To polarize a crowd, bring up sexual reorientation. Religious fundamentalists who believe homosexuality is a matter of choice consider it obvious that gay people can reverse their decisions. The opposite camp argues that gays are "born that way," and thus that sexual reorientation therapy is ineffective, as well as cruel and demoralizing.
While the latter perspective hits closer to the mark, the science of sexuality supports a more measured stance. There are no verified cases of formerly gay people completely ridding themselves of same-sex attraction, but it does appear possible for some people who are predisposed to same-sex attraction to expand their sexual repertoire — develop attractions for opposite-sex partners as well, and even opt for the opposite sex exclusively.
"I think highly motivated people can change their behavior, and they can clearly change their label," said Heather Hoffmann, a professor of psychology who chairs the neuroscience program at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.
Hoffmann's research focuses on the way that experiences and learning influence people's arousal patterns. She has demonstrated that sexual arousal is subject to Pavlovian conditioning, the method of repeatedly pairing one stimulus with another until, eventually, the first triggers an expectation of the second. Hoffmann's work shows that both men and women can be conditioned to become sexually aroused by exposure to a cue, such as an odor or object. Along the same lines, people can be conditioned by their life experiences, learning to become aroused by something or someone "only after having a sexual experience with them," Hoffmann wrote in a February review paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. [The Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos and Bizarre Facts]
Sexual experiences affect our arousal patterns by altering what activities or features of sexual partners arouse us, Hoffmann said. But can people ever be conditioned to become aroused by members of their non-preferred sex? "There's not a whole lot of data on this for humans," Hoffmann told Life's Little Mysteries, "but there are a few animal studies that have shown, both in males and females, that you can condition a preference for the non-preferred partner."
In one experiment, male quails were hormonally altered so as to allow other "sexually naïve" (virgin) male quails to have sex with them. After this learning experience, the latter group of quails maintained a sexual preference for males, suggesting that they were being sexually oriented through learning. However, their presumed natural predilection for females was not lost: Another experiment showed it was much easier to reorient those male quails toward females through "reverse learning" than it was to try and reorient males who had already had sex with females toward other males. Other experiments suggest similar effects can occur in rats.
By conditioning the animals to prefer mates of their non-preferred sex, and then conditioning them to revert back, the researchers showed that the animals' sexual preferences were somewhat fluid. Humans might not be so malleable — other experiments show conditioning typically works better and faster for animals than it does for people — but according to Hoffmann, some of us might be. There's reason to think women's sexual preferences, in particular, can change in response to an experience with a member of their non-preferred sex.
Unlike men, who are usually sexually oriented solely toward men or women, and whose sexuality is essentially fixed from puberty on, a decade of research by University of Utah psychologist Lisa Diamond and others demonstrates women have greater "erotic plasticity." Their sexual orientation can be shaped by cultural influences, altered by positive or negative experiences and intensified by feelings of love or attachment. As Diamond noted in January in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, females' sexual fluidity may emerge from the finding that, across the board, they are sexually aroused by images of both men and women (whereas men are typically aroused only by members of their preferred sex).
Their erotic plasticity may explain why women with same-sex predispositions report better success adjusting to heterosexual lifestyles than gay men do. But switching to a "straight" identity doesn't rid them of their former attractions. "Lisa found that sexual fluidity is more of a broadening of your attraction pattern rather than an erasing of your original pattern," Hoffmann said of Diamond's research. "I think men may have this capacity, too, but I think it may be more prominent in women."
Lastly, gay people aren't really "born that way" in the sense of having same-sex attractions from the moment of birth. Sexual orientation cements around puberty, and according to Gerulf Rieger, a sexual orientation researcher at Cornell University, "it is quite possible that there are several influences on forming a homosexual orientation." Genes do appear to contribute, but so do other factors, including a fetus' level of exposure to certain sex hormones in the womb, and possibly early life experiences. [Why Are There Gay Men?]
The influence of genes can't be altered, but what about the other factors? "More information is needed to determine if preferences and limits that were established prenatally or during critical developmental periods can be extinguished or changed," Utah-based sexual orientation therapist Lee Beckstead wrote in a February review paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
It is currently unknown whether some combination of Pavlovian conditioning, learning processes and even hormone therapies could enable truly motivated individuals with a same-sex predisposition to adapt to heterosexual lifestyles, whether for religious, cultural or personal reasons. But considering that very few scientists view homosexuality as a problem needing fixing, will these clinical reorientation therapies ever be developed? As Beckstead noted, "Our best efforts may not be in trying to change possibly immutable aspects of sexuality but in trying to reduce the misunderstanding, discrimination, and hostility that exist within non-heterosexuals and their social situations."
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.