Friday, October 16, 2009

Blogging the Homosexualty Conference: Day 2, Main Address

Dr. Mark Yarhouse gave the main address of the day, entitled "The Pastoral Applications of a Three-Tier Distinction Between Same-Sex Attraction, a Homosexual Orientation, and a Gay Identity." He started by defining the end point, sexual identity as an act of self-labeling, that is, how you identify your sexual preferences to yourself (private sexual identity) and to others (public sexual identity). Yarhouse finds that many things contribute to a decision to choose one sexual identity label over another--the gender one is born with, how masculine or feminine you feel, your sexual attractions, what you intend to do sexually, what you actually do sexually, and your beliefs and values about sexual identity. Common labels include gay, straight, bi, bi-curious, queer, questioning, curious, and he notes that many young people choose not to categorize themselves.

On the question of how identity is related to orientation, Yarhouse finds it helpful to make a distinction between attraction, orientation, and identity. Regarding the distinction between attraction and orientation, Yarhouse cites studies which show that 6.2% of men and 4.4% of women reported same sex attraction but only 2.0% of men and 0.9% of women reported homosexual orientation. Yarhouse suggests that the difference between attraction and orientation is the intensity of the attraction.

Yarhouse cites historians who maintain that homosexual identity is a new thing in history. Same-sex attraction and orientation have always been with humanity, but a homosexual identity needed sex to be separated from procreation and other modern historical contingencies in order to develop.

Yarhouse notices that in our culture we collapse attraction, orientation, and identity into a single thing. We quickly move from a descriptive label, homosexual attraction, to a prescriptive label, homosexual identity.

Yarhouse's method of working with Christian homosexuals is to focus on identity rather than orientation, because that is where people make a choice to take a label. Self-labeling is happening at a younger age than it did 40 years ago, and currently about 75% of homosexual teenagers feel good about their identity. The process of moving from awareness of same sex attraction (usually around age 10) to same sex behavior to questioning to labeling takes, on average, 3-4 years for females and 5-6 years for males. Making an identity out of same sex attraction can take as long as 15 years in some studies.

This happens at a time when young people are trying to discover their identity and trying out different identities at different places. For a sexual minority who is struggling with this, culture has a clear answer: If you experience same sex attraction, you are gay. But what about people who have same-sex attractions but form their identity around something else, such as a relationship with Christ? According to Yarhouse psychologists view them as having stunted development, but he does not see evidence of that.

Yarhouse studied Christians at Christian colleges who identified as sexual minorities. Significant differences between them and the average population were that awareness came at age 13 and only 14% chose to identify as homosexuals and be involved in homosexual relationships.

He also studied two Christian ministries to homosexuals. One was gay affirming and identified with the gay framework of sexual identity, and the other was committed to helping Christians with same sex attractions not become homosexuals. The first group achieved congruence by attributing their gay identity to God's plan. The second group achieved congruence by identifying with Christ and attributing their same sex attractions to some aspect of sin. Both groups agreed that this was a fair description of their approach

So Yarhouse sees two competing scripts for the life of someone who has same sex attractions. The first he calls the gay script. According to this script same sex attractions signal a naturally occurring distinction between homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality. They signal who you really are, so the answer is to self-actualize based on the attractions. According to Yarhouse, this script collapses attraction, orientation, and identity in a process of so-called self-discovery.

Yarhouse says that the church is not really offering an alternative script, but proposes another script. In his script same sex attraction signals, not a categorical distinction among types of persons, but one of many human experiences that are 'not the way its supposed to be'. According to this script same sex attractions are a part of one's experience but not the defining element of one's identity. He teaches that one can integrate same sex attractions into another identity based on Jesus Christ. In other words, the fact that you experience same sex attractions doesn't mean you don't have decisions to make about what you will do with them.

From this Yarhouse has developed a framework for counseling and pastoral care. The goal of this framework is to protect the person from assumptions and labels and help them to consider a sexual identity pastoral framework. This is accomplished by (1) introducing the three tier distinction, which creates space for the person to maneuver. Next the individual will (2) weight how important the various aspects that compose a sexual identity are to them. The message of this step is that you are more than the sum total of your arousal pattern. The individual will then (3) decide to what they will attribute their identity by working through how to make sense of the attractions that they have and deciding whether a homosexual attraction signals a homosexual identity. Finally they will work towards a (4) state of congruence where their behavior and identity is consistent with their beliefs and values.

Disclaimer: I have summarized the views of the presenters to the best of my ability, however my summary should not be conflated with their actual views. For this reason, any attempt to debate the presenters views in the comments section will be deleted. Comments that seek clarification are welcome.

Blogging the Homosexuality Conference (other posts)

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating and solid approach. Takes into account critical studies of sexuality (esp. Foucault) and even gender criticism. Seems like a great basis for work. Still problematic for someone who assumes sexuality as identity (even many heterosexuals do this) but definitely a mature and reasoned response. Yay for us! But now what?