The following was published several years ago in my booklet, Human Relationships in Plain English.
Are homosexuals “born that way”?
There’s no way to answer this question for certain. In order to do so, we would have to know everything there is to know about the psycho-biological development of sexuality in general.
Answering the question, “What causes homosexuality?” presupposes an ability to answer the question, “What causes sexuality?” The study of human sexuality has not yet reached such an advanced state. At best, we are in a state of speculation—speculation which is sometimes rational, but more often irrational and confused.
Here is what we do know, thanks to discoveries in the fields of psychology and philosophy up to this point in time:
- Human beings are both mind and body. It’s very unlikely, if not outright impossible, that anyone’s sexuality is entirely determined by biological or genetic factors. Sexuality is too complex a mixture of physiology, emotions, deep value judgments and psychological traits to oversimplify. The most we can hypothesize is that some complex series of genetic factors predispose an individual to be homosexual rather than heterosexual; however, much more research will be required before we can claim to have established any such thing, in my view.
- Among people attracted to the same sex, there is typically some level of understanding about this fact from an early age—at least from adolescence and in some cases even earlier. Sexuality is not developed in any sophisticated way prior to adolescence, though I frequently encounter same-sex-attracted individuals who describe a sense from a rather early age “of being somehow different.” This occurs whether or not the child has ever even heard of such a thing as homosexuality, and whether or not he grows up in a very conservative social climate or a more liberal one (e.g., where his parents have openly gay friends).
- Sexual orientation cannot be changed. This is not merely a statement of political correctness, though political correctness is sometimes the motive of some individuals who make this claim. It’s also a fact. No psychological method exists that can effect a change in one’s inner sexual orientation. For decades, psychiatrists tried to “treat” homosexuality but finally gave up; less because of political pressure than because they simply saw no reason to try and force such a change, especially when it didn’t work.
Contemporary psychologists who claim to have a method of “curing” homosexuality are operating on the false premise of behaviorism, which is the view that simply changing behaviors (with no reference whatsoever to consciousness: that is, thoughts, feelings, ideas) is sufficient for “change.” This would be like a very sad or suicidal person saying, “I’m going to act like I’m not feeling low. Then I will be all better.” It’s preposterous.
It is possible for a same-sex-attracted person to simply lie to himself and to change his behaviors in the heterosexual direction (at least for a limited period of time); but changing behaviors and changing one’s basic sexual attraction (which is an inner experience) are not one and the same. Any attempt to do so leads to a life of hypocrisy, pain and profound mind-body warfare. It would be just as senseless for a homosexual to pretend he is heterosexual as it would be for a heterosexual to begin pretending he is attracted to the same sex. It can’t be done.
There is no rational reason to conclude that individuals attracted to the same sex cannot lead happy, fulfilled lives just as people attracted to the opposite sex. Being abnormal—that is, outside of the mainstream—does not automatically constitute being irrational or unhealthy.
Two major psychological factors do contribute to emotional problems in individuals with same-sex orientations: (1) widespread social disapproval from others who are frightened or confused by their sexual orientation; and (2) an internalized belief along the lines of, “I am flawed and can never be happy, at least romantically”— a view which is internalized at an early age and never seriously challenged by the individual.
What about the controversial 2001 Columbia University study claiming that homosexuals can convert to heterosexuality?
Let’s identify exactly what the study found. The study found that two hundred homosexuals (143 of them men) claimed that they were able to change their behaviors from homosexual to heterosexual. This is well and good—and potentially interesting—but there are numerous problems with a study such as this one:
- There is no guarantee the respondents were honest. The interviews were conducted by telephone. Like a lot of psychological research, it was essentially an anecdotal study. The interviewer has to take the participant’s word for it. Consequently, you must keep in mind two things: One, it is very easy to have casual sex with other men, if you are either an openly gay man or a man struggling to be married and secretly satisfying your desires at the same time. Second, people who attempt sexual orientation change (because of its psychologically repressive nature) are often heard to slip back to the prior gay lifestyle with some regularity, even if they do marry. I encounter such individuals in my practice. Heterosexual spouses, for their own psychological reasons and issues (e.g., needing to “heal” or “fix” the partner), will often tolerate this behavior if they learn of it.
- The sample is very small. Even conservative estimates suggest that 3-4 percent of the population is homosexual (gay activists say it’s closer to 10 percent). Either way, 200 out of millions of gay/lesbian Americans is not a very good sample. Even within this small sample, only 66 percent of the men and 44 percent of the women had achieved what the researchers considered “good heterosexual functioning” (e.g., being married to someone of the opposite sex for a sustained period of time). These are not especially encouraging numbers for people who want there to be such a thing as sexual orientation change, particularly for the women.
- The sample was heavily skewed towards religious conservatives. This is significant, because religious conservatives generally believe that homosexuality is not an internal/psychological orientation, but simply a behavior. They completely separate mind and body—consciousness and action (on this issue and many other issues). If you act in a homosexual way, they assume, then you are homosexual. If you change your behaviors, then you are heterosexual. On this logic, if a man who is only attracted to women forced himself to start having sex with men instead, we would now have to consider him a homosexual. It clearly makes no sense.
- The skewing of the sample towards religious conservatives is significant in another respect. Members of religious groups encouraging conversion from homosexuality to heterosexuality advocate suppression of one’s personal desires in favor of “Godliness”—i.e., either celibacy or simply forcing oneself to have sex with the opposite sex whether one wants to or not. In objective psychological terms, this is nothing more than emotional repression. A truly interesting finding would be one in which individuals found a psychological method to change their mind-body-emotional response—that is, their very orientation—as opposed to mere behavioral change. (I very much doubt one exists or could exist, but that’s the only sort of finding that would be of any importance.)
Emotional repression in the name of surrendering to God’s will is hardly science. It’s simply dogmatic, religious intimidation.
In short, the study doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. It simply shows us that a number of individuals claim they can change their sexual orientation, based upon what they say in a phone interview and based primarily on religion and repression. No new insights have been gained into what causes homosexuality—or indeed, sexuality in general. Neither left-wing activists, nor right-wing social conservatives, seem to recognize that the burden of proof for any assertion rests on the person making the assertion. All either side seems to want to do is to find facts to fit his politically desired conclusion. Neither dares to indulge in an “I don’t know what causes this,” because to do so would threaten their respective political agendas. Rational people, in contrast, would claim certainty when certainty was earned, but not when so much still needed to be understood.
I can’t help but wonder if the Columbia University study was funded by government dollars. Note that the study took place at an Ivy League school in the humanities field, making federal funding likely. If so, it’s a good example of chickens coming home to roost. For years, left-wing activists have indignantly demanded government research dollars as a moral right—when the research suited their purposes, of course. Sooner or later, the right-wing social conservatives would no doubt make the same demand. Maybe now, with enough bad or mediocre studies in our midst, the two can cancel each other out and we’ll eventually shut down the politicized research industry altogether.
Instead of trying to please the latest political pressure group, researchers might instead seek after the truth. Imagine that!
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