What Causes Homosexual Desire and Can It Be Changed?

Most of us fail to understand why anyone would want to engage in homosexual activity. To the average person, the very idea is either puzzling or repugnant. Indeed, a recent survey1 indicated that only 14% of men and 10% of women imagined that such behavior could hold any “possibility of enjoyment.”

The peculiar nature of homosexual desire has led some people to conclude that this urge must be innate: that a certain number of people are “born that way,” that sexual preferences cannot be changed or even ended. What does the best research really indicate? Are homosexual proclivities natural or irresistible?

At least three answers seem possible. The first, the answer of tradition, is as follows: homosexual behavior is a bad habit that people fall into because they are sexually permissive and experimental. This view holds that homosexuals choose their lifestyle as the result of self-indulgence and an unwillingness to play by society rules. The second position has been held by a number of psychoanalysts (e.g., Bieber, Socarides). According to them, homosexual behavior is a mental illness, symptomatic of arrested development. They believe that homosexuals have unnatural or perverse desires as a consequence of poor familial relations in childhood or some other trauma. The third view is “biological” and holds that such desires are genetic or hormonal in origin, and that there is no choice involved and no “childhood trauma” necessary.

Which of these views is most consistent with the facts? Which tells us the most about homosexual behavior and its origins? The answer seems to be that homosexual behavior is learned. The following seven lines of evidence support such a conclusion.

1) No researcher has found provable biological or genitic differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals that were not caused by their behavior

Occasionally you may read about a scientific study that suggests that homosexuality is an inherited tendency, but such studies have usually been discounted after careful scrutiny or attempts at replication. No one has found a single heretible genetic, hormonal or physical difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals — at least none that is replicable.2 While the absence of such a discovery does not prove that inherited sexual tendencies are not possible, it suggests that none has been found because none exists.

2) People tend to believe that their sexual desires and behaviors are learned

Two large studies asked homosexual respondents to explain the origins of their desires and behaviors — how they “got that way.” The first of these studies was conducted by Kinsey in the 1940s and involved 1700 homosexuals. The second, in 1970, involved 979 homosexuals.3 Both were conducted prior to the period when the “gay rights” movement started to politicize the issue of homosexual origins. Both reported essentially the same findings: homosexuals overwhelmingly believed their feelings and behavior were the result of social or environmental influences.

In a 1983 study conducted by the Family Research Institute (FRI) involving a random sample of 147 homosexuals, 35% said their sexual desires were hereditary.4 Interestingly, almost 80% of the 3,400 heterosexuals in the same study said that their preferences and behavior were learned (see Table 1 below).

Table 1. Etiology of Sexual Preference
Sexual Preference Reasons for Preferring % of Responses
Homosexuality (1940s and 1970)
early homosexual experience(s) w/ adults/peers 22%
homosexual friends/around homosexuals a lot 16%
poor relationship w/ mother 15%
unusual development (sissy/artistic/tom-boy/trouble relating to own sex/etc) 15%
poor relationship w/ father 14%
heterosexual partners unavailable 12%
social ineptitude 9%
born that way 9%
Heterosexuality (1983)
around heterosexuals a lot 39%
society teaches heterosexuality and I responded 34%
born that way 22%
parents' marriage was so good I wanted what they had 21%
tried it and liked it 12%
childhood heterosexual experiences w/ peers 12%
it was "in" with my crowd 9%
seduced by heterosexual adult 5%

While these results are not conclusive, they tell something about the very recent tendency to believe that homosexual behavior is inherited or biological. From the 1930s (when Kinsey started collecting data) to the early 1970s, before a “politically correct” answer emerged, only about 10% of homosexuals claimed they were “born that way.” Heterosexuals apparently continue to believe that their behavior is primarily a result of social conditioning.

3) Older homosexuals often approach the young

There is evidence that homosexuality, like drug use, is “handed down” from older individuals. The first homosexual encounter is usually initiated by an older person. In separate studies, 60%,5 64%,6 and 61%7 of the respondents claimed that their first partner was someone older who initiated the sexual experience.

How this happens is suggested by a nationwide random study from Britain: 35% of boys and 9% of girls said they were approached for sex by adult homosexuals.8 Whether for attention, curiosity, or by force, 2% of the boys and 1% of the girls succumbed. In the U.S., 37% of males and 9% of females reported having been approached for homosexual sex (65% of those doing the inviting were older).9

Likewise, a study of over 400 London teenagers reported that “for the boys, their first homosexual experience was very likely with someone older: half the boys’ first partners were 20 or older; for girls it was 43 percent.”10

In other samples, a quarter of homosexuals have admitted to sex with children and underaged teens,11 suggesting that homosexuality is introduced to youngsters the same way other behaviors are learned — by experience.

4) Early homosexual experiences influence adult patterns of behavior

In the 1980s, scholars12 examined the early Kinsey data to determine whether or not childhood sexual experiences predicted adult behavior. The results were significant: homosexual experience in the early years — particularly if it was one’s first sexual experience — was a strong predictor of adult homosexual behavior, both for males and females. A similar pattern appeared in the 1970 Kinsey Institute study: there was a strong relationship between those whose first experience was homosexual and those who practiced homosexuality in later life.13

In the FRI study two-thirds of the boys whose first experience was homosexual engaged in homosexual behavior as adults; 95% of those whose first experience was heterosexual were likewise heterosexual in their adult behavior. A similarly progressive pattern of sexual behavior was reported for females.14

It is remarkable that the three largest empirical studies of the question showed essentially the same pattern. A child’s first sexual experiences were strongly associated with his or her adult sexual behavior.

5) Sexual conduct is influenced by cultural factors — especially religious convictions

Kinsey reported “less homosexual activity among devout groups whether they be Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, and more homosexual activity among religiously less active groups.”15 The 1983 FRI study found those raised in irreligious homes much more likely to become homosexual than those from devout homes. These studies suggest that when people believe strongly that homosexual behavior is immoral, they are significantly less apt to be involved in it.

The 1994 NORC study16 found that three times as many men raised in large cities as opposed to rural areas had had a homosexual experience:

“[l]arge cities may provide a congenial environment for the development and expression of same-gender interest. This is not the same as saying that homosexuality is a personal, deliberate or conscious choice. But an environment that provides increased opportunities for and fewer negative sanctions against same-gender sexuality may both allow and even elicit expression of same-gender interest and sexual behavior.” (p. 308)

Were homosexual impulses truly inherited, we should be unable to find differences in homosexual practice due to religious upbringing or location of rearing.

6) Many change their sexual preferences

In a large random sample, 88% of women currently claiming lesbian attraction and 73% of men claiming to currently enjoy homosexual sex, said that they had been sexually aroused by the opposite sex:17

  • 85% of these “lesbians” and 54% of these “homosexuals” reported sexual relations with someone of the opposite sex in adulthood,
  • 67% of lesbians and 54% of homosexuals reported current sexual attraction to the opposite sex, and
  • 82% of lesbians and 66% of homosexuals reported having been in love with a member of the opposite sex.

Homosexuals experiment. They feel some normal impulses. Most have been sexually aroused by, had sexual relations with, and even fallen in love with someone of the opposite sex.

Two nationwide random samples of 904 men were asked about their sex lives since age 21, and more specifically, in the last year.18 As Table 2 indicates, 1.3% reported sex with men in the past year and 5.2% at some time in adulthood. Less than 1% of men had only had sex with men during their adult lives. And 6 of every 7 who had had sex with men, also reported sex with women.

It is a much different story with inherited characteristics. Race and gender are not optional lifestyles. They remain immutable. The switching and experimentation demonstrated in these two studies identifies homosexuality as a preference, not an inevitability.

Table 2. Sexual Behavior of U.S. Men: 1989-90 NORC Studies
Type % in Last Year % Ever in Adulthood
sex only with men 1 0.7
sex with men and women 0.3 4.5
sex only with women 86.4 91.1

7) There are many ex-homosexuals

Many engage in one or two homosexual experiences and never do it again — a pattern reported for a third of the males with homosexual experience in one study.19 And then there are ex-homosexuals — those who have continued in homosexual liaisons for a number of years and then choose to change not only their habits, but also the object of their desire. Sometimes this alteration occurs as the result of psychotherapy;20 in others it is prompted by a religious or spiritual conversion.21

Similar to the kinds of “cures” achieved by drug addicts and alcoholics, these treatments do not always remove homosexual desire or temptation. Whatever the mechanism, in a 1984 study almost 2% of heterosexuals reported that at one time they considered themselves to be homosexual.22 It is clear that a substantial number of people are reconsidering their sexual preferences at any given time.

What Causes Homosexual Desire?

If homosexual impulses are not inherited, what kinds of influences do cause strong homosexual desires? No one answer is acceptable to all researchers in the field. Important factors, however, seem to fall into four categories. As with so many other odd sexual proclivities, males appear especially susceptible:

    1. Homosexual experience:

  • any homosexual experience in childhood, especially if it is a first sexual experience or with an adult
  • any homosexual contact with an adult, particularly with a relative or authority figure (in a random survey, 5% of adult homosexuals vs. 0.8% of heterosexuals reported childhood sexual involvement with elementary or secondary school teachers.23
  • 2. Family abnormality, including the following:

  • a dominant, possessive, or rejecting mother
  • an absent, distant, or rejecting father
  • a parent with homosexual proclivities, particularly one who molests a child of the same sex
  • a sibling with homosexual tendencies, particularly one who molests a brother or sister
  • the lack of a religious home environment
  • divorce, which often leads to sexual problems for both the children and the adults
  • parents who model unconventional sex roles
  • condoning homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle — welcoming homosexuals (e.g., co-workers, friends) into the family circle
  • 3. Unusual sexual experience, particularly in early childhood:

  • precocious or excessive masturbation
  • exposure to pornography in childhood
  • depersonalized sex (e.g., group sex, sex with animals)
  • for girls, sexual interaction with adult males
  • 4. Cultural influences:

  • a visible and socially approved homosexual sub-culture that invites curiosity and encourages exploration
  • pro-homosexual sex education
  • openly homosexual authority figures, such as teachers (4% of Kinsey’s and 4% of FRI’s male homosexuals reported that their first homosexual experience was with a teacher)
  • societal and legal toleration of homosexual acts
  • depictions of homosexuality as normal and/or desirable behavior

Can homosexuality be changed?

Certainly. As noted above, many people have turned away from homosexuality — almost as many people as call themselves “gay.”

Clearly the easier problem to eliminate is homosexual behavior. Even as many heterosexuals control their desires to engage in premarital or extramarital sex, so some with homosexual desires discipline themselves to abstain from homosexual contact.

One thing seems to stand out: associations are all-important. Anyone who wants to abstain from homosexual behavior should avoid the company of practicing homosexuals. There are organizations including “ex-gay ministries,”24 designed to help those who wish to reform their conduct. Psychotherapy claims about a 30% cure rate, and religious commitment seems to be the most helpful factor in avoiding homosexual habits.

  1. Klassen (1989) Sex and Morality in the U.S. Wesleyan Univ Press.
  2. Marmor (1980) Homosexual Behavior: A Modern Reappraisal Basic Books; Van Wyk & Geist (1984) Psychosocial development of heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual behavior. Archives Sexual Behavior 13:505-44; Byne (1994) The biological evidence challenged. Scientific American May; Cameron & Cameron (1995) Does incest cause homosexuality? Psychological Rpts 76:611-21.
  3. Bell (1973) Homosexualities: their range and character. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation Cole & Dienstbier (eds) Univ Nebraska Press; King (1980) The Etiology of Homosexuality as Related to Childhood Experiences and Adult Adjustment Ed.D. Thesis, Indiana Univ.
  4. Cameron, et al (1989) Effect of homosexuality upon public health and social order. Psychological Rpts 64:1167-79; Cameron, et al (1988) Homosexuals in the armed forces. Psychological Rpts 62:211-9; Cameron, et al (1986) Child molestation and homosexuality. Psychological Rpts 58:327-37; Cameron (1985) Homosexual molestation of children/sexual interaction of teacher and pupil. Psychological Rpts 57:1227-36.
  5. Bell & Weinberg (1978) Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women Simon & Schuster; Bell, et al (1981) Sexual Preference (& Statistical Appendix) Indiana Univ Press.
  6. Gebhard & Johnson (1979) The Kinsey Data: Marginal Tabulations of the 1938-63 Interviews Conducted by the Institute for Sex Research Saunders.
  7. Bieber, et al (1962) Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study Basic Books.
  8. Schofield (1965) The Sexual Behaviour of Young People Little, Brown.
  9. Klassen (1989) Sex and Morality in the U.S. Wesleyan Univ Press.
  10. Varnell (1990) Philadelphia Gay News August 24-30.
  11. Cameron, et al (1989) Effect of homosexuality upon public health and social order. Psychological Rpts 64:1167-79; Cameron, et al (1988) Homosexuals in the armed forces. Psychological Rpts 62:211-9; Cameron, et al (1986) Child molestation and homosexuality. Psychological Rpts 58:327-37; Cameron (1985) Homosexual molestation of children/sexual interaction of teacher and pupil. Psychological Rpts 57:1227-36; Bell & Weinberg (1978) Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women Simon & Schuster; Bell, et al (1981) Sexual Preference (& Statistical Appendix) Indiana Univ Press; Jay & Young (1979) The Gay Report Summit.
  12. Van Wyk & Geist (1984) Psychosocial development of heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual behavior. Archives Sexual Behavior 13:505-44.
  13. Bell (1973) Homosexualities: their range and character. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation Cole & Dienstbier (eds) Univ Nebraska Press; King (1980) The Etiology of Homosexuality as Related to Childhood Experiences and Adult Adjustment Ed.D. Thesis, Indiana Univ.
  14. Cameron & Cameron (1994) Is homosexuality learned? Paper presented at Eastern Psychological Assn April 15; Cameron, et al (1989) Effect of homosexuality upon public health and social order. Psychological Rpts 64:1167-79; Cameron, et al (1988) Homosexuals in the armed forces. Psychological Rpts 62:211-9; Cameron, et al (1986) Child molestation and homosexuality. Psychological Rpts 58:327-37; Cameron (1985) Homosexual molestation of children/sexual interaction of teacher and pupil. Psychological Rpts 57:1227-36.
  15. Kinsey, et al (1984) Sexual Behavior in the Human Male Saunders, p483.
  16. Laumann, et al (1994) The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States Univ. Chicago Press.
  17. Cameron, et al (1989) Effect of homosexuality upon public health and social order. Psychological Rpts 64:1167-79; Cameron, et al (1988) Homosexuals in the armed forces. Psychological Rpts 62:211-9; Cameron, et al (1986) Child molestation and homosexuality. Psychological Rpts 58:327-37; Cameron (1985) Homosexual molestation of children/sexual interaction of teacher and pupil. Psychological Rpts 57:1227-36.
  18. Roberts & Turner (1991) Male-male sexual contact in USA. J Sex Research 28:491-519.
  19. Klassen, et al (1989) Sex and Morality in the U.S. Wesleyan Univ Press.
  20. Beiber, et al (1962) Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study Basic Books.
  21. e.g., Metanoia, Seattle WA; Courage, Allentown College, Center Valley PA.
  22. Cameron, et al (1989) Effect of homosexuality upon public health and social order. Psychological Rpts 64:1167-79; Cameron, et al (1988) Homosexuals in the armed forces. Psychological Rpts 62:211-9; Cameron, et al (1986) Child molestation and homosexuality. Psychological Rpts 58:327-37; Cameron (1985) Homosexual molestation of children/sexual interaction of teacher and pupil. Psychological Rpts 57:1227-36.
  23. Cameron & Cameron (1995) Do homosexual teachers pose a risk to pupils? Paper presented at Eastern Psychological Assn April 1.
  24. e.g., Metanoia, Seattle WA; Courage, Allentown College, Center Valley PA.