Thursday, July 21, 2011

Focus on the Family Defines Change

I stumbled across an article titled "What Do We Mean When We Talk About Change?" written by ex-gay activist Jeff Johnston over at CitizenLink, a Focus on the Family affiliate. The idea of "change" is pivotal in this debate, and opinions about it are strongly correlated with opinions about homosexuals in general. According to a Pew Forum survey of opinions regarding homosexuality:
"Belief that homosexuality is immutable is strongly associated with positive opinions about gays and lesbians – even more strongly than education, personal acquaintance with a homosexual, or general ideological beliefs. For example, about two-thirds of people who think homosexuality can be changed (68%) have an unfavorable opinion of gay men. By contrast, nearly six-in-ten (59%) of those who think homosexuality cannot be changed have a favorable opinion. This pattern holds even among groups of people who are similar in religious beliefs, partisan affiliation, and other factors."
So it is important to tackle this issue head on. In particular we need to address what groups like FotF claim about change given their prominence, popularity and perceived respectability. So what does FotF say about change?

The article discusses several aspects of change, many of which are rather vague. One such change is a "[c]hange in motivation," in which Johnston at least admits that most men who pursue change, "are initially motivated to seek change from homosexuality by fear, shame or guilt." He also mentions a "[c]hange in identity" in which he claims that all people are born heterosexual and that, "the Bible says that we humans are made male and female in the image of God – reflecting a heterosexual intent in our design – and that homosexual temptations do not define anyone." Johnston also seems to imply that most gay men, "feel victimized and rejected" but downplays the role of societal condemnation of homosexuality in such feelings.

In a particularly insulting section covering "[c]hange in relationships with men and women" Johnston mentions several "relational sins – often connected with the homosexual struggle" which include:
"o Lust – desiring to use another man for one’s own pleasure and fulfillment;
o Envy – wanting to own another’s masculinity, wanting to possess another person’s attributes;
o Contempt – looking down on “straight” men or women, despising men who are unattractive, old, or effeminate, or fearing and hating women;
o Control – wanting to control another’s behavior, affections, time, or thoughts; and,
o Lying – not telling the truth about what one thinks or feels in order to maintain a relationship, not being honest about thoughts, feelings, behaviors or attitudes."
 He of course cites no research that would support the idea that gay men are generally lusting, envious, contemptuous and controlling liars, he simply asserts it as fact. I for one do not seek to "use" other men (can one assume then that all straight men seek to "use" women?), nor have I ever felt envious of any of my boyfriends' masculinity. The idea that gay men "[fear] and [hate] women" seems particularly ridiculous. I suppose I can be a bit controlling, and years in the closet have certainly left me often feeling all too comfortable with lying to protect myself, but neither of these issues seem particularly relevant to my sexuality.

Now that we have an idea of how FotF and Johnston see homosexuality and, more importantly, how they believe men must change to even begin a 'journey to healing', let's take a look at what 'healing' actually means to them. Citing ex-gay author Joe Dallas Johnston writes:
"For many, same-sex attractions do change dramatically, and attractions for women develop. In his book, Desires in Conflict, Joe Dallas describes the reasonable expectations that many have experienced: 
o change in behavior;
o change in frequency of homosexual attractions;
o change in intensity of homosexual attractions; and,
o change in perspective – homosexuality is no longer a life-consuming or dominating issue. 
He goes on to write that many men also move into healthy other-sex relating. Although not everyone experiences this type of change, it doesn’t mean that it can not happen or hasn’t happened for many. There are myriad testimonies of men who have moved out of homosexual behavior and into healthy God-honoring heterosexual relationships."
I appreciate Johnston's honesty in mentioning that, "not everyone experiences this type of change," but let's be honest, that is not the part most people struggling with this issue will notice. What they will be drawn to is the claim that "reasonable expectations" involve "chang[ing] dramatically, and attractions for women develop[ing]." And further that, "many men also move into healthy other-sex relating," which of course implies heterosexual attractions. But are these claims honest? Do "many men" in these programs report "chang[ing] dramatically"?

There are two studies most commonly cited as proving change is possible, the Jones & Yarhouse study from 2007 (updated in 2009) and a 2003 study from Robert Spitzer. I want to look solely at the Jones & Yarhouse study because they are admittedly coming from a conservative Christian perspective. Not to mention Spitzer has claimed several times that his research has been misused by ex-gay advocates.

First I think it is important to define sexual orientation change. There is no doubt that some people engage in sexual behavior contrary to their sexual orientation. It is entirely possible for a homosexual to reject those feelings and engage in heterosexual behavior. But heterosexual behavior does not make someone heterosexual any more than homosexual behavior makes someone homosexual. Prison inmates who engage in homosexual behavior are certainly not homosexually oriented and will return to heterosexual behavior as soon as they are able to. So how should we define change in orientation? I would suggest that sexual orientation change would consist of the reduction, if not eradication, of homosexual feelings and the emergence of heterosexual feelings. Is that what Jones & Yarhouse found?

(Much of the information below is drawn from a critique of the Jones & Yarhouse study at Ex-Gay Watch. You can also find the authors' response there.)

First it is important to note that Jones & Yarhouse worked directly with and were funded by Exodus International, a Christian ex-gay group that promotes reparative therapy, to gather their sample. Further, while they claim that their study is longitudinal and prospective, which is to say that they followed participants from the beginning of their therapy and performed follow ups, in fact over 50% of their participants had sought treatment outside of Exodus for any number of years prior to their involvement with the organization. This is an issue because researchers acknowledge that past recollections are often inaccurate. A perfect study of sexual orientation change would measure participants orientation at the time they began attempting change, rather then asking them to recall 'how gay' they were when beginning therapy after having spent several years in that therapy. Unfortunately such studies are difficult and, to my knowledge, do not exist. And while Jones & Yarhouse did their best to overcome this problem, they tend to overstate their success in doing so.

Nevertheless Jones & Yarhouse's findings are interesting and informative. Of the 98 participants 11 claimed to have changed, with one recanting that claim later. That even one of their successes recanted is important to note given that this was not a long-term study and the authors admit the possibility that more of their successful cases could potentially recant later. And how do the authors define change? Well of the 10 successful cases (I'm not counting the one who recanted) one admited to still having unwanted homosexual attractions and another claimed to still have homoerotic dreams. Jones & Yarhouse also counted 23 individuals who had committed themselves to celibacy as successes, even while admitting that they had not experienced any “strong movement toward heterosexual attraction." It also has to be noted that those involved in ex-gay ministries and programs are potentially motivated to misrepresent their condition, possibly skewing the data further. And finally Yarhouse himself, in a recent edition of Edification: The Transdisciplinary Journal Of Christian Psychology, wrote:
"If attractions do not necessarily signal an identity, it became clear that there was an important distinction to be made between sexual attractions, a homosexual orientation, and a gay identity (Yarhouse, 2005). This “three-tier distinction” moves from descriptive to prescriptive, by which I mean that talking about same-sex attractions is a descriptive account of a person’s experiences: “I experience sexual attraction to the same sex.” Personal identity is still subject to further reflection. 
From my perspective, a focus on orientation can mistakenly assume that the traditional Christian sexual ethic in some way hinges on the causes of homosexuality and whether a homosexual orientation can change. Sexual identity, in contrast, focuses the discussion on an endpoint by bringing to the foreground patterns of behavior and an identity that reflects that over time. 
It may be helpful, then, to distinguish between what is in a person’s effective will. The experience of same-sex attraction is not in a person’s effective will, at least not in the same way as behavior and identity is. Most people I have met who are sorting out sexual identity questions find themselves attracted to the same sex; they did not choose to experience same-sex attractions. What they are choosing is whether or not to integrate their experiences of attractions into a gay identity."
Here Yarhouse is admitting what many gay activists have long claimed, ex-gays do not change their core sexual orientation, rather they alter their behavior and identity. This is not at all the kind of 'change' promised by Johnston and FotF. And furthermore Jones & Yarhouse, in their 2009 update to the study, offered this cautionary statement:
"[W]hile we found that part of our research population experienced success to the degree that it might be called (as we have here) “conversion,” our evidence does not indicate that these changes are categorical, resulting in uncomplicated, dichotomous and unequivocal reversal of sexual orientation from utterly homosexual to utterly heterosexual. Most of the individuals who reported that they were heterosexual at T6 did not report themselves to be without experience of homosexual arousal, and they did not report their heterosexual orientation to be unequivocal and uncomplicated."
Stanton Jones has been quoted as having said the following:
"A typical hetero male finds himself attracted to a wide range of females. But among the successful people who reported conversion the typical response was 'I'm very happy with my sexual responses to my wife, but I don't experience much hetero attraction to other women.' Also, when asked and pressed about whether they still find attraction to men, they will say: ‘Yes, if I let my mind go in that direction.' "
So it would seem that clients of reparative therapy programs do remain homosexual, even if they alter their identity and/or behavior. Again, this is not even remotely the kind of dramatic change promised by FotF in Johnston's article. And given that true sexual orientation change is likely impossible, and even 'conversion' as Jones & Yarhouse define it is rare, one must ask whether such therapies are actually worth undertaking. In particular it is important to know whether those who do not 'succeed' (i.e. the majority) at such conversion attempts are harmed.

Jones & Yarhouse actually researched the potential for harm from such programs in their study. While the authors claimed that no such harm was found, the testimony of their subjects said otherwise. Some participants claimed to experience feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, frustration, loneliness and emptiness. Others claim that their faith was damaged and that they felt like they had wasted an enormous amount of their lives. The authors themselves even admit to knowledge of anecdotal evidence of individuals committing suicide after failing to change. This all begs the question, how many 'success stories' are required to come out of these programs to outweigh the worse case scenario of suicide? How many ex-gays are worth the life of one such 'failure'?

*For a comprehensive review of the literature on reparative therapy see the American Psychological Association's report 'Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation'.

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