Would technology that changes sexual orientation be good or bad?

This is a Thought Box essay.

tl;dr: jump to the summary of points.

2,100 words


Question: would technology that changes sexual orientation be good or bad?

What this is: sometimes, when I first consider something, I type in a dialectic with myself. It has some structure and organization, and allows me to look back on my thought process. It’s not edited very much. Maybe I’ll turn it into an essay eventually.


Daniel A:

  • It would be used by oppressive regimes around the world (like Russia and Saudi Arabia) to forcibly reorient people in response to a criminal, civil, or Sharia conviction. Reorientation would be a sentence for a crime, and in some cases the crime would just be being non-straight.
  • For less repressive regimes, reorientation technology would still create massive cultural pressure to be straight—since sexuality would at that point be a choice. In the United States, for example, there are many regions where individuals would think that it easier to just become straight rather than fight through coming out and the later difficulties associated with being a sexual minority.

Daniel B:

  • Oppressive regimes are already repressing gay people, just as everywhere did until just very recently. No new technology is needed to make them do it.
  • I think that this is likely to occur at some level, although I am skeptical that it would cause a complete backslide if reorientation technology came to exist in the future. To endorse the technology seems like it would require legal recognition that sexuality is a biological feature, like skin color or sex, and that it therefore came with various legal protections (maybe one side-effect of reorientation technology would actually be increased legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation).

Daniel A:

  • Point granted. Thoroughly oppressive regimes that currently outlaw homosexuality would likely not be changed in a significant way by the development of this technology. They will pursue non-straight people as they always have. Even if they do get somehow worse by, say, rounding up non-straight people to reorient them, the upshot is that they have reoriented individuals who are afterwards free (potentially free, because if they’re reoriented they’re not committing the crime of homosexuality) or in prison/lashed/dead, instead of non-straight people who are in prison/lashed/dead.
  • So the question would be: is it better to be forcibly straightened and potentially free, or non-straight and imprisoned/lashed/dead? It seems like the technology might actually open up a less-bad future for those trapped in oppressive regimes that isn’t currently open to them. Furthermore, those individuals who want to be reoriented could be, instead of suffering with a sexuality they didn’t want.

Daniel B:

  • The technology likely would open up such avenues, in the same manner but to different degrees across nations. For example, a young gay man growing up in a socially conservative reason might choose to reorient himself because of the psychological pressure and fear of coming out to his socially conservative family and community. A young gay man in Saudi Arabia might do it for the same reason, but with a much more definite fear for his life and safety. Both of them would grow up without the difficulties of being non-straight. However, if the reasons that individuals want the reorientation have to do with cultural and psychological repression (as opposed to rational choice separate from fear), then the technology is just acting in service to bigotry. Although the newly-reoriented people (those forced to be and those who volunteer) would live better lives in their context, they would do so as a result of repudiating non-straight sexualities with their actions.
  • The overall result in this scenario is a cultural backslide whereby people who would have otherwise been non-straight, and come to accept themselves and others in that way, would not exist as such. Acceptance would be diminished, and perhaps reversed. Reorientation technology effectively gives bigotry a way to achieve its means, if only the bigotry applies sufficient social, psychological, and legal pressure to achieve them. Historically, most humans do not become tolerant for rational reasons. They become tolerant because they emotionally connect with someone in a marginalized group, or because they are forced to spend time with a marginalized person (this is what happens to conservative families when they have a non-straight child). Reorientation technology removes the process by which most people become tolerant.

Daniel A:

  • I agree with the above assessment: reorientation technology, even if it improves the lives of those who receive it by sparing them the hardships of being a sexual minority, could likely result in a cultural backslide by removing the social mechanism that usually produces tolerance for non-straight people. However, I think that this outcome is heavily contingent upon the culture into which the reorientation technology is introduced.
    If it were introduced 30 years from now in the United States, I would suspect that the US culture could be sufficiently saturated with tolerant and accepting people that such a backslide could be avoided—there would be no pressure or perceived social consequence for coming out (at least not ones so terrible that they would warrant reorientation). And, as mentioned above, the development of reorientation technology might result in even firmer legal protections on the basis of sexuality. I suppose, in the end, the results of developing reorientation technology depend upon what reasons and in what numbers people are tolerant of non-straight individuals.
  • If tolerance and acceptance exist in an overwhelming portion of the population, then there might not be enough social pressure against non-straight people to make them reorient. Not to mention the fact that in such a society legal protections would make it more difficult to reorient someone without their permission.
  • If this tolerance and acceptance is based on a rational assessment of non-straight sexualities, it is unlikely to budge. If it is based on what it is usually based on (emotional and physical proximity), then I can still see potential (but not inevitability) for a social backslide. It is easy to manipulate people’s emotions, politically and on a mass scale, but it is not easy to do so for people of logical conviction.

Daniel B:

  • Agree: the effects of the existence of reorientation technology depend upon the cultural conditions into which they are introduced, which are: the number of tolerant/accepting individuals in a culture, combined with the manner in which they are tolerant/accepting (either based on reason or emotion).
  • However, this has been a thought process on the likely outcome of such technology, but not whether the technology itself is good or bad. You initially asked the morally evaluative question, but answered the social outcome question. Why is that?

Daniel A:

  • Most people think in terms of social outcome on this question, whenever I have posited it, and skip over the nature of the technology itself. It is an emotionally charged issue, and I think this tends to distract people from the question that’s actually being asked. You just got distracted.

Daniel B:

  • OK, so what about reorientation technology? Is it inherently good or bad?

Daniel A:

  • I think this is an easy question. It is a tool, just like a hammer. Tools are morally neutral Just as a hammer can be used to build a house or murder someone, reorientation technology can be used for good or bad. It is just more likely in certain circumstances outlined above to be used for bad (be a murder-hammer, not a house-hammer).
    Or: reorientation technology is a moral amplifier. It is neutral, but can be used to amplify the reach and effect of an action or thought, whether that is moral or not. For further discussion on moral amplifiers, see here. Are we done?

Daniel B:

  • Yes, done. Although I am interested to know what “good” uses of reorientation technology would be.

Daniel A:

  • I wrote about some of those in the first story in this book book I think most of the benefits would flow from individuals having more options regarding who they chose to engage romantically. Most of the potential negative outcomes of this technology are based on the assumption that straight people would forcibly reorient non-straight people, thereby reinforcing bigotry and potentially causing psychological damage to the reoriented people (although they might just readjust to their new sexuality depending on their age and the length of time that they had been self-accepting, just like they adjust when they come to grips with their non-straightness now).
  • The positive outcomes are in situations where individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have found romantic prospects find that they do indeed have them, just not in the sex/gender that their original biological programming (or whatever) dictated. Maybe people would start saying “If I’m 40 and still single I’m going gay (or whatever),” rather than the current version that goes like, “If we’re both 40 and still single, let’s just platonically marry each other.”

Daniel B:

  • Whoa. Whoa. Most of that is fine, and I agree with it. But the speculation on the psychological effects of reorientation might not be that obvious. You just rolled right on past that one.

Daniel A:

  • They might not be that obvious. But as I see it there are these options: a reoriented individual will be psychologically shattered, they will readjust to their new sexuality, or they will exist in some middle ground that is uncomfortable but mostly stable. Where someone lands among these outcomes depends on if they had been self-accepting prior to the reorientation, and how long they had been self-accepting. If you take a 50 year old who has been happy with his sexual orientation and built a life with it, then he will have problems readjusting, and perhaps won’t. If you reorient a young person who has not come to grips with their sexuality (or one who has only recently done so), I bet they would readjust and go on to live a normal life with their reoriented sexuality.
  • I’m sure there are complicating variables in both of those circumstances, but they prove the general outcomes. I don’t have an advanced scientific understanding of the potential psychological outcomes, I just know what my own coming out experience was like, and have introspected. Perhaps my views on the potential outcomes will change if I add to my scientific knowledge, or find a psychological case to compare reorientation to. However, I have more confidence than not based on my current knowledge that I’m roughly correct.

Daniel B:

  • I think that’s fair. Are we done?

Daniel A:

  • We are done, for now.

CONCLUSIONS so far from the dialectic of Daniels A and B:

  • The effects of the existence of reorientation technology depend upon the cultural conditions into which they are introduced, which are: the number of tolerant/accepting individuals in a culture, combined with the manner in which they are tolerant/accepting (either based on reason or emotion).
  • Reorientation technology is morally neutral, and is a moral amplifier.
  • The psychological effects of reorientation upon an individual likely depend upon whether and how long they had been self-accepting of their original sexual orientation.

Thoughts I’ve had after initial composition:

  • It occurred to me that I made the assumption that being non-straight is a fine and acceptable thing when writing this piece. That is my personal view, and I contend the correct view, but the conversation could go differently if I were talking with someone who disputed that assumption. And there are various kinds of dispute. For example, there are some Christians who take the “hate the sin and not the sinner” approach toward non-straight people. They would probably see reorientation therapy as a blessing, although they would perhaps not endorse imposition of this therapy on people. But maybe some would, especially on minors still in the care of their parents.
  • Even parents who proclaim an accepting stance toward non-straight people might propose a secular justification for reorienting their children, grounded in a (either professed or sincere) desire to see them grow up in the world without the additional obstacles of being a sexual minority. I can understand this desire, but I do not agree with it or its implications. If one would not have a non-straight child, why have a female child? Or a non-white child (in the US)? Or an exceptionally able child? All of these incur social punishment, generally. If secular parents would reorient their non-straight children, but think it incorrect to re-gender or re-able or re-race, I would want to know why they distinguish these attributes.
  • A related question that requires a full answer (although it is incidentally addressed in this post) is: whether and when an individual should change their sexual orientation. I wrote a book of short stories that outlines some of those scenarios, but should probably produce a polished essay on the subject.

Print Friendly