NARTH: Does the research speak for itself?

Writing in defense of unnamed NARTH leaders, Julie Hamilton recently said on the NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) website:

NARTH will continue its mission as a scientific organization despite the propaganda, and the research will continue to speak for itself.

However, then just across the page, one encounters a “NARTH Research Report” titled, Health Risks: Fisting and other Homosexual Practices. NARTH authors Michelle Cretella and Philip Sutton suggest that gay advocacy group GLSEN is currently teaching high school kids that fisting is safe practice. However, the authors fail to say that the incidents provoking their article happened 9 and 10 years ago. The NARTH article begins by framing the concern over those incidents as being in “recent weeks” but the incidents are old news. I am no fan of GLSEN’s conferences or reading list, but why use old news as a hook?

Furthermore, the article is a clear effort to associate risky practices with gays in a way similar to that being used now by Martin Ssempa in Uganda. However, the title and tone of the article overlooks an important fact – some heterosexuals also engage in those practices. In fact, if you go on and look up the practices referenced in this article, you will find how-to books written for straights (actually just take my word for it). Would a scientific organization claiming to provide science on sexuality overlook such things?

Now after a brief selective review of opinion and some studies, the authors determine that all things gay are harmful and lead to dysfunction. The studies don’t actually say that but most studies do find that homosexuals as a group report more psychiatric problems than straights and that there are risks associated with some sexual practices. However, the scientific train goes off the track with the conclusion.

Conclusion: An adolescent’s desire to prevent or cease experiencing serious medical, psychological, and relational health risks is sufficient reason for him or her to seek and receive competent psychological care to minimize or resolve the desires, behaviors and lifestyles associated with such increased risks.

Translation: If you experience same-sex attraction, better get some reparative therapy quick so you can avoid all the nastiness.

A scientific organization would then offer research the benefit of reparative therapy for mental health outcomes. The claim in the conclusion above is that changing orientation will allow you to avoid the problems NARTH finds with being gay. However, the problem with the claim is that those studies have not been done. To evaluate Cretella and Sutton’s conclusion, one would want to assess the mental health of ex-gays and gays and see who has the best outcomes.* Or one would expect to see large gains in mental health outcomes as the result of the therapy NARTH proposes. Where are the studies?

An author Cretella and Sutton quote is David Fergusson. Last year, Fergusson had this to say about a similar NARTH review of homosexuality and health risks:

While the NARTH statement provides a comprehensive and accurate analysis of the linkages between sexual orientation and mental health, the paper falls far short of demonstrating that homosexuality should be classified as a psychiatric disorder that may be resolved by appropriate therapy. To demonstrate this thesis requires an in depth understanding of the biological and social pathways that explain the linkages between homosexual orientation and mental health. At present we lack that understanding. Furthermore it is potentially misleading to treat what may be a correlate of mental disorder as though it were a disorder in its own right.

Fergusson also told me that studies designed to demonstrate positive changes in mental health via reparative therapy have not been done. In other words, there are no guarantees that changing orientation, if it could be accomplished in the manner suggested by Cretella and Sutton, would alter the mental health differences currently observed between gay and straight groups.

Julie Harren-Hamilton says the scientific research will speak for itself. However, just across the page, we have two authors providing a conclusion without adequate research. Apparently, on the NARTH website, the research needs a little help to speak in advance.

*There was a study which found better mental health outcomes among a sample of gays than an Exodus sample but this has not been replicated to my knowledge. Nottebaum, L. J., Schaeffer, K. W., Rood, J., & Leffler, D. (2000). Sexual orientation—A comparison study. Manuscript submitted for publication. (Available from Kim Schaeffer, Department of Psychology, Point Loma Nazarene University, 3900 Lomaland Drive, San Diego, CA 92106).

Another study of some relevance is the study of Exodus participants from Jones and Yarhouse. They found that their entire group of participants experienced enhanced mental health over the study period. Inconvenient for the NARTH claim is that the entire sample, whether gay or ex-gay, experienced improved health from Time 1 to Time 6.

Ariel Shidlo comments on NARTH's use of his research

Back in December, 2008, I posted a critique of Neil Whitehead’s re-analysis of Shidlo and Schroeder’s study of harm from reorientation change efforts.
In that post, I noted that Whitehead said Shidlo’s study actually demonstrated the value of reparative therapy because suicides were reduced. In her report on the 2008 NARTH convention, NARTH president Julie Hamilton wrote:

Regarding the claims that reorientation therapy harms clients, Dr. Whitehead cited studies that found suicide rates decrease after therapy. In fact, he pointed out that Shidlo and Schroeder (2002) sought to prove the adverse effects of therapy by collecting stories of harm; however, instead of finding therapy to be harmful, they found it to be helpful, in that suicide attempts by these clients actually decreased after therapy. For more information on the content and references for Dr. Whitehead’s keynote address, see the NARTH Collected Convention Papers or soon-to-be-released book, What the Research Shows: NARTH’s Response to the APA Claims on Homosexuality.

In the original post I cited a number of reasons why Shidlo and Schoeder could not be used to make statements regarding the relationship between change efforts and suicidality. Also, along the way, I asked Ariel Shidlo his response to the NARTH claim and my critique of it. He recently responded:

The [NARTH] claims are obviously a wishful reading of data that does not lend itself to any such conclusions. You make these points eloquently in your column.
Thanks for educating readers to a critical reading of those who throw around “science” in their sermons.

In reviewing the original post, note that the topic was not merely the inappropriateness of the specific NARTH claim but the role of confirmation bias in making various claims regarding sexual orientation. Being aware of this should not prevent theorizing but we should be prepared to acknowledge data which contradict our theories and look for alternative perspectives with new and better research.

NARTH conference opens today in Denver, CO

Amidst the inevitable protests, the annual conference of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality opens today in Denver, CO with the theme, “Sound Scientific Research: In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” For NARTH, this would be a worthy objective.
Given the theme, one would expect a program with research presentations which support their reparative theory positions. Not so. A review of the program reveals no such sessions. NARTH’s approach to research is on display with their new “fact sheet’ on female homosexuality. My review of it is here and here.
Those looking for actual research regarding homosexuality would do well to consult primary sources among researchers. Those looking for an evangelical approach to matters of sexual identity would do better to avoid the NARTH conference and seek assistance from the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity.