on others to do the same. Since he appeared to be unable to infuse in homosexuals an attraction for members of the opposite sex, he came to consider his treatment as tantamount to killing in them all sexual desire, something he regarded as dehumanizing, as a form of castration.
How can one assess these conflicting claims?
The matter is very difficult to address for at least two reasons.
First, sexual behaviour is a matter of choice and thus can be modified. If a person's behaviour changes over the course of time, shall one interpret such a change as a modification of behaviour or as an alteration of orientation? Can we be sure that when a "successful cure" is reported, it is the orientation that has been changed? What has been affected, the symptom or the cause? Has the cause been removed or simply camouflaged?
Second, if it is true that sexual orientation is a matter of degree on a continuum, can one ever be sure that a person who is reported as "cured," was exclusively gay in the first place?
Let us assume that a person who has had a series of same-sex encounters has consulted a counsellor who helped him to stop engaging in homosexual behaviour. Is it legitimate to conclude that his homosexuality has been cured? Is he no longer a homosexual? If one can get a gay man to refrain from homosexual behaviour, does this mean that his homosexual orientation has been altered or is alterable? How could we ever tell?
What are we to make of these conflicting claims? We wish we knew whether those people who are said to have changed are really "cured," or if they only had their symptoms arrested, and at what cost to their personal identity this has been accomplished. Are they now fully functioning heterosexuals, or have they been deprived of enjoyment of their sexuality altogether? If the latter is the case, does their "cure" in fact amount to castration?
Of all the reported interventions by all known methods, including chemical castration, neurosurgery, aversive techniques, religious conversion and deliverance "not one case has been found where reorientation was convincingly demonstrated," B. R. Simon Rosser reports about a 1992 study by T. F. Murphey. "While many of these techniques were able to demonstrate behavioural modification, none was able to change the deeper affectional orientation."
What about the high failure rate?
Sex therapists who endeavour to "cure" homosexuals, uniformly report a significant number of cases in which the cure has not been successful. Some therapists report a failure rate of as high as 50%. How does one interpret that? Is it possible that the persons who did not respond to treatment were precisely the exclusively homosexual people? Is it possible that those for whom a "cure" has been recorded were actually borderline homosexuals, those near the mid-point in the Kinsey scale? Further research is necessary before we can speak more confidently about these things.
Characteristics of promising candidates for "healing"
We would like to know what it is about the gays who were not cured that renders them unresponsive to treatment. One therapist claims that he can predict who can and who cannot be cured. Those who report no sexual stirring toward members of the opposite sex cannot be cured, he says. If this is so, it would indicate that it is precisely the exclusively gay persons (those who fall near the end of the heterosexuality/homosexuality scale) whom it has so far been impossible to change significantly. That, in turn, would suggest that those for whom treatment has been successful were not fully homosexual in the first place.
Rosser's survey leads him to conclude that "where a person is highly motivated, strongly religious, highly diligent, has some preexisting heterosexual feelings, and remains within the religio-social culture, some modification, at least short-term, may be possible. However for those with a predominant to exclusive homosexual orientation, anything beyond suppression of their "natural" attractions and modification of their behaviour to heterosexual is unlikely."
Homosexuality and spirituality
Sexuality is an important part of one's personal make-up and thus intimately linked with one's religious life. In the case of homosexuals, this is so as well. Many gays have grown up in the church and have a deep desire to continue in the social and worship life of their congregation. Some of them are children of pastors and church leaders, including bishops.
If such Christians are shunned or otherwise made to feel unwelcome in the church, they must make a painful decision. Rosser observes that when sexuality and religious teaching conflict, "most reject their religious background and identity in total,'and thus' the main effect of traditional church attitudes toward homosexuality is to alienate homosexually active men from their religious tradition."
The matter is very complex. One cannot disregard the testimony of those who claim to have been healed from their "addiction." One needs to acknowledge that some gays and lesbians want to and can be changed. Even so, what about those who can not be changed?
In any case, it does not follow that because some homosexuals can change, all could change, if only they would try harder. At the end of the day, there are a considerable number of gays in our churches who do not respond to reorientation therapy. Do we have any good news for them?
What Do You Think?
Can a person's sexual orientation be changed?
Must we face up to the possibility that some (maybe most) gays and lesbians, although they can modify their behaviour, cannot alter their orientation, no matter how much they may want to or how hard they may try? Must we take seriously the probability that even the most expert professional help will not be able to change such a person's orientation?
On the other hand, must we assert that people who have not responded to a healing program just haven't tried hard enough and that they could change if they really wanted to?
As is the case with minorities generally, the gay community is subject to much negative publicity. As one might expect, prejudice against GLBT (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons) abounds. There is even a special term for the phenomenon of anti-gay bias: homophobia. Christians need to be as sensitive about homophobia as they need to be about sexism, racism, ageism and any other "-isms." Bearing false witness violates one of the Ten Commandments. However this is not to say that everything in the gay community is as it should be. We all "fall short of the glory" which we should have in God's sight.
When we assess the lives of gays, it is important not to contrast the best of the straight world with the worst of the queer world, or vice versa. Casual sex, promiscuity, rape, sexual abuse and other unsavory elements are as well represented among gays as they are among heterosexuals. The presence of perversion among heterosexuals and homosexuals alike is not an indication that heterosexuality or homosexuality as such are either good or bad.
In 1978, A. P. Bell and M. S. Weinberg reported that homosexual relationships tended to be relatively more short-lived than heterosexual marriages. Comparisons must be drawn with care. Given the fact that gays and lesbians have had to hide their true identity for centuries, it is only to be expected that the resulting stress renders homosexual relationships fragile. If anything, one could regard it as amazing that there is evidence of stable homosexual relationships at all.
One finds a "bathhouse" sub-culture among homosexuals, just as one finds widespread prostitution among the heterosexuals. Virtues and vices occur in every human group. The letters to the Corinthians bear ample evidence that in the church itself one finds situations which the secular world would find appalling.
Homosexual behaviour differs very little from heterosexual behaviour. It encompasses as wide a variety of acts as does heterosexual behaviour. Gays and lesbians may simply enjoy each other's company and no more. They may cuddle, pet, fondle, engage in mutual masturbation, in oral sex or genital contact or even in anal intercourse. All of these are activities which heterosexual couples may practise as well.
It follows that what distinguishes homosexual from heterosexual behaviour in the final instance is that homosexual behaviour involves couples in which both partners are of the same sex. In other respects the two behaviour patterns are very similar.
A heterosexual male can choose not to act on his impulses. He can decide to remain celibate for life. He may choose to engage in sexual activity with a woman or women. He may even choose to engage in sexual activity with a man or men. A homosexual male would have the very same choices open to him. So would a homosexual female or a heterosexual female. Sexual behaviour is a matter of choice, no matter what may be one's sexual orientation.
The one major difference between heterosexual and homosexual behaviour is that homosexual behaviour does not include vaginal intercourse which can lead to conception and procreation.
Are gays out to win converts?
There is no reliable evidence that homosexuals generally are motivated by a desire to win over heterosexuals. As a rule, what they do desire is to find a partner who shares their hopes and dreams and longings—just as straight people do.
Of course, the process of finding a life-partner is hardly ever smooth, no matter what one's sexual orientation may be. No one should deny the possibility that a person of one sexual orientation can be enticed to engage in behaviour which is characteristic of the other. The personal testimony of Dottie Ludwig in the Summer 1994 issue of Word & World illustrates how life's circumstances can have far-reaching undesirable consequences. Her early loss of a mother and her negative experiences with males led her (too far) in the direction of welcoming affection from persons of her own sex. Yet her story also shows how a person's true identity has a way of asserting itself. After some painful detours, Ludwig reports, she rediscovered her identity as a straight person.
Preoccupation with sex
Members of the gay community are sometimes amused, but more often saddened, by the way in which heterosexuals place the main focus of the discussion on the matter of the sex act itself. Sex is a minor element in the lives of homosexuals, gays insist. According to one gay man's description, there are other things in a gay person's life which are much more important than sexual intercourse. Companionship, mutual love and care, respect for the other person and commitment to the other person's health and wellbeing are said to be the chief values espoused by homosexual couples. Those values are also of primary concern in the lives of heterosexual people.
A personal story
Here is a personal story of someone who came to realize years later that he and his family had been neighbours and good friends with a homosexual couple.
"When we lived in Chicago, our next door neighbours were a couple of lovely elderly ladies. They had been school teachers and had now retired. They lived together in the trailer some 10 feet from ours—for economic reasons, we thought—and because they had been life-long friends. No other people in the trailer court showed any interest in us, but these two ladies befriended us and loved to talk with us. Devoted Roman Catholics, they were impressed with the theologian Hans Küng. They were people with a social conscience who showed a great deal of compassion for people in need. They liked music and the arts.
"They offered to babysit for us, and our children loved them. They never said or did anything to offend us, and they never spoke disrespectfully of others. They cared for one another deeply. Whenever we asked one of them about her well being, she would rather talk about the health and welfare of her friend. They seemed to be more concerned about each other than for themselves. We regarded them as exemplary Christians.
"That was decades ago. Only now are we beginning to realize that the two women were no doubt a lesbian couple. We have no idea what they 'did in bed,' if indeed they did 'do' anything. The subject never came up. Why should it have?"