Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Sexual Orientation: The Scientific Evidence (Such as it is)

As I stated at the outset of this series, the term “homosexuality” is coined in German in the 1860s and comes into English a few years later.  So, the idea of someone with a sexual orientation that is primarily directed to their own sex (as opposed to same-sex acts) is a modern concept.

Freud believed it was a neurosis caused by an overprotective or dominant mother and/or an absent or abusive father.  In the 1950s, especially, psychologists blamed mothers if their children were gay or lesbian. Psychologists and psychiatrists regularly used electro-shock therapy to “cure” gays and lesbians. They also used lobotomies and “aversion therapy,” all of which would now be considered torture.  In 1973, the American Psychological Association dropped homosexuality from its lists of neuroses and psychosis and the American Psychiatric Association followed soon after. 

What changed? Not the political culture.  The gay rights movement had not yet emerged until a little later in the decade of the 1970s (immediately leading to the anti-gay “crusade” of former Mouseketeer and orange-juice saleswoman, Anita Bryant!).  What changed was the groundbreaking study of human sexuality by Alfred Kinsey and the institute he founded.  Kinsey discovered that few of us are completely heterosexual (ONLY attracted to the opposite sex) or completely homosexual (ONLY attracted to our own sex). Rather, most of us are dominantly heterosexual or homosexual.  Kinsey also discovered that, although the persecution of homosexuals by church and society often leads to attendant neuroses, there is no neurosis or psychosis in the condition itself.  That is still the conclusion of almost all psychologists and psychiatrists, and is reflected in their Diagnostic and Statistics Manual.

UPDATE: In the comments, Daniel Schweissing (Haitianministries), corrects this statement slightly. I accept it as a friendly correction and, since some readers never read the comments, reproduce it here:

While Kinsey’s groundbreaking study was undoubtedly influential in the decision of the APA, et al. to change their views on homosexuality, politics also played an important role. Gay theologian Robert Goss, in his book _Jesus Acted Up_ (Harper San Francisco, 1993 –pp.44-45), documents how gay and lesbian activists demonstrated at and disrupted a number of psychiatric and medical conferences, beginning as early as 1968 in attempt to convince them to change their views. This, in part, is one of the reasons why many conservative Christians continue to reject the professional opinions of such groups in regards to homosexuality. A better reading of this change in thinking might be that the political pressure from gay and lesbian activists forced the APA, et al. to take studies such as Kinsey’s more seriously.

Thanks, Daniel.

One often hears conservative preachers claim that “homosexuality is only found in human beings,” and that it’s claimed non-appearance in animals is proof that it is unnatural and sinful. The claim is false as anyone who has spent time around animals will tell you.  In some species, like dolphins and dogs, the majority of the males will mount anything that holds still! (Also, see what penguins are up to here!)In species that mate for life, a small percentage form same-sex pairings.  I have personally observed this in red-shouldered hawks–with two male hawks actually building a nest together!  This is always a small minority or the species in question would not survive.  But it happens.  Human sexuality is enough different from animal sexuality that this point is of limited value, but I had to refute an oft-made, but false, claim.

Among humans, approximately 90% of us are dominantly heterosexual in orientation.  About 5% are dominantly homosexual in orientation.  5% or less are bi-sexual or nearly equally attracted to members of both sexes.

Studies of the causes of homosexuality have been few and inconclusive. Several of the studies have either been poorly designed or given inconclusive evidence or used too small a sampling, etc.

There have been studies of monozygotic male twins which have shown that if one twin is gay, the other is gay 50% of the time. This has proven to be the case even when the twins were separated at birth and raised in very different environments. This does not answer the question of causation, but it does indicate something not-chosen and not environmental.

There have been studies in brain size and chemistry which purport to show differences in the brains of gay men and straight men.

In the mid-’90s, studies of birth order found that the more male children a woman had, the more likely that her last male child would be gay.  The hypothesis is that her body treated the male child as a foreign object and that, over time and with many children, the mother’s body introduced chemicals to change the sex to female–and sometimes got a gay male child, instead. The study was suggestive, but far from conclusive.

The most profitable field of research for causes is genetic.  However, many gay and lesbian people fear research in this area, because they fear that parents will either abort or attempt genetic manipulation in utero to prevent having gay children. (The fundamentalist president of my once-great alma mater, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., opined on his radio show that if geneticist discovered a “gay gene,” it would be a Christian responsibility to be screened and to have corrective procedures in utero. Way to channel the Nazi doctors there, Al!)

No “gay gene” has been isolated, but the human genome mapping project has suggested promising areas of research.  The general “consensus” (to the extent there is one) in the field is that homosexual orientation is probably caused by a variety of genetic and hormonal causes prior to birth and to some environmental factors shortly after birth. The only real consensus is that dominant sexual orientation is set by age 5 and not really alterable after that.

The scientific evidence (including recent studies on rats!) is found here.

Note on transgendered persons:  Transgendered persons have a different gender identity than their outward biology at birth.  Whereas gay men identify as male and lesbian women identify as female, but are just oriented to their own sex, transgendered persons feel “trapped in the wrong body.” We don’t know the causes of this, either, although they may be partly biological. A rare medical phenomenon is someone who is born with both male and female genitalia. They are arbitrarily assigned one sex or the other and “corrective” surgery is usually performed shortly after birth.  This suggests that transgendered persons also have some biochemical reason or genetic reason for identify with the other sex, no matter their outward primary and secondary sex characteristics.   Sometimes such persons choose sex reassignment surgery to finally find peace by no longer feeling “trapped in the wrong body.”

For more information on transgendered persons and the church, by the only Christian transgendered person I know, see here.  That is the website of Rev. Elise Elrod (formerly Ronnie Elrod), who speaks on bias, one-thing thinking (reducing people to one feature), and acceptance.

Now, why this interest in causes? Because moral responsibility usually implies choice; ought implies can.  But, this is not always the case.  Many like to compare same-sex sexual orientation to alcoholism or to violence. I may have a predisposition to violence–it does not justify my hitting anyone when I am angry.  I may be predisposed to alcoholism, but the conclusion would be that I should not drink (or if already addicted, seek help), not that alcoholism is “right for me” and I should pursue it.

This is what I meant above by saying that science itself provides no moral guidelines.  However, the relevant question to ask those who argue that “homosexual orientation is not chosen, but the behavior and can be changed,” is whether or not same-sex sexual orientation is really analogous to alcoholism or violence.  It seems to me that the conclusion of psychologists and psychiatrists that “homosexuality” is not itself a neurosis or psychosis rules out too close a similarity with alcoholism or violence.

Given the constraints in which most gays or lesbians live in our society, persecuted and outcast, subject to job loss or housing discrimination, often rejected by church and family, one would be very surprised NOT to find many gays and lesbians who have accompanying psycho-social problems. But we find such problems in heterosexuals, too. And the amazing thing is that we also find gay and lesbian Christians who lead lives of deep holiness. The ones I know personally are much better Christians than I am.

These things lead me to believe that same-sex sexual orientation is not a flaw, but simply a variation in nature, in God’s created order–like left-handedness. By itself, it is no more or less sinful than heterosexuality.

July 23, 2008 - Posted by | homosexuality, science & faith

12 Comments

  1. Hmm…not sure if my previous comment evaporated or if you’re moderating comments….so this is a test. Feel free to delete it. 🙂

    Comment by Alan | July 23, 2008

  2. I think the biggest problem is the “right” has drawn a line in the sand and it is an “us v. them” issue. If you are gay, this is your category. It doens’t matter how many other categories you might fit, this is the only one that matters. This is a huge problem.

    It’s also true of other minorities, obviously.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | July 23, 2008

  3. Your analysis of the state of the art of scientific inquiry in this is correct. There have been no conclusive studies. However, finding a truly conclusive study in nearly any area is a pretty rare phenomenon. What we do have is a broad and ever broadening literature from many areas, from many different researchers, from different countries, published in many different peer-reviewed professional journals, over a period of several years. While most of these studies have been critiqued (and justly so) for inherent weaknesses in design and/or analysis, very few have been refuted. I say that not because you make the claim that they have been refuted, but because so many who are ignorant of the actual literature (vs. what James Dobson tells them) believe that a critique is the same as refuting an entire article. (And even if every one of these articles had been completely refuted, that fact alone would not disprove the notion that sexual orientation has a genetic and/or prenatal hormone component, another point that those on the other side conveniently ignore.)

    Frankly even without all this scientific evidence, the answer to the question of whether homosexuality is “natural” is an obvious, “Of course.” Nearly every human trait is expressed in the population as a diversity or continuum of types: eye color, height, hair color, handedness, etc. It would be quite surprising if sexual orientation, as a trait, was only expressed naturally by one option: heterosexuality. In addition, only those ignorant of biology would presume that choice and choice alone dictate something as complex as sexual orientation.

    However, again I have a problem with discussing homosexuality as if it is a problem without looking at how the same arguments apply to heterosexuality. For example, you rightly point out that it is not necessary to affirm homosexual acts simply because homosexuality is natural. That’s true. But then why limit the discussion only to homosexual acts? Given that there are over 6 billion people on the planet and orphanages full of kids, isn’t it also reasonable to ask whether or not we should affirm then heterosexual acts, regardless of the fact that we consider heterosexuality natural? Other than replacement levels (or maybe less) of reproduction, is heterosexual sex really something we should affirm? Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.

    In the same way, approaching that question from an evolutionary standpoint rather than just a procreation standpoint, there are many advantages to sexual (vs. asexual) procreation for a species. However, there are several theories as to how homosexuality may have also given our species an evolutionary advantage. So, why focus only on the “problems” of homosexuality? These conversation will someday, I hope, become far more enlightening when we start broadening them to focus on sexual orientation more broadly.

    This is the same point I brought up in an earlier post. Want to talk about monogamy? Fine, but perhaps we should do so while talking about everyone and not just LGBT folks. So then, want to talk about the science of sexual orientation? Fine, but why focus solely on homosexuality? Using this post for example, is it actually true that there is so much scientific evidence that heterosexuality is “natural”? Where are the studies that conclusively demonstrate that heterosexuality isn’t either a choice or a conditioned response? The answers to some questions seem to be simply assumed.

    Comment by Alan | July 23, 2008

  4. It seems that the problem was a link I included in my post, that wouldn’t let it actually post.

    Anyway, there’s a great site that nicely summarizes the scientific work to date in a pretty fair way. I can’t get links to post in the comments, but the page, titled “The Biology of Sexual Orientation” is the first one that pops up, if one does a google search on: simon levay sexual orientation biology

    Comment by Alan | July 23, 2008

  5. I often use the alcoholism analogy, not to say that homosexuality is exactly the same thing, but that it may be kind of similar. Just because something may be “natural” in that it naturally occurs in this fallen world, this does not mean that it is okay or good in God’s eyes (such as natural disasters – and yes, I know that’s debatable too). The Bible is very clear that the homosexual act is sin, so even if a person is born gay, they should not practice homosexuality. I disagree that ought implies can. Every single one of us ought not sin. This does not imply that it is possible.

    Comment by Chris Huff | July 23, 2008

  6. “I often use the alcoholism analogy,…”

    I often hear this analogy, Chris, but no one ever explains it other than to say, as you did, “Just because something may be “natural” in that it naturally occurs in this fallen world, this does not mean that it is okay or good in God’s eyes…” That’s fine as far as it goes, but the same can be said for all sorts of heterosexual acts as well, yet we don’t classify all heterosexual acts as evil just because some are.

    So how does this alcoholism analogy actually work? Alcoholics who are not in recovery may tend to destroy their relationships with friends and relatives. Not so, LGBT people. Non-recovering alcoholics may loose their job and means of livelIhood. Not so LGBT people. Non-recovering alcoholics are, by definition, not in control of their drinking. LGBT people are not “addicted” to sex. Alcohol is a poison. Gay sex is not poisonous. etc., etc., etc. I’m sure we can all think of many other ways in which the analogy simply doesn’t fit. So if the overlap in the Venn Diagram of alcoholism vs. homosexual activity is basically zero, other than it being based on two behaviors you find unacceptable, just how appropriate is the analogy in the first place? I’ve honestly never understood the analogy and no one has ever explained it to me.

    And, since we’re talking about science here, psychology has a reasonably decent understanding of addictions such as alcoholism (and biology is beginning to shed light on the genetic factors). So it seems to me that that if the analogy is reasonable, that psychology (and perhaps to an extent biology) should be able to provide research as to how similar alcoholism is to engaging in homosexual sex. Yet, I’ve never seen any such research. Has anyone else?

    Comment by Alan | July 23, 2008

  7. When I use the analogy, I use it exclusively in regards to the supposed “gay” gene. I don’t mean that homosexuality is a disorder or a neurotic condition. And I don’t even mean that the “gay” gene and the gene that predisposes a person towards alcoholism are the same kind of gene, or that they work the same way. I only mean that it could be helpful to think of that analogy when talking about homosexuality being natural, just as alcoholism could be said to be natural.

    Comment by Chris Huff | July 23, 2008

  8. Chris,
    There are problems with the alcoholism analogy:
    1)We know alcoholism is inherently destructive. So, staying sober “one day at a time” is a redemptive strategy. But same-sex orientation does not seem to be inherently destructive–any more than heterosexuality is.
    2)As I have been at pains to show, the Bible is clear only in condemning some kinds of same-sex acts–exploitive, idolatrous, inhospitable ones. It is NOT clear that the biblical authors condemned loving, monogamous same sex relationships–although Romans 1 could be read as including those, it is simply ambiguous.
    3)Remaining celibate, as 1 Cor. states, takes a specific spiritual gift. I see no evidence that this is automatically given to all gays or lesbians who become Christian.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 24, 2008

  9. “I only mean that it could be helpful to think of that analogy when talking about homosexuality being natural, just as alcoholism could be said to be natural.”

    I’m sorry Chris, I’m trying to understand the analogy, but I still don’t get it. As we’ve pointed out, there’s no similarity between homosexuality and alcoholism other than you find both wrong. Given that’s your only reason to use the analogy, then the analogy that homosexuality is analogous to heterosexuality (ie both are natural and both are to be used within certain bounds) certainly makes much more sense since there is actually overlap and similarity between the two halves of the analogy.

    Your analogy to alcoholism is simply random, as far as I can tell. You pick something that is also natural, but bad. In the same way, you could pick any number of things that are natural but good. The analogy doesn’t explain anything because it’s already initially based on your assumption of the sinfulness of homosexual acts to begin with.

    Comment by Alan | July 24, 2008

  10. “What changed? Not the political culture. The gay rights movement had not yet emerged until a little later in the decade of the 1970s (immediately leading to the anti-gay “crusade” of former Mouseketeer and orange-juice saleswoman, Anita Bryant!). What changed was the groundbreaking study of human sexuality by Alfred Kinsey and the institute he founded.”

    While Kinsey’s groundbreaking study was undoubtedly influential in the decision of the APA, et al. to change their views on homosexuality, politics also played an important role. Gay theologian Robert Goss, in his book _Jesus Acted Up_ (Harper San Francisco, 1993 –pp.44-45), documents how gay and lesbian activists demonstrated at and disrupted a number of psychiatric and medical conferences, beginning as early as 1968 in attempt to convince them to change their views. This, in part, is one of the reasons why many conservative Christians continue to reject the professional opinions of such groups in regards to homosexuality. A better reading of this change in thinking might be that the political pressure from gay and lesbian activists forced the APA, et al. to take studies such as Kinsey’s more seriously.

    Comment by haitianministries | July 24, 2008

  11. O.K., Daniel, I’ll buy that. And I will reproduce your comment in an update to the post.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 24, 2008

  12. […] Sexual Orientation: Science. […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on GLBT Persons in the Church: A Case for Full Inclusion « Levellers | August 18, 2008


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