Acceptability of samesex behaviors and the role of willfulness

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I have repeatedly pointed out that all sexual activities not involving penile-vaginal intercourse inevitably are non-reproductive. From the Christian perspective, they are sins. From the biological perspective, they are inadaptive. I have also repeatedly mentioned that many sexual activities other than penile-vaginal intercourse are not only sins for the churches and inadaptive for the biologists, but they have also been, and some are still, included in the penal codes of many countries. All these facts need to be added to the social opprobrium still provoked by some sexual activities. While cunnilingus and fellatio appear to be generally accepted as legitimate sexual behaviors in most civilized countries, this is not always the case for sex with individuals of the same sex, and particularly not for sex with prepu-bertal individuals. Still worse evidently is sex with prepubertal individuals of one's own sex. Sex between adult individuals of the same sex appears to be well accepted in Europe, at least Western Europe, while homosexuality seems to continue to evoke passion on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean. The exception might be Canada, while Latin America and the USA appear to persist in a late 19th century approach to same-sex sexual behaviors. Since the USA has a considerable output of research reports, most of the research on same-sex behaviors comes from this country. The USA is also a dominant player in the media business, and news reports and comments on research findings are distributed over a large portion of the world by American companies. This fact has certainly contributed to a discussion of homosexuality in terms of a willful or unavoidable inclination even in countries where neither protestant fundamentalists nor biologists are particularly influential. As we will see, the notion of willfulness is of much concern to those approaching homosexuality from a moral point of view, and it has also contaminated some research efforts.

An illuminating study of US media coverage of research reports on homosexuality reveals that the dominant theme in newspaper, magazine, television and radio comments on such reports was a dichotomy between being born gay and choosing to be gay. Furthermore, the notion of being born gay includes the supposition of biological determinism, a conceptualization of homosexuality and hetero-sexuality as mutually exclusive categories, and the conviction that political and social change is dependent on proof that homosexuality is an innate and unchanging characteristic (Wilcox, 2003). By making homosexuality inborn, homosexuals can argue that it is the way God made them, and being a homosexual cannot, in consequence, be a sin. The following quote illustrates this:

Is it a sin if you can't help yourself, if you are just playing the genetic hand God dealt you? That is the question at the heart of moral debates about whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or a matter of genetic predisposition. (Reeves, 1993, p. A9).

This very important comment allows us to understand much of the current discussion around sexual preferences. If it could be shown that homosexuality, understood as a permanent and exclusive characteristic, is inborn and consequently part of the genes which God has been kind enough to design for us, then we could not consider it a sin. On the contrary, if it is a result of an act of free will, it is not only a sin, but it can also be changed. Thus, it is evident that American homosexuals who want to be completely integrated in Midwestern society are forced to adhere to the cannon that they were born gay. The conclusion to be drawn here is that many of the points of view upon homosexuality that have gained some prominence have their origin in the efforts of American homosexuals to get rid of the label of sinners. A biological determinant of homosexual behavior would, according to this reasoning, contribute to give same-sex relationships a status equal to that of heterosexual relationships.

It must be admitted that this reasoning is not false. Data show that people having the belief that homosexuality is biologically determined are more tolerant to same-sex relationships than those believing that such relationships are the result of an act of will. This is true in the USA (Ernulf et al, 1989; Whitley, 1990), and also in Canada (Altemeyer, 2001) and Sweden (Landen and Innala, 2002). In the latter countries, religious fundamentalism is probably less common and the concept of sin less popular than in the USA, and homosexuals and heterosexuals share essentially the same privileges. It is difficult to see, then, why there should be a relationship between belief in biological determinants and tolerance in Canada and Sweden. However, it is also known that obese individuals are more negatively evaluated by those attributing obesity to willful overeating as opposed to physiological disorder, presumably outside of the control of will (de Jong, 1980). Perhaps the human mind in general is more tolerant to uncontrollable behaviors than to acts of will. Another explanation is that the relationship between tolerance and the acceptance of a biological explanation in fact is the inverse of what is believed, in the way that those who are tolerant to homosexuality at the outset are more favorable to biological determinism than those less tolerant are (Hegarty, 2002). According to this latter point of view, the attribution of cause is by itself of slight importance.

It appears that the importance given to the distinction between homosexuality as a condition caused by a willful decision on one hand and as an inevitable consequence of uncontrollable events on the other is great in conservative, religious groups. This is amazing, since people belonging to such groups should be well aware of the fact that Saint Augustine considered sexuality as outside the control of the will. Indeed, that conviction justified the establishment of innumerable rules for sexual behaviors, in the dark ages summarized in publications called the Penitentials (see Hawkes, 2004). Since sexuality was outside the control of the will, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church felt obliged to help people control their sexuality through a set of rules that, if respected, would prevent people from entering into situations where uncontrollable sexual urges might appear. The Penitentials are now forgotten, but their teachings still have profound influences on the way many parents raise their children and on interpersonal relationships among people in general. Instructing children to avoid sexually exciting situations is not unusual and instructing spouses to do the same when going unaccompanied to a party is not exceptional. Considering that some rules and the spirit of the Penitentials are still influential, it is curious that the rationale for those rules and that spirit has been forgotten. Despite contemporary society's amnesia, the notion that sexuality is not controlled by the will has dominated European thinking for more than a thousand years. Consequently, a proposal saying that the choice of sexual partner is outside the control of the will regardless of the causes for that choice is not anything new. Already the Fathers of The Church knew that.

The reasoning making Saint Augustine conclude that sexuality is uncontrollable by human will is only one line of support for this notion. I will, in fact, conclude this section by remarking that the contradiction between being born gay and having chosen to be gay, so important in the public discourse on homosexuality in the USA, is only apparent. When we choose something, meaning that we express a preference for one thing over others depending on their relative incentive value, that choice is always determined by something. It may be by our genes, by the concentration of hormones in the blood, by our experience, by the position of the moon or whatever, but it is always determined by something. Otherwise choice would be random. The statement 'being born gay' is one possible cause for choosing to perform sexual activities with the same-sex, but it is not, in principle, different from any other cause. As soon as we assume a scientific attitude and toss the notion of free will into the place where it should have been for centuries, the cemetery for sterile ideas, any cause for the choice of a particular sexual partner becomes just as respectable as any other cause. With that in mind, we can turn to an examination of possible causes for choice of same-sex incentives without the unpleasant burden of prejudice. However, first we need to address the ambiguities inherent in the concept of homosexuality. These ambiguities may explain the modest success obtained in the search for biological causes in terms of stable, inborn predispositions.

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