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The issue of whether sexual orientation is chosen, or whether a tendency or orientation is inherited or genetically predetermined, or if both factors contribute, is a controversial and significant one, for social, political and religious reasons. Various approaches are commonly taken towards this question.
This issue is most commonly associated with views on homosexuality, and is discussed here mostly in that context, although similar considerations apply in principle to many sexual inclinations and other choices where genetics, psychology and choice may all play a part in the final outcome.
Historically, in classical (Greek/Roman) times, a variety of sexual orientations were part of society. Largely due to religious influences, same-sex relationships were viewed very negatively until relatively recently. In many parts of the world, homosexuality is still viewed in a negative light. Verses in the Judaic, Christian and Islamic Holy Books are often taken as clear statements that God does not condone homosexual activity in humans.
In this context, there is a strong impetus to examine why and how people develop sexual orientation, and the issue has strong political overtones.
Philosophically, if it is a matter of choice - that is, if a person can choose whether or not to be gay (either because there are no orientations or because orientations can reliably be changed through therapy or some other method) - then those who consider homosexuality to be harmful would see this as evidence that acting on homosexual urges is immoral. If, on the other hand, sexual orientation proves to be a genetic or biological trait that generally cannot be changed, many people will see this as evidence supporting the opposing view that homosexuals should not be criticized for being what they were born to be, and that their sexuality and inclination is part of their essential being and should be respected. (However, others such as talk radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger have simply interpreted any genetic predisposition to homosexuality as a "birth defect.") For those who do not see homosexuality as harmful, the question of whether or not it is the result of a conscious choice is irrelevant.
In either case, it is probable that many people do not have any strong views on the issue, since the homosexuals who care about the debate, as well as those religious people and others who have a strong motive to argue it, are both in the minority. However, it is still a question which attracts much interest from genetic and psychological perspectives, separate from its political and social dimension.
Biological influence hypothesis
Empirical studies that involve quantifying biological influence on sexual orientation are discussed in Biology and sexual orientation. Non-voluntary environmental/cultural factors may, of course, also contribute to sexual orientation.
A small but substantial group of psychotherapeutic professionals, primarily but not entirely conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims (and in the larger cultural and political debate) view sexual orientation as a choice and something that can be challenged, changed or chosen in adolescence or adulthood in some individuals. In this case, the primary aspect of sexual orientation which is of interest is whether attractions are for members of the same, opposite, or both genders. (For discussion about whether there are exactly two genders and what constitutes gender, see the article on sex.)
If sexual orientation is (completely or almost completely) a conscious choice, then social and cultural influences probably play a large role, as they do in "lifestyle" choices such as what foods to eat or how to throw a birthday party. This hypothesis predicts that in societies where (for example) homosexuality is widely discussed or accepted, more people will report themselves to be homosexual. For those who believe homosexuality is immoral, this theory provokes concern that positive or even neutral portrayals of homosexuality will harm children, adolescents, and even adults, by influencing them in that direction.
Some advocates of the choice hypothesis believe that sexual orientation is not a choice that is necessarily made casually or easily changed. Most choice advocates have a negative view of all non-heterosexual orientations. Therefore, they might, for instance, consider homosexuality to be a personal problem not unlike a drug or alcohol addiction. A person might be unable to change their orientation without help, but in the end, their own choices and behaviors are shown to be an integral part of their problem.
Some people believe that homosexual behavior is wrong but do not believe that the homosexual orientation is chosen. This often leads to the conclusion that people who are non-heterosexuals should be treated with respect or compassion, but that they should be discouraged from acting on their "immoral" and spontaneous erotic desires. This is the view taken by the Roman Catholic Church.
Almost everyone agrees that the decision to engage in a particular sexual behavior (whether driven by a spontaneous erotic desire, external suggestion, or any other influence) is in normal circumstances a conscious choice. The main disagreements are over whether a.) there is an underlying orientation which controls emotional desires and responses to events, and whether b.) acting on same-sex or other sexual attractions is moral, immoral, or orthogonal to moral considerations.
Today, many people believe that sexual orientation is not chosen. Numerous surveys and considerable anecdotal evidence seem to show that the gender(s) toward which most people have had spontaneous erotic desires (whether heterosexual, homosexual, both, or otherwise) have not changed since the feelings began in adolescence. However, it must be noted that these surveys, by their very nature, may include an element of bias in their demographics (ie; only gay people can comment on their experiences with being gay and so on). Moreover, such surveys have been only carried out fairly recently, historically speaking, and may reflect a short-lived phenomenon in human history.
Also, a small number of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people believe they have - more or less consciously - chosen their sexual orientations, as shown by books such as Vera Whisman's Queer by Choice: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Politics of Identity (1996) and websites such as QueerByChoice.com. In the 1970s, the view that homosexuality could be chosen became a fundamental precept of the lesbian feminist movement.
Current scientific view
Science currently has no definitive answer to the question. On the one hand, it is known that environment and life can fundamentally shape the human psyche from a very early age, and many homosexuals trace their orientation back to such formative incidents in whole or part. On the other hand, homosexuality is ubiquitous in nature and appears to arise naturally in hundreds of species which are not subject to the same psychological and environmental pressures as humans.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III and DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) based upon many decades' years research, declassified homosexuality as a clinical condition and deleted it from their books. A clinical condition "homosexuality" remains - but it signifies a person who may be suffering emotional pain from suppressing their same-sex orientation.
Other aspects of the debate
Changing sexual orientation through therapy
Most contemporary mental health professionals consider reparative therapy - therapy which attempts to actually change a patient's sexual orientation from, say, homosexual to heterosexual - to be ineffective and in some cases, psychologically harmful. However, there is also a modern ex-gay movement which claims that homosexuals can become heterosexual or otherwise "leave homosexuality behind" through counseling, prayer, aversion, or other therapies, if they choose to do so.
Sexuality in non-human species
- Main article: Non-human animal sexuality
Some people consider it instructive or suggestive to look at how sexual behavior operates in other species in nature. The study of animal sexuality is a rapidly developing field, and current findings can be summarized briefly as follows:
It used to be believed that only humans and a handful of species performed sexual acts other than for procreation, and that animals sexuality was instinctive and a simple response to the "right" stimulation (sight, scent). Current understanding is that in many species animals try to give and get sexual stimulation with others where procreation is not the aim (including from objects, other species, or via masturbation) and homosexual behavior has now been documented in over 450 species.
Moral and religious considerations
Religious authorities which regard homosexuality as wrong or "sinful" often distinguish between immoral sexual acts and non-heterosexual feelings. Adherents to these codes of conduct are often advised to abstain from sexual acts in general, or to attempt to foster opposite-sex relationships; celibacy is considered to be an acceptable or sometimes even admirable alternative to homosexuality. (e.g., in the Roman Catholic Church.) Some religions hold heterosexual marriage to be morally superior to celibacy, or mandatory for entry into a desirable form of the afterlife. (e.g., the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
Not all religious sects regard non-heterosexual orientations as wrong, nor do all adherents of organized churches that do hold that view. See religion and homosexuality for a more complete discussion.
Proponents of the "choice about behavior" position point to taboo or illegal sexual acts, such as pedophilia or incest, where society requires individuals not to act out their desires, as examples where choices are expected to be made whether orientation is a matter of choice or not.
For the purposes of sexual behavior, some people may choose to be celibate or sexually active, and self-identification (consistent with their values) is a psychological and social phenomenon distinct from sexual behavior and attraction.
Comment by homosexuals
A common cited response to this discussion by homosexuals is simply the rhetorical question - why would people wish to be part of a stigmatized and discriminated minority if they felt they had choice in the matter. They also point to psychological and sociological research statistics showing the number of young homosexuals who either do try to change but conclude they are unable or it is in fact against their inner nature, or who self-harm or otherwise are hurt, from the emotional suffering and pressure they feel.
- Is homosexuality a choice? -- Paper on Dr Paul Kenyon's Home Page, University of Plymouth, Department of Psychology
- Position paper - Catherine L. Harris, PhD., Psychology Department, Boston University
- Will A Gay Gene Get Us Anywhere? by Nicholas Yee
- Human sexuality
- Societal attitudes towards homosexuality
- Homosexuality and religion
- Free will
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