BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the third of a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog mini-series by Dr. Sam Williams on A Christian Psychology of and Response to Homosexuality. You can read Part One here and Part Two here. You can watch a video presentation of this material here. You can read the entire series in PDF format here.
Author Note: In this four-part blog series, the term “Christian psychology” is being used to convey a biblically-developed Christian worldview, perspective, and way of thinking about the soul and the spiritual dynamics of homosexuality. The term “Christian psychology” is not being used as a technical term for a model or approach to counseling.
The Origin of Same-Sex Attraction and Same-Sex Orientation
With respect to the origin of SSA and SSO, what causes it? Where does it come from?
While the person is the active and responsible agent with respect to their sexual desires, there are both nature and nurture factors related to the development of sexual attraction. So, there are things that come at the person and things that come from within the person. While there does not seem to be any single universal cause, “if this occurs, then that develops” the biological and social sciences do point out a few common factors that are helpful in understanding SSA.
The current scientific research and theory can be divided into three areas: biological, temperamental, and relational:
- Biology (genetics, intrauterine hormones, neurological): while researchers in the ‘80s and ‘90s believed that genes or brains would offer the strongest contribution to SSA/SSO, more recent research has not supported earlier theories that genes or brains play a primary role in homosexual development. The better twin studies with larger sample sizes do not support a big genetic contribution to homosexual orientation. The concordance rate among identical twins was 20% for men and 24% for women (Bailey, Dunne, & Martin, 2000), which indicates that genes may play a role, but not in themselves an overwhelming one. Studies examining brain contributions are even less impressive. Even though there are some studies implicating brain structures, these studies have not been replicated. Even when brain differences have been found, sorting out cause and effect is nearly impossible with correlational research.
Another possible biological contributor still under investigation is the prenatal hormonal environment. Fetal development of sexual characteristics is a product of interaction with hormones, especially testosterone, and this may play a role in sexual orientation in some instances, but the data are not clear at this point.
Nonetheless, that there may be some biological contributions in some persons would not be surprising and does seem consistent with the research. The recognition that biology may play a role need not be resisted by Christians since God has created us as embodied souls, psychosomatic beings, and all things, including our bodies and brains and genes, have been infected by sin. In addition, that something such as the body or the brain is influential, or even formative, does not mean it is morally or spiritually determinative. It seems reasonable to accept, and clearly consistent with Scripture, that bodies and brains and genes along with parents and peers and cultures all play influential or formative roles in our lives. But that doesn’t mean they are determinative.
- Effeminate temperament features or gender non-conformit: Both anecdotal and research evidence supports a positive correlation between gender non-conformity and homosexuality (Hamer, 1994; LeVay, 1996). Many homosexual men report feeling different and less masculine than the other boys during childhood. They tended to be more sensitive, less naturally aggressive, and more aesthetically than athletically inclined. This is sometimes referred to as the “sissy” phenomenon. Dean Hamer, a gay geneticist, in his book The Science of Desire(1994) goes so far as to write, “Most sissies will grow up to be homosexuals, and most gay men were sissies as children. Despite the provocative and politically incorrect nature of that statement, it fits the evidence. In fact, it may be the most consistent, well-documented, and significant finding in the entire field of sexual-orientation research” (p. 166).
- Exotic Becomes Erotic theory by Daryl Bem (1996) contends that at puberty we will experience sexual arousal by the gender that we find exotic, or by that gender which seems so different from oneself. In other words, “opposites attract.” So, if as a child a boy feels like the other boys, but different from the girls, at puberty he will find girls no longer abhorrent but fascinating and then attractive and arousing. On the other hand, if a boy does not feel like he fits in with the boys and instead is more comfortable with the girls, at puberty he finds himself fascinated by the boys and then erotically attracted to them. The biogenetic variable in this theory is the child’s innate temperament, especially traits such as aggressiveness and activity levels.
- Parental relationships: Early theories, rooted in Freud’s psychoanalysis, viewed homosexuality as a kind of developmental disorder—an impairment in psychological development (which does often seem to be the case) with parents as the culprits (which does not necessarily seem to be the case). However, these psychoanalytic explanations were based more on clinical experience and less on empirical research. More rigorous recent research lends little support to the traditional view that SSO is a direct result of absent or critical fathers and smothering mothers. The research does not indicate a primary role for parents as a sufficient cause of homosexuality; most children with troubled parental relationships do not turn out with SSA. At the same time, of course, there can be no reasonable doubt that parents play an important formative role in most aspects of child development. And, there does seem to be a preponderance of difficulties in the father-son relationship for many SSO men, and on the other hand a preponderance of negative experiences with men in SSO women. Even though these factors are not sufficient or determinative, they do seem to be significant influences in some instances of SSO (Yarhouse, 2010, p. 230, n. 21-24; Yarhouse & Burkett, p.175, n. 2).
Faulty development of masculine traits may be related to the father-son relationship, especially the extent to which the son feels connected to and then identifies with his father as a male, so that he develops the sense that “I’m like him” or “I want to be and can be like him.” On the other hand, it may be that for some boys the sissy phenomena may be more innate (related to genetic predisposition or to the brain or to prenatal hormones), and then subsequently the boy and his father find it difficult to relate to one another because they are so temperamentally different, which of course would further diminish the boy’s sense of masculinity.
- Peer influences: Boys who are less aggressive and masculine understandably feel disenfranchised and different. Unfortunately, they are often avoided or are the subject of derision or bullying by their peers, which can be devastating to a boy’s gender identity and masculine confidence.
- Early sexual experiences (abuse; early debut): While neither physical abuse nor neglect are correlated with homosexuality, studies have found some correlation between early sexual abuse and homosexual behavior in men, but not in women. It is not difficult to imagine how sexual abuse, especially of a boy by a man, could be extremely disruptive to the boy’s developing sexual identity. At the same time, it is important to remember that most boys who are sexually abused by men do not become same-sex oriented. Early, consensual same-sex behavior is also found more frequently in the history of male homosexuals. But, cause and effect are difficult to sort out in these correlational studies.
- Personal choice? The personal experience of most, but not all, persons with SSA is that it is not chosen, but instead is found, and often with shock and shame. This is particularly true for men and for at least half of the women. While most men with SSA/SSO believe their homosexuality was not consciously and explicitly chosen, 30-50% of lesbian women report that it was a choice.
So, what “causes” homosexuality? According to the human sciences, there are two honest answers to that question: “We don’t know for sure” and “Probably several things.” The principle of equifinality is helpful here. Equifinality is the principle of multi-causality: that in open systems a given end state can be reached by many potential means. In the same way that there are several ways to get from here to San Francisco, there are several ways a person may develop SSA or SSO.
So there are a handful of common factors that seem significant, but there is no one-size-fits-all formula.
The Rest of the Story
In Part Four, we transition from an overview of social science research and theory to take up the question: Can people change SSA or SSO, and if so, how do they change?
Join the Conversation
How would you assess the social science theories of the origin of SSA and SSO?
 In its most extreme manifestation, Gender Identity Disorder, ¾ of boys with this disorder later report a homosexual or bisexual orientation (DSM-IV, 1994, p. 536).
 Wilson, H., & Widom, C., 2009. Does Physical Abuse, Sexual Abuse, or Neglect in Childhood Increase the Likelihood of Same-sex Sexual Relationships and Cohabitation? A Prospective 30-year Follow-up. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39 (1), 63-74).
 Dube, S. et al. (2005) found that 16% of adult men reported being sexually abused before age 16. They had been abused by men 70% of the time. Am J Prev Med;28(5), p. 433.
 The APA (American Psychological Association) states the following about etiology in their pamphlet, Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality: “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”American Psychological Association (2008). “Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality.”