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.