Experiencing Theories of Causation

Yoweri Museveni recently based his decision to sign the bill outlawing homosexual expression in Uganda on the fact that he understood homosexuality to be largely influenced by environmental factors. If homosexuality could be proven to be genetic, then he said he would consider not signing the bill. But if research pointed to the environment, then he believed they could make changes in the environment to suppress homosexuality. I personally don’t understand how proof that it’s caused by environmental factors would mean it can be eradicated, as it seems clear that people don’t choose their orientation either way, and that homosexual desires have been present among some people in most cultures throughout history, but aside from that: the research doesn’t seem nearly as clear as he concluded.

That got me thinking about how this idea—that homosexuality is the result of childhood wounds or societal influence—is predominate in many Christian circles as well, and it often leads to different problems. I’m not an expert here, but scientists who have devoted their lives to these questions say the research indicates that a gay orientation is likely caused by a number of factors. Both biology and the developmental process likely influence a person’s sexual orientation, and the extent to which one is more influential than the other probably differs from person to person, as sexuality is so layered and complex.

I’m not too concerned with where it comes from, but I am concerned about what people often do with the assumption that it’s strictly caused by one source or the other. For instance, many want to say that if we can prove it’s the result of biology, then we will have no choice but to affirm gay sexual relationships. That doesn’t ring true to me because we’re all born with desires that are (in some way) to be redirected toward a proper end. The Fall affects every area of our lives—including biology—and we all experience the world in a manner that reflects the fracture. Etiology doesn’t speak to ethics here, and questions of how to express our sexuality should be separate from questions of causation.

At the same time, perhaps partially as a reaction to the claim that if it’s genetic then affirmation of gay sexual expression is the only reasonable response, many Christians rely heavily on developmental theories. It’s common for folks to attribute gay attractions to a complicated childhood relationship with the same sex parent, or to sexual abuse, or to a culture that celebrates unrestrained sexual liberty. Those kinds of experiences influence the way any person experiences the world, no doubt, but many straight people were sexually abused and many gay people were not. Many straight people had verbally abusive same sex parents and many gay people felt warm attachments to both parents.

I think it’s helpful for everyone to examine childhood experiences to consider ways they affect us now, but problems arise when people assume that if a gay orientation was caused by childhood wounds, then we can work through the “root causes” and experience a straight outcome. My experience actually fits rather neatly into the developmental theory. I was filled with hope when I first heard it because I concluded that if my orientation was caused by these wounds then I could work through them, find healing, and experience a diminishment in my attraction to women. I dove into an inner healing curriculum and returned for three rounds of it, spent seven years in various support groups and five years in therapy. I’ve examined, journaled, processed, and prayed through my childhood wounds enough to have earned a doctorate degree in My Childhood Wounds—and I still like women.

I’m grateful for the years of examination because I’m more well-adjusted and my relationships are significantly healthier, but my orientation is still directed toward women. Many of my straight girl friends had stories similar to mine growing up, and after years of examining their issues, they’re more well-adjusted and have healthier relationships, but their orientation is still directed toward men. When we bring baggage into adolescence or adulthood, it’s good to work through that baggage, but we run into serious problems—false promises followed by dashed hopes—when we assume a shift in orientation will follow healing. We also run into serious problems when we impose a theory on a gay person who didn’t experience the assumed root causes. I can’t tell you how many incredible dads have been strangled by shame when they were led to believe they caused their son to be gay.

What’s important to understand is this: regardless of where it comes from, a gay orientation isn’t chosen and it’s likely not going to change. If there has been dysfunction in a family system, it’s good to seek reconciliation and greater intimacy with other family members. This will lead to deeper bonds within the family and greater health and well-being for the gay person, but they’ll probably still be attracted to the same sex. This doesn’t need to lead to hopelessness, however, because the Christian hope was never about heterosexual attraction; the hope is to be renewed from the inside out and bring glory to God in all our endeavors.

I’m grateful scholars study questions of etiology, but I think the church would do well to focus more on the question: How should we play the hand we’ve been dealt? Regardless of how we got here, we have choices about the nature of our relationships, the way we allow our minds to wander, and what aspects of our experiences we choose to form our identities around. While we might not be able to choose who we’re attracted to, we can choose how we’re going to express it. Gay and straight people alike are on level ground when it comes to misdirected desires and choices of how to honor God with our sexuality, and it’s been helpful for me to move past the idea of “fixing” the gay so I can focus more on flourishing in friendship and finding a family in the church.

If you or those you love are sifting through all the information about causation and you find developmental theories helpful in highlighting areas you might need to further explore, I think good things can come out of that journey. Like I said: I’m grateful for many of the things I learned during the process because I have experienced tremendous healing—that healing just looks different than I anticipated. If you’re a father or son with a strained relationship, then I hope the revelations will encourage you to work through issues and grow in intimacy with one another. I hope you’ll approach it with an open mind, however, doing it for the sake of love and intimacy with one another instead of an assumption that it will lead to a shift in orientation. Maybe you will experience some degree of shift in attraction, but I hesitate to say that because it’s rather rare and it seems to surprise those who experience it rather than being achieved as an expected outcome. A little humility about what we do and don’t know, and a sense of openness to what will or won’t happen, will hopefully minimize the potential for shame and disappointment among those on the journey.

Julie Rodgers

Julie Rodgers shares life with inner city youth in West Dallas. She also writes and speaks about faith and sexuality, so check out her blog or find her on Twitter:@Julie_rodgers.

11 thoughts on “Experiencing Theories of Causation

  1. In doing a lot of work with osa men I have found most of them experience very similar wounds to mine and very similar compulsions. It is easier for them to mask these in Christians circles because they are having sex within an accepted paradigm but the impact is that they relate to their wives and girlfriends in unhealthy often predatory ways going to women in highly narcissistic ways to get needs for affirmation met.

    I am about four years into my own Journey. I have found that as I have done my work my priorities have changed. I don’t see reducing my ssa as the primary goal anymore so much as having deep emotionally satisfying male friendships. I didn’t have those before I started this work but I do now and the healthier I get the easier and more natural it is for me to form and deepen these. As I got healthier my need to intimacy with men got disentangled from sex and I learned to achieve intimacy without having to have sex. My friendships seem to give me the human relationships that were missing from my life and that allow my life to have much more meaning that it had before. I am still attracted to men and I don’t know if the attraction has lessened but there is a compulsive aspect of ssa that is gone. Something that felt like an addiction or perhaps an obsessive compulsive disorder is gone. SSA was about finding someone as often as possible to have sex with or I felt like something bad was going to happen. In that sense my ssa is not what it was. I think that was just a matter of getting emotionally a lot healthier.
    This comes in seasons though and friendships for single men past 30 in the Church are extremely difficult. Generally speaking my friendships consist of younger men who are mostly ssa but are not going to call me up to “hang out” because I am so much older and men in their 50’s or older who are osa and have a little time on their hands because their kids are gone. I think that is because osa men in their child rearing years are so preoccupied with family and job that it is very difficult for them to have time for a single man. Married men with children almost exclusively make do with the husbands of their wives friends for the decades they are raising kids. That means there is a tough midlife period for men with unwanted ssa that I am beginning to come out of.

    • Thanks for sharing this. My experience was similar to what you described about your orientation not changing, but your priorities changing along the way. I think it’s good to be able to see the good in situations that we might not necessarily see as good in their entirety—at least that’s been helpful for me. It’s sad for me to think about the situation you described being a single man in the church struggling to maintain deep friendships (as a result of others’ life situations), but I do hope you’re right that these things ebb and flow, and that perhaps changes are around the corner for you. Thanks again for sharing a little here!

  2. Julie

    Thank you for a very thoughtful post. I told you I appreciated your post on Butterfield, but I think this post more than most is helping me process my “post-reparative” experience of suddenly feeling unachored. I’m a guy with SSA who has been married almost 25 years. I did classic reparative therapy with Joe Nicolosi himself 15 years ago for about a year. It was truly awesome. I couldn’t wait for each week. It was like he really knew me. I was getting over a bunch of annoying things: the inability to just hang out with guys, being pee shy, body image insecurity, etc. And at the end of a year, I wasn’t fixed. But I could get by, very well actually, with my deeper yet non-sexual relationships with men in the church. It was amazing and satisfying. I now had the tools to go from here. And I had GOOD guy friends who loved and respected me.

    So is it ok to credit Dr NIcolosi for setting me free from my insecurities? Could just any ol therapist have done that? I never felt like it was a “pray the gay away” time, like Rosaria Butterfield quipped about reparative therapy. Is there something unique about the homosexual condition that those psychologists with a bent toward the reparative technique can “do better”?, even if we don’t turn out straight? I’m re-reading his book again, and still finding a lot of good generalizations that are mostly true, and helpful when considered. What do I do with that? Does he go under the bus? Should we throw out his theory of causation and keep just his tools for embracing salient masculinity?

    I was really touched by your admission that the groups and counseling and journaling you did really helped you, it just didn’t make you straight. Because I can say almost the same thing, with maybe a different twist: all the counseling, groups, friendships, etc, really helped me, but it didn’t make me straight. But it made my marriage healthier, it made me a better father/husband. And yes, I have actually experienced surprise sexual attraction toward my spouse I never had before. And there eventually came a time where I had sex with my wife thinking of nothing but her. I cried afterwards, knowing how truly significant that was.. So all I can do in response to that is praise God and thank Him for his sovereignty, and tell Him He can do with me what he wants, but to please make me into whoever he wants me to be. In my life, my healing has involved the lessening of homosexual intensity/addiction/fantasies, and has added mild heterosexual desire in some contexts, esp with my wife. It’s a beautiful thing for me. I feel reluctant to share that, but it’s my story.

    Keep on writing!

    • Thanks for sharing and for your encouragement, Jim! I’m glad to hear you had a good experience with Nicolosi (not something I hear every day!). You asked: “Could just any ol’ therapist have done that?” in reference to some of the positive changes that occurred. I do think other therapists are equipped to help guide people toward positive growth with regard to insecurities, healthy relationships, etc. One benefit of seeking out a therapist who doesn’t have the reparative therapy leaning is that one could probably experience many of the positive changes without having to wade through the baggage that comes along with it. The therapist who was most helpful in my journey was the one who was just a normal, solid, non-agenda-driven therapist. I was able to grow in all the areas that were present throughout my entire process without having to sift through the shame and baggage that can get tied up in other circles.

      Having said that: I’m glad you’re able to see the positive aspects of your season in reparative therapy and to take the good with the bad. Even if you didn’t experience everything you might have hoped for, it’s cool to hear you grew tremendously and that your overall investment was worth it. We can’t go back and change the routes we’ve taken, so it makes sense to just appreciate the ways it’s helped us to grow. Good to hear from you again here!

      • Did that therapist accept that you would not consider a sexual relationship with a woman?
        That is a major concern I would have with seeking help from a non-religious therapist.

      • Indeed, that’s so true! [we can’t change the routes we’ve taken]. Thank you for the kindness of your reply!

        As I have watchfully observed those (men, for the most part) with SSA over the past 15 years since my disclosure, then as I partook in reparative therapy, I find more often than not that the generalizations Nicolosi made about what specific insecurities and emotional pathologies gay men deal with were quite on track. And I still often see those particular struggles in the young men with SSA I meet now. Could it be that Nicolosi simply landed too hard and too firmly on his specific triad of causality? and that the Dobson-era evangelical Christian was looking for something like this to cling to, propelling him from therapist to Culture Warrior?

        I wonder–hear, me, I simply wonder–if his clinical observations and even suggested therapies regarding the homosexual condition may have merit, as he rather quickly gets in the head of many homosexual men and jump-starts the self-awareness process with a common thread of weaknesses most of us have. I don’t need to land where he landed to reap the advantages he brought to me therapeutically.

        Since I was a married man at the time of my crisis, I obviously had motivation to “get straight”. That never really happened, yet our marriage is so much stronger than it ever was. So my question would be this: might we admit that there could be something–albeit not fully developed, and maybe even biased, but something unique–in reparative therapy that would help men and women with SSA who are or want to be married? those who want to see if there is indeed any “latent heterosexuality” in them? other than being completely politically incorrect, what would you think would be the harm in that pursuit, if we throw out expectations, and just work on our issues?

        And finally, at the end of the day, I realize that God is sovereign–whatever that fully means–and no therapeutic technique can save my soul. He desires my repentance and my obedience, as I am in desperate need of His mercy and grace. And once again, Julie, thank you for your ministry to all of us on this journey!

  3. Really excellent article, Julie, on addressing the issue of “here is where we find ourselves, and how do we now move forward in our quest to follow God in the light of our fallenness/brokenness?”

    As a physician in a conservative denomination, I paid careful attention in med school–and still give some attention to it–to the research that had been done to that point on the biology/genetics of homosexuality. I wanted to understand, and would still like to know on some level, I suppose, “where things went wrong,” but more so at this point simply to complete the picture.

    As I am just now working through my struggles in a healthy way and moving toward openness about them with friends, some have asked me very directly (I invite all questions when I sit down to have the talk) if I believe I was created this way. I have to respond “No”. I do believe that even if there is a genetic component to it, that that was no more based on some malicious intent from a capricious God than the fact that someone else has a genetic predisposition to most forms of cancer or alcoholism…both of which we HAVE established through research to have genetic links. Rather, as ALL of Creation was affected by the Fall, even DNA was impacted somehow. So, if there is a genetic link, it’s still “on us” from The Fall, and not on God.

    I even use the example of the genetic tendency toward alcoholism for some in talking about why I am obedient to the Scriptures. We don’t say to the person with the gene for alcoholism, “Alright, well obviously God created you this way, so go have fun. Enjoy alcohol to the full and in every way because God must have wanted that for you.”

    So, again, I appreciate and embrace your perspective, and it’s one of the most valuable aspects of SF for me in addressing the question, so to speak, of “How shall we then live?”

  4. I’ve never quite understood the lure of reparative therapy. I looked into it briefly about 15 years ago, but wasn’t convinced that it could meet the hype. In general, it just looked like they were taking basket-case individuals with low impulse control and poor socialization, and teaching them how to be functional gay people. At the time, I was a socially well-adjusted celibate Christian guy with no substance abuse issues. I had awesome parents and had a good relationship with them. But it just so happened that my sexual attractions were directed to men. So, I get tired of folks, like the reparative therapy crowd, who conflate sexual orientation with things like drug abuse, promiscuity, and poor socialization.

    I basically stayed in the closet until last year because I didn’t see any available script that seemed to fit with where I was. I only came out because, with the publishing of Wes Hill’s book, there seemed to be a productive narrative emerging that I could grab hold of.

    In some ways, I feel as though guys like Jones and Yarhouse delayed the emergence of a more productive dialogue on these issues by trying to prop up the unproductive and dishonest dialogue proffered by the ex-gay movement. That’s not to say that ex-gay “ministries” didn’t have a positive impact for some. I’m sure they helped a number of gay people with problems associated with substance abuse, impulse control, and socialization, but these aren’t peculiarly gay problems. By falsely associating these problems with same-sex attraction, the ex-gay crowd actually lent undue credibility to an orientation-essentialist view in which the church continued to feel justified in conferring unconditional privilege to “heterosexuality” and conferring second-class status to “homosexuality.”

    I’m a successful white-collar professional who’s never abused drugs, who’s never had sex with a guy, who has normal friendships with other guys, who has a great relationship with my parents, and who doesn’t view porn. But because I’m gay, my evangelical church “family” treats me like I’m a leper. I feel like I have the ex-gay movement and its proponents, like Jones and Yarhouse, to thank for this. They were so busy propping up theories that were tailor-fit to winning the Culture Wars that they gave no thought to the negative impact that their work would have on the actual lives of gay Christians. I guess gay Christians in Uganda can join me in thanking them too.

    • Bobby,

      I’m not sure what you’ve read of Jones and Yarhouse. My impression is that their study of ex-gays was prominently misquoted in a lot of places to prop up the ex-gay narrative, but if you read the study itself it was actually quite balanced and realistic. I read the study and came away from it with a clear sense that previous investigations of the “ex-gay” phenomenon had massively oversold the product. They were quite clear that the majority of people that they interviewed didn’t experience any orientation change, that “success” was being defined by Exodus ministries as either orientation change or success in achieving chastity, and that “orientation change” is hard to measure — with the obvious corollary that “change” is also hard to measure.

    • Thanks for sharing some of your experience here, Bobby. It’s really frustrating to hear your community treats you like a leper just because of your orientation. I’ve experienced that at times and it just feels so lonely in the middle of it.

      I’m with Melinda about Jones and Yarhouse’s study though. I would encourage you to read all of it if you haven’t, and to look into the other things they’ve written as well. Yarhouse’s books and presentations really advocate for folks like us who don’t experience change, and I think the kinds of communities you described (who are prone toward having the response your community has often shown toward you) are able to better understand our situation (and grow in compassion) when they’re exposed to their message.

      • Julie & Melinda,

        Thanks. I looked around the ‘net and read a few more of Yarhouse’s and Jones’s characterizations of the results of the study. I agree that Yarhouse was relatively careful not to draw unwarranted conclusions from the study. Still, I’m not sure that he said enough to preempt the predictable misquotations of it by Focus, AFA, and the like. And after those misquotations occurred, I could not find where Yarhouse specifically corrected them. When people misquote me, I generally correct them.

        Jones strikes me as being in a different camp. In an article he wrote for CT’s Leadership Journal last fall, he referred to the results of the study. His presentation of the results struck me as a bit dishonest.

        Warren Throckmorton provided a pretty good analysis of the study’s results.

        Still, I suspect that the Yarhouse-Jones study, or predictable misrepresentations of it by evangelical advocacy groups, played a role in the passage of this law in Uganda.

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