The Jones and Yarhouse study: What does it mean?

Let me begin by saying that I endorsed the book, Ex-Gays, A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation, by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse which contained the first report of their longitudinal study. Since the publication of the book, Jones and Yarhouse have released results of their final follow up, first in 2009 at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, and then most recently in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. With the follow up, I believe the study remains an important investigation into the interplay of religion, sexual orientation and personal identity. I give them credit for the perseverance required to explore a topic which is highly controversial and to report their findings in detail.
Since the release of the peer-reviewed article, socially conservative groups have described the study as proof that gays can change orientation. For instance, the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, one of the worst offenders, claims that the study proves gays can change and that they weren’t born gay. Also, Citizenlink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family reported:

Of the 98 subjects, more than half were reported as successful; 23 percent reported a complete change in orientation after six years. Also, 20 percent reported giving up the struggle to change.

This claim is misleading. Jones and Yarhouse did not report “complete change in orientation.” Instead they cautioned against misinterpreting their findings by saying

These results do not prove that categorical change in sexual orientation is possible for everyone or anyone, but rather that meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some. The results do not prove that no one is harmed by the attempt to change, but rather that the attempt does not appear to be harmful on average or inherently harmful. The authors urge caution in projecting success rates from these findings, as they are likely overly optimistic estimates of anticipated success. Further, it was clear that “conversion” to heterosexual adaptation was a complex phenomenon.

Regarding the changes reported by their participants, the authors offer two related explanations. One is that some of the participants changed sexual orientation to some degree and the other is that the participants changed their sexual identity. Sexual identity involves placing more emphasis on behavioral conformity to prohibitions on homosexual behavior as a means of self definition. For the Exodus participants, less temptation to engage in homosexual behavior might be taken as a signal that orientation has changed, thus allowing a different attribution about their sexuality than once believed. The authors raise these two possibilities in the abstract for the most recent paper:

The authors conducted a quasi-experimental longitudinal study spanning 6–7 years examining attempted religiously mediated sexual orientation change from homosexual orientation to heterosexual orientation. An initial sample was formed of 72 men and 26 women who were involved in a variety of Christian ministries, with measures of sexual attraction, infatuation and fantasy, and composite measures of sexual orientation and psychological distress, administered longitudinally. Evidence from the study suggested that change of homosexual orientation appears possible for some and that psychological distress did not increase on average as a result of the involvement in the change process. The authors explore methodological limitations circumscribing generalizability of the findings and alternative explanations of the findings, such as sexual identity change or adjustment.

As I read all of the literature, including my own work, I first want to disagree with the way that Citizenlink characterized the results as “complete change.” That is not at all what Jones and Yarhouse reported. Considering the dichotomy proposed by Jones and Yarhouse — change in orientation or identity – I lean toward their alternative explanation – “sexual identity change or adjustment.”  However, I believe the discussion of what their results mean needs to be broadened beyond those two possibilities. In addition to considering orientation and identity as important constructs, I believe there are other ways to account for the changes Jones and Yarhouse report which are not sufficiently addressed in their published accounts.  First, I want to make some observations about the study which influence my opinions about what the results mean.
First, and most basically, the Jones and Yarhouse study did not examine in any systematic way the efficacy of reparative therapy or any other kind of psychological therapy as a means of altering sexual orientation. The participants in the study were involved in religiously based support groups which primarily had as a goal to reinforce a traditional moral view of sexuality. Clearly, the participants hoped they would change and engaged in various religious interventions to assist that end. However, the study did not assess the role of professional therapy and cannot legitimately be used to say such therapies work.
Second, there were quite a few dropouts six to seven years into the study. While true of all longitudinal studies, the final percentages being reported should also take into account the distinct possibility that many if not most of the drop outs were not successful in their efforts to change. The study began with 98 participants and ended up with 65 who were followed up for six to seven years. Some reported that they were healed of homosexuality and just didn’t want to participate, while others said they were gay and stopped trying to change. I don’t know for sure what the dropouts mean but the fact that so many failed to complete the study needs to be a part of any discussion.
Third, ratings from men and women were combined. Given the low number of people involved I understand why this was done but the practice may inflate the assessments of change for the group. It has become well accepted that the sexuality of women is more fluid than for men. A few women experiencing large shifts could influence the group averages. Continue reading “The Jones and Yarhouse study: What does it mean?”

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.

Jones and Yarhouse Exodus study follow up

This morning at the American Psychological Association annual convention, Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse are presenting their Time 6 and final follow up to the study of Exodus participants seeking change of orientation. The paper is titled, Ex Gays? An Extended Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation. They are presenting these data as a part of a APA symposium titled Sexual Orientation and Faith Tradition Symposium chaired by Dean Byrd.

You can review the paper in full so I will only highlight a few points in the post.

The paper begins by recounting the skepticism toward change evinced by the professional mental health associations. Then, they note an important limit and hypotheses of the study:

Our study addresses the generic questions of whether sexual orientation is changeable, and whether the attempt is intrinsically harmful, by focusing only on the religiously mediated approaches to change; this is not a study of professional psychotherapy. Our hypotheses for this study were taken directly from the prevailing professional wisdom: We hypothesized 1) sexual orientation is not changeable, and 2) the attempt to change is likely harmful. We already cited the American Psychological Association’s (2005) claim that sexual orientation “is not changeable.” Regarding harm, our study was framed in light of the American Psychiatric Association’s (1998) claim that the “potential risks of ‘reparative therapy’ are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior.” The tools of scientific study are ideally suited to investigate empirically such strong, even absolute claims.

I bolded the statement about the study not being an examination of psychotherapy because I predict that NARTH affiliated therapists and various religious conservative groups will not clearly communicate this point when messaging the results of this study. Despite the fact that Christian self-help groups are different than therapy as practiced by many psychodynamic therapists, I suspect some therapists will hope the public does not catch the distinction.

Now for some results. Retention is sure to be an issue as this study is discussed:

Retention. We began with 98 subjects at T1. Our sample eroded to 73 at T3, a retention rate of 74.5%. This retention rate compares favorably to that of respected longitudinal studies. 63 subjects were interviewed or categorized at T6, for a T1 to T6 6 to 7 year retention of 64%.

Kinsey scale changes:

Table 1

This table shows the shifts in Kinsey scale scores (7 is exclusively homosexual with 1 being exclusively heterosexual). You can see that the shifts on average were about a point on the scale – less than one for the entire group and more than one for the group which were deemed more gay identified at the beginning. Although statistically significant, this would not on average take the group to the straight side of the continuum but rather by considered bisexual by most observers.

They also used the Shively-DeCecco scale which asks participants to rand both same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction. As you can see below, the change reflected in the Kinsey moves was due to reductions in SSA and not increases in OSA.

Table 2

Regarding categorical self-assessments, Jones and Yarhouse report modest shifts.

Table 5

Regarding these changes, Jones and Yarhouse say:

Several results are particularly notable. Despite a smaller N for the T6 sample than at T3, we found growth in absolute size in the two Exodus “success” outcome groups moving from row 1 to row 3: Conversion cases grew from 11 to 14 and Chastity cases from 17 to 18. But the group that grew the most in absolute and proportional terms was Failure: Gay Identity which doubled in absolute size from 6 to 12. The percentage of those showing stability of outcome T3 to T6 (row 4) is greatest in columns 1 and 6: the Success: Conversion (73%) and Failure: Gay Identity (67%) categories, with slightly less in the Success: Chastity category (53%). Of the one subject each that shifted from the Success: Conversion and Failure: Gay Identity categories from T3 to T6, each moved to the Continuing category at T6. The largest absolute shift from T3 to T6 of those who participated in the T6 interview was a T3 Success: Chastity case that became a Failure: Gay Identity case; next largest was a Non-Response case at T3 that became a Success: Conversion case.

Most germane to our principal hypothesis that change of sexual orientation is not possible, 53% of the T6 sample of 61 cases that self-categorized (row 3) did so as some version of success, either as Success: Conversion (23%) or Success: Chastity (30%). At T6, 25% of the sample self-categorized as an Exodus failure (Confused or Gay Identity).

In my view, this means of description confuses success with change. Over half did describe some version of success but that is not the same as over half describing sexual orientation change. I will be interested to see how this is reported in the press.

The changes reported here are significant and no doubt welcomed by the people involved. However, they are not the types of changes which I suspect the various mental health groups mean by “sexual orientation change.” Whatever happened to the participants in this study, they do not appear to have gone from gay to straight — in the sense that people who have always been straight are straight. They have gone from gay to less gay and a bit more straight. I do not mean to suggest that this is not important information; it is. But I am wondering if anyone at APA would dispute the within category changes reported here. I am going to ask and will report what I learn.

Jones and Yarhouse seem to be aware that the results can be understood as a change in identity and not orientation. They write:

There is also the question of sexual identity change versus sexual orientation change (see Worthington & Reynolds, 2009). Recent theoretical (e.g., Yarhouse, 2001) and empirical (e.g., Beckstead & Morrow, 2004; Yarhouse & Tan, 2004; Yarhouse, Tan & Pawlowski, 2005; Wolkomir, 2006) work on sexual identity among religious sexual minorities suggests that attributions and meaning are critical in the decision to integrate same-sex attractions into a gay identity or the decision to dis-identify with a gay identity and the persons and institutions that support a gay identity. In light of the role of attributions and meaning in sexual identity labeling, is it possible that some of what is reported in this study as change of orientation is more accurately understood as change in sexual identity?

The entire section on identity and orientation in the discussion section of the paper is good reading. Finally, in light of the APA task force report, I wonder if the discussion section of the Jones and Yarhouse paper could be revisited. The APA report, while skeptical of categorical change, did not take a strong stance regarding harm. Actually, the APA report and the Jones and Yarhouse paper agree on the inconclusive nature of the evidence on that question.