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ss triple helix - spring 2012,  Changing views about sexual orientation

Changing views about sexual orientation

'A more fluid approach'

Review by Peter Saunders
CMF Chief Executive

Many people believe that homosexual and heterosexual are distinct biological categories like race – unchangeable, biologically fixed and genetically determined. It is on the basis of this view that the gay rights lobby and sections of the media argue that 'homophobia' is a form of discrimination akin to racism.

But this view is being increasingly challenged, not least by gay rights activists themselves. In a recent Huffington Post article that has generated a huge amount of attention, 'Future Sex: Beyond Gay and Straight', (1) Peter Tatchell affirms both the spectrum and also the fluidity of sexual attraction.

Regarding bisexuality he says: 'We already know, thanks to a host of sex surveys, that bisexuality is a fact of life and that even in narrow-minded, homophobic cultures, many people have a sexuality that is, to varying degrees, capable of both heterosexual and homosexual attraction.'

Then he challenges the traditional view that gay and straight are distinct categories:
'Research by Dr Alfred Kinsey in the USA during the 1940s was the first major statistical evidence that gay and straight are not watertight, irreconcilable and mutually exclusive sexual orientations. He found that human sexuality is, in fact, a continuum of desires and behaviours, ranging from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality. A substantial proportion of the population shares an amalgam of same-sex and opposite-sex feelings - even if they do not act on them.'

Tatchell, however, grossly inflates the true incidence of exclusive homosexuality. The best evidence (2) (3) (4) suggests that only a very small percentage of men (1-2%) and women (0.5-1.5%) experience exclusive same-sex attraction throughout their life course. But bisexuality appears to be more prevalent than exclusive homosexuality.

What is the relative ratio of bisexuality to exclusive homosexuality? For each man who is 'completely homosexual' (Kinsey score 6) there are three with varying shades of bisexuality; but for women the ratio is 1:16. (5)

Sexual attractions are therefore best understood as lying on a spectrum rather than in terms of a simple dichotomous binary categorisation, and mixed patterns of sexual desire, including attraction to both sexes at the same time, appear to be more common than exclusive same sex attraction, especially among women.

But the concept of a spectrum of sexuality–known for decades, but often ignored–also calls into question simplistic analogies between sexual orientation and race. Conflating sexual orientation and race is not really comparing like with like. It is what is called a 'category error'.

  1. Huffington Post; 10 January 2012
  2. Dickson N, et al. Same-Sex Attraction in a Birth Cohort: Prevalence and Persistence in Early Adulthood. Soc-Sci and Med 2003; 56 (8):1607-15.
  3. Savin-Williams RC, and Ream GL. Prevalence and Stability of Sexual Orientation Components During Adolescence and Young Adulthood. Arch Sex Behav 2007;36:385-94.
  4. Laumann EO, et al. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
  5. Bailey JM, et al. Genetic and environmental influences on sexual orientation and its correlates in an Australian twin sample. J Pers Soc Psychol 2000;78(3):524-36.
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