Progressive commentators have devoted much attention recently to a study entitled "Characteristics of Mixed Orientation Couples: An Empirical Study" by M.A. Yarhouse et al. Starting on page 41 of volume 4, issue 2 of Edification: The Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology, the study examines the lives of 106 sexual minority respondents and 161 current or former heterosexual spouses of sexual minorities. What drew commentators' attention was that all of the authors of the article either psychology professors or doctoral candidates at Regent University, a Christian university founded by Pat Robertson in 1978.
The study looked at couples in what it called "mixed orientation marriages," or marriages in which one partner is heterosexual and one partner is a sexual minority. Out of the 167 respondents, 66.7% were currently married to their other-orientation partner, 10.1% were separated, 15% were divorced, and 1.5% were currently in a same-sex relationship. Respondents answered a questionnaire about relationship dynamics, relationship satisfaction, sexual functioning, and sexual orientation and identity.
The most frequent reasons given for entering a mixed orientation marriage included wanting children and a family, wanting a companion, being in love, and doing what seemed to be the right or natural thing. Interestingly, pressure from family, a belief that the spouses same-sex attraction would go away, and a desire to hide same-sex attraction were not common reasons given for marrying.
Heterosexual partners frequently responded to their partner's disclosure of same-sex attraction with shock, devastation, confusion, anxiety, or a sense of betrayal. Sexual minority spouses, on the other hand, reported feeling relief, peace, anxiety, or confusion when they disclosed to their spouses. Love, children, and family were the most frequent cited reasons why both heterosexual spouses and sexual minorities stayed in their marriages after disclosure.
Interestingly, the authors of the article observed that sexual minorities in mixed-orientation marriages did NOT report statistically significant changes in emotional attachments, attraction, and fantasy. This suggests that behavior changes in such marriages do not indicate changes in sexual orientation as such, the authors argued. It is this observation that has caught the eye of so many progressive observers.
Coming from researchers who herald from a Christian university founded by Pat Robertson, this is a remarkable observation. It suggests a nuanced understanding of human sexuality in which emotional bonds, attraction, and thoughts -- not just sexual behaviors -- give shape to sexual orientation. Contrary to the ideas of some "ex-gay" therapy proponents, these findings also suggest that engaging in heterosexual behaviors does not lead to a heterosexual orientation. While people may adjust their sexual and romantic behavior for various reasons, their sexual orientation does not change in response to those behaviors. Sexual behavior and sexual orientation, in other words, are two different things.
Before we get too excited, it bears mentioning that the article did not conclude that sexual orientation is immutable. The authors wrote that these findings do not necessarily indicate that sexual orientation cannot change. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that sexual orientation is more intractable than some Religious Right voices believe.
Research from secular and now Christian sources suggests that behaviors do not produce a change in sexual orientation. As more of this research reaches the mainstream, let's hope more people begin to question "ex-gay" assumptions about changing sexual orientation.
For additional news and commentary, visit the following links:
Edge Boston: Conservative Christian University: There's Nothing "Ex" About "Ex-Gays"
Think Progress: Pat Robertson's Regent University: Ex-Gays Can Act the Part, but Orientation Doesn't Change
Right Wing Watch: Did Pat Robertson's Regent U Undercut Beliefs In 'Ex-Gay' Reparative Therapy?
Warren Throckmorton: New study: Sexual behavior changes but not sexual orientation