The Problem with Reparative Therapy

Now there’s a controversial title to a post if I ever saw one. I don’t expect what I write to be popular with everybody who reads this blog, but a number of pieces by others over the past few weeks have caused me to reflect over the weekend as to where I’m at with my ministry.

It was all prompted by the non-story published by NARTH of a new study that proved the worth of reparative therapy. Of course, once you read the study you realise that it’s nothing of the kind. As Warren T rightly points out, all the paper does is summarise the work done over the past 50 years which is positive towards sexuality change. However,

To achieve the stated purpose, one would need to limit the review to the highest quality research which directly address each of the points. Particularly on the first two points, the paper does not do this, but rather includes any paper, or even opinion piece which supports the claims. In a subsequent article, I will review the paper in a bit more detail. Suffice to say for now, that there is nothing new in this paper.

Got it? All the NARTH paper does is amalgamate a number of good and bad studies, and in doing so undermines any useful research by including it with the duff.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with some of the insights of reparative therapy (though I object to some of the practices) but the key issue I have (and this I have learnt through painful pastoral experience) is that the attempt to impose a particular developmental model on all those who have same-sex attraction simply doesn’t work. While many of the people that I meet fit the “distant father, close mother” model (and there is great success when this is explored in prayer and wounds from childhood brought into the presence of the Spirit), many simply didn’t have that experience. Their family background is as “normal” as could be imagined, yet they still come with homosexual attraction. Of course, once one realises that homosexual attraction is a complex (and as yet scientifically undefined despite claims to the contrary) interaction of nature and nurture, it makes sense that my story is not your story and so on. What worked for me will not necessarily work for you and this insight is vital when working pastorally in this area, especially if you want to avoid nonsense like this:

This issue goes far beyond same-sex marriage. Every step which normalizes homosexuality will attract more people into this perverted lifestyle, endangering children.

While Mike McManus recounts one man’s story (and this is the kind of thing that I have also encountered in the lives of those I speak to), he then extrapolates that to create an over-arching statement that smears all those with same-sex attraction as being dangerous to children. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although some men who have been abused as children go onto experience same-sex attraction as adults (and Paul Golding’s debut novel The Abomination is a fascinating, if challenging, read on this exact subject) it is not a given that boys abused by men will become homosexual or that a large number of homosexual men were abused as children. Warren T summarises the issues with this kind of blanket approach:

About the only redeeming value in this article comes via the warning signs provided by Michael Reagan to parents regarding how to protect children from actual pedophiles. Otherwise, this is a confusing (why is straight man Michael Reagan’s story described in an article trying to advance the notion that homosexuality derives from molestation?), and harmful article. If being untruthful is harmful in itself, then we have that kind of harm to start with. However, there is another kind of pain that can be caused with this kind of article. I have direct experience with families where children and grandchildren have been kept away from same-sex attracted (not even gay identified) relatives because of the fears whipped up by this contrived link between same-sex attraction and child molestation.

So why do Conservatives jump to these stereotypes of same-sex attraction development? TAG has recently been blogging on this question and has come up with an interesting analysis. Here are the final two of six points:

5. Every problem must have an instant solution in an instant culture.

It’s not only Americans who have an “instant” culture. As standards of living around the world increase, everyone’s tolerance for intractable problems with no solutions is decreased. If the problem of homosexuality can be described as psychological, then that’s nothing a few sessions of counseling can’t fix.

“If it were a biological/physiological phenomenon, a cure might never be found! Like visual impaired-ness or paralysis, there might be no cures available! I might have to live with this!”

This is particularly attractive to people who themselves have same-sex attractions and are looking to get rid of them so that they can fit in to their church and social circles a lot better.

6. Herd mentality.

We could also call it “groupthink”.

There are many forces at play here that don’t encourage people to think outside the orthodox position on a certain matter. As regards homosexuality, one of the most common (and most absurd) is the fear of being branded a homosexual oneself for being seen to think and talk about the matter too much or too independently.

To have a different opinion on origins might belie a different moral opinion as well in many, many people’s minds. And so often you have even very “liberal” commentators on the issue who feel like they must make a standard disclaimer every time they talk about homosexuality: “I am not gay myself but…” or “This is not something I struggle with but…”.

Go and read all of what TAG says and then reflect on whether he might not have a point. We jump onto these bandwagons because they provide explainable answers for what is otherwise a thorny (in the side) issue.

And this is why my pastoral approach these days is to firstly get the man or woman I’m talking to to come to a spiritual decision on the acceptability of same-sex practice. I’m actually quite blunt, because often people come to me hoping that I’ll provide the quick fix or easy answer that the modern western culture encourages us to seek. My response is to ask “If God so chooses not to change these desires in you, what are you going to do?” That’s the nub of the issue – real discipleship that doesn’t run away from the pain or demand a quick fix, but accepts that sometimes we don’t get our own way and that God might have other designs for us than those we have. Curiously though, it’s often those who make that surrender to God who then find some measure of healing or wholeness in their lives, whatever that looks like. That’s because they’ve placed themselves in the right place with God (by seeking to do his will and not to step outside the guidelines he has given us for healthy living) and that relationship is far more important than any others they may form.

Your thoughts as always are welcome.

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