Discover article on sexual orientation change and the APA report

Discover magazine has an online article out today which covers the APA report, NARTH and the Jones and Yarhouse study.

Here are some excerpts:

Joseph Nicolosi, a psychologist in Encino, Calif., says he can rid adults, teens, and even children of homosexuality. For nearly 30 years, he has offered a “psychodynamic” form of reparative therapy for people—mostly men—seeking to change their sexual orientation.

“If [a patient] can accept his bodily homoerotic experience while staying connected to the therapist,” he wrote in “The Paradox of Self-Acceptance,” “the sexual feeling soon transforms into something else: the recognition of deeper, pain-generated emotional needs which have nothing to do with sexuality.”

He cites the following case: A 43-year-old married accountant was recalling another man that he had seen at the airport while on a business trip. “This had awakened his sexual fantasies and dreams. I asked him to hold onto that image and observe his bodily sensations while staying connected to me. As he did, he felt an intense sexual longing. But as he followed that fantasy through an imaginary sexual scenario, quite unexpectedly, he then experienced an embodied shift to sadness, longing, and emptiness. In tears, he spoke of his sense of deep unworthiness. ‘I would just love him to be my friend! He’s the kind of guy that I always wanted to be close to. How much I just want to be friends with a guy like him.'”

This describes an aspect of the approach advocated in Nicolosi’s new book, Shame and Attachment Loss. People I have seen who have been through this approach describe it as being a chase for making sense of what they eventually come to see as an automatic reaction in search of a justification. Having said that, perhaps this gives some men a greater sense of control over their automatic impulses.

The center of this so-called “reparative therapy” is the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Its membership—around 1,100 people, according to current NARTH president Julie Harren Hamilton—is dwarfed by the APA’s 150,000 members.

Treatments follow from the assertion that homosexuality is not an innate trait, but rather a result of childhood trauma and lack of attachment to members of the same sex.

“The treatment is different for men and women,” Nicolosi, one of NARTH’s former presidents, told DISCOVER. “The principles are the same—we find that for the lesbian, there is a traumatic attachment loss with the mother, and for the males it’s a traumatic attachment loss with the fathers. We believe the male homosexual should work with a male therapist, and the lesbian should work with a woman.”

It is always difficult to know who Nicolosi is referring to when he says, “we.” Is he referring to NARTH or those who are reparative therapists, or the royal we, referring to himself? However, Hamilton seems to distance NARTH from the singular approach used by Nicolosi when she says:

These treatments take on several approaches. “Psychological care for individuals with unwanted homosexual attractions includes a variety of approaches. There are many paths that lead into and out of homosexuality,” NARTH president Julie Harren Hamilton wrote DISCOVER in an email. “Therapists who assist clients with unwanted homosexual attractions vary in their…methods, [which include] object relations, interpersonal therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, and many others.”

This would be a welcome departure for NARTH and Hamilton. On her video Homosexuality 101, she lays out the typical reparative drive explanation as the most common pathway. If NARTH truly wants to move away from the singular cause, it should make it clear what other pathways they view as possible.

Then the article turns to the Jones and Yarhouse study.

SOCE advocates have done studies in recent years to try and show that their efforts are working. One of the more influential among sexuality-change advocates was a study by two professors at Christian colleges: Mark Yarhouse, a psychology professor at Regent University, and Stanton Jones, provost and professor of psychology at Wheaton College.

The six-year study started with 98 subjects, most of whom were white, male, and religious—92 percent identified themselves as “born again.” All of the treatments were provided by Exodus International. Of the 61 who provided data in all six years, 14 of them—23 percent—reported that they had successfully converted to heterosexuality “in some form or another,” according to Jones. Meanwhile, 18 subjects—30 percent—reported that they had dis-identified as homosexuals and were now “chaste,” meaning no overt sexual activity at all. The results were based entirely on self-reported surveys.

I think Judith Glassgold’s assessment of the study was too harsh when she said:

The study was dismissed by the APA task force on multiple grounds, and held as an example of the systematic scientific problems of SOCE today. “Everything was wrong with that study,” Glassgold says. “[Yarhouse and Stanton] chose the wrong statistics to evaluate, they violated statistical laws, and they didn’t have a control group—just a small sample of people recruited from religious groups. They followed the individuals over a couple of years, but didn’t specify that the subjects should only try one intervention at a time, so they tried many at the same time. So we aren’t sure which, if any, intervention was causal.”

The reporter is a little sloppy here referring to Yarhouse and Stanton (Jones, I assume; a little later someone named Miller is named without a first name or introduction) and does not interview another person to provide another perspective. I think if anything the Jones and Yarhouse study is not very positive for sexual reorientation. Flaws aside, it does not help those who want to promote change as the proper focus of therapy or ministry.

There is a historical review of some of the behavioral sexual reorientation methods that might be new to some readers. The article notes that the polarization continues between NARTH and the APA. However, the article failed to really grasp the important news from the APA report, i.e., the respectful and appropriate treatment of religion as a diversity variable and the interface with client self-determination.