Is Homosexuality Voluntary?

Note: This is part of a series on Christianity and Homosexuality.  See the introduction and first and second parts.

I’ve stated as clearly as I can (links above) that the church should confess for its poor treatment of gays, that the church should express the extravagant and self-sacrificial love of Christ for gays as for all people, and that being or becoming homosexual cannot be reduced to a simple matter of choice.  The proper question is whether homosexuality is voluntary.  Whereas a choice is “a discrete and generally thoughtful and intentional decision between alternatives,” something is voluntary but not a choice if it “is a slow migration in one direction that emerges in aggregate from countless minute choices.”  So, now: is homosexuality voluntary?

First, let’s define terms.  Homosexual desire is, of course, a desire to have sexual relations with the same sex.  A homosexual inclination is persistent or habitual homosexual desire — not merely a desire here and there, but a constant or consistent desire for same-sex sexual relations.  Homosexual identity is a cultural and psychological construct; it is when an individual has embraced the notion that he is homosexual and takes up what that means in society.  Then homosexual behavior refers to sexual acts with people of the same sex.

When we ask whether homosexuality is voluntary, we begin with the inclination toward homosexual desire.  Without a persistent desire, neither the identity nor the behavior will enter the picture.  So the question is now: Is homosexual inclination — an inclination to desire same-sex sexual relations — voluntary?

It would take too long to explain how I interpret the studies in genetic, hormonal, environmental and social-psychological factors influencing sexual orientation.  So I’ll simply state my view.  Neither homosexual identity nor homosexual behavior are inherited; one cannot inherit — genetically or hormonally in utero — a cultural construct or pattern of action.  One can only inherit an inclination toward desires (a preference), as well as needs and capacities, attributes and the like.  I inherit a need and habitual desire for food, but I can refuse those desires and starve myself to death.  I do not inherit the behavior of eating, or the cultural construct/identity of “overeater” or “foodie” or etc.

When it comes to homosexual inclination, I do not believe there is a “gay gene.”  Complex factors of human personality, like persistent desires and inclinations, emerge from multiple genes and from the ways in which those genes interact with upbringing and environment.  Just as there is no “lawyer gene,” or “desire to cook” gene, so there is no “gay gene” or “desire for same-sex sexual relations” gene.  It’s not that simple.  There may be a set of genes, and in some cases that set may be dispositive (i.e., it may ‘make you gay’), but in the vast majority of cases I believe that the inclination toward same-sex desires emerges over time through a thousand-and-one subtle interactions between nature and nurture.

Yet I have still not said whether or not homosexual inclination is voluntary.

Here’s the problem.  I know plenty of people who identify themselves as gay and who tell me that they have never experienced a desire for a person of the opposite sex.  It would be prejudicial dismiss their testimony just because it’s not what I want to hear.  Yet I also know plenty of people who identify as gay but say they have experienced opposite-sex desire at some point in their lives — and dismissing their testimony would be prejudicial as well.  Similarly, I know of folks who sought to reform their same-sex desires and found they could not.  Yet I also know of folks who have, through much struggle and over the course of years, cultivated their desires away from same-sex desires and toward opposite-sex desires, and have been happily married for many years.  I think all of these stories are legitimate and reflect genuine experience.

In other words, I believe there’s a spectrum.  On the one end are people who have only experienced sexual desire for people of the opposite sex.  I cannot imagine being attracted to someone of the same sex.  But I believe my friends who tell me they cannot imagine being attracted to people of the opposite sex.  And then there are various points in-between.  A young man who has always loved women but once had an attraction to one friend; a young woman who explored lesbianism in college and never afterward; the man who has desires for both sexes but chooses one or the other; etc.  Identities and desires are, to some extent and for some people, malleable over the course of time.  While moderns and postmoderns tend to think of ethics in terms of discrete decisions (“choices” as I defined them in the last post), the ancients (such as Aristotle) thought of ethics largely in terms of the cultivation of the proper desires over time (the “voluntary” as I defined it).  Certain disciplines, practiced consistently for years, could prune some desires, redirect others, and nurture nascent desires into life.  That is, when the voluntary is pressed persistently in the same direction, some people can accomplish some (limited) change in identity, inclination and desire.

So where does this leave us?  Let’s divide this into two questions.  Is it voluntary to ‘become‘ homosexual? Here are my views. Homosexual inclination is probably not genetically programmed, but emerges through the interaction of nature and nurture.  However, that inclination may be fully and even irrevocably formed by the time a person has become fully self-conscious and morally accountable for himself or herself.  In other words, even for people who are not ‘born that way’, developing the inclination to same-sex desires may not be voluntary, because they find those desires fully and exclusively rooted within themselves by the time they conscious of any sexual desires at all.

To give an analogy, imagine that a person only developed the ability to see colors when he turned 10 years old.  If his parents painted him red on the night before his 10th birthday, he might well assume that he has been red all along, because he has only seen himself in red and never in another color.  The same could be true here.  Since the same-sex inclination developed prior to the age of moral and sexual self-consciousness, they honestly cannot remember (and may not have felt) any sexual desires for people of the opposite sex.  It seems as though they have always been this way.

However, for other people, there may have been a voluntary element in the development of their inclination to same-sex desires.  This is not the boy who “knows” he’s gay at 8 years old.  This is the female college student who decides to experiment with lesbianism; or a 15-year-old boy who has mostly experienced heterosexual attractions, but who suddenly finds himself attracted to a male friend; or perhaps even someone with strong homosexual desires, but in whom those desires were not as early and as deeply rooted.  The long-term voluntary cultivation of sexual inclinations very clearly (to my mind) has a role to play in those in the middle of the spectrum (the lesbian-until-graduation, the bisexual, etc.); I think it may also have a role to play in some whose same-sex desires emerge a little later and more mixed.  But, again, there are likely others who will feel no voluntary element whatsoever in the way they ‘became’ homosexual.

Second, is it voluntary to ‘be‘ (or to remain) homosexual? After a person has recognized that he’s inclined to same-sex desires, is it possible to cultivate different desires over time?  My answer to this can only be: I’ve known people of both kinds.  For some people, the inclination seems so deeply rooted, and so thoroughly regnant over their sexuality, that it seems they will never be able to cultivate a different inclination.  Yet for other people, there does seem to be the possibility of cultivating a different sexual inclination over the course of time.  Perhaps the same-sex inclination is not as deeply rooted within them, or perhaps they have the roots of both inclinations and can choose to nurture one set of roots and not another.

Many are the stories of people who have sought to change their same-sex desires and found no success.  Traditionalist Christians have too often dismissed those stories, as though the individuals simply did not try hard enough.  And many are the stories of people who have sought to cultivate opposite-sex desires and who have found success.  This does not mean that they never felt same-sex desires again, but that they have seen those desires diminish and their opposite-sex desires grow.  Gay-rights activists have too often dismissed those stories.  To me, both sets of stories have legitimacy, and both reflect real experience.  Convenient though it would be for one side or the other to paint it black-and-white, the world is a good deal more messy and complicated.  For some people, there seems to be a voluntary component in developing and maintaining the inclination toward same-sex sexual relationships; for others there seems to be — at least by the time they become morally and sexually self-conscious individuals — no voluntary component at all.

Now, all of this has been to speak of inclinations, not actions.  A person may be inclined toward a desire, and never act upon that desire.  So the question now becomes — and I’ll turn to this in the next installment — is it still possible to speak of homosexuality being “wrong”?

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  • Matt

    My biggest stumbling block to all of this is if I try to imagine myself no longer being attracted to women, whether through therapy, a support group, prayer group, willpower or what have you. It just doesn’t make any sense.

    I could see it making more sense if one’s view of homosexuality was less analogous to heterosexuality and more comparable to say, a fetish. Lots of complicated reasons why people have a particular fetish, and I think one could possibly be “cured” of a fetish with the proper treatment.

    I’m not really sure if the “why” is important anyway. Perhaps a psychiatrist could explain why I find, say, Angelina Jolie attractive, but it seems implausible to me that the same psychiatrist could get me to stop finding her attractive.

    Whether I was born to find women attractive or the reason I find women attractive “emerged over time through a thousand-and-one subtle interactions between nature and nurture” or whether it’s some combination of both or neither, seems, to me, almost irrelevant. Basically I’m saying this: If gay people are as gay as I am straight, the whole conversation seems mute. There’s nothing in the world that’s ever going to make me “less straight” regardless of why I’m straight to begin with.

    Tim, only some of this is addressing your post, the rest is my ranting. I mostly understand where you’re coming from and I appreciate that you’re taking the time and effort to think these things through.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for the response, Matt. Ranting is welcome 🙂

      It’s a good question whether being heterosexual is *as voluntary* as being homosexual (meaning here: having same-sex inclinations). Given the biological imperative of reproduction, and the fact that so many more people are heterosexual than homosexual (some studies put it at 49-1, others more like 19-1), one could argue there is less of the voluntary in becoming or being heterosexual than there is in becoming or being homosexual. Heterosexuality would be more of the default. But that’s just speculation. It’s an empirical possibility worth considering, but not a position, I think, to which we should hold rigidly. (By the way, the expression is: “…the conversation seems moot,” not “mute.” I can’t turn off the editorial voice sometimes.)

      Anyway, bear in mind I’m saying that I suspect there is a voluntary element for many ‘gays,’ and there is no voluntary element (at least after childhood) for many other ‘gays’. I hold the same for heterosexuals, but that does not mean there has to be an equal distribution of voluntary and non-voluntary in both cases. It sounds as though you are involuntarily straight, as I am. I cannot recall ever having same-sex desires, and I suspect that I could not cultivate other desires over time. But I don’t know that, and I don’t think it’s right to generalize from my experience. I certainly know others whose attractions have been more mixed.

      The only reason the ‘why’ is important is because it’s often used, on the one hand, in the debate (1) to shut down moral assessment of homosexuality or (2) to make a theological point that God would not allow people to be ‘born this way’ if he did not bless homosexuality. It’s also used, on the other hand, by Christians and others who want to criticize homosexuality to dismiss the genetic, hormonal and physiological factors contributing to homosexual inclinations, in order to make it appear a simple matter for gays to walk away from ‘the gay lifestyle.’ Existentially, the more important question is: what now? However I might have gotten here, what are my next steps to be? So I sympathize with your point; but the origins question is important for ethical and theological reasons.

      Anyway, thanks again for the interaction,

      • Tim:

        I have repeatedly tried to post a comment but – just as repeatedly – am told that it seems a bit “spammer.” Following such judgment, I am then sentenced to rewriting my comment. Which I won’t do.

        Is there a way around this bot?

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Sorry for the frustration, Dr. Mike. I’m not sure why that happens, but we’re in the process of upgrading to a new system. Should be done within a week, I suspect. In the meantime, feel free to send me a note at EvangelicalPortal at patheos dot com, and I can post the comment myself. Thanks!

        • Kevin Foytik

          I had the same problem, Mike. It may be an issue with quoting a passage from the post itself. I removed my quote and my comment made it through the system.

          • I had problems with using the word sex too much.

      • Kevin Foytik

        I want to make a quick comment in reply to your argument about ratios, i.e. more heterosexuals implies that heterosexuality is more easily achievable and therefore the “default.” This is only true if all people have the same degree of inclination toward their respective sexual orientations, which would be inconsistent with the spectrum model you outlined above. If a trait is distributed along a continuum, then there is no “default” case.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          If the distribution is very strongly weighted toward one side of the system, that would be consistent with having, as a general, a stronger determination on that side of the spectrum. “Default” was just an off-the-cuff way of describing that. But again, I’m just speculating on this point and haven’t really considered it carefully.

          • Kevin Foytik

            Thanks for clarifying, Tim.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    Excellent breakdown of the spectrum. Thanks for taking the reality of homosexuality so seriously.

    I’d only add that desire, inclination and identity cannot be viewed as discrete concepts; it is the interplay between them wherein romantic love, companionship, sense of wholeness, comfort, shared life, and all the other great things we get from pair-bonded relationships emerge. To define each factor by sexual relations alone does not do human nature justice.

  • John S

    I am no secular expert in human behavior or psychology, but the terminology and thought process we are led through here obscures the gospel, it does not make it more clear or more glorious.

  • Kevin Foytik

    Good job providing a fairly comprehensive summary of sexual orientation without weighing it down with the jargon that sometimes accompanies these kinds of posts. I have to say I’m hooked, and I’ll be tuning in for the next installment.

  • Nicholas Benton

    In response to Kubrick, and please note I do not, in any way, speak for the author. I feel that while compassion, wholeness, comfort, and elsewise are indeed wonderful…I feel that men are trained to value these “emotional” bonds far too primarily in our society. One thing that clarified that problem for me was studying the Greek in Romans 1. The difference between “moros” and “sophos” is roughly defined as “one who makes decisions from emotion” and “one who makes decisions from experience”.

    I think that these “emotions” are wonderful to share…but a wise man is one that realizes that you choose to love someone…the concept of “falling in love” is a foolish concept in general…not reflecting “sophos” but an individual being led around by their emotions, not asserting control over them for the greater good, will find it hard to live a godly life…no matter what these emotions are.

    Neuroplasticity research shows a great deal of support for the concept that…if you continue to try at something, you will improve…crazy stuff there…just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have to do it.

    • Kubrick’s Rube

      I agree to a point- certainly emotion without wisdom is a danger in our day-to-day lives, but wisdom without emotion does its share of damage too. (Check out Jonah Lehrer’s “How We Decide” for a good overview of the interaction.)

      That said, I haven’t seen a good reason, beyond a (admittedly predominant) Biblical interpretaion, to apply these issues differently to those of homosexual inclination than to those of heterosexual inclination.

      But as neither you nor Tim have thusfar discussed the issue in terms of legal and social concerns in the US in 2011, I’m getting ahead of the conversation.

  • Diane D’Angelo

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I agree there is no gay gene. It’s a lazy way to circumvent the scapegoating of same-sex desire. The bigger question is “So what?” Shouldn’t the discussion really be about developing healthy, mature sexuality that includes self and mutual respect? To say that our culture reacts as a large group of 5 year olds when it comes to sex would be an understatement.

  • Diane D’Angelo

    I encourage everyone to read Peter Tatchell’s outstanding essay “The End of Gay” :

  • I used to be pretty gay. I never thought I would find women attractive. That was before I met my wife. Things started to change, and before I knew it, I was sexually attracted to her. Since marriage, I have noticed my attraction to men are starting to decrease, but not very much. I realize that is not everyone’s experiences, but I’m glad Timothy recognizes that at least it is some people’s experiences.

    I keep having problems with defining homosexual desires as the desire to have gay s3x. I knew I was attracted to men pretty early on, but I didn’t necessarily want to have gay s3x right at the beginning. I would imagine it would be that way for straight people. Same-sex attractions seem to be with me regardless of what I did. The desire to have gay s3x seems more dependent on how much attention I gave it, particularly pornography.

    I was part of a recovery group for s3x addicts. I was the only gay guy in there. Many straight people were talking about giving up their desires for s3x. Many were single Christians, and didn’t want to have s3x until marriage.

    Romantic interests and attractions seem harder to get rid of. An attractive guy may still grab my interest, but it isn’t like I want jump in bed with him.

    Still, I agree with and appreciate the crux of your argument.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for sharing your story, Joshua. It’s stories like these that lead me to believe that there really is a spectrum. For most people who have same-sex desires, I doubt whether those desires will ever be fully extinguished. But they might diminish, and that could be enough. It’s not as though married heterosexuals are never tempted to stray; they simply choose not to honor those desires. And I think your point about attention is absolutely spot on. It’s a part of the cultivation of desire, where we place our attention. Thanks for that reminder.