Sexual orientation change efforts. Reparative therapy. Unwanted same-sex attraction. These terms are wrought with controversy. Historically, the response of folks who ascribe to the traditional (or orthodox) Christian sexual ethic (i.e. that sex is to be reserved for heterosexual marriage), has been to attempt to eliminate homosexual desires. These are called sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) – attempts to make someone change not only their sexual behaviors, but also their sexual desires, into ‘straight’ ones – oriented towards the opposite sex. The assumption is that, if God forbids homosexual sexual acts, then one ought to try to eliminate even the temptation for sexual activity with members of the same sex. There is a question that traditional faith communities are failing to ask, however, which strikes at the foundation of that assumption. And so, I pose this question for those of you who subscribe to the orthodox Christian sexual ethic to consider and respond to:
What moral or spiritual good is achieved by attempts to eliminate a person’s desire towards homosexual sexual behavior?
No one tries to remove straight people’s desires to jump into bed with each other. We try to teach them to manage it properly. Even traditionally minded Christians don’t teach that singles should rid themselves of sexual desire until they marry. Instead, they teach them to avoid lustful behaviors and thoughts as an unmarried straight person, and to honor God with their expressions of sexuality. Why are we responding differently to our LGBT brothers and sisters? From my perspective (a straight celibate Christian), if someone were to argue that I ought to remove my sexual desires because I am single, I would think they’d lost their marbles. So, I can understand why most in the LGBT community, when told they should ‘change’ their desires, find it to be a worthless pursuit. Even many gay Christians who embrace celibacy for their expressed intent of maintaining sexual purity still find SOCE’s to be profoundly misdirected.
I had a conversation with a straight, married friend recently who subscribes to a traditional sexual ethic perspective, and the conversation was so good that I wanted to share it with you. His response to me, after I described to him this nagging question I have regarding the usefulness or necessity of SOCE’s, was the following:
“You make me think – and I am grateful. I don’t recall ever asking the question you posed quite that way, and it makes a lot of sense.”
My friend went on to say how helpful he found the phrase “managing sexual desire” saying,
“I was liberated by a mentor saying once when I was in my teens, ‘we pray diligently, Lord take away my sexual desire, – thank God He doesn’t answer that prayer.’ I think if we start with the assumption that we all have sexual imagination that we cannot fulfill (and perhaps that we all have aspects of our identity of which we are ashamed) we begin with a common basis that acknowledges our disordered loves and need of grace.”
Our sexual appetites always will, at times, depart from purity. But sexual purity, even within the bounds of the most conservative perspective, is about your behaviors – your intentional engagements in lust and sexual conduct which violates relationship with God and others. Christians everywhere disagree about what those standards actually are, even for straight single people. But the fundamental difference is that while calling singles to manage sexual longing with purity, we call LGBT folks to eliminate sexual longing.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, a premier, retired German Theologian describes the traditional Christian response to homosexuality saying,
“The mere existence of homophile inclinations does not automatically lead to homosexual practice….The reality of homophile inclinations, therefore, need not be denied and must not be condemned. The question, however, is how to handle such inclinations within the human task of responsibly directing our behavior.”
This quote is taken from an article (Should We Support Gay Marriage – NO) in which Pannenberg argues against gay marriage and for celibacy, but nevertheless, the message, even from this conservative theologian is clear – sexual purity is about our behavior, not our proclivity. Those amongst us who uphold the orthodox Christian standard for sexuality need to, at very least, recognize that sexual purity was never about what reaches to us (our attractions and temptations), but about what we reach to (our engagements and behaviors).
So what do you think? Ought we to eliminate sexual urges and temptations that dishonor God and others (no matter how you define that – more traditionally or progressively)? Or ought we instead to emphasize how we behave and engage sexually? Share your thoughts. Share your stories. And be kind.