Study supporting gay conversion challenged

Published: October 4, 2011

A study designed by professors from two religious universities says that some people can change their sexual orientation after undergoing years of a ministry program.

“Evidence from the study suggested that change of homosexual orientation appears possible for some and that psychological distress did not increase on average as a result of the involvement in the change process,” wrote the authors of a study published in The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy.

The authors are both psychologists who work at religious universities. Stanton Jones is a psychology professor and provost at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and Mark Yarhouse is a professor of mental health at Regent University, in Virginia Beach, which was founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.

Their study findings have been challenged by other researchers who say that the bulk of the existing evidence indicates that sexual orientation does not change. Gay advocacy blogs have also disputed the findings.

Jones and Yarhouse’s study followed 65 participants over a course of six to seven years as they attended Exodus Ministries, a religious program for “individuals and families impacted by homosexuality.”  The individuals who attend the program seek to achieve “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,” according to Exodus.

“It’s a study for people who are highly religious who are distressed by the experience of attraction,” Yarhouse said.  “They want to know, is it even possible?  What might I experience if I go into religious-based ministry?”

Initially, the study enrolled 98 individuals, but 35 dropped out of the program. Some who quit the study said they had been “healed of all homosexual inclinations,” and one person had re-embraced his gay identity, according to the study.

The courses were offered in 16 locations around the United States and met in small groups, spending time in prayer and reading the Bible.

The study authors followed "the change process" of the participants by conducting annual interviews, asking the same questions about sexual attraction, emotional or romantic infatuation and sexual fantasies.  They used scales devised by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and another measure called Shively-DeCecco scale.

Jones and Yarhouse’s hypothesis was that sexual orientation is changeable.

After following the participants for six to seven years of the religious program, they concluded that 23% of the remaining people in the study were successful in changing their sexual orientation toward heterosexuality.  And 30% turned toward chastity, which Yarhouse said was “a reduction from homosexual attraction.”

Also, 23% did not respond to the ministry’s treatment, 20% embraced their gay sexual orientation and the remaining percent reported confusion.

“The findings of this study appear to contradict the commonly expressed view that sexual orientation is not changeable,” the authors wrote.

The American Psychological Association declared in 2005 that homosexuality was not changeable. The association had also stated that there was no evidence that conversion or reparative therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation was safe or effective.

“The APA was making pretty strong statements that orientation really doesn’t change and that attempts to do so would be harmful,” said Yarhouse. “They were presenting absolutist claims about this immutability of orientation and great risk of harm.  They were ideal questions for research.  Can people change? Or is it truly an immutable characteristic?”

Eli Coleman, professor and director of Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School was skeptical about the findings.

“We’ve been through this over and over,” he said.  “You can get behavioral changes, but that’s not orientation change. You can get short-term behavioral change. It’s not sustained.”

Yarhouse emphasized that his findings followed the participants for several years.  He acknowledged that there are many in the LGBT community who find religious conversion programs “deeply offensive.”  But he said there are gay people who wish to change and do not embrace the gay identity or the gay community.

“I’d like to see mental health organizations to show greater respect for diversity for how a person chooses to live their life and live this out,” Yarhouse said.

The study could be confusing sexual identity and sexual orientation, which are distinctly different, said Dr. Jack Drescher, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College.

Sexual orientation refers to whom a person is attracted to, and in most cases, does not change, he said.  But sexual identity is how a person feels about his or her orientation and sexual feelings, Drescher said.

For example, a man may feel strong attraction to males, but he may not self-identify as gay.  He could change the way he identifies himself, whether it’s gay or straight throughout his life.  But his sexual orientation does not usually change.

"I don’t think we have anything really new here," said Coleman.  "We have known for sometime that some people are able to shift their behavior and their perception of their sexual identity through these attempts at conversion."

Drescher said the majority of the existing scientific evidence doesn’t support the latest study’s findings.

“I think the authors have a bias and I have a bias,” Drescher said.  “Everybody has a bias. That’s why we have accumulation of data – and that doesn’t support their data.”

“There are peer-reviewed studies in the literature and the sum of all the literature does not indicate these treatments are effective,” he said.  “If one study comes out that seems to contradict the bulk of the scientific research that proves that people can change – that’s interesting, can they replicate it?”

Drescher also said that the study doesn’t explore whether bisexuality played a role in the reported sexual orientation changes.

He disagreed with the findings that religious therapies do not harm people, saying he had several patients who blamed themselves after failing programs and fell into depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

“They’re told it’s up to them if they don’t change,” Drescher said. “When it fails, as it fails in majority of cases, they feel like failures, after they’ve spent time and effort and money.

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