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?