“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”
– Revelations 21:2
In my prior post, I discussed how attractions of various sorts, including non-sexual and sexual, manifested in my life. As most broadly defined, attraction is a force that draws one object towards another object. Attraction underlies the very existence of the known universe, as manifested in laws of physics such as gravity, strong nuclear force, and electromagnetism. Of course, for the purposes of this blog, the attraction force we are concerned with is interpersonal attraction, but I believe the universality of attraction reveals much about the nature and the intent of the Creator of all. This post will explore the nature of interpersonal attractions from psychological and biological perspectives and will consider theological and practical issues concerning attractions.
Similar to the general definition of attraction, interpersonal attraction can be broadly defined as a force that draws one person towards another. There are several causal factors for attraction that have been studied, including physical attractiveness, propinquity, similarity, complementarity, and reciprocal liking. We tend to be drawn to physical attractiveness. Physical attractiveness in turn depends both on largely universal factors and on culture specific factors. Features such as facial and body symmetry, youthfulness, and healthy skin are universally considered to be attractive. Certain features are gender specific. Heterosexual women tend to find taller men, “v shape” torso, older men, masculine facial features (broad forehead, chiseled jaw, etc.), and larger penis as more attractive, while heterosexual men tend to find shorter women, rounded buttocks, younger women, certain facial features (full lips, small chins, wide set eyes, etc.), and longer hair as more attractive. Homosexuals are attracted to many of the same features but differ in some other respects as, for instance, gay men tend prefer more muscular men than heterosexual women and height difference is not generally sought. Attractiveness of other features is more culture dependent including body mass, hair color, and amount of body hair. The propinquity effect is the increase in attractiveness of someone that we become more familiar with over time. Both similarity and complementarity impact someone’s attractiveness. People tend to be drawn to those who have similar appearance, personality, ethnicity, and attitudes. However, studies have shown that complementarity in certain features, most significantly dominance, leads to better relationships. It has been theorized that similarity is most important in initial attractions while complementarity increases relational bond in the long term. Finally, the reciprocal liking effect describes increase in attractiveness towards someone who likes us. These features all played important roles in developing my interpersonal attractions. For instance, the personal features I am most drawn to are the same ones that most characterize me (similarity), I am drawn to those I have a long history with (propinquity), and I of course like people who like me (reciprocal liking)! Complementarity is not as readily apparent, particularly since I am not part of a long term romantic relationship, but certainly with long term friends, I find the relationships to function well when we have complementary relational styles.
Physical attractiveness is something I try not to let affect my non-sexual attractions with varying levels of success, but it is something that features prominently with my sexual attractions. Sexual attraction is a particular kind of interpersonal attraction, which is a force that draws a person towards another for sexual activity or interest. While genetic, psychological, and cultural factors all impact sexual attraction, the physical qualities of the other person play a critical role. These include attractive visuals, smell, and voice. Men tend to be most drawn to visual sexual stimuli. Animals often use pheromones as a chemical sexual signal, but pheromones have not been shown thus far to play a role in human sexual attraction. My sexual attractions, which have been directed mostly to males over the years, have indeed been largely determined by physical attractiveness, particularly visual attractiveness. While other attractive features of a man make me want to get to know him as a person and connect as friends, physical attractiveness often makes me want to connect with him physically including via genital connection. Nonetheless, an appreciation of physical beauty without a desire for sexual connection is possible. I can recognize and admire the physical beauty of most women without any sexual attraction, and there are physically attractive men that I don’t feel sexually drawn to. Even with men I find to be sexually attractive, focusing on the person as a whole with all of their beautiful and flawed qualities can allow for appreciation of the physical beauty without overt sexualization.
Human perception of interpersonal attraction is not simply a matter of psychology but is also based on biology and biochemistry. As a person develops a set of features they are attracted to through their genes and environmental exposures, our brains correspondingly form neural circuits that causes many of these attractions to be “hard-wired” into our brains. An example from animal studies can be instructive. In a process called imprinting, baby geese bond with their parents by being exposed to the parents between 13 to 16 hours after hatching. This genetically encoded process is supposed to bond the offspring with the parents, which increases the likelihood of the offspring surviving, but the process can go awry if the offspring is exposed to another object during the critical period. So baby geese, for instance, can imprint to human caretakers and be “attracted” to humans as they would have been to their parents if the process had not gone awry. This imprinting creates neural circuits in the offspring’s brain that cannot be changed once the critical period is over, so the offspring ends up being “attracted” to the wrong object. Hence, attractions can be seen as biologically based.
Attractions are spoken of throughout the bible. Whether it be the drawing together of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit within the Trinity, or how Jesus is drawn to the church as a groom to a bride, or how David and Jonathan are drawn to each other in brotherly bond, or how Solomon and his beloved are enraptured in one another’s beauty, interpersonal attraction of all sorts draw people to God and to one another. It is also evident that interpersonal attraction is one of the God given attributes that comprises the image of God in us, which is unsurprising since God exists in a relational state of attraction within the Trinity. Yet, the bible is also clear that this image of God has been corrupted by the fall, so that our interpersonal attractions are not pure and holy as we see in God, particularly as we see manifested in Jesus. Jesus, for instance, was drawn to the weak, the meek, and the outcasts; in contrast, most humans are naturally drawn to the strong, the proud, and the popular. This corruption also reaches sexual attractions. Jesus, as the bridegroom, is drawn to the sole object of His love, namely His bride the church; in contrast, humans are sexually attracted to anyone fulfilling our sense of sexual attractiveness regardless of whether the object of our desire is our spouse or spouse to be.
When viewed in this way, same sex attraction can be segregated between the holy God-given aspects and sinful fallen-man aspects. As already established, interpersonal attraction consists of both non-sexual and sexual components. The non-sexual component can be good as this force causes humans to be drawn to one another in brotherly affection and love. Of course, the non-sexual component of our attractions also requires sanctification by the Holy Spirit so that we are drawn to people to love and serve as Jesus would rather than to bolster our own self-image and comfort. The sexual component can also be good to the extent that the attraction is towards a person who is our current or future heterosexual spouse. But that leaves a wide swath of the human experience of sexual attraction unaccounted for. Heterosexual sexual attraction towards someone not our current or possible future spouse is “natural” in the sense that it is directly towards an appropriate sex, but it is also “unnatural” in the sense that it is an attraction that cannot be consummated because it is directed towards a wrong person. Homosexual sexual attraction is “unnatural” both in the sense that it is directed towards an inappropriate sex and has no avenue for godly consummation. But both are in some sense “natural” in that they signify a godly longing for complete union with another person, which reflects Christ’s longing for the church. In any case, an important spiritual implication is that most human beings experience “unnatural” sexual attractions that must be submitted to God and fulfilled in other ways. A critically important theological truth is that sexual attraction and expression, unlike more general interpersonal attraction and expression, is not necessary for a life in Christ, and indeed a life of devoting one’s heart solely to Christ and renouncing human sexual relations is a vocation that is spoken highly of in scripture. Finally, it must be remembered that scripture does not specifically condemn same sex sexual attractions apart from its manifestation as homosexual lust or homosexual sex acts.
Many practical implications can be drawn from the above discussion. “Same sex attraction” is an overly broad term that includes both godly and troublesome aspects. The specific attraction that is unique to the homosexual and bisexual persons is sexual attraction to the same sex, and it is this attraction that can provide the force behind homosexual sins. Thus, I will henceforth refer to “same sex sexual attraction” (SSSA) as the defining personality trait of homosexuals and bisexuals and will revise my prior posts to reflect this. This change in nomenclature frees us from the erroneous view that all attractions between two same sex persons is unnatural. Two men can and should be attracted to one another in non-sexual ways. There is a fear in our society and church of men becoming too drawn to one another for fear of sexualized insinuations, when we see in scripture that intimate brotherly bonds are some of the most godly expressions of the love we have in Christ. Another implication is that people with SSSA are not unique in having sexual desires that cannot be consummated. There is an unfortunate and erroneous tendency in the evangelical church to view homosexual attractions as particularly unnatural and damnable, but recognizing that everyone’s sexual attractions are fallen in some way can hopefully foster the understanding that we are all alike in our brokenness and that people with SSSA should not be treated as a special category. Finally, seeing SSSA as an innate force allows us to recognize SSSA for what it is: it is an inclination towards something that is not in line with God, but there is a clear distinction between an inclination and acting on that inclination. An inclination is a manifestation of the brokenness found in all humans, while acting on it is a sin as taught in scripture. It is particularly helpful for those with SSSA to understand that they are not in perpetual sin by having SSSA but rather are perpetually broken, just like every other human being in the world, and the same grace of Jesus can save from every kind of brokenness. This also allows a person with SSSA to recognize this sexual force and then intervene to allow the force to be directed towards godly expressions. Indeed, SSSA points to the godly desire to be in complete union with another person, but for the SSSA person, this can only expressed in chaste intimate same sex friendships. This will be the focus of my next series.