I think literally all of us have asked some combination of these “nature vs. nurture” questions in coming to terms with our faith and sexuality:
Why am I this way?
What made me this way?
Why me and not the other guys at school?
Can this be changed?
It’s only human nature to ask these questions of nature vs. nurture. The seeming injustice and sheer unfairness of our sexualities can feel torturous. It seems cruel that we’re so different in a way that society considers taboo and the church considers downright sinful.
Ever since the gay rights movement, people have attempted to answer this question of causality of sexuality in two polarizing ways, basing their sexual ethics on these beliefs.
The phrase “born this way” (popularized by the Lady Gaga song) has been used to simply justify that we are naturally born gay, straight, bisexual, etc. If one’s sexuality can’t be helped, then it can’t be considered immoral or sinful.
I’ve heard people say, “Gay people are born that way and can’t help it. People are born mentally handicapped; does that make the mentally handicapped immoral?”
Contrastingly, people in more conservative faith circles have argued that one’s homosexuality is a byproduct of how someone is raised.
“Why would God allow people to be born with such a proclivity to sin like homosexuality?”
The conclusion of reparative/conversion therapy and the “pray the gay away” crowd is that same-sex attractions are not inborn and thus can be changed through therapeutic means or prayer.
Some of these “nurture” conditions for men could look like:
- A poor, distant, and/or abusive relationship with one’s father
- An overbearing, controlling mother
- A lack of close relationships or even acceptance among male peers
- Incidents of molestation as a child
In a “pro-nurture” argument, any combination of these conditions might cause one not to identify with others of the same sex and thus see them as the “other,” much like a straight man would view a female. In this argument, same-sex attraction feels something like a mental illness.
And as with any other nurture factor, homosexuality could then be fixed. With therapy, homosexual feelings could be reduced and heterosexual ones gained.
This subject is a matchbox of controversy with fiery passions emerging. Secular gays will beat the drum of “nature,” and anyone who doesn’t agree is a hateful homophobe; conservative groups will beat the drum of “nurture,” and anyone who doesn’t agree is part of “the gay agenda” wanting to normalize sinful, disordered behavior.
Both sides, while well intentioned, have seemed to cling to their beliefs to justify their views on the morality on homosexuality.
I’ve written about my original foray into the “ex gay” (also known as “Side X”) world. Originally, I strongly believed in the nurture argument. I had great relationships with my parents and was never abused as a child, but I had few friends growing up and no close male ones.
A seemingly basic need for brotherhood grew sexualized for me, and I resonated most with that condition of the nurture argument.
But what exactly does science say on the matter of nature vs. nurture?
This isn’t meant to be an in-depth blog where I cite lots of articles and sources to prove a point (I’ll leave that to someone like Dr. Preston Sprinkle). I will say, though, that from all my personal research the general consensus seems to be:
No one really knows for sure.
Scientific studies seem to suggest there might be some inborn components for forming sexuality, and there might be some external components. Most seem to take the view that it might be a combination of both. Results are inconclusive. The ex-gay world is actually somewhat right in that no “gay gene” has ever been found.
You might know about the APA’s 1973 declassification of homosexuality as a mental disease. Some see this as a step forward, while others see it as a political maneuver.
What do we make of this?
When I first joined YOB a few years back, I discussed this nature vs. nurture subject with a community friend; he considered it a “moot point.” His reply surprised me, as I thought causation theories were an important part of developing one’s sexual ethic.
He explained it doesn’t matter why any of us are attracted to men at the end of the day. It’s just another part of our dealing with this fallen world, and we must follow the Gospel as best we can.
I hadn’t thought about this. I worried if homosexuality were proven to be genetic it might throw my whole faith into question. The more I thought about it, why would God let people be born blind or with genetic diseases? Not to dive into a theological can of worms, but I’ve had a similar contemplation with sexuality.
Okay, so many would get frustrated by comparing homosexuality to a disease. I understand — it’s a big difference, being born with a disease and opting into a sexual behavior.
But is it possible to be born with a certain proclivity to sin?
Now, big disclaimer here: I know many also get frustrated with homosexuality’s comparison to alcoholism. Many conservative “Side B” critics have made unfair comparisons like, “Why would same-sex attracted (SSA) guys want to be close friends with other SSA guys? Isn’t that like taking an alcoholic to a bar?”
Both alcoholism and sexuality shouldn’t be equated as addictions (unless one is talking specifically about pornography or hookups, which a lot of us may experience).
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states this:
“Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder). Therefore, genes alone do not determine whether someone will develop AUD. Environmental factors, as well as gene and environment interactions account for the remainder of the risk.”
I bring up this statement because whether sexuality is truly genetic, it doesn’t automatically invalidate a conservative sexual ethic on homosexuality.
In fact, we are all born with a proclivity to sin — heterosexuals included. Straight men have to control their own impulses.
While my views have evolved on this question of nature vs. nurture, I’d be lying if I said I weren’t sometimes frustrated by the lack of answers.
Sometimes I still contemplate whether things would be different today had I experienced more close friendships with other boys growing up. If I’d had familial brothers or friendships as close as brothers with physical and emotional affection, and perhaps some nonsexual nudity.
Would I then have still been attracted to men as an adult? Maybe turned out more bisexual? Not have as big of a porn problem? Have more emotional fulfillment?
It’s impossible to say.
In the years since joining YOB, I’ve met many men with such diverse backgrounds. I’ve met many who also didn’t grow up with close guy friends, and a few who actually did. I’ve met many with “daddy issues” and many with none. I’ve met many with strong emotional attractions but not sexual ones for women. And sadly, I’ve met some who were molested.
Some believe they were born this way; others are convinced their particular environmental conditions made them this way.
I have one pet theory I like to muse on (and big disclaimer: I’ve only spitballed this and am not claiming it as fact or something I truly believe). I’ve just noticed a disproportionate number of gay/SSA men are deeply emotional, sensitive types. Perhaps guys like us are indeed inborn with sensitive temperaments, and perhaps some elements of nurture put us at a higher likelihood for developing attractions to the same sex?
Sexuality is complicated, and there are many grey zones with no easy answers.
The one side I will take is that it’s important not to base a viewpoint purely on nature and nurture. It’s not helpful to keep looking backward, fretting over things we could’ve done differently, or hating our fathers for affecting us this way. Perhaps one day science will provide definitive answers.
But until that day, spending too much time obsessing over the root of our sexuality can take away our focus from having holy sexualities here and now.
What do you think of the nature vs. nurture debate? Do you base any part of your sexual ethic upon your beliefs with nature vs. nurture?
I don’t know if I was born this way or not; all I know is that I DIDN’T ask for this. Always feeling awkward, secretly checking out guys in the locker room, praying that I wouldn’t be caught. Enticed by the underwear aisle at Walmart. Always comparing myself to other guys and feeling inadequate. Knowing my father was disappointed that his oldest son wasn’t as masculine as his younger brother (his fourth wife left him when she discovered he was having an affair). And then there was the question of loving my best friend and the devastation I felt when he committed suicide when we were fourteen. Yeah that is another whole can of worms that my father won’t discuss, opting instead to talk about John Wayne or WWII. I just want to go Home.
Honestly, I do believe there is some sort of genetic component and therefore “born this way” in some capacity. I just simply don’t believe that homosexuality can be reduced solely and completely to environmental and nurture factors without any genetic component. It doesn’t really make much sense. The population of self-identified gay folks has always remained a certain consistent percentage (although I do believe the percentage is almost certainly higher than what statistics say because some people are just never going to acknowledge or identify with their same-sex attractions).
Something strange I’ve also noticed is that nearly almost all guys I know who are gay have brothers. I only have two younger sisters, so I’ve always felt odd knowing that I’m pretty much the only gay guy I know that doesn’t have any brothers, and so maybe that has exacerbated my condition? But maybe not. Also my dad died at six, so that may have possibly contributed, also? If he was still alive, I still do believe I’d be gay, though, because I’ve felt this way since before I started school, during the time he was still alive, so I think that there is more of a genetic factor than is what is willing to be accepted.
All I know is that I have never in my life had any sort of sexual, romantic or emotional attraction to women. I don’t have crushes on women, I don’t get butterflies, nor get any lovey-dovey or romantic feelings for or towards women. I have only had those feelings for guys. I remember being a toddler and having crushes on the male cartoon characters and the boys in kindergarten and all through elementary school; and it really wasn’t sexual, it was more romantic and emotional, and it still is.
Oh yes, I should’ve brought up that study where it talked about how the more older brothers one has, the more likely one is to be gay. In my case however, I’m an only child. I know they said in that study it was more of a higher likelihood rather than a guarantee but still it does raise questions for me. And yeah I too have no emotional, romantic, or sexual feelings to women either. I have no interest in having them for normal friends either (maybe I’m just sexist). I remember in my middle school days I did have sort of a crush on some girls but it was more emotional and not sexual at all. I know some gay guys who have no sexual attraction to women but strong emotional attractions.
I’ve also talked before about how I have emotional attractions to men I can trace back to when I was 4. To me however, these feelings have intuitively felt like natural “fraternal instinct” feelings that all boys and men have. Perhaps that feeling is stronger in gay men.
But yeah, I think most people often oversimplify homosexuality (be in nature or nurture in origin) as “heterosexuality in reverse” or that gay men are simply “women with penises”. There is FAAAR more to it to that and its much more complicated.
I think being gay is nature – maybe a combination of genetics & hormones in utero. I know identical twins where one is gay & the other straight. I know of identical triplets where all 3 are gay. Maybe nurture helps people feel free to express their sexual identity or they know to shut up. As long as people can say it’s a choice or a defect, they feel free to discriminate. The example of the APA’s reversal in 1973 was a good. It was political and it was a good move. Research on homosexuals was done primarily in bars & prisons so we weren’t viewed very well. Authorities on the subject were entrenched in their views & well paid to express them. The men & women who confronted the APA basically said, “Talk with us, not about us.” From that change, the fight continued to decriminalize homosexuality. You & I can be out & not locked up in jail or a mental institutional a result. It would be great if churches could tell LGBT? youth, we love you just as you are. Let’s walk together as far as we can. One can hope. As far as a sexual ethic, that for me was governed more by fear than anything else – fear of being outed, fear of being infected. Thanks for sharing your struggles Eugene (& Bradley) and for letting us walk with you. We might not always agree want to share in your journey.
Oh yes, I know of the Atherton twins who are Cirque Du Soleil acrobats. They are completely identical yet one is straight and married to a woman while the other is gay and married to a man. I don’t parade this fact around as proof of anything but it does raise a lot of questions. It can be very hard to navigate this issues because of how politicized it has become (from both the left and right) to where you don’t know what to think anymore sometimes.
I just agree with Joseph Nicolosi’s Developed writings on this subject. He thinks it’s a combination of nurture and personality interacting, and his techniques are scientifically grounded techniques for shame reduction and trauma resolution. He doesn’t claim change is guaranteed, As a result of his many experiences as a therapist, His view has evolved past the narrow “always a father wound” to a more grounded and nuanced understanding of unmet gender identification needs, in whatever shape that is. And Shame resolution and acceptance, is a key component in his therapy. I think he is incredibly understated, due to political attacks on conversion therapy as a whole, causing misconceptions and misunderstandings of the theoretical groundwork of Reparative Therapy, which can get incorrectly simplified fairly easily.
Your cartoon is hilarious and somewhat reminiscent of my thoughts throughout my teens and early 20’s. I was never a flamer and if I were drawing the cartoon, I would have put ‘..Let’s make this one an understated homo that can pass. We will see if he can keep from giving away his secret’. I will tell you that I failed.
Interestingly, there is much information out there about estrogen mimicking chemicals and endocrine disrupters in the environment that might change one’s outlook about one’s sexuality. Then there’s Mom’s hormonal issues while pregnant and the previously mentioned ‘how many older brothers’ issue. All of this notwithstanding, there have ALWAYS been homosexuals throughout known history in every culture, empire and nation. So I have concluded that it all comes down to the fact that all human flesh, since the Fall of Humanity, has been corrupted in one way or the other. We are all broken in some way. It may be genetic, it may be spiritual, it may be environmental. From a Christian point of view, it does not matter what our bends and kinks are. It matters what we do or don’t do with it.
Thank you for the compliments on the drawing! And yeah I totally agree with you at the end, all that ultimately matters is what we do with it. I think folks shouldn’t make a sexual ethic war cry based on either belief on the origins.
Born this way or not? Despite all the arguments that we were “born this way,” I personally find that the social patterns (of poor relationship with dad, strong attachment to mom, rejection from boys) are true for most gay/ssa guys I know, including myself and near all of my exes before embracing Side B. There are exceptions from every rule, but this pattern does appear to be the rule. Here’s another question: does this pattern look different for tops, bottoms and versatile guys? I wonder if there has been any research on that.
It’s so very refreshing to see others like me with this point of view. Thank you for sharing it! Though I have come to recognize the complex combination of factors (biological and environmental) that contributed to my own experience with same-sex attraction, as a married man in my thirties to me it doesn’t matter so much why it came to be part of my life. To me what matters is how I live now. But to that little boy experiencing these powerful and scary feelings for the first time, it mattered very much where they were coming from what they do (or more importantly do not) mean about himself and his future. At about 19 years old, I stumbled on this article and I felt like the therapist who wrote it knew my entire life’s story. Then it was through that therapist that I later got the help I needed. It sounds similar to the experiences and perspectives you’ve shared, too.
Of course there’s no telling how things might have been different for me had I understood this stuff at the time, but I believe that at least for the sake of the upcoming generation, and having kids of my own now, it’s important to have as much understanding about this as we can.
I’ve heard the argument that the predisposition might have to do with the levels of estrogen in the womb (biological factor)… But I’m not sure if there’s any ethical way to test that, so who knows. Origins probably don’t really matter, anyway.
Homosexuality is a lot more than just sexual attraction (which can be a struggle, but isn’t a sin by itself). I think that’s why SSA is a common word on this site. The relationships Christian gay men can have with one another — the brotherhood and fellowship — must run much deeper than some others because of the ways in which they can love. There’s both a mutuality and predisposition towards greater emotional and physical connection.
No matter if it is genetic or environmental, homosexuality is not a perversion. I think there is real, Godly beauty in SSA. I’ve seen some people on this site say it’s not a stumbling block, but a jumping point. And the more I read articles on this site, the more I realize how true that is.