In the name of change, what hurts?

Recently, I received an email from Michael Bussee asking me to consider the harmful aspects of trying to change sexual orientation. My first reaction was to remind him of the prior posts on the blog regarding potentially harmful practices and perspectives. I may be one of the few social conservatives to leave the zone of comfort and openly question the status quo among those who work toward change. And I have been clear that I work for congruence with values rather than focus on change. Part of the rationale behind the sexual identity therapy framework was to address practices which can exacerbate the kinds of experiences Michael described in his email. Here is his list:

Overpromises hurt

Being told you are sick or damaged hurts.

Parents are hurt when they are blamed.

Wives and kids are hurt by ill-advised marriages.

Those with serious psychitric problems are hurt by “counselors” with no training or expertise.

Vague definitions of “change” hurt.

False advertising hurts.

Shunning hurts.

Blaming and shaming hurt

“You are not enough, did not try hard enough and don’t have enough faith” messages hurt.

Being told you are not saved and were never really a Christian anyway hurts.

Being told that you will now burn for all etermity — because you could not achieve the ill-defined “change” hurts.

I agree that some approaches to change may result in these hurts. For instance, one person told me that they sought help from one change therapist because he promised change would occur if the therapist’s program was followed precisely. After a year, despite following the program, there was no change in attractions, and the client felt disillusioned and defeated. Another person told me that he came forward in a church service for healing prayer. Despite words of knowledge for healing, the same-sex attractions persisted. He was sure he lacked faith and felt farther away from God. I have written about similar results in my article, A Valued Life. My friend, Jim, had tried change approaches and reflected back in this way:

A few years ago, when I was debating whether or not to “embrace” my homosexuality, I heard a radio broadcast from a ministry I trusted. I still highly respect them, even today. But I believe that they have blinders on, that allow them to see homosexuality in only one way. Anyway, I listened to the broadcast on homosexuality, complete with some very moving testimonies. And then the host came on and said, essentially, that homosexuality was a sickness, and Jesus Christ was in the business of healing. Well, I’ve been a Christian since 1971, have asked God to take my attractions to men away so many times I’ve lost count, and still struggle with it.

It was a moment of complete hopelessness.

While I have not addressed all of Michael’s list, I believe sexual identity counselors and ministry leaders should evaluate our work to avoid harmful practices. I have consistently spoken to the need to examine theories and techniques for fidelity to research and ethical practice. No one is immune from error however, and we need to approach this arena with care and as much humility as frail human beings can muster. While I believe sexual identity ministry has achieved great benefit in the lives of many, this does not take away the harm that has occured. I hope to keep learning and will continue to promote and refine the sexual identity therapy framework for the better.