Sexuality, Therapy and the UK

I’m sure most of you have already seen the paper launched on Thursday examining the use of reparative techniques for homosexuality in the United Kingdom. Here’s the BBC report:

A significant minority of mental health professionals had agreed to help at least one patient “reduce” their gay or lesbian feelings when asked to do so.

The survey, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry and conducted by London researchers, involved 1,400 therapists.

Many were acting with the “best of intentions”, said the lead author.

Only 4% said they would attempt to change a client’s sexual orientation, but when asked if they would help curb homosexual feelings some 17% – or one in six – said they had done so.

The incidence appeared to be as prevalent in recent years as decades earlier.

You can read the whole paper here and it makes interesting study, not least because it doesn’t suggest what the headlines seem to think it does. For example, on page 18, Professor King writes:

There is no evidence from the published literature to suggest that a person’s sexual orientation can be changed from homosexual to heterosexual. Earlier forms of both psychoanalytic and behavioural research showed no evidence of efficacy [1] and many therapists later regretted their involvement in such treatments [2, 4]. Furthermore, recent research into the effectiveness of socalled reparative therapy to change sexual orientation in the United States has demonstrated little evidence of efficacy [5-6] and considerable controversy [7] about the quality of the methods used.

However, King’s own paper quotes mental health professionals who report having successfully treated patients wanting to change their sexual orientation. For example, on the bottom of page 11:

“People should be given the opportunity to choose to redirect their sexual feelings depending on their circumstances. For example the homosexual man I helped to become heterosexual came from a working class background where it was completely unacceptable to deviate from the norm. It was extremely important to him to be accepted by that community.” (BPS).

There is also of course the Jones and Yarhouse study and numerous other testimonies of change.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve been pastoring in this area for long enough to know that some people change and that some people don’t. The reason of course is very simple – homosexual attraction is most likely a personally unique mixture of nature and nurture, so that which explains my history won’t necessarily explain someone else’s, and the things which unlocked my past won’t necessarily do the same for you. But it seems to me that Professor King is ignoring the number of personal accounts of “successful” reparative therapy, and other forms of pastoring.

Interestingly, Michael King reports at the back of his paper that he has no competing interests, but in June 2008 he set up this website which states boldly on the front page:

Treatments to change a person’s sexuality are unethical and may be damaging. This is because homosexuality is NOT a disorder. Nor is there any evidence that any such “treatments” are effective.

The website collects personal anecdotes of those who have been through reparative therapies. I wonder whether Professor King would be amenable for it to also publish the stories of those who had had positive experiences of such practices or other routes to wholeness?

Warren Throckmorton has a brilliant comment thread on this subject, including input from Professor King.

9 Comments on “Sexuality, Therapy and the UK

  1. I have no problem with hearing the stories of those who have sought help for unwanted SSA and report change. Everyone has a right to their story being listened to. At the same time such atypical experiences must not be used to bludgeon LGBT people into seeking  change or being pressurised into reporting change. The implication too often is , ” they changed, so why can’t YOU, if you only tried harder, had more faith … it must be YOUR fault.” Such  tactics have driven gay people to despair , abandon their faith or adopt a position where it is easier to lie to oneself and others. Do we really want to do this to people in the name of Christ …isn’t it called…abuse? As for whether Professor King would publish stories of positive experience of reparative intervention on his site – I doubt it as I guess he considers them deeply flawed and suspects factors other than supernatural healing are at play. I would just ask a question though – would Anglican Mainstream or Exodus International publish, in an accepting way, stories on their site of gay people who considered their lives to have been wrecked by such therapy or who have survived ex gay movements and describe themselves at peace with themselves and God while in same sex relationships? Is it  fair to ask Professor King to affirm the other side of the story unless you are prepared to do so yourself?

    • You need to read the post again.
      The reason Peter is asking him this question is because if Mr. King refuses to do so, then that would belie his claim (at the back of the reasearch paper), “that he has no competing interests”.

  2. So, Professor King is supposed to be completely neutral wheras we are allowed to be as biased and selective as we wish …hmmm… If you read my post, I suggest that Professor King would be reluctant to publish such stories because he probably suspects that , “factors other than supernatural healing are at play.” I assuming he is an atheist and would consider supernatural intervention to be impossible. I think then that he would ascribe changes brought about by “healing” to be either a. A person’s discovery of an innate part of their sexuality- and not everyone is exclusively heterosexual or homosexual or b. A state of self deception brought about by the pressure to conform – and we all know that it is possible to lie to others and yourself about your true sexuality for years.
    If his premise is based on a ruling out of supernatural explanations ( which is rather understandable in a scientist!) and given that he knows how damaging the ex-gay ministry can be, I can hardly blame the guy for stating that reparative therapy is “unethical” and being reluctant to include such accounts. I think we all have “competing interests” but Professor King’s interests arise from a desire for scientific objectivity not a set of religious and theological tenets.

    • “…a desire for scientific objectivity”? Says who?
      I must conclude you are not familiar at all with the academic world.
      It is not for us to search deep into Professor King’s soul for the “real reason”. He himself may not know the “real reason” he feels a certain way. That’s the nature of bias.

      As such, he must declare all relevant interests and leave it up to others to make up their minds. That’s it.
      If he says he has no such interests, then it needs to be shown to be true.

  3. I have a relative who is a psychotherapist and a member of the royal society who supports the view that reparative therapy is frequently deeply damaging to the mental health of LGBT people. I have several friends or acquaintances who are survivors of the ex-gay movement and one who was involved in the ex-gay movement and now is deeply repentant and feels he unwittingly caused  untold damage to those he ministered to, another who has written a book on the ex-gay movement. I have read some “research” from the other side and some of the articles NARTH has published. I think I am a person who tries to be open minded and I listen with interest when I hear the stories of different individuals. I believe some people’s sexuality is immutable, but things are more complex for others. I believe sexuality can be  such a complex area that it can be hard to generalise and say , ” well, this was true for this person, so it must be for all.” My  main problem with Christian ex-gay movements is that many of them do try to universalise individual experiences and ( at least in my experience ) can inflict damage on individuals.

    There are some interesting areas of therapy in this field. For example, a heterosexual who is married to someone who has transgendered might seek ways to sexually relate to their partner ( who is now a same sex partner) someone who is in a mixed orientation marriage might also want help in this area. I do not think this is the same thing as changing” someones heterosexuality or homosexuality. I think if people are going to be given help for unwanted SSA, then I think it is beholden on us to be honest about the fact that this is not by any means always successful! and to tell people the stories of those who report damage and stories of human tragedy , often also involving the spouses they marry and their children.
    As for academic research: it depends what you read doesn’t it and which circles you move in? Each “side” tends to believe that the other has a strongly vested interest – ie the “fundamentalist Christian agenda” or the “Gay agenda”. Each accuses the other side of bias and dishonesty , meanwhile it is human beings who continue to live out their own private struggles and agonies .

    I am sorry to write at such length, I don’t really seek conflict for its own sake, but I do try to speak honestly, I am not sure I can describe myself as unbiased but the nor are you, or Peter, or Exodus.

    As for” having interests”, well, we all have our interests whether that is an interest in promoting a particular scriptural interpretation, in safeguarding what we perceive to be the welfare of our clients, or speaking up for what we see as truth and justice.

    Incidentally, do you mean that King’s “interest” is that he is gay? If he is – so what ? – if anything it might give him more insight into the area he is researching and certainly shouldn’t debar him any more than we would question a woman’s research into the area of domestic violence or childbirth.

  4. I am most impressed by Sue’s responses – and if she writes at great length it is to explain her position lucidly, with quality of argument – quite the opposite of seeking to overwhelm with quantity of argumentation.

    • Tom,

      I couldn’t agree more. I also think that Sue is very close to my position on change when she writes:

      I believe some people’s sexuality is immutable, but things are more complex for others. I believe sexuality can be  such a complex area that it can be hard to generalise and say , ” well, this was true for this person, so it must be for all.” My  main problem with Christian ex-gay movements is that many of them do try to universalise individual experiences and ( at least in my experience ) can inflict damage on individuals.

      Sue and I might disagree on what same-sex attracted people who see no orientation change should do, but I think she understands the issues well.

      • Thank you for this, Tom and Peter. I do appreciate your comments. I might be described as a lot more “liberal” than you Peter, but I do think the issues on this site interesting and relevant.

  5. Sue – if you read many of Prof King’s papers he promotes research into the harm caused by ex-gay ministries such as Schildo and Schroder, which was commissioned by the Gay and Lesbian Health Association in the US as “Reporting the Damage: Help us record the damage of homophobic therapies” with people recruited through the gay press as good science (the name of the report was changed after people came forward who were positive about reparative therapy) and points out the reports of damage in the NARTH report, while dimissing the rest of the NARTH report (that shows some people can change) as unscientific along with dismissing Stanton and Yarhouse, and Spitzers studies. Reading Prof King’s previous work shows a huge anti-exgay bias.

    I agree that there have been abuses in the ex-gay ministry, which have put some people off (often when Christians have left the exgay ministry they have also had to change more than their theology on homosexuality). But we have a number of ethical issues to face. Can therapists ignore the wishes of their clients? Also there has been no research into the effectiveness of gay-affirmative therapy or whether it causes harm. Is it ethical to do, as the BACP would, counsel people in a form of therapy that is untested?

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