Homosexuality, Post 6: Changing Sexual Orientation

Can homosexuals change?

Christians sometimes assume that homosexuality is a simple matter of choice, and that those who engage in homosexual activity should just stop.  Others acknowledge the difficulty of living with sexual desires which seem to have no legitimate form of expression, and wonder about how individuals can change their desires.  Therefore the research on whether or how people can change their sexual orientation is relevant to our debate.

What do we learn from stories of orientation change?

What should we make of the fact that so many apparently ‘heterosexual’ women and men ‘discover’ or ‘admit’ to their homosexual feelings and adopt a gay identity in mid-life?  One thing it tells us is that sexual identity is often not fixed. Against those who claim that homosexuals can never be anything other than homosexual, the anecdotes of people who have lived heterosexual lives (including marrying and having children) and then ‘come out’ as homosexual, tell us that people can move from one form of sexual behaviour to another – and if in one direction then why not in the other?  The answer to this is that of course there is far more pressure upon homosexual people to behave like heterosexuals than there is on heterosexual people to behave like homosexuals, so we would expect far more people to persevere in heterosexual functioning despite homosexual desires, than vice versa.  The point is valid, however, that people who later identify as homosexual can and do live successfully as heterosexuals.  So we learn that people can change their sexual orientation, and that sexual orientation is often not an either-or matter, but can be a matter of degree.

Many homosexual people have tried and failed to change their sexual orientation.  We don’t know what ’causes’ homosexuality, and the relative roles of biology, environmental factors, experience, and individual choices in shaping sexual attractions remain vexed.  One thing most researchers agree, is that regardless of ‘cause’ homosexual orientation for many people does seem to be set at an early age, and does not change easily if at all.  For this reason it is usually (though not always) wrong to regard those who are homosexual as if they made a deliberate choice to be as they are.  As many have said, “Who would choose to be discriminated against, a target of revulsion and hate, denied the ability to have children, and at significantly greater risk of violence?”[1]  The element of choice does not appear to arise so much at the level of sexual attraction, as at the level of sexual activity, and identity.

The knowledge that homosexual attraction is difficult to change comes primarily from those who have tried and failed to live as heterosexuals despite homosexual feelings.  The literature abounds with these accounts, and it is undoubtedly true that a very large percentage, perhaps the majority, of gay people have resented and resisted their sexual attraction to those of the same sex, but eventually found that they could not either repress their homosexual feelings nor adequately pretend or produce heterosexual feelings to the degree necessary to pass as ‘normal’.  In these circumstances, it is often a welcome relief to stop struggling and adopt a positive gay identity.

Some succeed in changing:  The difficulties of shifting homosexual attraction are also confirmed by the experience of those who provide change services for those who seek it.  It is by no means true that homosexuality is always impossible to change – there are many individual stories of people who have achieved some success in their attempts to alter their homosexuality.  Anecdotes, however, cannot be generalised.  If we are going to seek for truth in human experience, then it is usually best to look at carefully designed research studies to gain a comprehensive picture, alongside personal anecdotes.

A recent study shows that change is possible, and that attempts to change need not be harmful.  The best study of the effectiveness of change was completed recently by Jones and Yarhouse[2] .  After at least 6-7 years of seeking change through religious programmes:

  • 23% of the 61 people in the study reported a successful conversion to heterosexual attractions.
  • 30% were living a celibate life, content with their reduction in homosexual attractions.
  • 16% had modest decreases in homosexual attractions and weren’t satisfied with their degree of change but were continuing the process.
  • 7% had seen no decrease in homosexual attractions but had not given up
  • 25% either gave up on the change process without adopting a homosexual identity (5%) or gave up and adopted a homosexual identity (20%)

While the slightly more than 50% of the study participants who reported success in terms of their treatment goals may make the treatment seem somewhat mediocre, ‘curing’ only half of those who seek change through it, these results have to be read in the context of the professional debate within American psychology, where many have held for a long time that change was essentially impossible, and that those who sought to change their sexual orientation were at high risk of harm from the change process[3].  The Jones and Yarhouse study successfully refuted both those claims.  The authors of the study agree, however, that change is not possible for everyone, and is easy for none, being “most likely when motivation is strong, there is a history of successful heterosexual functioning, gender identity issues are not present, and involvement in actual homosexual practice has been minimal.[4]

Even ‘truly gay’ people can sometimes change their orientation.  It is sometimes said, especially in relation to items two and four of that list, that those who describe changes in their homosexual orientation were never actually homosexual in the first place, but rather were bisexual[5], and simply eliminated homosexual behaviours from their lives.  Because of this possibility Jones and Yarhouse created a sub-group in their study, scoring a 5 or 6 on the Kinsey scale (see box).  In an earlier report on their study, 8 of the 11 who reported a complete reversal of orientation were from this sub-group of the study subjects[6], demonstrating that at least for some definitively homosexual people, such change is possible.

The Kinsey Scale

 This is a seven-point scale where 0 = exclusively heterosexual, 6= exclusively homosexual, and 5 = predominantly homosexual with some incidental heterosexual activity.  The two main difficulties with using the Kinsey scale are that it is a simple bipolar scale – that is, it assumes that an increase in one thing (homosexual activity) is matched by a corresponding decrease in the other (heterosexual activity) whereas these two things might in fact increase and decrease independently of one another.  A better way to show this is to plot the two dimensions on separate axes.  Another problem with the Kinsey scale is that it focuses exclusively upon behaviour – which is much simpler to define.  A much more ambitious and comprehensive scale is the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, which plots seven dimensions: sexual attraction, sexual behaviour, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, self-identification, heterosexual/homosexual lifestyle.”  Jones and Yarhouse did, in fact, use much more complex means of measurement than the Kinsey scale alone.

In conclusion, we can say that while science has found some biological factors that may lead individuals to develop homosexual attractions, the development of homosexual identity is profoundly culturally influenced, and homosexual behaviour, like all human behaviour, is a human choice, significantly shaped by both internal desires (attraction) and cultural factors (identity).

Many succeed in changing homosexual behaviour, but homosexual attraction seems to be much more deeply rooted and difficult to change.

Many people agree that biological factors in themselves do not provide sufficient criteria for moral correctness.    This argument cuts both ways.  Those who wish to claim that the (admittedly slim) evidence for biological causation of homosexual orientation makes it a morally good or neutral state must also contend with the counter-claim that the human body is obviously designed for heterosexual intercourse.  On the other hand, those who point to the biological features of reproduction and heterosexual intercourse as invalidating homosexual activity are then unable to say “we cannot argue from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’ as regards biological factors.

The most significant consequence of the above material for Christian reflection is that it should give us pause in providing pastoral care to those who experience homosexual attraction; we should not assume that such feelings can be dealt with simply or easily, and our churches’ advice and assistance must be informed by the best available research, not simplistic pop psychology or wishful thinking.

[1] One answer, of course, is that many Christians have chosen to accept precisely those conditions in order to follow Christ.  People are capable of enduring great suffering for a cause they believe in, and joining with oppressed minorities has always been attractive to people of great idealism – especially the young.  We should also remember that people are also quite capable of choosing behaviours that they know to be dangerous, addictive, and expensive; sometimes as part of a desire to ‘fit in’, sometimes simply for the sake of pleasure – or as distraction from pain – sometimes for other reasons more complex.  Human choice is always an element in human behaviour, and doesn’t always look ‘logical’.

[2] (Foust 2009) (Jones and Yarhouse, Ex-gays?: A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation 2007)

[3] (G. C. Davison 1978) (Haldeman, Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy for Gay Men and Lesbians: A Scientific Examination 1991) (Haldeman, Gay Rights, Patient Rights: The Implications of Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy 2002) (Baklinski 2009)

[4] (Jones and Yarhouse 2000, 103)

[5] (Haldeman, Gay Rights, Patient Rights: The Implications of Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy 2002, 261)

[6] (Jones and Yarhouse, 2007, Ch 8)

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