Thoughts about Homosexuality: Part 3, Is Being Gay a Sexual Dysfunction?

Final post in this series...

The third question I get asked a lot about homosexuality has to do with psychological well-being and dysfunction: Is homosexuality a sexual dysfunction?

The argument is often made that homosexuality is the result of psychological problems during childhood. For example, sexual abuse might disrupt one's sexual development. And even if trauma is totally absent there remains the Freudian suspicion that the child's relationship with his or her mother or father was dysfunctional in some way. So the claim is made that homosexuality isn't "natural" but is, rather, caused by psychological traumas or deprivations. A boy, it might be suggested, had a cold, emotionally distant father so the man moves into homosexuality to fill an emotional hole (e.g., male affection) in his psyche.

In short, the etiology of homosexuality is traced back to some mental health issue. This issue is, generally, sexual trauma or emotional dysfunction in the home. Homosexuality becomes, at root, a symptom of an underlying wound. This model of homosexuality is attractive to many Christian therapists because it suggests that if these deeper issues can be effectively "treated" the "symptom" of homosexuality will dissipate.

So there are two rival theories regarding the etiology ("causes") of homosexuality. On the one hand, the gay community is committed to the view that homosexuality is a natural and normal variant of human sexuality. On the other hand is the view that homosexuality is a form of sexual dysfunction caused by either trauma or deficient caregiving.

So which is it?

If you've read my prior two posts in this series I expect you already know what I'm going to say. In the first post I rejected the false dichotomy of choice vs. innate. In the second post I rejected the dichotomy of nature vs. nurture. And in this post I'm going to reject the dichotomy of normal vs. pathological.

To start, and this might be the most controversial thing I say if you are gay, I think it is entirely reasonable to claim that some people "become" gay because of disordered and traumatic life experiences. And I understand why this claim is difficult for the gay community. The fear is that if any homosexuality is the product of dysfunction then the claim will be made that all homosexuality is the result of trauma or psychological difficulty. To protect against this slippery slope the gay community tries to defend the notion that all homosexual behavior is natural and healthy.

Although I understand the fears of the gay community I think such claims are hard to defend. I think there are cases of homosexuality that are due to psychological dysfunction. Just as I believe there are cases of heterosexual dysfunction. The list of sexual dysfunctions is quite long and it think it clear that those dysfunctions bleed across the hetero-, bi- and homosexual categories. Healthy sex isn't bounded into neat groups, where all heterosexual activity is normal and healthy and all homosexuality activity is normal and healthy. Sexual dysfunction affects every category.

To be more specific, sexual dysfunction causes sexual arousal to drift and move around. Fetishes are examples. So it is not hard to see how arousal might drift, moving from one gender to the other (hetero- or homo-) and back again.

Finally, there is a symmetry here. The gay community is generally willing to admit that a "naturally" gay person can grow up with heterosexual arousal patterns due to familial, peer and cultural forces. That is, many gay people start off life as self-identified heterosexuals. Only in adulthood do they "discover" that culture and family pushed their sexuality in an "unnatural" direction. And this confusion has caused them psychological and relational hardship.

If this is so, I think we have to admit that this could go in the opposite direction as well. A person, for a variety of reasons (e.g., their first sexual experience has homosexual), might self-identify as homosexual and move into that lifestyle. However, the person might be confused on this point and discover, later in life, that he or she is happiest being heterosexual. In short, because sexuality is so fluid and confusing, I think people on both sides can "come out of the closet."

If this much is granted then I think there is a subgroup within the homosexual community that might fit the Christian therapeutic narrative about homosexuality as a sexual dysfunction, confusion or disordering. But the problem comes, unsurprisingly, when you begin to paint the entire gay community with this brush. Claiming that all homosexual persons are maladjusted in some way. That claim, I believe, goes too far.

I believe this because there are just too many narratives within the gay community where the person always knew she was gay, had a healthy family, has no history of trauma, and enjoyed healthy sexual relationships. It is very hard to read trauma or Oedipal dysfunctions into these biographies. Worse, if you insist on doing this, even with the best of intentions, it is insulting and demeaning. This is why the gay community pushes back so hard on the Christian therapeutic community.

So there are two options here. Read all gay narratives, from a therapeutic standpoint, suspiciously. To insist that the gay person, despite all signs that she is healthy and happy, is really diseased and dysfunctional. Or we can assume that the gay community (like the straight community) is complex and heterogeneous (no pun intended). That the gay community will have well-adjusted individuals and maladjusted individuals and we can't speak about dysfunction in any general sense. Further, to insist on this is both offensive and demeaning.

From a practical standpoint, then, we can't speak in generalities when it comes to the etiology of homo- or heterosexuality. What we need to do is address each sexual biography on its own terms. Therapeutically, this means addressing same-sex attraction on a case by case basis. If a person is expressing dissatisfaction with her same-sex attraction I think it legitimate to explore why that may be the case. Further, I think it legitimate to entertain the possibly that this dissatisfaction is the result of a confused and disordered sexual and emotional history. But the trouble with all this, the gay community would push back, is that it is also possible that the sexual dissatisfaction is the product of cultural stigma. The gay person would be okay with her sexual orientation if 1) she was accepted by family, friends and co-workers, and 2) she was able to accept and love herself. And I, personally, find this to be a reasonable concern. I think gay people can be depressive, promiscuous, self-loathing and suicidal solely from the weight of social stigma and family rejection/hostility. In sum, despite the theoretical possibility of sorting out the different etiologies of homosexuality it will be extraordinarily difficult, as a practical matter, to tease apart the psychological, biological, familial, experiential and sociological factors.

In short, all I'm saying is that the situation is horribly complex. Any simplistic approach--by either the gay or straight community--isn't dealing honestly with the facts. Worse, these simplistic approaches tend to do great harm. To individuals and to the larger Christian witness.

To conclude, here's how I'd summarize my answers to the Frequently Asked Questions about homosexuality:

Q: Is homosexuality a choice?
A: It's more complicated than that.

Q: Is homosexuality genetic?
A: It's more complicated than that.

Q: Is homosexuality a sexual dysfunction?
A: It's more complicated than that.

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16 thoughts on “Thoughts about Homosexuality: Part 3, Is Being Gay a Sexual Dysfunction?”

  1. i haven't re it all yet richard...
    and i will.
    being gay is more to me like a 1. social dysfunction."YOUR NOT LIKE ME,SO STAY AWAY."
    with coping mechanisms that turn out to be a perversion whether it be alcohol or work or socialization.
    to me we are driven to have relationship with god and others the prime goal of humanity...
    and of course we want to feel good...don,t we whether we do the dishes or not.
    we all have the innate need to belong,intimacy?
    i would call that a root subjective personal motivator looking to belong for the purpose of validation of self
    this of course is all our god wants of us and has for us.

    rich constant

  2. Q: Can an openly gay Christian be a faculty member at ACU?
    A: It's more complicated than that.

    Aren't these three a symptom of one fundamental question: "Am I justified in treating my homosexual neighbors a way I would not like to be treated?"

    And isn't that the real question that needs to be addressed?

  3. I just read the article on The Ultimatum Game
    which was most interesting.
    I've tried to take the important elements used
    and their effects, and I'm playing with the
    idea of seeing if these "ingredients" can be
    used to describe the workings of homosexuality,
    mainly in the USA, today. Trying to research
    the behavior in history and trying to put into
    perspective in today's society.
    Anybody care to "work with me" on this project?
    Contact me at

  4. I like Justin's question -- waiting for the response on that one! ha So if it's all complicated for heterosexuals and homosexuals, why do the complicated heterosexuals get to teach in Christian universities and be ministers in our churches but the complicated homosexuals do not?

    That's the real question, and the answer is:

    It's complicated.

    The truth of the matter is that we intentionally hire married people so that we don't have to deal with this question. In my experience as a faculty member at a Church of Christ University, some of those faculty members and administrators are gay or having gay experiences "on the side" but are able to hide their orientation because they are married. I suppose they have made some kind of "deal" with their spouses and their spouses have accepted the cost of it all.

    This all works because we are more comfortable with DADT than honesty and complex humanity.

    Our Christian universities will hire single people until one hint arises that they are gay, and watch out as they are carefully slipped out the door.

    Thanks for your posts. They are courageous and a first step towards helping some of our university administrators to know the deep wounds they have caused people for whom life is complicated and that Jesus loves.

  5. A boy in high school was caught at the ag barn with a sheep in flagrante delicto. People made jokes for years there after. If it had been homosexual, god forbid, it would have been much more...what...sad? Some do recoil while defining deviance down.

  6. Thanks Richard, I've really enjoyed this series of articles. I think there could easily be a fourth with the same type of conclusion. Are people either homosexual or heterosexual? The answer, not necessarily, many people are a bit of both. I don't mean bi-sexuality, but I know a lot of people (especially women) who have had long-term hetero-sexual relationships, then in later live entered homo-sexual ones. There is even a former work colleague who was married, left her husband to engage in a lesbian relationship, and has recently engaged in another heterosexual marriage. This makes seense if there are elemnts to homosexuality that are genetic - since obviously they can only be passed on through heterosexual relationships! The gay lobby's view of this tends to suggest that such people are "really" gay but suppress it for a while but that just seems to be a case of seeing what you want to see. As your series makes clear, sexuality is a lot more complicated than that.

  7. Richard,

    I agree with your conclusion that the issues concerning homo- and hetero-sexuality are complex. If only the professional societies for psychology and psychiatry had such a nuanced view. In their desire to be politically correct, and under pressure from their homosexual advocacy groups, they have oversimplified a complex phenomenon. This has caused problems for clinicians who treat a variety of sexual dysfunctions and paraphilias.

    By the way, I believe that even if it were considered an illness (which it is not), homosexuality would not be classified as a sexual dysfunction since the homosexual's genitalia works just as well as the heterosexual's.

  8. Richard,
    As always, thanks for your thoughtful posts. In the future could you perhaps post a series on identity based on theological anthropology? It seems that we live in a world that is ever-so-ready to draw a line from phenomenon to divine intent. But is not moving from earth to heaven what the ancients would call mythology? (This is precisely the place where Athanasius got the upper hand on Arius at Nicea.)

    In short, how can we know with any confidence that God speaks the words "straight" and "gay" when it comes to human identity? I know these questions are difficult (I minister in a denomination where we have discussed this matter for decades and are still discussing and discussing) and require exploring what is the nature of authority when it comes to the relationships between theology, psychology, biology, etc. But you are always so judicious and patient and understanding and are perhaps one of the very few people who could lead the blogosphere through a civilized discourse on these matters.

    Alan K

  9. I wonder who defines happiness? And is happiness, contentment, self-fullment the measure a Christian uses in this world? To say that a gay person might be perfectly happy in an accepting environment is pure conjecture. The fact remains that homosexuality hurts people physically, emotionally and spiritually. No amount of thoughtful conjecture changes that.

  10. The fact also remains that heterosexuality hurts people physically, emotionally and spiritually.

    Therefore, we should all stop having sex.


  11. Hi Annette,
    You wrote: "To say that a gay person might be perfectly happy in an accepting environment is pure conjecture."

    I'd disagree. I'm not guessing here. I'm simply sharing the reality of the many gay persons I know. But no one has to take my word for it. One simply has to ask gay persons themselves.

  12. i would also offer the rejection of the following dichotomies:

    is someone gay or straight? homosexual or heterosexual?

    gay community vs the Christian community; "Christian side of the issue" vs gay community's side of the issue.

  13. In response to Annete, Matthew and Dr. Beck,

    The hymn goes:
    "The peace of God, it is no peace
    but strife closed in the sod.

    So let us pray for but one thing,
    the marvelous peace of God."

    If we are to follow God's path, in faith, we risk being hurt, uncomfortable and most often, misunderstood. No, happiness is not the measure. Our love is the measure.

    You love a homosexual when you accept that they are on their own path and you are on yours.

    Yes, we are hurt by what people do. Not by who they are. Neither you nor I are here to judge who someone is. You are invited to walk with them and help them to understand how you are hurt. They might listen to you.

    You also might be surprised how loving a person can be when you listen to them.

  14. In response too:

    "A person, for a variety of reasons might self-identify as homosexual and move into that lifestyle. However, the person might be confused on this point and discover, later in life, that he or she is happiest being heterosexual. In short, because sexuality is so fluid and confusing, I think people on both sides can "come out of the closet."

    Rev. Keith Clark, OFM, Cap. says something very similar to the above quote: he says that when young men come to him and share that they think or know they are homosexual, he tells them: "right now you are homosexual" (or likewise he could say "right now you are "heterosexual"). The idea is that you may not know, as well as your personality and sexuality can be fluid, as it is deep.

  15. The following is my response to Mr. Beck's non-answers:

    Q: Is homosexuality a choice?
    A: You can choose to give in to the thought of engaging in this deviant behavior or you can choose not to engage in this perversion. It is about making a choice.

    Q: Is homosexuality genetic?
    A: Is any deviation from sexual normalcy genetic, the answer is emphatically no!

    Q: Is homosexuality a sexual dysfunction?
    A: If it is an overpowering desire, I would consider it a thought disorder.

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