Warren Throckmorton on Sexuality Causation

Some wise words.

I post often about causal factors in sexuality; such factors are puzzle pieces that interest me (along with other human traits and variations). In addition, the intersection of personal values and sexuality ratchets up the interest level. Thus, the recent article, “Respecting Ex-gays”by John Corvino is a must read.

Corvino wants to take a live-and-let-live approach. He ends his piece with a familiar, but altered soundbite:

So when ex-gays announce, from billboards and magazine ads, that “Change is possible,” I say: Possible? Maybe. Likely? No. Desirable? Not for me, thanks.

He is fine with being gay and wants ex-gays to respect him in the same way he wants to respect their right and responsibility to steward their lives according to conscience.

He notes three problems he perceives among ex-gay ministries in general that will lead me to the next part of this post. First is “their tendency to promote myths about the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” by generalizing from some people’s unfortunate personal experiences.” He notes that testimonies of promiscuity and unhappiness do not describe his life and should not be taken as true of all same-sex attracted people.  Next, he laments ”the ex-gay ministries’ abuse of science” saying, “Ex-gay ministries tend to lean on discredited etiological theories—domineering mothers, absent fathers, and that sort of thing.” Finally, he says, ”The third and related problem is that many ex-gay ministries promote not merely a ‘change,’ but a ‘cure.’ ‘Cure’ implies ‘disease,’ which homosexuality is not.

Although I might quarrel with degrees, I essentially agree with Corvino’s assessment here. Along with the recent shifts in Exodus away from promoting public policy stances, I am hopeful that the issues of research and use of science will be vigorously addressed as well.

On the point of shifts in views of causation, Dean Byrd at NARTH has an article on the NARTH website giving some cautious kudos to the APA for a revised pamphlet regarding sexual orientation. The subtitle of his article is “The APA has now begun to acknowledge what most scientists have long known: that a bio-psycho-social model of causation best fits the data.”

Contrasting the original edition of the pamphlet with the new one, Byrd believes the current statement is more accurate. The new statement reads,

What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation?

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.

In response, Byrd opines:

Although there is no mention of the research that influenced this new position statement, it is clear that efforts to “prove” that homosexuality is simply a biological fait accompli have failed. The activist researchers themselves have reluctantly reached that conclusion. There is no gay gene. There is no simple biological pathway to homosexuality. Byne and Parsons, and Friedman and Downey, were correct: a bio-psycho-social model best fits the data (italics in the original).

My first thought after reading this paragraph was that those I know who are researching pre-natal factors have not concluded any such thing, reluctantly or not. Furthermore, the lack of current evidence for biological theories does not disprove a potential, now-unknown biological influence, nor does lack of strong evidence for general inborn factors prove true a bio-psycho-social model. Next, I wondered what that model looked like. As far as I can discern, all bio-psycho-social really means is that there are many factors and we do not know how they interact to yield adult sexual orientation.

Then I wondered when NARTH would make an APA-like statement about theorized environmental factors such as child abuse and same-sex parenting deficits. What if NARTH acknowledged “what most scientists have long known: that a bio-psycho-social model of causation best fits the data?” Wouldn’t there be a need for a statement cautioning readers of their materials that evidence for parenting playing a large or determining role is meager? Paralleling Dr. Byrd’s assessment of the APA pamphlet, shouldn’t NARTH say with italics, “There is no homogenic family. There is no simple familial pathway to homosexuality.” Appeals to those theories criticized by Corvino would be less frequent, right? Hey, changes are happening all over, why not this?

I wrote Dean and asked him about NARTH’s stance. He answered for himself by saying,

I think that the bio-psycho-social model of causation makes it clear that there is neither a simple biological or environmental pathway to homosexuality.

While I think NARTH should go much further, this statement may be the start of a more nuanced position from them. I would not go so far as Corvino did and say that familial factors have been discredited. On point, this is not what the APA said at all. What we should be saying is that there are many lines of research open with many factors under investigation. It appears pre-natal and post-natal factors play different roles for different people. Beyond that, the subject is still under study.

Would this change be so hard?

This fits entirely into the approach that I and others are now taking – there is no one prescriptive explantion of why people are same-sex attracted. The consequence of this is that from a Christian discipleship perspective we need to primarily help people live chaste lives by not just enabling them to become theologically convinced that heterosexual marriage is the only holy expression of sexual activity, but also to be able to live out such a sexual ethic whether single or married. Issues of change are secondary and they individual and unique. Courses like Living Waters and Redeemed Lives help people to perhaps identify specific triggers and points of fracture in their own lives, but without a core committment to the Biblical model of sexual ethics, they will not in and of themselves change people OR enable them to live holy lives.

Healing is possble for some and not for others, but if one goes into the process of discipleship expecting healing one may be disappointed by not receiving it.

6 Comments on “Warren Throckmorton on Sexuality Causation

  1. Thanks for linking to this, Peter. I had seen the Corvino article (don’t remember who linked to that) but not (yet) the Throckmorton rxn to it. Changes in perspective are happening & changes @ NARTH are not inconceivable.

  2. I hope so Craig. I think NARTH’s heart is in the right place, they just fail to see that the evidence doesn’t support a strict developmental model. Rather, the picture seems to be of a nature/nurture model which varies from individual to individual.

    This though leads us to the observation that not only are ex-gays bodies incorrect when they say that anybody can be “healed”, but also that ex-ex-gay bodies are incorrect when they encourage others NOT to pursue the path of reparation.

  3. Hello,

    Peter, I too would like to thank you for posting this – I wouldn’t have come across it if you hadn’t and it seems to me a good summary of ‘where things are at’.

    Perhaps the trickier part is in the inferences one then draws from this. I’m not sure about your second paragraph above – I don’t think it simply follows from Dr Throckmorton’s post that “not only are ex-gays bodies incorrect when they say that anybody can be ‘healed’, but also that ex-ex-gay bodies are incorrect when they encourage others NOT to pursue the path of reparation”. It seems to me you’re making an extra assumption here – that being gay is a pathology that is in need of ‘healing’, where healing (usually) means moving towards opposite-sex desire. And as far as I can tell, it doesn’t follow from what Dr Throckmorton says, that being gay is pathological. Indeed, going solely by what he says, it doesn’t follow that it’s not a pathology either. Frustratingly, it seems to me we’d need more information than what’s in Dr T’s post to decide that. But on the basis of what he says, surely ex-gay organisations are right (at least from their perspective) to say that healing is possible – after all, with a bio-psycho-social model suggesting so many factors cause sexual orientation, surely some of these factors can be influenced to change it? i don’t agree, but surely that could be argued? Or have i misread what you wrote, and you mean that ex-gay bodies should say ‘healing’ is possible, but only for some, not for all ? (in which case your second para would be fair enough and I’ve just rambled needlessly!).

    But if it’s the case that, as you put, “Healing is possible for some and not for others”, what of the theology of that? That’s one of the places I think it gets tricky to draw conclusions from what Dr T posted. If some people’s orientation changes and others’ doesn’t, what does that mean? Is change significant, or not? In at least one other post you’ve said that homosexuality is part of the fallenness of the world, not part of the new creation. So one would expect that, as a person grew in discipleship, their orientation would change as other parts of their life changed and they began to show the fruits of the Spirit. James Alison has written:

    “…what is normal within the living of the Catholic faith, what is normal in the process of growth in grace, is always starting from where one is, knowing that no part of human desire or living out is intrinsically evil, that is to say, incapable of being ordered or healed, only capable of being wiped out. Nevertheless, all our desire is damaged in the way we receive it and live it out: it is seriously distorted. But we can trust that even what is most base within a person’s life is capable of being transformed…”

    [from his ‘Good-faith learning and the fear of God’, available at http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng17.html%5D
    If what he says is so where does that leave people whose orientation doesn’t change? And if change is significant, does the fact that some people’s orientation doesn’t change, raise the possibility that same-sex desire can be ordered and healed (where healing means growth toward healthy same-sex desire, not orientation change), starting from wherever the person is, and may not be part of the fallenness of the world?

    Bit rambling I know but I think there’s some theological stuff in here that’s worth looking at and questioning.

    in friendship, Blair

  4. Blair – I’ve literally just come across this piece of research (http://www.mygenes.co.nz/lung&shu.htm) for which I’m trying to get the actual paper for to look at the statistics. It might be the best research so far to demonstrate the “pathology” argument. It might also be rubbish.

    The Alison quote is interesting because while I believe change happens for some people, I don’t believe it happens in the same way, to the same extent for all. That said, it wouldn’t be incorrect to think that something was disordered and fallen and to accept that this side of heaven it wouldn’t change. For example, I have a friend with Spina Bifida. That’s definitely part of the fallen world and not going to get healed any day soon (barring a miracle). Would you say that therefore the Spina Bifida in and of itself was “ordered and healed”?

  5. Evening Peter,

    thanks for pointing to that paper although I copied and pasted the link into Google and it couldn’t find anything. Would be interested to hear more if you do manage to find out. One little thing: when you say “demonstrate the pathology argument”, do you mean demonstrate being gay is or isn’t a pathology…?

    Interested in your second paragraph. I do see what you mean about your friend with spina bifida – am slightly uncomfortable commenting as it seems to me that it’s for the person with such a condition to speak for themselves about healing. I’ve almost no knowledge of where medical science is currently ‘at’ with spina bifida but very tentatively wonder if any recent innovations in surgery or other sorts of treatment for example (if there have been any) could be seen as healing in a measure? Do you know what your friend would say about this…. although I realise s/he may not want it discussed in as public a place as this.

    As I say, (I think) I see what you mean when you say “it wouldn’t be incorrect to think that something was disordered and fallen and to accept that this side of heaven it wouldn’t change”. I’m wondering about adding, that it would be incorrect to simply say it couldn’t possibly change. If God is one and God’s action is one, then surely one can say there’s a continuity between ‘the new creation’ and ‘what is, now’… I’m struggling somewhat because I’m out of my depth here really. I want to hold to this high-flown-sounding theology on the one hand, but on the other want to be very tentative and careful when talking about healing (from any given condition), as ‘healing’ does not always have a clear meaning and I’m sure you’re right that, again taking any given condition, it’s not the same for everyone. Perhaps it’s time to leave off wrestling with this as am not getting far…

    However, all that said, the snag for me is that I don’t see how spina bifida can be a good analogy for homosexuality (although as a slightly cheeky aside, if that was pressed as an analogy, one could imagine there’d be interesting consequences – e.g. no objections from Christians to anti-discrimination laws, no objections to clergy or bishops with the condition…). Spina bifida isn’t considered a pathology of desire, apart from anything else. You and others have compared homosexuality to alcoholism, and while I don’t agree with that (as I don’t think homosexuality is inherently a self-destructive addiction) it does seem a much better analogy (if that’s not too contradictory). Later in the text I referred to before, James Alison says this:

    “Authentic objectivity about what human beings are can be reached by means of careful study and discernment of the lives of people over time. Since what is now is not totally bereft of continuity with what we shall be in the New Creation, then in principle, and with due attention to circumstance, the tendency to corruption or to flourishing which can be detected by means of study and discernment of the lives of people over the long term, does indeed point towards what the person really is. That is to say, if it were true that all humans are, by the mere fact of being human, intrinsically heterosexual, then there would be detected in those who, not recognising this, live as if they were gay or lesbian, a growing corruption of their human nature which would affect all the areas of their lives. In the same way there would be detected in people who are apparently of homosexual inclination, but who hold fast to their intrinsic heterosexuality, a growing flourishing in all areas of their life.”

    I said before that we’d need more than the info in Dr Throckmorton’s post to discern whether or not being gay is a pathology – this was at the back of my mind I think. JA continues:

    “Given that we are questioning pathologies of desire, let us take an analogy from the same field: By means of study, we have come to distinguish between people who steal, and people who are kleptomaniacs; between people who take measures to slim, and people who suffer from anorexia; between people who consume alcohol and people who are alcoholics. […] We punish the thief, but we seek treatment for the kleptomaniac; we congratulate the person who goes on a diet, but we seek to help the anorexic. And we know, furthermore, that our distinction is objective: that kleptomania, anorexia and alcoholism are not only minority behaviour patterns, but conditions which, if they are not controlled, put the health and flourishing of the person into danger. In the same way it should be possible to detect if self-acceptance as gay tends to put in jeopardy a person’s health and flourishing, or if, in the case of people who have these desires but do not accept them as part of their being, it is rather this non-acceptance which puts their health and flourishing into danger.”

    OK, enough… I bet people don’t read posts of this length!

    Thank you for doing a written comment rather than a video one by the way.

    in friendship, Blair

  6. The comment about spina bifeda above is interesting. It does seem that many “ministries” offering help to change sexual orientation, fail to acknowledge that the Biblical account means that all humans are imperfect since the fall in Eden, that such imperfection is manifested in a huge variety of ways, and that many difficulties are beyond the ability of medicine to manage.

    It always strikes me that NARTH, for a body with “Research” in its title, is entirely wanting in that area. One could justifiably expect a “National Association For Research” in a given area, to carry out some primary research in that area! Or at the very least, to have undertaken some proper, scientific meta-analysis of existing research, in the manner that, say, the Cochrane Collaboration does in many areas of medicine. If you or I saw a body called, for example, the “national Association for Reseach and Therapy of Diabetes”, we might look for such a body to be doing something real and useful with research, and expect diabetes treatment recommendations it makes to be based on sound scientific methodologies; that, being a research-based body, it would promote evidence-based medicine. It seems to me that NARTH is very different indeed from that. All it seems to do is offer comments on papers and studies where these in any way suggest an iota of support for NARTH’s pre-existing views. Where is the Research carried out by NARTH, either Primary, or in the form of meta-analysis?

    If, as some suggest, very many persons have managed deliberately to alter the orientation of their sexual desire by some clinical methodology, where are those persons? Their accounts are simply not to be found. I have looked.

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