The Purity of the Marital Bed? : The Distinction between Sexual Orientation and Sexual Behaviour is Spurious

The distinction between orientation and behaviour seems to have become the mantra of the moment amongst conservatives. Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream repeated it endlessly in his attack on Changing Attitude when interviewed for the Radio 4 Sunday programme two days ago, and Peter Ould cites it again and again in his blogs, most recently on May 28th while writing about the shenanigans brought to light in Colin Slee’s posthumously revealed memo about how Jeffrey John’s nomination to the episcopate was blocked. They present it as if it were a simple and straightforward guarantee of purity and holiness (the orientation is neutral, only the behaviour is sinful). But it is no such thing. And it is far from simple and straightforward. As the current pope, Joseph Ratzinger, realised in his famous 1986 statement on ‘homosexual persons’ while he was the Chief Holy Inquisitor for the Vatican, the orientation is not neutral; it is in itself an intrinsic tendency to evil.

An orientation is a drive deep in an individual’s personality which leads them to find one sex or the other delightful, exciting, alluring, and carnally desirable. Merely to be aware of one’s orientation is to be already launched into the sphere of action, even if only mentally in fantasy and pleasurable anticipation. It is already to have ‘sinned’. Our Lord tells us merely to look is already to have done the deed in our heart. And in our heart of hearts, if we are honest, we all know this is true.

There are only two orientations: heterosexual and homosexual.

Incest is not an orientation. Heterosexual and homosexual people may fall in love with and/or have inappropriate sex with relatives of the gender to which they are oriented.

Paedophilia is not an orientation. Paedophilic crimes are committed by heterosexually and homosexually oriented people.

An orientation involves erotic excitement at the thought of intimacy with one sex and a disinterest in, recoiling from, or revulsion at the idea of intimacy with the other sex. Incest, paedophilia, bestiality, promiscuity, adultery, polyamoury are NOT orientations. They are acts committed for a diverse array of motives by people with either a heterosexual or a homosexual orientation.

The distinction between orientation and behaviour offers no get out of jail free card. If you think homosexuality is a sin this necessarily includes both behaviour and orientation.

And making this distinction is dangerous. It leads to two particularly damaging scenarios.

In the first scenario gay men are told that if they cannot be celibate they must marry a woman. Over the centuries millions of catastrophically unhappy marriages of this kind have been contracted. In practice this means the heterosexual woman, who will be interested in and excited by her husband’s body finds herself in bed with a man who has no sexual interest in her body whatsoever and who, if he is able, achieves the necessary physical act only by homosexual fantasising, i.e by pretending that she is somebody else. St Paul teaches us that both husbands and wives have every right to expect conjugal satisfaction in marriage, and this is certainly no recipe for that for either party. To label this situation ‘the purity of the marital bed’, as Peter Ould does in his May 28th blog, is really a monstrous travesty. It is anything but. Having in my lifetime witnessed several times the pain and devastation caused to wives and children by the eventual collapse of such marriages I think it arguable that this ‘exchanging of the truth for a lie’ is a far greater human sin than any sexual peccadillo.

The second scenario is where gay men, in this case priests and bishops, live in one to one partnership but are forbidden by church discipline from sexual ‘behaviour’. Yet the object of their sexual desire is constantly present. They will be continually frustrated and they will have lustful thoughts. They will have sinned, and their situation is absolutely not conducive to any kind of free human flourishing and fulfilment.

In the end the church will have to come to terms with the reality that a significant minority of God’s children will always be involuntarily gay, and that the proper Christian response is to support them in pursuing love and happiness in morally responsible ways. Conservatives who cannot accept this need to be honest and not hide behind a spurious, and in practice cruel, distinction. Peter Ould is quite right to say that ‘the Church of England needs to have an honest an open discussion about sexual practice and ethics and come to a clear resolution on the issue’. Bring it on!


  1. Laurence C. says

    “There are only two orientations: heterosexual and homosexual.”

    What happened to the “B” in “LGBT”?

  2. Chris B. says

    Dear Colin,
    Whilst one always welcomes debate and stating the facts.. Just a point of issue – if I may? To simply say there are two orientations is this not the case. Most psychologists these days tend to espouse the fact that most of us are on a continuum – not so much the or any ‘grey area’ – with regard to our sexuality. Further to which, those of the ‘fairer sex’ can oscillate in sexual preference… I could of course annotate all this & reference it..
    An aside: where does this put otherwise the question / position of & with regard to ‘married gay bishops’?
    But from a personal response – I might add that if and when persons do suppress their sexuality & more to the point sexual desires – they in the course of time potentially may unleash undesirable perversions!
    Yes clearly I am to understand that we are made in the image of God, bound up in His creation in communion with Him. Gay, Straight or Bisexual we celebrate God’s love aligning ourselves with that love in the act of love; one with the other. I cannot adhere to any concept otherwise of a God who within creation would create a being not wanting nor being able to fulfil and return Love. I do not for one minute however, wish to say that Love can only be manifested carnally… but a little lust may go a long way!
    The Church in more recent (centuries) times has served to have people misinterpret Homosexuality – so much so that people have locked their children up! Manifestly, to an enlightened mind gay men are attracted physically to a gay man! Most gay men I know are either in a partnership or seeking one and that partnership is defined by exclusivity to the other. We know of many gay couples – living quietly together. We ourselves have enjoyed 20 years / five years into which the late +Derek Rawcliffe joined us ‘in union’ – obviously it was a good blessing! I do recall Derek saying at the time; it was the first such Ceremony he had undertaken – many more followed.

    I work as a professional (albeit with & around children) I am ‘out’ – I have and encounter no prejudices – save within the Christian Church.. To my mind that says so much… more especially that such intolerance and bigotry is to be aligned more with gas chambers and other such atrocities as blight the history books.

    Let us love one another as is demanded in the Dominical Commandments. Celebrate love in our Lord and build up a visible Communion of Saints – that is worthy of witness and points to Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ.

  3. Sapphire says

    You are right, of course. Limiting the idea of orientation to the two ends of the spectrum leaves out those of us with feelings for either sex.
    What Colin was trying to say was that orientation is the desire for one sex or the other or maybe both sexes. He gave a list of sexual activities which are as common in straight as in gay people and have nothing to do with orientation. In the US especially these sorts of activities, some of them criminal, are closely identified by the religious right with LGBT people.
    Paedophilia is the most common as it produces the right scare tactic and ignores the fact that a number of experiments showed that while a substantial majority of straight men are aroused to some extent by provocative images of young boys, openly gay men showed signs of arousal only when the images showed children with pronounced adult characteristics (musculature, body hair or adult genital development) and virtually none were turned on by younger children.
    Sex between a man and a woman may be loving or it may be lustful only. It may be violent and dominating or tender and affirming. Sex between a man and a man or woman and a woman can also be any of these things.
    The dishonesty of the right wing of the church (and they still hold the power) is that they equate same sex love only with lust.
    It’s good that you’ve not encountered prejudice everywhere but beware of saying that you’ve found it in the church. The right loves to be attacked as intolerant. In their eyes they are the only ones upholding the truth and they have a mountain of verses to prove that they will be persecuted for it. So when you criticise them you’re only confirming their martyr status.

    • says

      I must make clear that Colin did not write the blog about the orientation/behaviour distinction. I did. Who am I? I am Keith Sharpe, I am one of the Trustees of Changing Attitude, I run Changing Attitude Sussex ( and I am the author of ‘The Gay Gospels: Good News for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People’ (

      The three comments above make a couple of important points to which I would like to respond.

      1. Sexual orientation is a continuum
      The problem with this view is that it ends up saying that we are all heterosexual, even if only a little bit. If we are all on a continuum then we can all to some extent or other be successfully oriented to the opposite sex. Indeed the assertion that sexual orientation is a continuum is an argument used by some conservative evangelicals precisely to defend their view that everybody is fundamentally heterosexual and should obey God’s ordinances by only expressing this part of their sexuality.

      The argument I am putting forward is that for many people at least the experience of sexual orientation is nearly always simultaneously an experience of sexual disorientation away from the other sex. Is it unfair to suggest that most straight men are at least disinterested in and often revolted by the idea of sex with another man? Similarly is it not also the case that for many gay men the idea of sex with a woman, or for many gay women the idea of sex with a man, is a complete turnoff? These people are not a little bit ‘the other way’; they are not at all ‘the other way’. For these people this is not a continuum, it is a dichotomy.

      This is not to say that in extreme circumstances they would not seek sexual release activity with the gender to which they are not oriented. Extreme circumstances might include single-sex imprisonment, social sanctions and laws forcing gay men into heterosexual marriage etc. But this does not mean that either their sexual orientation to, or their sexual disorientation away from, has changed in any way. They would in fact be acting against their nature, as St Paul might have said…… Even if they do the sexual act, the key is always the masturbatory fantasy: which gender excites their real desire?

      2. Bisexuality
      Sometimes people talk about bisexuality in the sense just described, i.e. basically heterosexual people who for whatever reason find themselves engaged in same-sex activity or basically homosexual people similarly engaged in opposite sex activity. In the terms I am using here this does not qualify as bisexuality. Bisexuality must surely mean people who genuinely experience erotic fantasies about both sexes. It is arguable whether this is a separate third orientation or just the simultaneous experience of the two types of sexual desire.

      3. Aberrant acts
      In all discussion of these issues it is important, as your comments reiterate, to distinguish between a sexual orientation which is a deep structure element of personality and aberrant sexual acts such as paedophilia, bestiality and incest. Sapphire is quite right to point to the dangers of allowing homosexuality to be listed alongside these as the anti-gay factions in the churches are constantly trying to do.

      • Chris. B says

        And ? semantics & detail.. I too am of a mind, that to my experience people end up being ‘screwed up ‘for want of a term.. in the declaration of bisexuality.. In so much as I know of few people who would wish other than an entanglement with A.N. other… And for many of an ‘indecisive/ ambivalent nature’ it is the person who they happen to fall in love with! And I mean persona! I DRAW NO JUDGEMENT – but rejoice in their love.. for one another!
        I draw attention perhaps to the many (clergy amongst) who appear somewhat envious of what my partner and myself have.. a relationship – founded on trust and openness – each supportive of the other and sustaining each other. And quiet frankly people can fantasise to their hearts content as to what / how we choose to take delight in each others arms in the vineyard! The fact is we have been there for each other these past 20 years with as I feel & know God’s blessing & long may that endure!
        I do however and MUST apologise (noticed after my posting) for not attributing the authorship correctly… Chris x

    • Chris. B says

      Sapphire I take on your points – so eloquently put (not without predjudice / used as in legal terminology). Although my degree is in psychology & a subject I am comfortable within.. equally having studied both history (a discipline!) I also have to concede that within theological frame works (as I too can argue white is black & black is white) .. to which end I wrote more of a personal testament.
      Yours in Christ, Chris

    • says


      You said “a number of experiments showed that while a substantial majority of straight men are aroused to some extent by provocative images of young boys, openly gay men showed signs of arousal only when the images showed children with pronounced adult characteristics (musculature, body hair or adult genital development) and virtually none were turned on by younger children.”

      This is fascinating and relevant to some research I am doing. Do you have a reference for this pinting back to the original research?

      Many thanks

  4. Erika Baker says

    I appreciate what you are trying to say.
    But I would question whether you shoud accept the argument that some extrapolate from the fact that sexuality is a continuum that “everyone is basically heterosexual”. By the same token you might infer that everone is basically gay.

    The whole point about the continuum is that there is a distribution of people across the whole spetrcum. Most, as you say, are firmly oriented towards either end of the spectrum, but others find themselves somewhere along the scale.

    Genuine bisexuals are in the middle of that scale, and even we don’t constantly fantasise about both sexes but find that our orientation has different emphasis depending on the sex of our partner.
    Also on the scale are people who happily experiment with same sex sexuality in their youth but then firmly settle for their predominant orientation with nothing more than the occasional flicker of interest in the same sex.
    Some, as you say simply don’t feel repulsed by the idea of same sex activity, although they have no particular desire to live it out, whereas others are positively appalled by the mere thought.

    To me, it is extremely important that we acknowledge the spectrum because I firmly believe that all those who believe that we choose our sexuality have, at one point, felt same sex attraction, possibly recoiled and then decided to stay firmly in the heterosexual camp. They have, indeed, made a choice. But unless they understand how it was possible for them to make it, they will continue to insist that every gay person could become straight if only they wanted to.

    • Chris. B says

      I couldn’t agree with you more… And I think we should not lose sight of this understanding – or else it induces dogmatism & furthermore then allows us otherwise to pigeon-hole people into our understanding! Life itself is a continuum / journey for some the road is wide with twists and turns. (Maybe short!) For others life is long narrow and very straight! Thank you…
      Within our theology / we should allow people to become whole & part of the greater being…

    • Sapphire says

      I agree. I would avoid the word “continuum” since it implies that all points on it are merged. A spectrum, like the rainbow, has distinct points on it. Red light doesn’t have blue wavelengths in it. But even a continuum has two ends. It’s not a circle.
      The sexual experience of gay people is distinct from that of heterosexual people and distinct again from bisexual people. Some people experience attraction to other people of both sexes but predominantly their own or the opposite sex (and why do we say opposite?).
      Bisexual people don’t always help the problem you pointed out in your final paragraph. When my first partner was alive I was pretty obviously (to outsiders) gay. He died in an accident. After a period of grieving I began to live again and eventually got married.
      Have I changed my orientation? No. I could as easily have fallen for another man. I’m getting on in years now so if I lost my wife I’d probably not bother looking but if I did it could be a man or a woman that I found. It would depend on the person.
      As you say my experience of my orientation differs .

  5. Wiggy says

    “And making this distinction is dangerous. It leads to two particularly damaging scenarios.”

    …neither of which apply to gay women – are they not part of this debate or does it only apply to gay men?

    We all share in the need for this debate – it’s a lot harder if women have to not only stand up to the church but to fight for recognition from gay men too.

    • Chris. B says

      I have every respect from where you are coming… And women by any definition are indeed different from men & in that I rejoice = thus basically my mother was able to bear myself. But, as I wished to point out previously women are indeed somewhat different in relationship to another human being. I have heard and know of cases where a woman is not predisposed towards being sexually attracted to the same sex… BUT – having met a particular person (at a given point on life’s journey?) and it has borne a sexual expression. Men I think are less capable of such action – in the main because men are more ‘hung up’ about sexuality in general & indeed can more readily divorce the sexual act in itself from Love..

      • Wiggy says


        Thanks for responding.

        Have you heard of and do you know of cases where a women is predisposed towards being sexually attracted to the same sex? I know of many. I also know of many women who can readily divorce the sexual act in itself from love. I agree that the ‘The Distinction between Sexual Orientation and Sexual Behaviour is Spurious’. What a shame that generalisations about stereotypical behaviour appears to be attractive and convenient even when trying to ‘change attitudes’.

  6. Kate says

    Surely the point about the sexual continuum is not that everyone can sit on all points of it, but that there’s a range of experience from person to person – you get a great many people who are oriented to only one sex, a few who can go with both, and a very small category who feel their sexuality has shifted over time.

    That last category, anecdotally seems to be overwhelmingly young men in their early twenties and middle aged women: which is very suggestive of it being hormonal. How their experience gets interpreted is heavily dependent on politics. The conservative right is strangely quiet about Mary Portas becoming lesbian in late middle age – they (rightly) don’t find it at all likely that all our mums are going to turn tomorrow. When certain conservative Christian commentators says that they’ve shifted – by contrast it draws enormous interest – and the argument that if they can find one person wired in this way – well then everyone else just isn’t praying to Jesus hard enough.

    The appalling experiment of the American ex-gay camps shows that’s just not so: year in, year out gay people shell out to Exodus and sit there chanting ‘in the name of Jesus I am straight’ — to absolutely no effect. And then half the people who claim to be ‘cured’ get embarrassingly caught out performing at gang bangs, or loitering with intent in gay bars.

    What makes me cross in all this is not the range of sexual experience – in a planet of 7 billion people you’ll always be able to find *someone* with a very unexpected life curve – but the utter failure of imagination that insists that “if I’m like this, you must be too”. It’s the last word in disrespect to hear someone’s experience and say “that can’t be true because it just doesn’t fit in with my ideology”.

    And for people who are truly bisexual, surely the point is not to shoehorn yourself into a relationship that most closely fits the conventional, but to be with someone who you love, and who makes you a flourishing, generous, useful person in the world.

    • Erika Baker says

      I would hesitate to look for causes for sexuality. It may well be that some of it is hormonal – so what?
      Other scenarios I have come across are women who genuinely thought they were straight and that they just happened not to enjoy sex very much, and who discovered later in life that being with a woman changed all that. Or women who knew they were potentially bisexual but who opted for marriage and children, at least at first. Maybe some genuinely change, I have no idea!

      The problem with trying to pinpoint “causes” of sexuality is that you then get people trying to “cure” those they believe to be on the wrong side. It becomes easy to see gayness as a pathology that can be adjusted once the cause is known. Whereas if you just accept it as all part of the multicoloured realities of being human, you look away from the “medical” and towards the quality of the relationships.

      As you so rightly point out – the point surely is to be with to be with someone who you love, and who makes you a flourishing, generous, useful person in the world.

      I love that sentence, thank you!

      • Kate says

        Well, I think we have to look at the causes of *everything* – but I agree that a weather eye on what might happen to that knowledge is very important – especially given the dangerous homophobia of the wider world. The science can sometimes be helpful e.g. organic brain differences of living trans people caught on brain scan: , reported in New Scientist. These differences may eventually be able to predict who will want gender reassignment, even when they are quite young – thus avoiding all sorts of grief – and provide compelling practical physical proof to conservatives who would otherwise argue that trans stuff all comes from ‘sin’.

        However, I’m not a scientist but a person opining on a talk board, and I take your point about hostages to fortune!

  7. Hermano David | Brother Dah•veed says

    Erika, I subscribe to all that you have espoused. I could not have said any of it better. To say there are but two orientations, heterosexual or homosexual, certainly flies in the face of my lifelong experience of other men.

  8. Erika Baker says

    Am I the only one who is finding the comment system confusing?
    Whenever the comment status tells me there has been another one I try to find it but succeed only occasionally and it’s hugely time consuming.
    Would it be possible to turn off “nesting” and have new replies automatically placed at the end of the comment list?
    Or is it just me?

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