Can Homosexuals Change Their Desires? – From the Mailbox

Can Homosexuals Change Their Desires? – From the Mailbox July 8, 2011

A recent post, “Is Homosexuality Voluntary?“, asked whether homosexual desires, or sexual desires more generally, can be shifted (or “cultivated”) over time.  I received a letter from a good friend, whom I will call JH.  After saying some nice complimentary things that needn’t be repeated here, JH wrote:

…It seems to me that there are several categories of desire, each of which is caused by interactions of varying degrees of nature and nurture. I would argue that the causal mechanism for some desires, like the desire to eat food, is almost exclusively genetically inherited, while the causal mechanism for other desires, like the desire to eat haggis, is largely culturally learned. Other desires are probably born of a mix of genetic, hormonal, cultural, and familial causes. I won’t presume to know exactly how much of the desire to have same-sex relations is attributable to nature and how much is attributable to nurture, but I would argue that it doesn’t belong in the same category as either the desire to eat food or the desire to eat haggis.

The reason that I think that the distinction is vital is because the cultivation of a desire a la Aristotle or Confucius demands that the desire have its causal roots more firmly planted in nurture than in nature. No matter how badly I wish to cultivate a desire not to desire food, I’ll fail, but [it] might work given enough time and effort if I’m attempting to cultivate a desire not to desire haggis. So, if the desire for same-sex relations is more like the desire to eat food, which my anecdotal evidence suggests is closer to the truth than not, than the desire to eat haggis, then I seriously doubt that a person with the desire for same-sex relations can ever cultivate a desire for opposite-sex relations, especially if that person’s desires are exclusively for same-sex relations (some evidence exists to support the notion that sexuality is a spectrum, so my argument would be more applicable to those who are exclusively homosexual rather than to those who are bisexual). While it may be true that there have been cases of “former homosexuals” marrying, having children, and *self-reporting* exclusively opposite-sex desires, I doubt the validity of that claim…[T]here are still myriad reasons that a person would be less than candid with himself/herself and/or with others about his/her sexual desires. Given that researchers routinely find that statistics that rely on self-reporting are almost always skewed, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to doubt the validity of such conversion stories.

I agree with much of this – but not the end.

FIRST, presumably some desires can be eliminated and some desires cannot.  We probably can never entirely eliminate the desire to have food, for instance.  It’s a biological imperative.  The desire for a particular kind of food, however, is culturally shaped and probably more amenable to elimination.  On this we’re agreed.

However, “cultivation” need not mean “elimination.”  When we cultivate a plant, we do not eliminate it.  We prune it, shape it, and direct it.  Religious persons, from the Desert Fathers to Hindu gurus, can sublimate the desire for food, shape it, and gain great control over the way in which they respond to it.  Or, take sinful desires: the Desert Fathers did not seek to eliminate their desires but to bend them all together into a single great desire for God, the Summum Bonum.  So, even if we cannot eliminate the desire to have food, we can control the desire and how it’s directed, and we have even more power — possibly to the point of elimination — over the desire to have a particular kind of food.

I’m not sure this parallel really helps the case for homosexuality.  The parallel would be: we cannot eliminate the desire to have sex, but we can gain control over the desire and how we respond to it, and we have even more power — even to the point of elimination — over the desire for a particular kind of sex.  The desire for same-sex sexual relations is, at least to some extent, a desire for a particular kind of sex.  In fact, one would expect the biological imperative to be far stronger toward heterosexual sex, since only heterosexual sex perpetuates the genes.  In any case, even if the desire for homosexual set is more akin to the desire to eat food (and not a particular kind of food), one can gain great control over how that desire is experienced and acted upon (or not).

This leads into the next part of this series on Christianity and Homosexuality, which will ask, “Is Homosexuality Wrong?”  I do not fault a person for having same-sex desires.  But I do believe — for reasons I will explain — that it is wrong to obey those desires, in the same way that it is wrong for me to obey any number of my own desires.

SECOND, I actually argued that there is a spectrum, and that some will have more power to cultivate their desires than others.  Some, most or even all of those whose desires have always and exclusively been for people of the same sex may never be able to eliminate a desire for people of the same sex or develop desires for people of the opposite sex.  Others, whose desires are more fluid, may find it easier to reduce and even eliminate same-sex desires.  (But again, bear in mind we’re talking here about desires and not actions; even if a person cannot control his desires, he can be held accountable for his actions.)

THIRD, it’s true that people can deceive themselves or deceive others about their ability to move away from homosexual desires and to be happy in heterosexual relationships.  People can deceive in all sorts of ways.  Some will have motive to argue that they “gave it their best” but could never change their homosexual inclinations.  Some will have motive to claim that they’ve never experienced heterosexual desires, even if they have.  Again, the human mind and its motivations are exceedingly complex, and we do not always do what a simple self-interest calculation would suggest we should.

I’m simply giving people the benefit of the doubt, and I’m trusting people who seem trustworthy.  Good and trustworthy people have told me that they have never experienced, and cannot imagine ever experiencing, heterosexual desires — and I believe them.  Good and trustworthy people have told me that they have, through years of effort and discipline and prayer, moved away from homosexual desires into happy heterosexual relationships — and I believe them.  This is not to say that they have stamped out all homosexual desires, but they’ve opened up and emphasized their heterosexual desires.  Finally, good and trustworthy people have told me that they have tried to eliminate their same-sex desires, found they could not, and who have chosen to live in abstinence — and I believe them too.

If I only rejected the stories of those who reported moving toward heterosexuality, that would be more ideological than empirical.  I think all of these stories reflect legitimate experiences, and ones we have to take into account to understand homosexuality and heterosexuality aright.

FINALLY, I want to reiterate that I think nature and nurture are both are involved, and are dialectically related, with nature acting upon nurture and nurture acting upon nature (in the ways that certain environmental conditions can cause genetical mechanisms to be expressed).  What you might call our initial sexual inclination is developed largely before the time we become fully conscious of ourselves, our freedom, and our sexuality.  It is experientially true, but not actually true, that we are “born this way” — and it’s experientially true because we have had these desires for as long as we have been aware of any sexual desire at all.  I do not believe we can hold people morally responsible for this initial inclination.  But I do believe we are responsible for what we do with our inclinations once we have them, and that we have some amount of freedom to cultivate other inclinations.

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