Controversial New Study on Gay Conversion Therapy Claims It May Actually Work

Ever since the APA declared that ‘conversion therapy’ was ineffective and often harmful, it’s seemed to most reasonable people (and the scientific community) like an open-and-shut case. “Conversion” or “reparative” ex-gay therapy was a process with religious implications, not actual psychological ones, and it didn’t effect real change.  A new study by researchers Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, however, is now disputing that claim.

Their study followed 65 participants over six to seven years who were involved with Exodus Ministries, an organization that promises to provide support for religiously motivated gays trying to “convert” to heterosexuality. While previous research has found that even on the rare occasion when “conversion” does occur, it’s often impermanent, Jones and Yarhouse found that “23% of the remaining people in the study were successful in changing their sexual orientation toward heterosexuality.  And 30% turned toward chastity, which Yarhouse said was ‘a reduction from homosexual attraction.'”

VIA SLAPUPSIDETHEHEAD.COM

How does that work? Even if no one is clear on the “origin” or basis of homosexuality, the APA is willing to define it as being immutable. Jones and Yarhouse say that this “absolutist” statement is part of what motivated their research. They acknowledge that “23% did not respond to the ministry’s treatment, 20% embraced their gay sexual orientation and the remaining percent reported confusion.” 35 of the original 98 participants dropped out. But they still think that there’s at least a germ of truth to the claim that it’s possible, if not probable, to change.

Others — and in this case “others” is almost the entirety of the rest of the scientific as well as the queer community — disagree. Basically, the question is this: it may be true that 23% of the study’s participants were “successful.” But how is the study defining “success,” exactly? Because here’s the thing: even with all the research tools and scientific background in the world, there’s still no real way to prove that someone really is gay or straight. There are arousal tests, personality tests, blood tests, hormone tests, maybe even a Kill-Bill style truth serum, but in the end the only real measure you have of someone’s sexual orientation is what they tell you it is. There is no known ‘gay gene,’ and the only real evidence we have of someone’s sexual orientation is their own self-report — which, when you’re dealing with strong religious motivations, may not be accurate. Does “heterosexuality” mean that the 23% in question have successfully rid themselves of any and all homosexual feelings, while simultaneously developing a strong desire to tear the clothes off of the opposite sex? Or that they feel they can successfully pull off living as a straight person? In either case, there’s a second question to consider: are they right about their self-assessment? It’s harder than it seems to report your own status accurately. In the same way that drunk people often think they’re more sober than they are, there’s no way to tell if the 23% from this study have succeeded in “being straight,” or just succeeded in convincing themselves (and the researchers studying them) that they are.

It’s not the only methodological and conceptual problem with this study — suspicions about its total credibility may first be raised by the fact that Jones and Yarhouse both teach at religious universities (not to claim that legitimate research, even on socially divisive topics, can’t be done at religious institutions). Critics like  Dr. Jack Drescher, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College, point out that the study doesn’t make a strong distinction between  sexual orientation (which gender(s) you’re attracted to) and sexual identity (how a person FEELS about that orientation and identifies in terms of it). Others have pointed out that it seems to be ignoring the major difference between behavioral and identity changes — in short, having sex with someone of the opposite sex doesn’t mean you ARE straight, just having straight sex. There’s been increasing attention paid to therapy based around behavioral shifts in recent years; for many, choosing to live a straight or abstinent life is a viable option to a homosexual relationship, even if they acknowledge that their actual sexual orientation doesn’t change. But that’s not the claim that Jones and Yarhouse are making; they differentiate between the population in the study that’s transitioned to chastity and the population that’s now “straight.” They acknowledge that for some, it’s a lifestyle decision rather than a true change — “‘I’d like to see mental health organizations to show greater respect for diversity for how a person chooses to live their life and live this out,’ Yarhouse said.” — but don’t go on to recognize that their study may show more about how people are choosing to “live their life” than how they’ve managed to “convert.”

Critics have also pointed out that bisexuality is never taken into account — many proponents of ex-gay therapy think of sexual orientation as a gay-or-straight, yes-or-no proposition, and this study seems to be no exception. If a spectrum view of sexual orientation had been used, is it possible that the 23% who were “cured” would have evidenced at least some attraction to the opposite sex already? If so, that sort of calls into question how much of the ability to live as a straight person was really based in the Scripture-based therapy.

Maybe most upsetting is the implication of this study that not only is the APA wrong about conversion therapy not being effective, but that it’s wrong about it not being harmful.

He disagreed with the findings that religious therapies do not harm people, saying he had several patients who blamed themselves after failing programs and fell into depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.“They’re told it’s up to them if they don’t change,” Drescher said. “When it fails, as it fails in majority of cases, they feel like failures, after they’ve spent time and effort and money.

 In a way, it’s amazing that this is still a topic we’re seriously discussing — although, with a relatively serious candidate for the GOP 2012 nomination still tacitly endorsing it, maybe not. The fact remains that the “bulk of peer-reviewed research” is firmly in opposition to Jones and Yarhouse, and when it comes to queer health either physical or mental, things really are improving. The good news is, thirty years ago, Jones and Yarhouse’s findings would have been considered the norm as far as scientific opinion; the good news about this controversial study as that at least its implications finally are controversial. Hopefully they’ll only become more so.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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43 Comments

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    I’m kind of confused. Why is CNN reporting on this study like it’s news? The Jones and Yarhouse study came out (and got torn apart by ex-gay watchdogs then) back in… 2008, I think?

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      IKR. Most of the news around the the Jones and Yarhouse study are from 2007. It appears that CNN is reporting on claims that the study is bunk…which is still not news, since everybody has said that since the beginning. I suppose it depends on whether or not Dr. Drescher has put out some new piece of writing disputing the research and that’s what the’re reporting on, or (as it seems to be) CNN simply asked this guy for comments on a 4-year-old study and treated it like news.

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        If the reporters were going to revisit a four-year-old “longitudinal study,” I wish they’d made some efforts to find out how many of those “successes” from 2007 still consider themselves such.

        If it’s anything like the drop-out rate from the first seven years, I bet it doesn’t look good.

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    Conversion therapy is a conflict of interest. They are telling someone that being gay is wrong, and then that they can pay them to fix it.
    After all that, it doesn’t work. That is the true definition of a scam, yet the money and resources keep pouring in to support these mock institutions.

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    I always wonder with these how many of these cases of “successful conversions” were because the person is actually bisexual, not homosexual. Like, it’s a lot easier to just have sex with your opposite-sex partner if you’re attracted to him/her than if you aren’t. That doesn’t mean the same-sex DESIRE is gone.

    Or I wonder if they were just assumed to be gay because they were gender-nonconforming and not because of any same-sex attraction. Like the butch girl in But I’m A Cheerleader.

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    A: The study drops out the people who drop out.
    B: The study knew some of the people were bi to begin with
    C: The study counts as success – celebecy and same sex attraction that is not acted on (Just ignore it it’s not for you == win)
    D: The study authors won’t talk about how many of the participants are now dead or destroyed from it.
    E: Is the grade they should get for that research.

    IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING THAT SOME PEOPLE WHO ARE HIGHLY MOTIVATED WILL TRY ANYTHING NOT TO BE HATED BY THEIR LOVED ONES AND GOD.

    (Yes, I am yelling)

    They aren’t CURED they are HURTING IN SILENCE.

  5. Thumb up 0

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    BEEP BEEP BEEP bullshit meter.

    It is not 23%, it is 23% of people who didn’t drop out. 35 out of 98 dropped out – more than a third!! That is a shockingly high drop out rate, and pretty much invalidates any outcome of the “research”.

    People who drop out of surveys are the ones who aren’t complying or aren’t seeing benefits, so we can assume the drop outs are not “straight” now. In any case it is very poor methodology not to try to follow up with those people and find out their outcome. Are they depressed? Dead? Happily gay married? Though obviously ignorig dropouts is very convenient for the researchers – fewer failures to report hurray!

    So 35 out of 98 dropped out, and then they had 65. That tells me they didn’t even keep accurate track of how many people they studied, because 98 – 35 is 63. That doesn’t bode well. So of this 65, 23% are “straight” now, which is 15 people.

    So their actual results are 15 out of 98, which is 15% not 23%. It’s also bullshit, but let’s at least do the maths right to start with.

    Z

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    Unfortunately, the word “homosexual” applies to both a behavior and a feeling of sexual/romantic desire. Just because someone stopped engaging in homosexual behavior doesn’t mean they aren’t homosexual. Just because someone engages in heterosexual behavior, it doesn’t mean they aren’t homosexual. I personally believe there needs to be two sets of words: one for engages in sexual activity with the same gender; those who feel sexual attraction or sexually-based romantic feelings for the same gender, and so on for heterosexual and bisexual.

    You can measure sexual responses, but (as a female I can only count of what I’ve read/heard) men can get aroused in moments of anxiety or fear. You can ask people, but they can lie. They can convince themselves otherwise. Hypochondriacs trick themselves into experiencing symptoms for diseases they don’t have. The mind is powerful. We need to discover the gene or scientific proof of gay for some people to believe it. In my heart of hearts, I think it’s impossible to change and anyone who does is lying or wasn’t gay in the first place. But it’s like arguing on the belief in God — sometimes it comes down to what you feel to be true since you can’t prove or disprove it.

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      And I didn’t really say it specifically, but re: my first paragraph, I suspect the 23% “successful” people do not understand or don’t want to understand the difference between behavior and feelings. This sounds like a real bullshit study, starting with the source and moving on from there.

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      Some people do differentiate between romantic attraction and sexual attraction, I know the aces differentiate between homo-romantic or hetero-romantic feelings outside of their asexuality. And didn’t Lady Gaga say that she’s bisexual but hetero-romantic?

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        I don’t think that’s a common way of phrasing it or describing it and leads to an awful lot of confusion. Clearly when Lady Gaga says bisexual, she means sexually attracted to both genders, but anyone could assume she also means “biromatic.” There’s no set rule for these terms in colloquial usage.

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      Except that some peoples sexuality is fluid and does change naturally.(am arguing with your assertion that peoples sexuality can’t change because some peoples can, but when it can its because they have a Fluid sexuality not because all sexuality can be changed).

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    Their sample is biased too.
    By only working with people who were already involved in the ministries their participants all would have had a strong desire to ‘change’ and probably a belief that homosexuality is ‘wrong’. With this in mind the 23% ‘success’ rate seems quite small to me.
    Had they used a representative sample of gay/bi people (which I accept would be difficult), I suspect their ‘success’ rate would be tiny.

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    In addition to being a small sample, it’s also not representative of the community at large because it is a sample of 98 LGBT persons who WANTED to engage in gay conversion therapy (whether because of personal religious belief, family pressure or internalised homophobia). To me that would skew the results even further.

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    The aurhor of this story needs to do some research.

    The study is hardly controversial or new. Its a rehash of the same popraganda that Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse book, Ex-gays?: A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation from 2007.

    http://www.exgaywatch.com/wp/2007/11/a-critique-of-jones-and-yarhouses-ex-gays-part-1/

    Its just a rehash of anti-gay propaganda presented all over again to attack the APA. The autor of this article should include that in her column, change the headline to reflect the lies and propaganda, and hang these bigots out to dry.

    Will Kohler
    http://www.Back2Stonewall.com

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    The Jones-Yarhouse study is a brave but flawed first effort to bring some observational as well as self-report data to a controversial hypothesis test. The article does a fair job of pointing out two main flaws in empirical method, i.e., the fuzzy imprecise operational anchoring of a subject ‘being homosexual’ in the first place, along with the glaring failure in conceptualizing sexual orientation as a continuum rather than distinct/closed/separate categories, with on gay vs straight as variables. Posters have nicely noticed other method flaws. Thanks then for the comments that called the researchers to account on sampling, which basically calls ‘representativeness’ into question (as one poster put it, If a study skewed from the start by having only highly motivated, very religious men in its subjects, and still only obtained a 23 percent ‘success rate’ – accepting that even this is fuzzy data, for the previously mentioned reasons of flawed method – then surely a truly random representative sample of people on the more homosexual ends of the continuum would show a reduced percentage.). Other posters have clearly intuited a troublesome subtext of how this study is often read, involving a continued emphasis on constructs like ‘choosing to be straight’ and ‘blaming folks who fail to become straight and/or who choose to accept themselves as not straight’ … not to mention touting these implicit notions as laudable because flexibility, and a client’s freedom to choose are innately healthy. We do not, however, allow core values of client choice, client values, and flexible human adaptation to delude us when we are faced with, say, Munchausen by proxy syndromes. Or even direct iterations of Munchausen syndrome.

    So we come to the additional ethics flaws that affect all present exgay services, so far as we know. If a Munchausen patient shows up at the hospital demanding neurosurgery, just because … we don’t just fall into line, we check it out. Is something going wrong with the brain, and is neurosurgery indicated as a viable or best treatment or service, given test data, symptoms, and diagnostic team analysis which confirms a brain problem.

    In fact, the diagnostic team has checked out the LGBT folks showing up, initially six to seven decades ago, on the basis that they were damaged or disturbed, and thus needed healing and positive change, assisted by everything in the medical and psychological best practices tool kits. A bit to everybody’s surprise, we confirmed that not being straight is not a mental or psychological or personality disorder in itself. So a better research frame might be to do a study of exgay services, of both providers and recipients, as people who possibly are all engaged and caught up in a shared Munchausen syndrome sub-culture. Just a suggestion?

    Meanwhile, let me call stronger attention to the ethics failures, and mention the damage done in the majority of exgay service outcomes.

    The key ethical failures are simply glaring. Informed Consent simply does not exist in exgay services. Young people and families who show up asking to become straight are simply taken at face value, as if informed consent was full and complete because a request was being made. Even the contracts typically signed by an exgay service mainly involve only two self-serving aspects of any consent procedure, insofar as that contract is honest about the money due to be paid for the service, and a characteristic set of ‘hold harmless’ clauses which serve to protect the exgay service provider from any later claims that the service is responsible for any conceivable outcome.

    If exgay services were any other sort of experimental medical or health treatment, the glaring gaps in informed consent would easily be seen and the whole thing would be paused until consent could be brought up to fair speed. The most obvious ommissions are failures of exgay services to bother with any disclosure about their own specific program or service outcomes, along with documenting the percentage of former participants who got outcomes A, B, C, or Other. Nor will we see, read, or hear any explicit careful mention of the possible negative side effects … starting with milder troublesome effects like increased narrowness and rigidity when it comes to sex, sexuality, sensual attachments and sensual bonding, and going on to anxiety, depression, then going on to deeply intensified hatred of one’s self and one’s body, then going on to include suicidal moods and impulses, all the way up to mood swings and completed suicides.

    So much for informed consent. A second flawed ethics area is connected with the covertly experimental nature of exgay services in the first place. When any experimental treatment becomes viable enough to suggest that it helps, and that people are better off after receiving it, then a double blind study method is quickly indicated. To date, no such sound study test has ever been proposed, let alone carried out, by any professional or para-professional people involved in exgay services. We are far past the point in time when positive claims can continue to be made for exgay service outcomes, usually via testimonials and self-reports, while carefully avoiding any hint of an ethical need to conduct double blind studies of this cluster of experimental services.

    On the clinical and human sides, ethical lapses involve a complete lack of exgay services, working dutifully to collect accurate treatment in progress data, either as to the process of treatment service, or as to the operationally measured outcomes.

    Such preliminary data as we do have suggests caution, the significant drop-out rate being one such alarm bell. No exgay service has bothered to investigate what happens with drop-outs, their outcomes, or anything else much about them. A subtle but obvious air of blame hangs over the mention of drop-outs, as if these former recipients were shallow-minded, weak, sissified, and just could not manage to Man Up like subjects who stay all the way to the end.

    Clinically, we are also fairly well in the dark dark, when it comes to the celibacy outcomes. It seems operationally taken for granted in the Jones-Yarhouse study, for example, that the shift from being an active and alive gay person, to being a celibate person is nothing but a positive outcome.

    In fact, such a shift may perhaps involve negative outcomes or side effects if we bother to do neutral, non-biased thought experiments to look for negatives that could be empirically investigated. An experienced counselor or clinician can readily posit how exgay processes and outcomes might possibly involve an increased set of one or more tunnel effects in self perception, inner body life, and in emotional life. As people learn to perceive their inner lives and their bodies as less lively in LGB directions, we simply do not know if and how much, this tunnel vision skill set generalizes to rigidify or narrow or distort other aspects of self, body, and/or relating to others.

    On top of such side effects or outcomes, we simply still do not have empirical evidence that, say, being more and more celibate as an LGB man or woman is nothing but an improvement in real life. What happens to their young hearts over a long life? one religious sister asked me, once, after a workshop presentation about celibacy. Does that youthful celibate heart get more and more dry, dusty, and incapable of real or genuine or deep positive human connections, in those very areas where heightened senses of same sex attraction, vulnerability to relationship, adult possibilities of committed pair-bonding … might otherwise have been lived out?

    We simply do not know all that much about what the empirical positives and negatives of different styles and pursuits of celibacy are. We remain ignorant empirically of possible ups, downs, or sideways shifts in cognition, feeling, body life, self-perception, other perception, and the whole celibacy deal. If responsible sexuality in life can have results, for better and for worse, why not celibacy also?
    If such side effects or outcomes do occur, might not that process also be accompanied by more rigidity, more narrowing? A key unresolved empirical question is about whether this rigidity and narrowing is automatically and innately, always a very good thing. Do self-perceptual and cognitive and emotional side effects of, say, learning how to be more rigid, more categorical in one’s self-perceptions and inner life embodied, predict absolutely nothing but good living, but improvements in living?

    All of this complex business can simply be summarized as an ethical failure to engage in quality assurance, let alone quality improvement monitoring, when it comes to current exgay services. Blaming the recipients falls right in line with this second large ethical flaw, since when things do not go in the ideally predicted change directions, it quickly is the sole responsibility of the participant. People fail in exgay services, not the service or program or treatment/helping procedures. This stands the community standard for all health or well-being services, and especially for experimental services or treatments, upside down.

    A third glaring ethical lapse involves Abandonment and not following up with anybody much, let alone special follow ups with the significant percentages of people who will simply not get the ideal change outcome that makes them, happily and forever, nothing but straight. If this idealized shift were actually as categorical and sound as testimonials and self-reports often seem, surely we would have good data about marital satisfactions among all those newly heterosexual spouses? Suggestions in the exgay services realms that it is difficult to solicit study participants among successful exgay people because too much shame and fear and guilt attach to any former LGB life or personality expressions, tend to fall flat. People really hate having cancer, but a solid treatment or cure gets nearly irresistible publicity, by word of mouth if through no other means. News reporters, video cameras, lights, and headlines follow.

    One of the major possible factors that helps Abandonment is most likely all the blaming mentioned earlier. People who fail exgay services just get dumped by the service or center or program. Nobody refers them to alternative services or resources for still trying to lead a good, decent life as an LGB person. Nobody follows up with them to make sure they have gotten on some sort of viable, positive life track, even though they tried to become straight and seemed to fail at the effort. Not even people who seem to become celibate are given much follow up, and this is even more curious, given how celibacy is published as one of the medium positive outcomes of exgay services. Yet human experience and common sense suggests to all of us how often emotions, body, sensuality, and sexuality involve this or that degree of vulnerability, breaking open our human tendencies to wall off, isolate in subtle and not so subtle ways, devoting ourselves to a whole lot of goals besides connecting with others. As I said before, we simply do not know how lessening those impulses to get involved with other people, does or does not go well for exgay celibate medium success people. Alas. Lord have mercy.

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    Plenty of heterosexist religious groups basically act as if EVERYONE IS BISEXUAL and same-sex attraction must be resisted because EVERYONE IS AT RISK. Do not let the queers near our children BECAUSE THEY WILL TOTALLY FALL FOR THE GAY AGENDA AAAAAAHHH!!!

    So yeah. The Kinsey study figures that bisexuality is actually quite common. For example, nearly half of all men reported reacting to both men and women. The whole ex-gay thing is (depressingly) funny to me, because it’s like someone going to a special course to learn how to resist attraction to evil blondes so that they can focus all their love on wholesome brunettes. It is just craziness. I try to laugh instead of crying, anyway.

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      Oh RIGHT, it’s all because of the bisexuals! Never mind the Christian fundamentalists or the heavily repressed self-hating homophobes. This is “obviously” all the fault of the bisexuals.

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