Fixing Sexual Orientation

Posted: May 10, 2001 12:00 AM
Dr. Robert L. Spitzer is a brave man.

He was a brave man back in 1973 when, as a member of the American Psychiatric Association's Task Force on Nomenclature, he met with gay activists. As a result of his intervention, the APA, while rejecting the argument that homosexuality is "a normal variant of human sexuality," agreed it "does not necessarily constitute a disorder."

He was an even braver man this week when he reported the results of a new study of 200 "ex-gays": "(S)ome people can change from gay to straight, and we ought to acknowledge that," as he told the Associated Press.

Sixty-six percent of the men and 44 percent of the women studied achieved what he terms "good heterosexual functioning," a sustained loving and sexually satisfying relationship with a partner of the opposite sex, as well as never or rarely fantasizing about somebody of the same sex. Dr. Spitzer's sample was not random. He cannot tell us what proportion of motivated homosexuals could achieve normal sexual relationships with members of the opposite sex.

Research into effective voluntary therapies for same-sex attraction disorder receives very little funding and a surprising amount of professional intimidation. Even so, these results are remarkable.

Certainly gay activists think so. "I'm appalled, absolutely appalled -- it's not scientific," psychologist Barbara Warren of Manhattan's Lesbian and Gay Service Center told the New York Post. Then she shifted into totalitarian high gear: "I cannot believe Columbia would allow any of its professors to do anything like this."

Gay activists have staked their political claims to normalization of unisex marriage and relationships on the race analogy: Sexual orientation is not a "lifestyle choice"; it is a fixed, unchangeable, probably biological characteristic. To anyone with even a cursory knowledge of sexual orientation research, this position is no longer scientifically tenable. Research on identical twins, for example, reveals varying rates of "concordance," but usually well under 50 percent. Though there may be some biological influences, scratch the idea of a gay gene.

Another 1997 longitudinal study of bisexual men found that over a one-year period, 17 percent of the men had moved toward a heterosexual self-identity (compared to 34 percent who had moved toward a homosexual self-identification). As lead author Joseph Stokes put it: "We also acknowledge that changes in sexual feelings and orientation over time occur in all possible directions."

Leading researcher on lesbian parenting Charlotte Patterson pointed out in the November 2000 Journal of Marriage and the Family: "... mounting evidence suggests that, particularly for women, sexual identities may shift over time." A 1997 poll of readers of The Advocate (a major gay publication) found that 54 percent maintained either that "Sexual orientation can change" or that "We are all bisexuals." And in the April issue of American Sociological Review, Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz acknowledge that "Some lesbians relinquish lesbian identities to marry; some relinquish marriage for a lesbian identity. ... Sexual desires, acts, meanings and identities are not expressed in fixed or predictable packages." Exactly.

I believe there is rather powerful evidence that human beings are a two-sex species, designed for sexual rather than asexual reproduction. If this is true, then the absence of desire for the opposite sex represents, at a minimum, a sexual dysfunction much as impotence or infertility. Human beings seeking help in overcoming sexual dysfunctions deserve our respect and support (and may I mention, President Bush, more research dollars?).

On the moral plane, I believe that no human being can be reduced to his or her sexual impulses. Desire in itself cannot license us to act, nor can our impulses compel our behavior or identities without our consent. I cannot be defined by that for which I lust, unless I choose to be. In this sense (and this sense alone), a homosexual or heterosexual identity is a choice, for which (like all our choices) we must accept responsibility.

Advocates for treating same-sex relations as a normal, equally desirable, human variant must begin making real moral, and not bogus scientific, arguments.