Scientific Research and Debates about Homosexuality

Modern medical science would suggest ‘curing’ homosexuality has no more validity than the notion that left-handed children could somehow be forced to redefine their motor skills and assume right-handed dexterity. (Queensland Sunday Mail, June 10, 2012)

Homosexual and bisexual inclinations in some (perhaps many) cases are ‘the product of genetic hard-wiring, over which the persons concerned had no more choice than they did over their skin and hair colour, eye pigmentation, height, gender and left or right handedness’ (Justice Michael Kirby in Five Uneasy Pieces [2011], p. xix)

Many people in Australia today are convinced that scientific research requires us to rethink our attitude towards homosexuality, to legislate for ‘gay marriage’, and to oppose any form of counselling or help for those who struggle with homosexual feelings and behaviour. Disagreement with this position is regarded as a dangerous prejudice and a social evil like racism. So pervasive is this thinking that some Christians have decided that we should re-interpret or abandon what the Bible teaches about homosexuality and adopt the majority position.

But scientific evidence for the ‘born gay’ theory is thin and a simple genetic determinism cannot be maintained. ‘The balance is swinging back to a consensus that environment and genetics/neurology, culture and nature, are mutually interactive.’[1] Some may have a predisposition to homosexuality, but that does not absolve them from being responsible for what they do with it.

A number of Christian publications in the last decade have taken up this issue. For example, Neil Whitehead (My Genes Made Me Do It: A Scientific Look at Sexual Orientation, 2nd edition, 2010) reviews and summarises over 10,000 scientific publications. He argues for a roughly 10%/90% nature/nurture effect in homosexuality, while asserting that any genetic effect is very indirect. Whitehead shows that homosexual orientation is not simply biologically driven or fixed and that change toward heterosexuality frequently occurs naturally without any therapeutic interventions. A downloadable version of this book is available on his website (www.mygenes.co.nz), along with both technical and more accessible articles.

Some homosexuals say that they have been that way ever since they can remember, but studies show that the mean age of first same-sex attraction is 10 years, and two thirds of the ages of first attraction are in the range 6-14 years. It is therefore highly atypical that same-sex attraction is an earliest memory. What are probably being remembered are early longings to feel part of their gender group, emanating from feelings of insecurity and difference.

Two American psychologists have combined to write a helpful book about the use of scientific research in debates about homosexuality. Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse begin by reviewing the literature about the prevalence of homosexuality in the community. The figure of 10% is often used in popular reports or discussions, apparently based on the Kinsey studies in the 1940s and 1950s. But subsequent work has exposed the flaws in Kinsey’s approach.

More credible studies suggest that ‘less than 3%, and perhaps less than 2%, of males are homosexually active in a given year. The rate of males who engage in sustained homosexual practice over a significant period of adult life is probably less than 5% of the male population.’[2] Female homosexuality has not been studied so extensively and continues to be estimated at approximately half or less than the male rates.

Turning to the question of what causes homosexuality, Jones and Yarhouse conclude that direct research in support of either the genetic hypothesis or the prenatal hormonal hypothesis (especially as supposedly manifested in brain structure) is inconclusive. But ‘there is a substantial amount of research on psychological/environmental factors that is being generally ignored today despite the findings in the literature.’[3] Political agendas cause many to favour biological, rather than psychosocial theories.

Jones and Yarhouse argue for a ‘weighted interactionist hypothesis’, meaning that an individual’s experience of homosexual attraction will be related to a host of interrelated factors. Whatever the factors leading to same-sex attraction, the Bible’s challenge about the way we act out our sexual desires remains valid and applicable to us all (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:9-20; 1 Thes. 4:1-8).

On the subject of changing attractions and behavior, Neil Whitehead observes that clinical samples of homosexual/bisexual people who find change nearly impossible may well be expressing what is valid for them, but their experience does not at all reflect the norm in society. Surveys in the USA suggest that there is a vast hidden reservoir of people who have experienced a change of sexual orientation.

Jones and Yarhouse agree that change of sexual orientation may well be impossible for some by any natural means, ‘yet the position that homosexuality is unchangeable seems questionable in light of reports of successful change.’[4]

Homosexuality has been declassified as a mental illness by various psychological associations, but a surprisingly high number of therapists report some success in changing clients’ sexual orientation. For example, Joseph Nicolosi, a psychologist in California, has written extensively about his work with male homosexuals, using both individual and group therapies.[5]

Other approaches are discussed by Jones and Yarhouse, though they lament the lack of sophisticated methodology in many investigations. ‘The average positive outcome across these studies is about 33%.’[6]

More recently, Jones and Yarhouse examined the success and failure of people in dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction through the ministry of Exodus International. This empirical study was designed to discover whether individuals are able to overcome same-sex attraction by no longer acting on it and whether a change of sexual orientation is possible. They also investigated whether attempts to live beyond same-sex attraction cause people to be depressed and suicidal, as some have claimed.

Jones and Yarhouse discovered that ‘the average movement away from homosexual orientation may be termed medium to large, and the average shift toward heterosexual orientation is small.’[7] Interestingly, those who regarded themselves as almost completely gay in their sexual identity actually demonstrated the greatest change.[8]

Among those who experienced no change there was no evidence of harm from participating in such programs. When people in the media claim to have been hurt by ‘ex-gay’ ministries, it is unfair to damn them all on the basis of individual experiences. There has been a maturation and development of this work in recent decades and the overwhelming evidence is of the help given to many.

Essentially, people can experience freedom from homosexuality by living under the lordship of Christ, and even experience sexual reorientation. There are significant promises of moral and spiritual change made to Christians in the New Testament. The ministry of God’s Word in the context of prayer and a supportive Christian fellowship can move us together towards maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11-16). The Holy Spirit continues to transform those who turn their faces to the glorified Lord Jesus and seek to be like him (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. Rom. 8:29). When we obey from the heart the pattern of teaching presented to us in the gospel, we can be set free from the rule of sin and become ‘slaves of righteousness’ (Rom. 6:17-18). The grace of God can train us ‘to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age’ (Titus 2:12).

I warmly commend the books I have mentioned as serious biblical and psychological studies. They should be studied and critiqued by those who want to make helpful contribution to the debate. I recently met a theologian who was quite convinced that we should modify our views of Scripture because of the so-called findings of science on homosexuality. But he was unfamiliar with these books and the research they report and analyse. It is simply irresponsible to be outspoken on such matters without doing the homework!



[1] G. Preece, in M. Bird and G. Preece, Sexegesis: An Evangelical Response to Five Uneasy Pieces on Homosexuality (Sydney: Anglican Press Australia, 2012), p. 13.

[2] S. L. Jones and M. A. Yarhouse, Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000), p. 44.

[3] Jones and Yarhouse, Homosexuality, p. 83.

[4] Jones and Yarhouse, Homosexuality, p. 148.

[5] J. Nicolosi, Reparative Theory of Male Homosexuality: A New Clinical Approach (Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson, 1991), and Healing Homosexuality: Case Studies of Reparative Therapy (Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993).

[6] Jones and Yarhouse, Homosexuality, p. 133.

[7] S. L. Jones and M. A. Yarhouse, Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007), p. 275.

[8] Jones and Yarhouse, Ex-Gay, p. 275.

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