You know, it is possible to make a great documentary that is lousy science.
In Cure Me, I’m Gay, TV doctor Christian Jessen made a tour around various therapies and approaches to reduce homosexuality (the eponimous host of Embarrassing Bodies is openly gay) and tested their ability to change him to straight by measuring his sexual arousal pre and post the therapies. I say “tested”, but in reality there was no real experimental method in this programme, just a fascinating journey around different approaches to the subject, including some sobering moments for conservatives, and some ludicrous claims of scientific objectivity where none actually existed.
Let’s do the good stuff first. As a documentary touching on different methods of “gay cure”, it was a great piece of TV, revealing some of the more horrific methods from the past (the first therapy, aversion, was pretty brutal to watch) which have produced little or no research evidence of efficacy, and an insight into more twenty-first century approaches. There were some utter genius moments – the snapping of the rubber band against the wrist while Dr Jessen chatted to John Smid (who incidentally I had no idea till last night had left his wife and family to move in with a man) was the comedy moment of the evening. Equally, the secret filming of the “doctor” (no such thing apparently) who used “color therapy” was revealing and even the most ardent fan of ex-gay therapy could see that a man who thought both the thyroid and adrenal gland were in the brain was not qualified to do anything more than colour in pictures.
Equally, I thought the encounter with the “ex-gay pride” group (yes, that was Richard Cohen, the Moonie) in Washington was hilarious, especially when he challenged them to come back to Cornell University with him and undergo the same sexual response test he was doing at the start and end of the programme. This was the closest we got to real science in the whole sixty minutes – a proper sample of former homosexuals undergoing a clinical measurement of their sexual attraction, but we were let down by these proud ex-gays who didn’t actually appear to be proud enough to prove their heterosexuality in laboratory conditions. Funny that.
I say that was the closest we got to real science, because in reality there was precious little of it in the programme. For example, as revolting as aversion therapy is (Dr Jessen drank a volume of Ipecac and spent several hours vomiting whilst looking at sexual pictures of men), there was no actual science in the experience. To properly replicate the therapy Christian should have done it repeatedly for 72 hours of more, then followd up with more repeat experiences. Add in another 99 volunteers to do the same thing and you would have had a proper experimental method – as it was it was the single short course didn’t prove anything except that it was a thoroughly awful experience (as many gay men know from having suffered it over the past decades) and as the actual research evidence shows, it didn’t really work.
The closest we got to really exploring the modern methods of reparative therapy was a single session (more an interview) with a therapist in the States and then a brief snippet of a longer chat with Dr Mike Davidson who runs Core Issues Trust. One suspects there was lots Mike said that was cut, perhaps deliberately, because Dr Davidson is a thoughtful individual who doesn’t go in for excess. As it was, the therapist in the States pointed out that if Dr Jessen was serious about undergoing such therapy he would need to commit to a large number of sessions (like any client of any therapist would) and also most likely need to actually want to change. And let’s not fool ourselves, Dr Jessen didn’t want to change. It was pretty much like an alcoholic saying that if he attends AA sessions twice a week, that’s OK and he can still drink outside those whilst he tests whether AA works.
Right at the end of the programme, Dr Jessen made an interesting comment. When talking about “harm” from therapy he used the language of “I believe that this might be harmful”. That was a really interesting admission, because far too often critics on this issue jump in with the wild claim that research has “proved” modern forms of ex-gay therapy cause harm. In actuality, all we have is a collection of anecdotes and as I’ve written before, the use of anecdotes can work both ways. What’s desperately needed in this area is a repeat of the Jones and Yarhouse study so we can get some proper research evidence on the subject.
In the meantime, the refusal of the ex-gay activists to actually prove their heterosexuality under laboratory conditions was the key point for conservatives to reflect on from what was sixty minutes of poor science but great documentary making. The reason why plenty of us have started to use the language of “post-gay” is that we don’t want to fool people about what our sexual attractions actually are. Rather than faking it, post-gay is happy to dwell somewhere on the LGB spectrum, it just doesn’t let it’s sexual identity be dictated by it. And perhaps this was the most interesting part of last night’s programme, since it concentrated on changing sexual attraction rather than exploring the more fascinating area of sexual identity, a place where love has less to do with who I want to have sex with and more to do with my philosophical / spiritual basis for having sex in the first place.
Now, that would have been a great programme, but when the researchers of this programme didn’t even bother to talk to the writer of the leading blog in this country dealing with sexuality issues from a religious perspective, it was never going to happen. Perhaps next time eh Christian?
The review in the Telegraph broadly agrees with me.