Q&A: What Professionals Say About “Change Efforts”

Q. Hasn’t scientific evidence proven that “conversion therapy,” “reparative therapy” or other “sexual-orientation change efforts” (SOCE) don’t work?

No.

The idea that these efforts are always ineffective or dangerous comes from the philosophical position statements, or official beliefs or opinions, adopted by at least 13 large, left-leaning U.S. professional counseling associations. These position statements are opinion, not science. In many respects, they are not unlike a political party’s official platform. Yet countless media, bloggers, gay activists and others constantly point to them as if these statements represented “settled science.” They don’t.

These trade groups or professional-membership groups typically base their philosophical positions on popular vote of their respective committees on gay and lesbian concerns — committess that are filled, invariably, by agenda-driven, gay-identified professionals and LGBT activists.

(See more below about what the research really says.)

Q. Haven’t sexual-orientation change efforts been proven to be harmful?

No. “No study using a random survey concludes that reorientation therapy is likely to be harmful.” (What Research Shows, 2009, page 93.)

Of course, as with all kinds of therapies, some people have in fact reported anecdotally that they felt harmed by their experience with therapy for same-sex attractions.

As unfortunate or sometimes even as tragic as these reports may be, there may be just as many published testimonials of great benefit — sometimes even life-saving benefit — experienced by those who voluntary choose to pursue therapy for incongruous same-sex attractions.

Plus, the reality is that “therapy in general has been shown to be harmful to some of its consumers… Any type of psychological treatment can result in unwanted outcomes, including the potential for perceived harm, complete failure, and relapse.” (Lambert and Ogles, “The Efficacy and Effectiveness of Psychotherapy,” in Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 2004.)

Some counselors and counseling organizations seem to take the position that if anyone has reported harm from SSA therapy, then everyone should avoid it. “Applying the same logic to therapy in general would have all people avoid any (or every) approach to therapy — and would have therapists pursue different professions” (What Research Shows, 2009, page 47).

But is the experience of harm more than anecdotal?

After reviewing 83 research studies, an American Psychological Association task force concluded only that “some individuals perceived that they had benefited from SOCE while others perceived that they had been harmed” (page 3). The same could likely be said about every form of therapy or counseling on the planet!

And: “We cannot conclude how likely it is that harm will occur from SOCE” (page 42).

As Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council observed, “The statement that SOCE ‘may’ cause distress (not ‘has caused,’ ‘will cause,’ or ‘often causes’) is about as weak as it could possibly be — amounting to little more than speculation.”

In fact, modern allegations of harm are sometimes so vague that they cannot even be fact-checked to determine their reliability. Many are not related to actual, modern, professional therapy at all. Sometimes, certain horror stories have even been shown to be entirely fabricated.

Also consider:

And notice how so many people who reject first-hand accounts of successful change efforts because they’re “just anecdotes,” not quantitative research, are so quick to embrace and trumpet any anecdotal reports of alleged harm as somehow being representative of sexual-orientation interventions generally.

Clearly, as members of the Brothers Road community, we represent a significant group of people who have benefited greatly from counseling and other efforts to voluntarily address our sexual attractions in ways that align with our faith, beliefs, values and life goals. In fact, in some cases, these efforts even saved our lives.

Q. What does behavioral science research really say?

Either through sloppy reporting or intentional bias, Internet and news reports often claim (falsely) that science has supposedly “proven” that all efforts to diminish erotic or romantic responses to others of the same sex will inevitably fail.

Notice, however, that if those reports attempt to back up their claims with any reference at all, it is invariably to the position statements (opinions) of professional counseling groups, NOT to any research data.

So what does behavioral science research really say?

Two very different professional organizations have done extensive, comprehensive reviews of decades of research on that very question.

What the APA Actually Says

The American Psychological Association assembled a six-person task force to review the published research, and in 2009 it published its “Report…on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation.”

The task force reported that it had reviewed 83 studies published in English from 1960 to 2007. This in itself was a remarkable admission. The APA had previously claimed that no such evidence existed at all, and here the task force found 83 such studies to review.

Despite widespread – and demonstrably false – assertions that the APA’s report “proved” the claim that so-called “sexual orientation change efforts” (or SOCE) never work, here’s what the report actually said:

  • “There are no studies of adequate scientific rigor to conclude whether or not recent SOCE do or do not work to change a person’s sexual orientation.” (page 120)

  • Recent research “cannot provide conclusions regarding efficacy or safety…” (page 3)

  • “There is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation…” (page 120)

  • “Some individuals modified their sexual orientation identity (i.e., group membership and affiliation), behavior, and values.” (page 120)

  • “For some, sexual orientation identity (i.e., individual or group membership and affiliation, self-labeling) is fluid…” (page 2)

  • “Some individuals perceived that they had benefited from SOCE, while others perceived that they had been harmed.” (page 3)

  • “Other individuals reported that SOCE was helpful — for example, it helped them live in a manner consistent with their faith. Some individuals described finding a sense of community through religious SOCE and valued having others with whom they could identify.” (page 3)

In other words: We’re not sure; there’s not enough empirical evidence to draw a conclusion either way; some people seemed to benefit, while others felt harmed.

That’s a far cry from what is usually reported about the APA’s 2009 report — that it somehow concluded that change efforts definitely won’t work and are inevitably harmful.

NARTH’s Review of the Research

In response to the APA’s report, a second professional organization — the much smaller, much more conservative National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality — reviewed 600 reports of clinicians, researchers and former clients published over 125 years and published a comprehensive summary called “What Research Shows.” (NARTH has since changed its name to the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity.)

Its conclusions:

  • “125 years of clinical and scientific reports [document] that volitional change from homosexuality toward heterosexuality is possible.” (page 36)

  • “Many advocates of these therapies have reported that they are helpful…” (pages 37-38)

  • “Many researchers and theorists agree that sexuality is fluid…” (page 38)

  • “In many cases, there have been reports of psychological benefits of reorientation therapy independent of those benefits associated with changing sexual orientation, and accruing to the client, whether or not they succeed in changing unwanted sexual attractions. Even when they were not able to change their homosexual thoughts, feelings, fantasies, or behaviors as much as they had hoped, clients tend to report satisfaction with the changes they did achieve.” (page 50)

Other Research

Other research that provides evidence of successful change efforts often gets lost in the single-minded campaign by the counseling professional groups, gay activists and most media to support a preconceived conclusion that altering one’s sexual attractions is impossible.

The following is not a representative sample of all research on the topic. Rather, what follows are examples of available research supporting the possibility of minimizing or de-eroticizing same-sex attractions:

Ex-Gays?: A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation, by Stanton L. Jones, Ph.D., and Mark A. Yarhouse, Psy.D., 2009

  • The authors’ original research and resulting book produce “significant scientific evidence that sexual orientation is in fact changeable for some… Psychological science must finally put its emphasis on empirical data.” (page 42)

  • See also a 12-page summary of their work, presented at the Sexual Orientation and Faith Tradition Symposium of the APA’s 2009 Convention, and a news-report summary.)

My Genes Made Me Do It!, by Neil Whitehead, Ph.D., 2014

  • “The book argues for a roughly 10% nature/90% nurture effect on homosexuality while asserting that any genetic effect is very indirect eg: any physical characteristic making a person feel gender-atypical. The book shows that homosexual orientation is not biologically driven or fixed but that change toward heterosexuality frequently occurs naturally without any therapeutic interventions… Using orthodox science and summarizing over 10,000 scientific publications and papers, it is nevertheless very accessible to the average reader.)

  • Read a one-page summary of the book here.

  • Download a free PDF of the book, or order an ebook on Amazon-Kindle, or buy a printed copy. See especially Chapter 12: Can Sexual Orientation Change?

Successful Outcomes of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts: An Annotated Bibliography, by James E. Phelan, Psy.D., 2013

  • “This is a comprehensive review of the literature documenting successful outcomes of therapeutic efforts aimed at changing homosexual behaviors, attractions, identification, and/or feelings to various degrees of heterosexual adaptations.”

Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate by Stanton L. Jones, Ph.D., and Mark A. Yarhouse, Psy.D., 2000

  • The authors “survey the most recent and best scientific research and sort out what it actually shows.”

Sex Differences in the Flexibility of Sexual Orientation, by Kinnish, Strassberg and Turner. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 34, No. 2, April 2005:

  • “The view that sexual orientation is fixed and unalterable has recently been challenged. … Theorists in these areas have suggested that sexual orientation is inherently flexible, evolving continuously over the lifespan. From this perspective, individuals may experience transitions in sexual orientation throughout their lives. Sexual orientation is viewed as continually evolving out of an individual’s sexual and emotional experiences, social interactions, and the influence of the cultural context.”

Sexual Orientation Change Efforts in Men: A Client Perspective, by Elan Y. Karten and Jay C. Wade, The Journal of Men’s Studies, 2010

  • “This study concerned the psychological and social characteristics of 117 men dissatisfied with their same-sex attraction who had pursued sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE)….Participants perceived the most helpful sexual orientation change interventions to be a men’s weekend/retreat, a psychologist, and a mentoring relationship, and the two most helpful techniques to be understanding better the causes one’s homosexuality and one’s emotional needs and issues and developing nonsexual relationships with same-sex peers, mentors, family members, and friends.”

Retrospective Self-Reports of Changes in Homosexual Orientation: A Consumer Survey of Conversion Therapy Clients, by Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D., Dean Byrd., Ph.D., Richard Potts, in Psychological Reports, 2000

  • “We present the results of a survey of 882 dissatisfied homosexual people whom we queried about their beliefs regarding conversion therapy and the possibility of change in sexual orientation… As a group, the participants reported large and statistically significant reductions in the frequency of their homosexual thoughts and fantasies that they attributed to conversion therapy or self-help. They also reported large improvements in their psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual well-being. These responses cannot, for several reasons, be generalized beyond the present sample, but the attitudes and ideas are useful in developing testable hypotheses for further research.”

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