Has Science Proved Homosexuality Can Not Be Changed?
You often hear the claim that science has proved that homosexuality cannot be changed. And so it seems appropriate to review the claims and findings of science regarding this question.
The discussion about change often gets bogged down in logically clean but unworkable categories. To claim that homosexual orientation is immutable is to make a universal claim: there has never been nor will there ever be even one person who changes their homosexual orientation. To claim that every homosexual can change such that they never experience same-sex attractions is also a universal claim. Both of these are regularly discredited because it is easy to find people who have changed and find people who failed to change. There are two keys to ensuring we don’t get bogged down in this. First, is to recognize a third alternative – some homosexuals can change. And second, we need to define what does change mean.
The definition of change is related to the definition of homosexuality. Neither has a clear definition. Here's an example of the lack of definition. Kinsey, a sex researcher, used a sliding scale to define sexual attractions, where 1 = exclusive opposite-sex attractions and 6 = exclave same-sex attractions. Kinsey claimed that anyone from 2-6 on the scale is a homosexual. Kinsey counted the man who was raped in prison and the teen who experienced an erection in the boys change room as homosexuals. Kinsey wanted to define every man who had even one occurrence of attraction to another man as a homosexual. But you can equally claim that anyone on the scale from 1-5 is a heterosexual; including any man who has experienced sexual attraction to a woman, even if it is only one time, as a heterosexual.
What has Science Discovered?
What has science shown regarding whether change is possible? Most of the published empirical studies were done in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Today's political climate provides little encouragement to researchers who study change in sexual orientation. Much of this early research was done using poor methods and has left science without much to conclude. They cannot be cited as incontrovertible evidence that change is possible or impossible. There does appear to be evidence that some level of change can be expected by a percentage of people who pursue treatment. The average positive outcome across the studies from the 50's - 70's is about 33%. While this is not a stunningly high rate, it is just as successful as the success rates for other psychological disorders such a personality disorders or additions. The lack of sophisticated methods in tracking whether or not change happens does not disprove the success of treatments. It simply means we haven’t figured out how to evaluate changes in homosexuality.
More recently there have been noteworthy studies. One was done by the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). NARTH studied people who had experienced some degree of change. The a report titled "A Survey of Sexual-Orientation Change" they reported on a large number of homosexuals, 885 people, who had changed or were seeking to change participated in the study. After the change effort, they reported the following:
Clearly, many of the people who had sought change found that change was possible.
The second was done by Dr. Robert Spizter. Dr. Spitzer’s personal involvement in this particular study is historically significant: He was the leading figure in the 1973 APA decision that removed homosexuality from the official diagnostic manual of mental disorders.Today, he is Chief of Biometrics Research and Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City. In 2001, Spitzer presented his study of 200 men & women who have experienced a significant shift from homosexual to heterosexual attraction, and have sustained this shift for at least five years. Spitzer's goal in carrying out this research was to "study the self-reported experiences of individuals who claim to have achieved a change from homosexual to heterosexual attraction that has lasted at least five years." Spitzer’s conclusions include the following:
Many of the subjects had sought change because of disillusionment with a promiscuous lifestyle and unstable, stormy relationships. Many reported a conflict with their religious values, and many had desired to be (or to stay) heterosexually married. By the time of the study interview, three-quarters of the men and half of the women had become married.
One surprising discovery was that 67% of the men who had rarely or never felt any opposite-sex attraction before the change effort, now report significant heterosexual attraction. Even those whose orientation did not change--but who gave up homosexual behaviour—experienced a significant improvement in emotional health.
Science does not have a strong conclusion on whether change is possible. It is possible to find people who have changed and people who say they have tried to change and failed.
Does science say anything relevant to the moral question about homosexuality? The conviction that homosexual practice is immoral comes from God’s call to demonstrate obedience to His revealed will. Historically the church as taught that we are all to strive for obedience to a Biblical sexual ethic of chastity in heterosexual marriage or celibacy outside of marriage. We are to strive for this even when we find it hard to follow. So how does the possibility of change fit in to this?
What if science were to prove that change really is not possible? Does that change God’s standard. It may be that the church cannot guarantee healing to homosexuals any more than it can guarantee marriage to single people. There are many more single heterosexuals "doomed” to sexual abstinence by the church’s "narrow” sexual morality than there are homosexual persons similarly constrained.
The core issue is that the church’s stance on homosexual behaviour requires only that individuals be able to refrain from homosexual action and find fulfillment in God’s own provision in meeting their personal needs and not that they necessarily be able to become heterosexuals. As some would say, "The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality. It is holiness.” Certainly, behaviour change is within the realm of that which can be changed, as evidenced by our understanding of autonomy and free will, as well as scientific findings that clearly support change of behaviour methods.
For more information in this area, we recommend the following book: