The other day John Piper took to Twitter to claim that sexual orientation is little more than a social construct. The fact that Piper thinks so is isn’t surprising in itself, but he also said there is “vast research” proving that sexual orientation (or perceived orientation, as he called it) changes all the time.
Usually, when someone invokes “vast research” or “overwhelming evidence” to make their case, it comes across as a discussion-ender. In this case, it also had the effect of implying that a conspiracy was at work. Such evidence debunking sexual orientation, if it exists, would be paradigm shifting. Why is no one talking about it, unless there’s an effort to cover it up?
Well, maybe it’s because the research doesn’t say what Piper thinks it does.
The link Piper tweeted was a blog post which claimed that a 2007 Centers for Disease Control survey had found that the “vast majority” of fully gay 16 year-olds had become fully heterosexual — that is, reporting “only opposite-sex attraction” — one year later.
There it is: an official government study proving that most gay teenagers change their orientation — not just a little, but by a lot. In which case, if you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that any of us know someone who’s gay.
The problem is, the CDC never did any such study. However, the University of North Carolina did, and its findings were cited in the self-published book My Genes Made Me Do It: A Scientific Look at Sexual Orientation, which claims that 98% of gay students eventually move toward heterosexuality.
But as it turns out, that’s not quite what the UNC study found.
Researchers asked teenagers to rate their sexual identity on a 5-point scale: fully gay, mostly gay, bisexual, mostly straight, and fully straight. Only around 1 in 10 teenagers reported a change in their sexual orientation one year later — and most of these had moved toward same-sex attraction, not away from it.
In addition, most students who reported a change did so by only one point on the identity scale — for example, moving from “fully straight” to “mostly straight.” Just 0.4% of students moved two or more points away from same-sex attraction — for example, from “mostly gay” to “mostly straight.”
In other words, that claim made in the blog Piper shared — that “the vast majority” of 16 year-olds who identified as fully gay were fully straight one year later? It’s misleading.
No one disputes that there’s some degree of fluidity when it comes to sexual orientation, especially for those somewhere in the middle of the continuum, somewhere between fully straight and fully gay. There are peer-reviewed studies that suggest women and bisexuals are somewhat more likely to report some kind of change in their sexual identity over time. On the other hand, 90% of gay men in one peer-reviewed study reported no change in their sexual identity over a 10-year period.
Perhaps what it boils down to is that sexuality, like almost everything else about us humans, is intricate and complicated — especially when it comes to teenagers, whose hormones are just starting to kick in. How much of what’s perceived as fluidity of sexual orientation is really just confusion about their identity? How much is driven by the fear of acknowledging their orientation because of the stigma they could face from their peers and family? How much of it is just kids trying to figure themselves out as they careen toward adulthood?
Whatever you believe about homosexuality and the Bible or the moral legitimacy of same-sex relationships, there’s no use pretending sexual orientation isn’t real. Not when people have been ostracized and stigmatized for their identity — yet it remains part of who they are. Not when people have survived parents who literally tried to “beat the gay out of their children.”
Sexual orientation isn’t always simple. And whatever yours may be — gay, straight, or somewhere in between — it is not the sum total of who you are as a human being made in God’s image. There is more to you than who you’re wired to be attracted to. But sexual orientation is a reality of human existence. And we should accept that.
This is not just an academic discussion. Because research has also shown that those who experience stability in their sexual orientation — gay or straight — are more likely to enjoy good mental health. The more comfortable a teenager is in her identity, the better off she’ll be. On the other hand, the more a teenager’s sexual orientation is stigmatized by peers and family, the more likely he is to question himself, experiencing confusion and poorer mental health.
Whatever your beliefs may be, we can’t afford to trivialize or dismiss sexual orientation. Not if we care about our kids’ well being.
Which is why I hope John Piper will take another look at the research.