Spontaneous change compared to therapeutically mediated change

Something has been bothering me, running around in my head since I did the brief series of posts on Dean Byrd’s review of LDS book, In Quiet Desperation (here, here and here).

In their review of Ty Mansfield’s book, Byrd et al make this statement:

The book inadvertently limits the power of the Atonement in the lives of people who struggle with homosexual attraction. As professionals with many combined years of practice in treating those with unwanted homosexual attraction, we have witnessed changes in the lives of many of these individuals, and the epiphanies have been many.

Like all emotional challenges, the outcome data has ranges of success. What is clear is that when the same standard applied to treatment outcomes of similarly situated difficulties is applied to the treatment outcomes of those with unwanted homosexuality, the results are remarkably similar. There is much in the professional treatment protocols that are compatible with the restored gospel. Appropriate professional help along with the healing powers of the gospel have repeatedly convinced us that there is no struggle for which the Atonement is not sufficient.

There are several things that bother me about these two paragraphs, but for now I want to focus on this sentence:

What is clear is that when the same standard applied to treatment outcomes of similarly situated difficulties is applied to the treatment outcomes of those with unwanted homosexuality, the results are remarkably similar.

Despite a claim of clarity, nothing is particularly clear to me about treatment outcomes for “unwanted homosexuality.” It is not clear to me what other conditions are “similarly situated” in comparison to same-sex attraction. This was not explained.

However, my thoughts about outcomes ran to the studies reported in the NARTH literature review of sexual reorientation, the Jones and Yarhouse study and the usual reparative therapy contention that change results were along a continuum – one-third dramatically changed, one-third somewhat changed and one-third not changed. However, whatever numbers one likes, one cannot put it in context without a control or comparison situation. Another term for this in this context is spontaneous remission. Don’t some people change in various ways for reasons unrelated to therapy?

Certainly that is the case for other situations which are the proper focus of therapy. Note this abstract for a study of improvement rated by patients at a community mental health center in Utah.

It was hypothesized that outpatient psychotherapy in a mental health center would result in an improvement rate of 65% or more, a spontaneous remission rate of 36% or less, and a difference of at least 29% from gain in improvement due to therapy. The analysis of 201 follow-up questionnaires supported all three hypothesis. A five-year follow-up questionnaire provided evidence for external validity in the form of a correlation between original improvement rate and subsequent need for outpatient treatment and inpatient treatment. The results were interpreted as being significant evidence for the efficacy of psychotherapy and for the validity of self-report method of measuring improvement and spontaneous remission.

Note that the rate of improvement was significantly higher than expected based on a spontaneous improvement rate of 36% or less. The authors had reasons to predict this rate and took it into account when assessing the meaning of a 65% improvement rate overall. 

My point is not to compare sexual reorientation to mental health improvement near Salt Lake City, Utah. However, I want to raise the issue that considering spontaneous improvement is important when one is communicating the meaning of changes reported without a control group. There are a couple of studies which have looked at spontaneous change, although none would be directly comparable to any current studies of sexual reorientation. Diamond found spontaneous change in her study of 100 women. In 2005, Kinnish, Strassburg and Turner reported varying levels of sexual orientation flexibility in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Their report found that 19% of men and 17% of women in their sample moved in a heterosexual direction (from gay to bisexual,  or bisexual to straight — none went from exclusively gay to exclusively straight). In 2003, Dickson, Paul and Herbison reported spontaneous change in a New Zealand cohort. The chart of movement can be viewed here. Note that 5 of 15 went from some same-sex attraction to only heterosexual attraction and none from “major attraction to the same sex” to straight.  

While these studies are suggestive, they cannot be directly compared to existing studies of sexual reorientation.  However, the fact that some men with some same-sex attraction and many women might shift spontaneously should be taken into account when thinking about the role of therapy in mediating sexual orientation change.

The Dickson study is intriguing in that the results can be interpreted as supporting the existence of different types of homosexual orientation. About their results, the authors note in the abstract:

These findings show that much same-sex attraction is not exclusive and is unstable in early adulthood, especially among women. The proportion of women reporting some same-sex attraction in New Zealand is high compared both to men, and to women in the UK and US. These observations, along with the variation with education, are consistent with a large role for the social environment in the acknowledgement of same-sex attraction. The smaller group with major same-sex attraction, which changed less over time, and did not differ by education, is consistent with a basic biological dimension to sexual attraction. Overall these findings argue against any single explanation for homosexual attraction.

To me, this is a reasonable hypothesis. I believe there are multiple pathways to adult sexual orientation and for some, apparently the social context means more than for others. Also, for some the trait may continue to shift around through life with changing circumstances, yet for others, not at all.

UPDATE: In an odd attack piece, the gay website Queerty reads this post (actually the Crosswalk version) as a kind of strange defense of change therapies or change of orientation in general.  A commenter named Timothy (is it our Timothy?) gets the point, but whoever writes for them and the commenters thus far over there are clueless.