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.

11 Comments on “The Problem with Reparative Therapy

  1. Peter,

    TAG’s comments that you quote above make me think of this article: – Principles of the American cargo Cult. Well worth a look if you don’t know it.

    I do share your frustration with this sort of reparative approach. I have always believed that sexuality is far more complicated than gay/straight, and that even the notion of a continuum is far too simplistic. Your point about liberals needing to preface comments on sexuality with a variation upon “I’m straight, but…” is a good one, too. I don’t think it’s a statement that actually has meaning anyway, but it is an unfortunate commentary upon the world in which we live that seems to make it necessary.


  2. Thanks Peter.
    Personally–kind of like your story–I found that when I decided that I would follow Jesus whether or not He took away my same-sex attractions then I found a great peace I never had before.
    I was no longer suicidal and eventually I began to have small attractions for women that I never had before.
    (And let me tell you I was depressed for almost eleven years–roughly half my life).

    I don’t know where the future is going, I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to marry and have children. I’ve told God that what I want but I know that either way He will do what’s best for me.

    I just wish someone would look at reparative therapy with a critical eye and extract the great facets of it and discard the rest; but that requires humility about it.
    Also, recent events in my life have convinced me that many heterosexuals could do with some reparative therapy as well (i.e. many of its lessons).

    • Also, recent events in my life have convinced me that many heterosexuals could do with some reparative therapy as well (i.e. many of its lessons).

      When I’ve run groups like Cross Current and Living Waters, most of the people on the course haven’t had same-sex attraction issues but instead have had different things to deal with. We used the same principles with everybody (bring our lives to Christ, let him show us our wounds, let the Spirit bring healing) and the results were remarkable.

  3. Peter,

    An oft-cited survey is this:

    “Homosexual activists Karla Jay and Allen Young revealed in their 1979 Gay Report that 73% of all homosexuals have acted as “chicken hawks” – that is, they have preyed on adolescent or younger boys.[Homosexual activists Karla Jay and Allen Young. The Gay Report: Lesbians and Gay Men Speak Out About Sexual
    Experiences and Lifestyles [Simon and Schuster, 1979], page 275.]”

    I don’t know if this involved a scientifically-representative sampling. I’ve never seen an independent evaluation of this finding. But certainly, IF it is anywhere near representative, it would indicate a very worrisome propensity of homosexual men.

    I would appreciate your thoughts.


    Mark Brown
    San Angelo, Texas
    July 21, 2009

    • I’m aware of the survey. Two comments:

      i) It’s a generation out of date
      ii) The context of being a chicken hawk is always within the gay scene – i.e. it is about trying to hook up with younger men/boys who are exploring the gay scene. It has nothing to do with paedophilia.

      • If I’m not mistaken, “chicken hawk” just means an older man who likes to hook up with younger, less-experienced men. The same can be said for many heterosexual men, who prefer younger women for their general attractiveness and naivete.

  4. Hats off again to you Peter… now I wonder if Anglican Mainstream will link to your post?

    in friendship, Blair

  5. All pastoral care and therapy should be reparative and most effective therapies follow the same process, since we all share a common humanity and healing requires lies and misbeliefs to be replaced with truth.

    I have been reading Dr. Nicolosi’s book, witness to the feelings and responses therein and highly recommend it. I have found myself on its pages even as a woman recovering from childhood trauma. I am very impressed with the therapy transcripts and find they follow Theophostic Prayer Ministry techniques I learned as a prayer minister.

    Recovery from attachment loss, shame, identity disruption/disorientation can be achieved with the help of another…as we receive acceptance, respect and attention and truth and learn to coordinate appropriate honest feelings with events and interactions.

    But real healing is coming to know The Father and The Man – and for me, The Mother icon, Mary and The Church as she was meant to be (not the counterfeit church or woman, sleazy, seductive, pagan, culture-sullied, hard-hearted harlot imitating a church and woman we commonly find).

    One can only reach homeostasis in secular therapy, not eternal life: knowledge of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of the people whose testimonies I have heard, they all say the same thing I came to a place of surrender and said, ‘Lord, make me the man (or woman, as the case may be) that you created me to be.’

    • Hi Sibyl,

      Please don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe that courses like Cross Current / Living Waters etc can really help people get to the core of their emotional and relational issues. I just know from pastoral experience that this doesn’t always solve the problems that people face and that ultimately what needs to happen is a surrender to God’s will for our lives.

  6. Courses and recovery groups may not be enough when our perceptions and thought/response patterns are severely damaged or ingrained over years. One on one therapy may be warranted.

    Another book that seems like a gift from God to me is Henri Nouwen’s book, ‘The Inner Voice of Love,’ the story of his journey out of the darkness and tangles of identity disaster, disorientation, disruption, derailment, dimishment, distortion and/or dissonance and/or other dysfuntions of identity and attachment and relationship styles that afflict us even before memory and cause us to think they are inborn and that we are helpless against them…(and I guess we are since we need the help of God and others to journey out of them.)

    So…I guess the reason I keep writing (this is the 3rd post here) is to say, dear Peter+, do not outright reject Dr. Nicolosi and associates and the inestimable value of their work (esp. on the basis of a some parents’ or SSA persons’ objections and denial. The work they have done and are doing is extremely valuable to the cause of defeating the damnable deception that has overtaken medicine, mental health, government and society. Eternal souls are at stake. And the Name of our dear Lord.

    I am angry as all get out at the church with all the anger of an abused child at her parents, pent up over 6 decades, into a force backed up by Christ’s anger at the Pharisees and Saducees and hypocrits of His day who led His precious people into false worship and blindness and the Word and heart of the Law away from true worship in spirit and in truth. (see John 4 and 5)

    The last 7 years (finding myself in ECUSA less than a year in 2003) have been one long scream at the church, ‘STOP it, come back, don’t abandon me!!!’

    If it had not been for strong true Word-congruent dying to self Christians who intervened at critical points in my life, I do not believe I would have escaped self-destruction and disastrous choices due to the destructive modeling and teaching of my parents and grandparents and the spiritual consequences of generations of sin and loss and dysfunction on both sides of my family.

    Again, I urge anyone who decries reparative therapy to get Dr. Nicolosi’s book and read it.
    Not all surgical tools, techniques, even house or yard tools will be suitable for all cases and all jobs. God made us all different and our backgrounds and conditioned responses are infinitely different, but there are also common features in our humanity and sinfulness. He does not exempt any of us on the basis of our individuality or our desires.

    Yet, as you have wisely written several times, our journeys have one common feature and one requirement of our Lord, and that is SURRENDER. Surrender again and again, deeper and more comprehensive, over and over, day by day, minute by minute. Surrender increased as our love for Jesus Christ increases as our knowledge of Him increases…so does our joy to act and live in congruity with His will, word and way.

    I’m very grateful to you for your work, writing and blog, for sharing your story and not least, for the beautiful photos of your family. I do so love them.

    All blessings,


  7. Sybil, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and thoughts. It is true that one size does not fit all, and it is quite wrong to rail against one approach simply because it does not cover every eventuality. I have heard Dr Nicolosi speak on two occasions now, and have been most encouraged by him – as were many of the same-sex attracted people who also heard him.

    May God go with you on your journey.

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