A Few Thoughts on “Reparative Therapy”

I’m sorry to be harping on gay stuff of late. I know it’s not hugely interesting to read about incessantly. But, unfortunately for you, my poor reader, this blog is primarily a place for me to think ‘out loud’ and this has been what’s been on my mind lately. And, there will probably be more to come in the coming weeks. Just to warn you.

Lately, the issue of ‘reparative therapy’ — also known as sexual reorientation therapy or de-gaying therapy — has been in the news, with word that several major psychiatric groups are moving to ban it outright and that the UN (generally not a big player in issues like this) considers it to be dangerous. Naturally, social conservative groups which endorse this therapeutic approach are crying foul and accusing the psychiatric profession of yielding to political pressure from gay rights groups, while social liberal groups are hailing these movements to ban the therapy (any chance they get to use the tired joke about “praying the gay away”). Out of the morass of opinion, two articles caught my attention. The first is a fascinating article on Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a hugely influential psychiatrist who drove the push in the 1970s to have homosexuality declassified as a mental illness but who also later published a study suggesting that reparative therapy could be helpful in reorienting human sexuality for those who were ‘highly motivated’ to do so. Spitzer feels his research, which he now admits was flawed in its framework, was wrongly seized by social conservative groups, and now essentially recants his study’s findings. (It’s a great read, even if only for a window into how the psychiatric profession works.) The second article was written by Gabriel Arana, a journalist who underwent reparative therapy as a teenager and recounts the history of the therapy, its main ideas, his own experiences with it (and its aftermath), and Dr. Spitzer’s refutation of his own study.

There is much that can be said about these issues. And again, I fear my thoughts are too conservative for my liberal friends but too liberal for my conservative friends.

I never underwent reparative therapy per se, though I did read many books and websites from its proponents and practitioners and for a time accepted its general premise — that homosexuality has environmental causes and sexual orientation can be shifted along a spectrum. I also have a few friends who did undergo this therapy. From their accounts and my own limited experience, I think Mr. Arana’s experiences and reflections are pretty much spot on.

By way of personal reflection, I can relate to his initial experience of buying into the arguments of reparative therapy. Still to this day, I’m not convinced homosexuality is entirely innate. There just isn’t a lot of evidence on either side. I’ve also seen people whose sexual orientation has evolved over time. In terms of the therapy’s specific beliefs, the central idea is that homosexuality in men has a three-pronged cause: a distant father, an over-involved mother, and a sensitive boy. Initially, this seemed to match my own background, or at least it provided a convenient lens through which to understand my background. I first encountered these materials in my early twenties, when my relationship with my dad was at its lowest point and when I was simultaneously trying to engage the patterns and behaviours ingrained in me from my family and set aright relationships that had become distorted over the years. On the surface, it all seemed to fit. I also bought into the material’s theories about the nature of same-sex attractions, such as the ‘cannibalistic’ idea that homosexuals are attracted to those who embody characteristics they feel are lacking in themselves (so that it is less wanting to be with someone as it is wanting to be them) or the ‘projection’ idea that homosexuals attempt to project some ‘ideal’ of masculinity and are attracted to men who project the same things (thus explaining ‘matchy matchy’ couples, which I admit I find disturbing! Haha!). So, while I never underwent this kind of therapy, it did have a strong influence on how I thought about my sexuality for a few years (and to be honest, I still appreciate the ‘cannibalistic’ and ‘projection’ ideas as they have helped me sort out a couple unhealthy crushes!).

As time went on, however, I began to have strong doubts and concerns. The more I thought about the ‘origin myth’, the more flawed I found it. As convenient as it was to find responsibility in my upbringing at a time when I was harboring deep resentments towards my dad and trying to right a relationship with my mom that had become problematic over the years, I couldn’t ignore the facts which disputed such a cause: While I was never ‘close’ with my dad, he was not cold or distant and he certainly did make an effort to support me as a child. He was mainly just overworked and didn’t know how to connect with a son wired very differently from him. Really, this could probably describe 75% of fathers in the 1980s! The notion that such a minor ‘offense’ could have such huge consequences for my life seemed out of line. (Theologically speaking, it also seemed bizarre that God would make something as foundational as human sexuality so fragile that the slightest dysfunction in family dynamics could throw it completely out of whack.) Moreover, I became aware of my sexual orientation during the very season of my childhood in which my relationship with my father was at its strongest. And, while I was always close to my mom, I certainly can’t say she was overbearing or over-involved, or that our relationship was unhealthily close until long long after my sexuality was already established. I also had a nagging worry that connections between this kind of family backgound and homosexuality were a chicken and egg problem: were the tendencies advocates of reparative therapy noted causes of homosexuality or the result of nascently homosexual children being differently wired? The materials I read never sufficiently addressed this for my peace of mind. And of course, these concerns have been borne out as time has gone by, as I have met many gay men who have had extraordinarily close relationships with their fathers since childhood, or who understood themselves as homosexual from a very young age (as early as 3 and 5).

Also, there was the issue that — even accepting their theories as to the origins of homosexual attraction — understanding why something is the way it is does not change it. This is probably the biggest reason why I moved away from these materials over time. I was exposed to the wisdom of professionals and pastors with many years’ experience who testified that the miracle stories in the literature were rare exceptions. I also saw that the groups I was following online abandoned sexual reorientation ideas and either focused on abstinence or, more commonly, turned 180 degrees and became gay advocacy and support groups. Most importantly, even my cursory engagement with the material seemed to be bearing unhealthy fruit in subtle ways. I began to second guess my every interaction with male friends. I began to see myself as psychologically damaged and convinced myself that I would therefore be unable to truly love someone in a healthy way. My life also became a roller-coaster of false hope and crushing defeats, where I overvalued any perceived ‘improvement’ and became increasingly depressed and frustrated when that ‘improvement’ evaporated. And, lastly, when I did consider my attractions, I found that very few were of the nature predicted by what I had read. For all these reasons, I gravitated more towards the Christian ascetic tradition and away from the therapeutic movement as time went on, and therefore had a largely negative opinion of it well before the events of my own life made me engage my sexuality in different ways.

I think this is where the current push against reparative therapy is (correctly) coming from. The ‘success’ rate is very low and highly subjective, and the effects of this kind of therapy are often very negative, increasing depression and even suicidal ideation. Since there are no known psychological issues inherent in having homosexual attraction or in pursing same-sex relationships, the ‘cure’ (so to speak) is far more dangerous than the ‘problem’ psychologically speaking.

The tricky thing is that, even if there are no clinical reasons for pursuing this kind of therapy, people can be strongly motivated by their religious beliefs to seek assistance in dealing with their sexual orientation in ways which are consistent with their faith. This is, of course, why the old line psychiatric community joined forces with conservative Christian groups as they did in this area. And it’s also why Dr. Spitzer performed the maligned study in the first place: He wanted the psychiatric community to engage the experiences of people of faith who claimed to have changed their sexual orientation. The question for pastoral care workers and faith-based therapists then becomes, if not reparative therapy, then what?

Despite my own experiences (and in some cases because of them), I believe whole-heartedly that faith communities have a right to decide what behaviours and beliefs are appropriate for their adherents, provided these boundaries are upheld in a loving, gracious, and merciful way. And, I will actively support those who seek to remain celibate or hold on to hope of some degree of ‘healing’ because of their faith commitments (I have much to say about this, but will leave it for a future post), provided they are doing it out of genuine love and not out of fear or shame. How should the Church respond to these people? This too is a big topic that I will have to leave for another post.

This has been a lot longer than I’d intended and I’m not actually sure if there’s a point, other than to say that — despite the few things I appreciate about it or am not entirely convinced it has wrong –reparative therapy is dubious at best and actively dangerous at worst. While conservative Christians should be applauded for the pastoral intentions behind it (no matter what you think about it or how different your assumptions about human sexuality may be, it is a thousand times better than the blame and shame game too often employed in these circles!), they would do well to listen to the psychiatric community and abandon its use.

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