The Problem with “Same Sex Attraction”

One view, which has many defenders among Christians who believe that homosexual acts are sinful, is that the term “same-sex attraction” is the clearest and most precise term for describing the experience of those who are, from time to time, tempted to commit homosexual acts.

However, the distinction between carnal and spiritual friendship makes clear that there are different ways of desiring union with a person of the same sex, some of which are virtuous and some of which are vicious. Unfortunately, the term “same sex attraction” introduces unnecessary confusion by lumping all of these desires in under one category.

It’s clear that, when they met, Jonathan experienced a powerful attraction to David: “When he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). When Jonathan’s father Saul becomes jealous of David and wants to kill him, “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul” (1 Samuel 20:17). When the time for their final parting comes, David, who has been hiding in the wilderness,

rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed three times; and they kissed one another, and wept with one another, until David recovered himself. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever.'” And he rose and departed; and Jonathan went into the city. (1 Samuel 20:41-42)

It would be extraordinary to read this story and deny that David and Jonathan feel a deep attraction for each other (and thus attraction to someone of the same sex). But there is not even the slightest evidence that this attraction includes sexual temptation, let alone sexual activity.

Thus, the term “same sex attraction,” whose champions introduce it as a way of distinguishing between orientation and activity, end up blurring a critical distinction. There is nothing in the Bible, or in the Christian tradition, which says it is bad for a man to be attracted to another man, or for a woman to be attracted to another woman. Both the Bible and Christian tradition commend the sort of healthy and holy same-sex friendship experienced by David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi. On the other hand, the Bible and tradition both condemn same-sex lust and relationships that include homosexual activity.

One of the things that I have noticed is that those who embrace the term “same-sex attraction” usually have greater difficulty talking about healthy chaste friendship, because their terminology invites persistent confusion about how to deal with “attraction” in friendship. This is a place where Aelred’s terminology about carnal and spiritual friendship is helpful for avoiding confusion.

We live in a culture which is very confused about love and sexuality, and so there is no language which is both widely understood and which draws the lines where they need to be drawn. The term “same-sex attraction” can be useful in some contexts (and I have frequently used it). However, like the word “gay,” it’s a term which can easily be misunderstood in ways that are pastorally pernicious, because it obscures the crucial distinction between virtue and vice.

(For some of my earlier thoughts on terminology, see here and here.)

ron50Ron Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

34 thoughts on “The Problem with “Same Sex Attraction”

  1. This is my first time commenting on here. First I agree that homosexuality (the behavior) is wrong. I also agree that the attraction itself is not a sin BUT the attraction itself says something is wrong psychologically. And if something is wrong then it can be corrected and healed with Gods touch. I relised some are called to lifelong celibacy but most are not. I read that the quality of life scores of average celibate homosexuals are lower than those who have Lupus and I believe it!!!

    If someone wants a healer first believe 100% God can and will do it. That’s the only faith that has power and not this “well God might heal me but maybe not”. If I told my friend to go to McDonald’s and get me a mcdouble and I had faith he will do it then I’m not going to be thinking “he might not do it”.

    Just my thought on the subject.

    • Normally, assertions of fact are backed up by evidence. Given the relative lack of research done on Christianity and homosexuality in general, I would be surprised if there is a peer-reviewed scientific study that set out to compare the experience of celibate homosexuals and lupus sufferers. Academia is a strange place and anything is possible. But this is the sort of claim that I would expect an undergraduate to provide a footnote for. If you have a source for this, please let me know.

      Regarding healing, I agree, of course, that God has the power to heal. However, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ prays: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Christ is not displaying deficient faith here.

      If I’m understanding the view of faith and God’s power to heal that you’re putting forward here correctly, it would not be supported in either the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Reformed theological traditions.

      • Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.

        I mean this is my personal opinion on the matter lol. I relise there may be conflicting verses but I believe this is how faith works in regard to healing.

        I respect other opinions by all means

      • The source is probably here: http://ldshomosexuality.com/?p=355

        The study was specifically aimed at members of the Latter Day Saints and compared the quality of life measurements of various sexual/marital situation with that of people with various diseases – the comparison begins about 29:30 into the video.

        I would not say it was a rigorous study but it was interesting and the results were similar to a study done in England (I would have to search to find the study on my HD) in which celibate gay men had the highest suicidality rating of any demographic based on relationship statue, more than twice as high as the next highest group, celibate straight men.

      • Oh, in regard to healing, God certainly can do so but it seems He very rarely heals “same sex attraction/homosexuality.”

        Perhaps His intention is that the Church will learn to show love to those that are different instead?

      • Maybe the high suicide rate has something to do with the facile diagnosis that they’re psychologically ill? Sure, same-sex attraction is a departure from our culturally constructed view of idealized masculinity.

    • I am on the fence on the sexuality but I feel my homoromantic attractions are a positive thing, not a problem at all. I have come to really appreciate a lot of things more since falling in love with another man and while it never worked out, it opened my eyes to all kinds of beauty and optimism I never had before. I also feel increased empathy now for others as well. It was like his presence in my life switched me on. Or course, many will argue whether this is good or not, I am sure, so I digress for now.

      Out of curiosity, Mark, when a child with Leukemia prays to God to heal her and then dies even after praying for God to heal her as many children in hospice do, why did God fail to heal her? Did she just not want to live enough? Did her family not want her to live enough? It seems to me that your concept of God reduces him to a petty and capricious entity that heals and harms without thought.

  2. Ron:

    I think you hit it best in the last paragraph, when you wrote, “We live in a culture which is very confused about love and sexuality, and so there is no language which is both widely understood and which draws the lines where they need to be drawn.” Because I serve in ministry in a conservative Protestant denomination, I have chosen not to use the word “gay” when describing my situation to those with whom I’ve shared my story. I know that, in our context, it is more helpful to describe myself as having same sex attractions. But even with that, I am careful to qualify more fully what that means.

    I serve with a homophobic colleague who has virtually no true male friendships. His (mistaken) understanding of friendship is more consistent with what C.S. Lewis describes as Companionship in The Four Loves when he discusses companionship as opposed to friendship. So, for him, to approach a conversation on carnal friendship versus spiritual friendship would be more akin to talking about whether or not a large group of us go out and get drunk together versus doing a group prayer before a meal. So, here again, looking at the context in which we find ourselves, and learning to speak the most appropriate language is important.

    Given that I serve in a cross-cultural context, issues of language and “finding the right word” are ever before me. And I have found that even though I speak the national language very well, I still have to properly understand the cultural subtext in a dialogue. My failure to do so at times has resulted in many moments of unfortunate conflict with some of my best friends. In the same way, I can share the same language (English) with the person to whom I’m speaking, and we can miss each other entirely if we fail to understand what the other person understands by the terms we are using.

    So like I said, in my experience at least, contextualizing–and even defining–our terms according to the situation is most helpful. I recognize that you find yourself speaking to large groups, which is an entirely different situation than my personal conversations, and I don’t envy the challenge that it is for you and others to try to figure out how to define and contextualize well.

    • Thanks for all this, I think it’s really helpful. And I agree with you, “friendship” is a concept that is so poorly understood in our culture that the distinction between carnal and spiritual friendship is also open to problems. Thanks for the example you bring up of the guy who just doesn’t understand close friendship.

      A few more thoughts of my own about some of the issues you raise.

      Last month, I spoke first to a large group of college students in Seattle, then a couple of weeks later to a gathering of pastors in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church in a rural area of the Midwest. In Seattle, I talked more about being gay and celibate, but made an effort to contextualize that with explanations of what I meant by gay and why my Christian beliefs shaped my life in a way that my sexual attractions do not. With the Lutheran pastors, I talked about being same-sex attracted, but then spent some time explaining how different words have different connotations. In both cases, it led to helpful conversations.

      I don’t prescribe any particular language and certainly don’t think that there is a one size fits all solution that works equally well in one-on-one conversations and presentations to large groups, or that you can ignore the composition of your audience (more liberal or conservative, more Christian or secular, younger or older, more gay or straight, more rural or urban, on the coast or in the Midwest) when choosing your terms.

      However, I have little patience for people who do think that there is a one-size-fits-all solution. I’m fine with people using “same sex attraction,” and I use it myself in some situations. But when people try to argue that it’s the most precise language and clearly superior to other language, it’s clear to me that they have big blind spots about the ways that they are failing to communicate Christian teaching effectively. This has bothered me for a long time, and I thought it was worth trying to crystallize my thoughts and get them out there.

  3. When I read the teaser intro paragraph to this blog in my email inbox, my first thought was “Oh great, another deconstructionist lecture changing the politically correct words to use about the homosexual condition, dismissing the average joe from any authority in meaningful conversation unless he uses the right words.”

    But I actually get what you are saying.

    Maybe SSSA? Same sex sexual attraction? When does the striving to find the perfect word for this struggle end? I don’t know. I have safely used SSA describing myself for the last 15 years of my life and it has served me just fine, without any obfuscation of my male friendships, which are quite good, fairly deep, and with hugs all around.

    I’ll likely go to my grave disliking the word gay and though I have sought to be an open-minded Christian man, I cannot take the step of say that gay-ness is anything less than an embraced identity one chooses, maybe subconsciously at first, but once one is confronted with reality of God’s design for our lives, consciously. One either affirms or denies choosing to make his sexual desires his defining metaphor. I know, I know. “That’s not how it’s used by 90+% of people. Get over it.” Sorry, I can’t.

    I’m not gay, though I have SSSA. I am a Christian man who loves God, has a thorn in my flesh, and prays that God would do whatever it takes to make me who he wants me to be. I truly believe in healing, though it appears that may happen in the life to come. I happen to be married, which complicates this conversation in many ways, but I have found great joy in my wife and family in the midst of unrequited sexual desires.

    Thanks for keeping the conversation going. We all need grace when talking with each other. I will not judge someone for using “gay”, And we both should not regard our brother as being “so 2013” if they use the term “same sex attraction”. I will be patient with newbies that weigh into this conversation (like our first poster; nice response BTW).

    • Well, you are gay. You don’t identify with the TERM “gay” and that’s fine, people are free to choose their own labels/narratives.

      But at the same time, if you have SSA and someone of mainstream usage asks “are you gay?” it’s a damned lie if you say “no,” because we all know what they mean in asking that.

      This sort of semantic dishonesty and obfuscation and distancing is where I think most of the concern over “SSA” comes from. Not that it can’t be someone’s preferred label, but that they think by some mental gymnastics that preferring a different label somehow means they can opt out of experiential affinity with the group in question.

  4. I appreciate the conversation around the many facets of sexuality in our culture and a desire to encourage Spiritual Friendship. Just a few things…

    I have many female friends I am not sexually attracted to, but I do still have same sex-ual attractions. Just like David and Jonathon, we all need a close friend or two that know us at a deep level that is not sexual in nature. I do not embrace the term Gay Christian because I was created in God’s image. LBGT… are earthly, psychological terms for feelings and attractions. An identity that some embrace, Christian or not. I do not come against anyone or any label.

    Psychology studies our earthly, fallen tents, now corrupted. Faith, on the other hand, is not conducive to an ‘evidence-based’ mindset. Psychological evidence would say I have same sex(ual) attractions, I am therefore gay. (I wonder if Mark Yarhouse would agree with your statement about a lack of evidence based research…or if some would applaud the heat that Spitzer received after publishing his findings, and subsequently recanted because of the extreme heat.) Maybe the research is simply being censored and not reaching the printing press.

    Faith says, I am created in the image of God, I can trust God to get me back what He intended for me in the Garden. Do I trust my feelings—which often lie to me, or are a distortion of who I am—or live by faith. Same-sex(ual) attractions… mine…are the enemy’s attempts to destroy the image that I was created to be. That’s why the enemy attacks at such a core level, he can’t stand the image of God that we were created to represent.

    The Holy Spirit was sent to help me live out my intended design. I wrestle not against my flesh and blood—my same sex-ual attractions, my gluttony, tendency to gossip, or my stubbornness to let the sun go down on my anger—but against principalities and powers that would do anything possible to destroy me and my pursuit of reconciliation with my Maker to its fullness, to live above and beyond the lies I’m being told.

    Thank you for being willing to be on the front lines of this conversation.

  5. What I’ve seen in my own experience is that those who use the term SSA exclusively are more scrupulous and obsess over their homosexuality while those who use the term gay tend to have more peace with themselves or at least accept themselves more. Regarding those who aren’t gay and use the term SSA exclusively, they seem to understand homosexuality as a sex addiction that needs a twelve step approach. Being gay is so much more than wanting to have sex with your same gender. Unfortunately too many good Christians treat us as sex addicts or perverts. I think it’s hard for a straight person to understand the struggle. A good friend once told me that being gay is just like being a straight single person, you must be celibate. It’s so not the same and if someone can’t see that then I must question their ability to empathize.

  6. It’s beginning to get annoying that no matter what term anybody uses to describe people who are sexually attracted predominantly to people of the same sex, somebody will quibble that it is inadequate (or insulting or otherwise unacceptable), no matter how well-meaning or generally understood it is.

    For goodness’ sake, there are always stupid people who will misunderstand whatever you say, but ordinary people understand that when you say same sex attracted you’re talking about sexual attraction.

    The real problem, in my experience, isn’t about words. It’s that for those of us who are same sex attracted (sexually, I mean), it is difficult to distinguish between attractions which are sexual and those which are not, and between acts (e.g., hugs) which are okay and those which are not.

    Enough, already, with the endless rejection of every term which anybody comes up with. Let’s just call ourselves queer and be done with it.

  7. Not sure I like all this confusion about terms. Part of the challenge is that our language is changing so fast, because technology helps it to do so. So when I was growing up “gay” meant happy and nothing else. Then is was adopted by the homosexual community and redefined. That along with other words as well, like queer. Growing up queer was a slang word for saying that someone was easily identifiably different. Then is became popular to describe gay men, then the LBGT community adopted it as a positive affirmative word for their community.

    I also saw this happen with the use of Ex-gay. I have never had problem using the label in public settings when speaking to an audience. It helped them to understand that I was standing in a place that was “gay, but no longer” While it did create confusion, it was only confusing because my audience, who were High Schoolers were taught that people are born “gay” and there was absolutely no way to change that. And yet, that is my story. I was and now I’m not, orientation and all.

    We will always need to set a context for what we are trying to say and be careful to define our words so that a fuller understanding can be gained from the discussion. I think that is a good thing, although I must lament, I did like it when things were not changing so fast.

    As a mother of five, I have had to learn my children’s language as they move from elementary school to middle to high school. It is a part of the culture to come up with their own words and meanings.

    Blessings.

    • You say that you used “ex-gay” to mean “gay, but no longer,” and that this never created confusion, except among those who didn’t believe sexual orientation could change at all. Are you saying that this confusion merely did not arise in your case? Or are you claiming that the term ex-gay was not used deceptively by ex-gay ministries, in your experience?

      If you’re making the latter claim, did you read the articles I linked at the end of the post before replying?

  8. It seems that this problem of language isn’t just restricted to homosexuality. This article at First Things points out how problematic theological terminology can become when imported into another specialized context: the therapeutic response to eating disorders. Perhaps the sometimes dogmatic insistence on the use of specific terminology heralds a Christianity more concerned with neat abstractions and theory than it is with the often messy day-to-day lived experience of actual men and women. As the Church’s teachings become further and further removed from the lives of the people in the pews, how will she continue to evangelize on any subject?

  9. The Aven website for asexuals breaks attraction down into sexual orientation and affectional orientation. Affectional is the romantic orientation since some asexuals still like to cuddle, seek companionship, and so on without sex involved. It is a small differentiation but I still use terms like homoromantic to describe me to avoid confusion that it is sex that is my primary driving focus.

  10. I entirely avoid the term “same-sex attracted” and its variants for this very reason. We ought to be same-sex attracted! And I’m not even convinced that we should avoid non-sexual demonstrations of affection merely because such demonstrations could arouse certain sexual temptations. After all, we can’t neatly cabin the sexual from the non-sexual. There is a high likelihood that any genuinely felt non-sexual demonstration of affection to another may stir up a sexual response. If we avoided demonstrating affection for others for this reason, we’d only show affection for those whom we actually have no genuine affection.

    In that sense, the term “same-sex attracted” seems to give unwarranted credence to the broken ways in which men relate to each other in our culture. As I look around my evangelical church, I see that most men have pretty shallow relationships with each other, if they have relationships with other men at all. In many cases, the men are merely friends with the husbands of their wives’ friends. Thus, they see no reason to connect with other men except to facilitate their wives’ social needs. So, they often turn to their sons to find genuine friendship, which presents its own problems.

    Further, I dislike the term (and the term “gay” as well) because of its orientation essentialism. I long for the day when the boundary between gay and straight is much less clear.

  11. Nailed it! This is the first time I have really dug deep into this blog.

    Like others who have writ, I never embraced the word ‘gay.’ Homosexual seemed more accurate the last 20 years but lately I would more opt for “ho-hum”-osexual. Or even homocentric or homosocial (and now, homoromantic — thanks Nathaniel for the affectional orientation)

    I’ve long believed at my core the bent (for me) has more to do with a need for affection & friendship — bromance. Bobby is right, It does seem like most men equipped to be affectionately available identify as a gay. Even if a friendship does not become sexually intimate but may stir a familiar response.

    I am celibate but am often startled by the occasional platonic crush. Sometimes so much that I seem to shrink back from authentic friendships. Maybe I just perpetuate the problem.

    • Sometimes I wonder whether it’s really of sufficient importance to warrant a term. After all, in Japan, men who are thinner, better groomed, and more emotionally available are viewed as being more masculine and more desirable (to women). In the US, such guys are written off as gay in favor of burly men with beer guts, back hair, and no personality.

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  15. “There is nothing in the Bible, or in the Christian tradition, which says it is bad for a man to be attracted to another man, or for a woman to be attracted to another woman. Both the Bible and Christian tradition commend the sort of healthy and holy same-sex friendship experienced by David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi. On the other hand, the Bible and tradition both condemn same-sex lust and relationships that include homosexual activity.”
    My problem with the two distinctions (attracted but not sexually active) is that it is not only difficult but in my experience rare for someone to maintain that separation of the sexual and the platonic indefinitely. We have only to look at the recent history of the priesthood regarding sexual purity. The idea of the priest that is crossing sexual boundaries and a church that is attempting to hide it has become the expected norm. People that are attracted to their own gender if in close relationships will very likely over time cross the boundary into sexual activity. Perhaps I am just being a pessimist. I would love to be wrong about this, but I fear that if we don’t acknowledge and deal with that probability (or reality) I see this movement following in the footsteps of Exodus International. Many rode that train for decades to only discover a dead end at the end of that line.

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