The spirit of the age conflates patterns of sexual desire with personal identity. Thus, if you’re attracted to the opposite sex, you’re heterosexual; to the same sex, homosexual; and to both sexes, bisexual. Modern people more and more regard these variant sexualities not merely as orientations but also as identities.
Now, on the one hand, everyone is sexually attracted. I am not taking issue with what “orientation” is trying to capture—the pattern of one’s sexual desires. Orientation is intended to communicate the telos or direction of one’s sexual desires (and, as a Christian, it is the telos or direction of one’s desires that determines its morality).
What I am taking issue with is whether “orientation” is in fact a helpful term. I argue that it is not.
“Sexual orientation” is a term with significant traction and purchase in our society. The term is codified in law in certain parts of the country and is the basis for restricting any sort of discrimination based on one’s attraction.
Nevertheless, the term “sexual orientation” is a far less understood term than is commonly acknowledged, and there is no consensus definition of the term. For that reason, I argue that Christians should stop using the term.
Here are just a few random examples of how “orientation” is used both in Christian usage and secular usage.
Just this week, Nate Collins of Revoice said that orientation should not be construed as “intrinsically sexual.” Collins says reducing orientation to sexuality is Freudian. He writes that “the desire to not be alone in your life, the desire to have companionship, to have close, intimate, emotional companionship—these are all things that we experience in relation to orientation that are not intrinsically sexual.”
Wesley Hill has written that the “erotic” element of sexual “orientation” is a baseline feature of one’s overall experience in the world and posture toward it:
My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends.
The American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation this way:
Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.
Interestingly, the APA notes that orientation also exists along a continuum:
Research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the other sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex.
The Human Rights Campaign defines sexual orientation as “an inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.”
The Unitarian Universalist Association encourages its members to understand that orientation is in fact fluid.
Expand the ways that sexual orientation is understood and discussed in your congregation beyond the idea that sexual orientation is a born-in, static trait. Although many people believe themselves to have been born lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or straight, others experience sexuality as fluid and changing throughout their lifetime.
Some researchers have argued that human beings have “erotic plasticity” such that sexual desire can be “socially flexible and responsive.”
Get all that? Secular authorities and Christian authorities define orientation as immutable but on a continuum, as plastic but also inherent, as non-sexual, but also sexual.
Here’s what I am simply trying to put forward: There’s confusion and contradiction sown by using “orientation.” There is no consensus. The term “sexual orientation” can be defined upwards and downwards, leftwards and rightwards to such degree that its pliability vitiates the possibility of there being any intelligible meaning to it.
Without question, God created humanity as sexual beings, but sexual desire manifests itself in both beautiful and disordered ways in a sinful world. God calls humanity to a vocation of holiness in accordance with His revealed will for males and females, he does not call them to an “orientation.”