I remember a particular conversation I had one evening with a good friend about my struggle with same-sex attraction (SSA). He asked me, “Attractions are messy, complicated realities. How do you deal with them toward other guys?”
The real issue underneath this question is how those who experience SSA should orient on their orientation. Should a homosexual orientation be embraced, but not acted upon? Is it neutral? Or is it of such a nature that it must be fought against in toto? The answer to these questions requires careful thought and nuance if the discussion is going to be helpful for those living within the complicated reality of a homosexual orientation.
What Is Orientation Anyway?
A good place to start would be to define sexual orientation. However, this proves to be a difficult task. Sexual orientation is fundamentally something that is experienced, and since no two people are the same, there may be as many experiences with sexual orientation as there are people.
Speaking from my own experience, I have found resonance with this particular statement from the American Psychological Association. According to the APA, sexual orientation is “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes.” Notice the nuance that is involved here. For many, sexual orientation does not simply refer to sexual desires. Rather, it refers to which sex an individual is oriented toward emotionally and physically. In other words, sexual orientation isn’t so much about the verb “sex” as it is the noun “sex” or “gender.” Which sex is a person oriented toward?
Also, notice the word “attraction.” Attraction is an ambiguous word because it happens in a variety of ways. We might be attracted to someone’s personality or character. We could be attracted to a certain lifestyle or pattern of behavior. We might feel an attraction that includes the desire to be emotionally connected with an individual. Or we might be physically or sexually attracted to a certain someone.
Distinguishing Kind and Degree
Therefore, the question becomes, “Which type of attractions can rightly be said to be a part of a sexual orientation?” My answer is both sexual and non-sexual attractions. But why is that? After all, these non-sexual attractions are felt all the time within platonic friendships, right? That is true. The distinction that must be made is between “kind” and “degree.” For many, there is a specific kind of attraction that is experienced, and a certain degree of attraction that is experienced.
So when I say that I experience a homosexual orientation, I mean that there is a “kind” of attraction that is exclusive to my orientation; namely, I am exclusively sexually attracted to the same sex. In addition, I also mean that I experience other non-sexual attractions to the same sex with a “degree” of intensity that I do not toward the opposite sex. Therefore, when I experience an “attraction” to a man as the term is commonly used, the kind of sexual attraction and the degree of non-sexual attraction are both in play. In this way, the non-sexual attraction is linked to my sexuality in a way that is experientially impossible to separate.
A Complex Relationship
We intuitively know this to be true, though we rarely think about attraction in these terms. Let me illustrate through a common experience. When I was in college my best friend and I did everything together. We were emotionally invested in one another, and supported one another in our walks with Christ. Then, one fateful day, he met his future wife and our friendship took a serious hit. Now, not only was he physically attracted to her in ways (kind) that he never was toward me, but he was also attracted to her in other “whole person” ways with an intensity (degree) that he did not feel toward me or any other man. This led him to spend considerably less time with me, and more time with her. In all of these sexual and non-sexual attractions, he experienced his sexual orientation.
Let me summarize:
For many, sexual orientation is the experience of a pattern of attractions toward one or both sexes.
These attractions include sexual and non-sexual attractions.
Sexual attractions are the “kind” of attractions that are experienced exclusively within a sexual orientation. Non-sexual attractions can also be experienced to an exclusive “degree” that also makes them a part of a sexual orientation.
Therefore, both sexual and non-sexual attractions are often inseparably linked to sexual orientation.
Now, back to the original question of how someone with SSA should deal with his or her experience of orientation. In my opinion, the different aspects of attraction should be addressed separately.
The question should now become, “What type of desires are these different types of attractions causing to rise up inside a person’s heart?”
Kill Same-Sex Sexual Desires
It seems clear that a sexual attraction, if left unchecked, will lead to a sexual desire. With regard to this type of desire, the answer is simple: “Kill it!” Same-sex sexual desires are disordered and broken, owing to our sinful natures that we possess as fallen humans. The Bible refers to our sinful nature as “the flesh,” and we are told, “if you live according to the flesh, you will die” (Romans 8:13). Indeed, if these evil desires are not killed at the moment of conception, they will give birth to active sinning which leads to death (James 1:15).
Whenever my flesh asserts itself in this manner, my only option is to fight by turning from temptation toward the promises of superior satisfaction in Jesus. When it comes to same-sex sexual desires, the way forward is to make war!
What about Non-Sexual Desires?
But what of the exclusively intense non-sexual attractions that are often experienced within a homosexual orientation? What is someone to do with those?
Again, the question should be, “What type of desires is this non-sexual attraction producing in the heart?” Often, these attractions lead to desires to be a good friend, love someone with acts of service and hospitality, and point them to Christ. These desires are not inherently disordered, and therefore do not necessarily need to be rejected altogether.
However, it becomes tricky because the sexual and non-sexual attractions are often experienced simultaneously and therefore it becomes difficult to sort out the desires that accompany them. This leaves us with two options. The first is to flee all attractions altogether and to never pursue any sort of friendship with anyone toward whom an attraction is experienced. For an SSA man, this option would put all friendships with guys in a state of flux depending on whether or not a certain type of attraction has occurred or not. This does not seem preferable.
In Community, with Prayer, by the Spirit
The alternative would be to prayerfully sort through the types of attractions and accompanying desires, and to deal with them accordingly. Whenever a sexual desire is experienced, kill it as fast as possible. But when a non-sexual attraction leads to a good, God-glorifying desire toward intimate friendship and service, there is the potential to proceed in a wholesome way.
This is important because oftentimes when those of us who struggle with SSA hear people tell us to fight all of our attractions, it feels like a death sentence of loneliness, void of any real intimacy. However, if we began to talk about orientation in the above terms, this would not be the case.
Yes, it will require wisdom, prayer, and careful distinctions. But we can’t afford oversimplifications in this discussion. The stakes are simply too high.