Is Homosexuality Voluntary?

Is Homosexuality Voluntary? June 28, 2011
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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