NARTH issues statement on sexual orientation change

Apparently in response to Alan Chambers’ candor about sexual orientation change, the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality issued a clarification of what that organization means by change.

Issued January 27, the statement reads in full:

Current discussions of homosexual sexual orientation change are unavoidably occurring within a sociopolitical climate that makes nonpartisan scientific inquiry of this subject very difficult.  In light of this reality, a few considerations are crucial for accurately understanding the sometimes contradictory opinions regarding the possibility of sexual orientation change.   First and foremost, it is important to recognize that how change is conceptualized has vast implications for our thinking about change.  Some of the more ardent proponents and opponents of homosexual sexual orientation change may view change in strictly categorical terms, where change is an all-or-nothing experience.  Proponents and opponents with this view differ only in the direction of their desired outcome.  Proponents of change understood in categorical terms may view a homosexual sexual orientation as a lifestyle choice that merely needs to be renounced. Opponents who take this viewpoint, on the other hand, may conceive of sexual orientation as essentially hard wired and simply not modifiable.  NARTH does not support either of these perspectives.

NARTH believes that much of the expressed pessimism regarding sexual orientation change is a consequence of individuals intentionally or inadvertently adopting a categorical conceptualization of change. When change is viewed in absolute terms, then any future experience of same-sex attraction (or any other challenge), however fleeting or diminished, is considered a refutation of change. Such assertions likely reflect an underlying categorical view of change, probably grounded in an essentialist view of homosexual sexual orientation that assumes same-sex attractions are the natural and immutable essence of a person.  What needs to be remembered is that the de-legitimizing of change solely on the basis of a categorical view of change is virtually unparalleled for any challenge in the psychiatric literature.  For example, applying a categorical standard for change would mean that any subsequent reappearance of depressive mood following treatment for depression should be viewed as an invalidation of significant and genuine change, no matter how infrequently depressive symptoms reoccur or how diminished in intensity they are if subsequently re-experienced.  Similar arguments could be made for any number of conditions, including grief, alcoholism, or marital distress.  The point is not to equate these conditions with homosexuality, but rather to highlight the inconsistency of applying the categorical standard only to reported changes in unwanted same-sex attractions.

Rather than pigeonholing homosexual sexual orientation change into categorical terms, NARTH believes that it is far more helpful and accurate to conceptualize such change as occurring on a continuum.  This is in fact how sexual orientation is defined in most modern research, starting with the well known Kinsey scales, even as subsequent findings pertinent to change are often described in categorical terms. NARTH affirms that some individuals who seek care for unwanted same-sex attractions do report categorical change of sexual orientation.  Moreover, NARTH acknowledges that others have reported no change. However, the experience of NARTH clinicians suggests that the majority of individuals who report unwanted same-sex attractions and pursue psychological care will be best served by conceptualizing change as occurring on a continuum, with many being able to achieve sustained shifts in the direction and intensity of their sexual attractions, fantasy, and arousal that they consider to be satisfying and meaningful. NARTH believes that a profound disservice is done to those with unwanted same-sex attractions by characterizing such shifts in sexual attractions as a denial of their authentic (and gay) personhood or a change in identity labeling alone.  Attempts to invalidate all reports of such shifts by presuming they are not grounded in actual experience insults the integrity of these individuals and posits wishful thinking on an untenably massive scale.

Finally, it also needs to be observed that reports on the potential for sexual orientation change may be unduly pessimistic based on the confounding factor of type of intervention.  Most of the recent research on homosexual sexual orientation change has focused on religiously mediated outcomes which may differ significantly from outcomes derived through professional psychological care.  It is not unreasonable to anticipate that the probability of change would be greater with informed psychotherapeutic care, although definitive answers to this question await further research.  NARTH remains highly interested in conducting such research, pursuant only to the acquisition of sufficient funding.

To summarize, then, those who are  highly pessimistic regarding change in sexual orientation appear to have assumed a categorical view of change, which is neither in keeping with how sexual orientation has been defined in the literature nor with how change is conceptualized for nearly all other psychological challenges.  NARTH believes that viewing change as occurring on a continuum is a preferable therapeutic approach and more likely to create realistic expectancies among consumers of change-oriented intervention.  With this in mind, NARTH remains committed to protecting the rights of clients with unwanted same-sex attractions to pursue change as well as the rights of clinicians to provide such psychological care.

I hope to post something on this Monday or Tuesday; but for now here is NARTH’s official word on the subject of orientation change. Discuss…

NARTH: Does the research speak for itself?

Writing in defense of unnamed NARTH leaders, Julie Hamilton recently said on the NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) website:

NARTH will continue its mission as a scientific organization despite the propaganda, and the research will continue to speak for itself.

However, then just across the page, one encounters a “NARTH Research Report” titled, Health Risks: Fisting and other Homosexual Practices. NARTH authors Michelle Cretella and Philip Sutton suggest that gay advocacy group GLSEN is currently teaching high school kids that fisting is safe practice. However, the authors fail to say that the incidents provoking their article happened 9 and 10 years ago. The NARTH article begins by framing the concern over those incidents as being in “recent weeks” but the incidents are old news. I am no fan of GLSEN’s conferences or reading list, but why use old news as a hook?

Furthermore, the article is a clear effort to associate risky practices with gays in a way similar to that being used now by Martin Ssempa in Uganda. However, the title and tone of the article overlooks an important fact – some heterosexuals also engage in those practices. In fact, if you go on and look up the practices referenced in this article, you will find how-to books written for straights (actually just take my word for it). Would a scientific organization claiming to provide science on sexuality overlook such things?

Now after a brief selective review of opinion and some studies, the authors determine that all things gay are harmful and lead to dysfunction. The studies don’t actually say that but most studies do find that homosexuals as a group report more psychiatric problems than straights and that there are risks associated with some sexual practices. However, the scientific train goes off the track with the conclusion.

Conclusion: An adolescent’s desire to prevent or cease experiencing serious medical, psychological, and relational health risks is sufficient reason for him or her to seek and receive competent psychological care to minimize or resolve the desires, behaviors and lifestyles associated with such increased risks.

Translation: If you experience same-sex attraction, better get some reparative therapy quick so you can avoid all the nastiness.

A scientific organization would then offer research the benefit of reparative therapy for mental health outcomes. The claim in the conclusion above is that changing orientation will allow you to avoid the problems NARTH finds with being gay. However, the problem with the claim is that those studies have not been done. To evaluate Cretella and Sutton’s conclusion, one would want to assess the mental health of ex-gays and gays and see who has the best outcomes.* Or one would expect to see large gains in mental health outcomes as the result of the therapy NARTH proposes. Where are the studies?

An author Cretella and Sutton quote is David Fergusson. Last year, Fergusson had this to say about a similar NARTH review of homosexuality and health risks:

While the NARTH statement provides a comprehensive and accurate analysis of the linkages between sexual orientation and mental health, the paper falls far short of demonstrating that homosexuality should be classified as a psychiatric disorder that may be resolved by appropriate therapy. To demonstrate this thesis requires an in depth understanding of the biological and social pathways that explain the linkages between homosexual orientation and mental health. At present we lack that understanding. Furthermore it is potentially misleading to treat what may be a correlate of mental disorder as though it were a disorder in its own right.

Fergusson also told me that studies designed to demonstrate positive changes in mental health via reparative therapy have not been done. In other words, there are no guarantees that changing orientation, if it could be accomplished in the manner suggested by Cretella and Sutton, would alter the mental health differences currently observed between gay and straight groups.

Julie Harren-Hamilton says the scientific research will speak for itself. However, just across the page, we have two authors providing a conclusion without adequate research. Apparently, on the NARTH website, the research needs a little help to speak in advance.

*There was a study which found better mental health outcomes among a sample of gays than an Exodus sample but this has not been replicated to my knowledge. Nottebaum, L. J., Schaeffer, K. W., Rood, J., & Leffler, D. (2000). Sexual orientation—A comparison study. Manuscript submitted for publication. (Available from Kim Schaeffer, Department of Psychology, Point Loma Nazarene University, 3900 Lomaland Drive, San Diego, CA 92106).

Another study of some relevance is the study of Exodus participants from Jones and Yarhouse. They found that their entire group of participants experienced enhanced mental health over the study period. Inconvenient for the NARTH claim is that the entire sample, whether gay or ex-gay, experienced improved health from Time 1 to Time 6.