When I (Mark) began my career over twenty years ago, one of the pressing questions at that time was whether sexual orientation can change and whether it is harmful to attempt change.1 The prevailing cultural conclusion was that, while there may be a kind of natural fluidity to some persons’ same-sex sexuality, attempting change was harmful. However, it was widely understood that a person could always refrain from sexual behavior. In other words, behavior could change and a person could be chaste, but change of orientation attempts were held in great scrutiny.
As time has passed, we have witnessed what might be thought of as a diminished ex-gay narrative and greater scrutiny has been placed on those who attempt to refrain from sexual behaviour and live (not always perfectly) a life of celibacy. Some critics may be motivated by a desire to refute any position that falls short of a full and robust affirmation of same-sex relationships, while others may be genuinely concerned for the well-being of those who attempt to live within what is often referred to as a traditional Christian sexual ethic.
A friend of mine recently published a collection of essays on sexuality that she used in a course she taught on The Bible and Sexuality.2 She included in the course reader an essay titled ‘Infeasible Celibacy: Quotes from Christian Tradition’. Indeed, the quotes from John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others reflect concern for whether celibacy is something that everyone can achieve, whether it is a gift for some, and so on.3
While the shift in focus from an ex-gay narrative to a life of celibacy may seem like a more contemporary conversation, it is one that has some historical and broader contemporary context, although most historical figures quoted wouldn’t have been thinking of the category of persons receiving scrutiny today: celibate gay Christians.
Celibacy was defined differently than we had thought by some of those who completed the survey.
We recently conducted a survey of 300 celibate gay Christians4 and measured their psychological distress and well-being. These findings may be helpful for us to summarize. Before doing so, we should say that celibacy was defined differently than we had thought by some of those who completed the survey. We anticipated celibacy to be a calling to fulfill God’s mission by remaining single and refraining from genital sexual activity. That definition of celibacy was true for 22% of the sample or 66 participants. Another 66 participants were in what we refer to as mixed-orientation marriages or marriages between a person with a homosexual or bisexual orientation (gay or bi) and a heterosexual orientation (straight). These gay individuals called themselves celibate because they refrained from same-sex sexual behaviour, while being sexually engaged with the spouse of the opposite gender. In addition, a little over half of the sample (56% or 168 participants) were celibate from same-sex genital behaviour, but were open to a relationship with the opposite sex.
As we noted above, the definitions of celibacy surprised us as researchers and is likely a surprise to the reader. We can imagine a range of responses, but rather than force a definition onto the study participants, we elected to include this more expansive definition. What we did with our analyses for clarity’s sake was to report on each of these three ways of thinking about celibacy.
We also asked participants to rate their attractions on a 10-point scale to get a better sense of strength of attraction. We found that 84% of our sample scored high on same-sex attraction, suggesting that most were not bisexual persons in terms of their sexual orientation.
This was also a theologically conservative sample of gay Christians. They were what is sometimes referred to as ‘Side B Gay Christians’ as they believed same-sex behaviour is morally impermissible, in contrast to ‘Side A Gay Christians’ who believe that same-sex behaviour may be morally permissible.
Is it healthy to live a life of celibacy?
Is it healthy to live a life of celibacy? We used several measures to try to answer this question: the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale (DASS-21), the Counseling Center Assessment of Psychological Symptoms (CCAPS), the Personal Well-Being Scale, and the Ryff Emotional Well-Being Scale.
We described our sample as ‘healthier than might be expected’ given they are often marginalized by both the mainstream LGBTQ+ community (who are critical of their ethical conclusions regarding same-sex sexual behaviour) and the conservative Christian community (who are critical of their enduring same-sex sexuality and use of sexual identity labels). On the DASS-21, about 80% of our sample were in the normal range for depression with only 12% in the mild range, 8% in the moderate range and 1% in the severe range. Even higher percentages of our sample fell in the normal range for anxiety (93%) and stress (94%).
We described our sample as ‘healthier than might be expected’.
Recall that we had three different ways of being celibate: celibate from all sexual relationships, celibate but open to an opposite-sex relationship, and in a mixed-orientation relationship. Of those who were celibate from all sexual relationships, 68% fell in the normal range for depression, 20% in the mild range, and 12% in the moderate range. While still ‘better than expected’, fewer were in the normal range than the other celibacy types.
Scores on the CCAPS were mixed. The CCAPS offers a Distress Index, which is a combination of scores on measures of depression, social and general anxiety, academic distress, and hostility, 92% were in the normal range and only 8% were elevated. On the specific subscale for depression, 76% fell in the normal range and 24% were elevated in depression. Again, a higher percentage of those celibate from all sexual relationships were elevated in depression (37%) and social anxiety (39%). This measure does not provide severity-level distinctions, such as mild, moderate, severe; it only indicates the presence (or absence) of elevated scores.
We also looked at well-being among celibate gay Christians. On the Personal Well-Being Scale, 63% of participants reported life satisfaction as high (27% as medium and only 10% as low). Again, those in mixed-orientation marriages rated higher (75% in the high range compared to 64% in the celibate but open to an opposite-sex relationship, and 53% in the celibate from all categories).
Where do celibate gay Christians tend to say that they struggle? Perhaps not surprisingly, on this measure they struggle in the areas of personal relationships, feeling part of their community, and future security.
We saw similar results on the Ryff Emotional Well-Being Scale. Participants scored particularly high on the personal growth subscale (91% in the normal range), but lower in the area of self-acceptance (63% in the normal range). Again, we saw differences across the three celibacy types; there were more people in mixed-orientation marriages scoring in a normal range as compared to the other two celibate groups.
What can we conclude? We recognize that the experiences of celibacy are different across these three types discussed. At the same time, it would be difficult to conclude that this sample is experiencing celibacy as an undue hardship as such, even among those who are celibate from all sexual relationships.
We saw in our research that our sample cares deeply about relationships and may experience some anxiety about them, as friendships are going to be weighted more significantly for those who do not have a marriage partner.5 Also, in a separate study, we reported on the experiences of friends who function as family to celibate gay Christians and learned how important the daily rhythms of family life are for celibate gay Christians, some of whom seek out couples or families to be in a more intentional relationship with, either living close to or sometimes living together. Perhaps some of these relationships can mitigate some of the risk for those who are celibate from all sexual relationships in particular and reflect a biblical concept of a church as a Christian family.
- Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse, Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation (InterVarsity Press Academic, 2007).
- Karen R. Keen, The Bible and Sexuality: A Course Reader (Contemplatio Publishing, 2020).
- Research by Richard Sipe and others on the experiences of Roman Catholic priests who take a vow of celibacy is also rather discouraging, although there are a number of methodological limitations to that research.
- Most of the findings are reported in detail in Mark A. Yarhouse and Olya Zaporozhets, Costly Obedience: What we Can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community (Zondervan, 2019). Bear in mind that we used purposeful sampling and had 300 participants, mostly Protestant and mostly male. We do not claim the study to be a representative sample of celibate gay Christians.
- Yarhouse and Zaporozhets, Costly Obedience, pp. 105-110.