Response to a Review: Sexual Orientation

The last couple of weeks have been hectic, and I haven’t gotten to posting here as much as I would like to.  But here’s another piece of response to Ron Citlau’s review.  Ron complains about my treatment of the issue of sexual orientation.  He begins this way:  “Another problem I have is Brownson’s conviction that sexual orientation, as discussed in popular culture today, is something unknown to the biblical writers.”  What I actually say on this topic is found on p. 156 of my book:  “Such a perspective [i.e., that people might be sexually inclined only to people of their own gender] is found nowhere in the literature of Paul’s day.”  My focus is not on what is known generally, but what is acknowledged by Jewish and Christian writers.  Later in the book, I spell all this out even more clearly.  Here’s a more extended discussion of the issue on p. 229:

Such an awareness of a “natural” orientation toward same-sex relations is attested in some Greek and Roman sources. The myth of human origins presented in Plato’s Symposium (189C-193D) assumes such a view: Aristophanes recounts how some humans long to be reunited with their “other half ” of the same sex, from whom they were divided by the gods in the beginning. However, the absence of such perspectives in early Jewish and Christian sources suggests that these Jews and Christians did not recognize even the possibility that persons might be naturally inclined (in terms of their own true nature) toward desiring others of the same sex. To concede such a possibility would allow a construal of nature that violated their understanding of divine law, and thus it would be understood as unacceptable a priori.

My point is a simple one.  Even if such theories about same-sex orientation were known, they were certainly not embraced by Jewish or Christian writers. We find absolutely no references to a natural or innate same-sex orientation in any Jewish or Christian sources (that’s my central point).  As a result, therefore, Jewish and Christian writers opted instead for a different theory about same-sex desire—that it was driven by excessive lust, by an insatiable appetite for increasingly exotic forms of stimulation (see my chapter on lust in the book).

So my question is a simple one:  does the early Jewish and Christian explanation of same-sex desire—that it is driven by excessive lust unsatisfied with heterosexual gratification and driven to increasingly exotic forms of stimulation—do justice to the actual experience of gay and lesbian persons today?  (Take a look at pp. 154ff. of my book for direct quotes from ancient Jewish authors taking this view.)  If it does not, then we have to reckon with the fact that what the biblical writers took for granted or simply assumed may not reflect the actual experience of gay and lesbian Christians today who seek to temper and refine their desires in long-term committed relationships.

Ron complains that my argument is simply “that psychological insights can change/modify the biblical vision of human sexuality and sin.”  But that’s not really my argument at all.  I’m merely suggesting that when Paul in Romans 1 speaks of same-sex reationships that are driven by excessive lust, impure, degrading, and contrary to nature, these characteristics don’t always seem to fit very well, when applied to committed, long-term same sex relationships in the church’s contemporary experience.  This gap between Paul’s assumptions about the relationships he addresses, and what gay Christians are experiencing today, raises the question about whether his indictment should be considered categorical of all same-sex relationships.  Perhaps instead it should be read as a qualitative condemnation of relationships that are marked by sinful excesses of all sorts.  And this therefore raises the question of whether all same-sex relationships should be tarred with the same brush.  I still think that’s a question worth asking.

Ron goes on to assert that “the jury is still out on what sexual orientation is and whether it’s immutable or changeable.”  He goes on to cite Jones & Yarhouse’s 2007 book entitled Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation.  Yet if you actually read Jones’ and Yarhouse’s book, some interesting conclusions emerge.  Even with the support of the Exodus International board (a board which has since renounced any form of reparative therapy for gay Christians), they were only able to find 15 people in the whole country who testified to a complete change in sexual orientation.  At least one of these people later admitted that he had not completely changed.  Other research, relying solely on self-report, for religiously motivated persons who wanted to change from gay to straight sexual orientation, also suggests that, even under the most optimistic read of the data, only a small percentage of persons who are gay–especially men–successfully change fully to a heterosexual orientation.

The reality is that the conservative response to homosexuality has morphed through a range of positions.  At first gay behavior was regarded as just a bad choice.  Then, when that approach failed to match the experience of gay Christians, neo-Freudian theories emerged about absent fathers and dominant mothers, and strategies for reparative therapy were attempted.  When those theories were disproven, and attempts at reparative therapy proved unsuccessful, many conservatives (including Exodus International) abandoned this approach.  The consensus now is simply that gay Christians need to learn how to be celibate and live with their desires, finding more constructive and holy ways to form their identities and to express themselves than in erotic relationships.

So I respectfully disagree with Ron on this one.  I don’t think the jury is still out.  The data is pretty clear, that a small minority of gay folks can live successful heterosexual lives (I don’t deny this), but that for the majority of gay people, it’s unhelpful and counter-productive for them to try to change their sexual orientation.  It’s not only liberals who are saying such things.  Even the conservative umbrella organization for groups trying to help gay people live celibate or heterosexual lives—Exodus International—says this.  For most gay Christians, it is simply unhelpful to hold before them the hope of a change in their sexual orientation.  That’s the concrete experience of the vast majority of gay folks.  It remains a lively issue of debate whether they should therefore remain celibate, or whether they should be permitted to enter into long-term committed unions.  But for most gay Christians, the jury is in, and change in sexual orientation is at the margins, not at the center, of their experience.