Formspring Question: Changing Sexual Orientation

Q: Is there any way for someone to change his or her sexual orientation (ex. gay to straight)?

A: This is another very difficult question.  The answer is yes and no.

First, in order to understand whether this is possible, we need to understand what a sexual orientation is.  It is, in fact, a rather weird concept and one that is fairly recent in history.  For example, the Greeks had categorical labels for actions, but not for people (with the exception of men who were only receptive homosexuals, but that’s not relevant here).  A man was expected to maintain a household, have a wife, and raise a family, as well as participate in the cultural pederasty that was practiced.  This man wasn’t considered to be “straight” sometimes and “gay” others, he simply sometimes did heterosexual acts and other times did homosexual acts.  The problem with labeling people heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual is that we have free will: although a man might identify as a “heterosexual,” he is still able to have sex with men.  As such, the categories of sexuality we use are descriptive for the kinds of actions or persons (male or female) we typically desire.  Just because you’re straight, doesn’t mean you can’t desire someone of the same sex and vice versa. The categories are useful to quickly communicate information about ourselves, but some people try to use them as a limiting part of their identity, and this seems inappropriate.  So, it’s not clear that “sexual orientations” even pick out something essential about who we are, besides our typical sexual preference.

To further complicate this issue, what we typically desire is very contextual.  It is well documented that men and women who identify as heterosexual  and who are put into a context where they only have access to people of the same sex (like a boarding school, prison, or the military), will frequently engage in homosexual acts while in that context.  When they leave the context and return to the “regular world,” then they go back to their “regular orientation.”  It turns out that women are far more malleable than men and their sexuality should perhaps even be called fluid as women are likely to experience many changes in their sexual preferences over their lifetimes.  For an interesting discussion of the female fluidity, see Lisa Diamond’s Sexual Fluidity.  The point of this is that the idea of a “fixed” orientation is just not true.  Our sexual preferences and desires are very much contextual and opportunistic: we tend to prefer what is available.  Nevertheless, I still think that the concept of sexual orientation is useful, even if it does’t pick out something that’s necessarily true about us.  It’s much easier to quickly identify oneself as straight or gay, than to recount the conditions under which one might choose one sex or the other.

I should point out, too, that some people will never experience attraction that is at odds with their expressed orientation.  Now, whether this is a self-imposed limitation based on the expressed identity or an actual case of someone only ever experiencing desire for one sex, is hard to say.  I certainly think that a “true heterosexual” or “true homosexual” is possible.  This is why I think the Kinsey scale is so useful, as it seems to get a more accurate picture of someone’s desires using it’s 7 points, than does the current orientation scale using it’s only 3 points.  In case that’s not clear, the Kinsey scale is a 0-6 scale with “0” being “true heterosexual” (only experiences desire for someone of the opposite sex), a “3” being a “true bisexual” (experiences equal desire for people of the opposite and same sex), a “6” being a “true homosexual” (only experiences desire for someone of the same sex), and the points between indicating comparative desire for those of the same sex and those of the opposite sex.

Now, although orientation only picks out what we typically prefer, it’s not clear that it would be easy to change this.  People rarely have wholesale changes to their preferences.  In order to change one’s sexual orientation, one would have to change one’s entire sexual desire structure, including countless choices and ideas.  While I think that it’s theoretically possible, I think it’s practically impossible and should not be attempted.  If one were to attempt it, one would need to do so freely and because one had a very compelling reason to do so.  The only reason that comes to mind as being strong enough to overcome one’s orientation is if you meet someone who is outside of your usual orientation, but about whom you feel so strongly that you couldn’t bear to not have them in your life.  I think for this person you could at least change your orientation enough to accommodate him or her, but your attraction would probably remain what it was before.

Now, having said that, I want to say that I wholeheartedly condemn the “ex-gay” movement.  This is nothing more than religious indoctrination and guilt that makes a person lie and say that they’ve changed their orientation to conform to the religious hatred of homosexuality.  There is nothing wrong with being homosexual or heterosexual.  People don’t usually even choose an orientation, but find that they have a preference in their desires for one sex or the other or even both sexes.  There certainly is no moment in a person’s life where he says: “henceforth, I only desire people of the same sex” and then magically he’s gay.  No one has that kind of control over his desires.  In fact, trying to directly influence a desire is generally futile.

So, can someone change their orientation?  Maybe, but it’d be really hard and you’d have to change your underlying desires.  I think that if a person really wanted to do it, it’d be possible, at least to some extent.  I would encourage anyone who is thinking about it to carefully think about why they want to do so and to recognize that all three sexual orientations, heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality, are all equal moral – a heterosexual person is not necessarily better than a homosexual one.  It is our character that makes us good or evil, not what sex we sleep with.

3 Responses to “Formspring Question: Changing Sexual Orientation”

  1. Harold

    Are you familiar with the recent George Rekers scandal? Basically a long-time anti-homosexuality advocate was caught returning from Europe with a young man he had hired from

    Rekers was an officer of NARTH, the gay-conversion organization.

    I might have had some sympathy for the guy if he hadn’t taken it upon himself to make life miserable for gays.

  2. JasonStotts

    I heard about that, another in a long list of gay anti-gay activists.

    I think that part of the problem is that religion encourages hypocrisy and these people thrive in the kind of environment that encourages blind self-hating, but other-directed, anger.

    Nowadays, I whenever I see a “religious leader” or anti-gay crusader, I think: gay or pedophile.

  3. Erosophia

    […] Formspring Question: Changing Sexual Orientation – In this essay I answer a question from a reader about changing sexual orientation.  I also […]