Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Curing" Homosexuality

Recently my friend Brian shared with me an interesting article from Scientific America. Written by Thomas Maier and entitled, “Can Psychiatrists Really ‘Cure’ Homosexuality?”, this article examines the “research” work purportedly conducted in the 1970s by William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The findings from their supposed study of homosexuals have been used for decades by right-wing religious groups (including Catholics) to support the idea that gay people can be converted to heterosexuality.

I’ve had proponents of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality tell me that the Church and groups like Courage aren’t into “conversion” therapy. Yet as Maier points out, as recently as 2006 the Catholic Medical Association cited Masters and Johnson to support its statement that science “counters the myth that same-sex attraction is genetically predetermined and unchangeable, and offers hope for prevention and treatment.”

Closer to home, Fr. Jim Livingston, chaplain of the Courage group here in the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese, stated in a February 2, 2009 letter to priests and deacons of the archdiocese that Courage (which goes by the name of “Faith in Action” in Minnesota) is “supportive of those persons who seek re-orientation of their sexual attractions through prayer and therapy.”

Courage also has an embarrassing and reprehensible connection with the largely discredited National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) - an organization that insists homosexuality is a disorder that is not only chosen, but can be changed through effort. NARTH’s findings and methodology are seldom, if ever, offered to peer-reviewed journals for critical analysis. In short, the group lacks any respect from the wider scientific community. Despite this, the founder of Courage, Fr, John Harvey, frequently invited as a major presenter to his workshops the late Peter Rudegeair, a member of NARTH and a clinical psychologist who was a major proponent of discredited (by all mainstream medical and mental health professional associations) theories advocating reparative, or change, therapy for gay men and lesbians.

Since November 2007 the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has attempted to promote NARTH as a credible scientific organization. For instance, in the November 8 issue of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the archdiocese, Fr. Livingston
endorsed NARTH by citing the organization as a useful resource and by encouraging people to visit its website so as “to learn . . . about the emotional root causes of homosexuality.” Fr. Livingston also recommended an audio CD of a talk given by NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi, an individual whom Archbishop Nienstedt, when he was a bishop in Detroit, invited to speak to the priests of the archdiocese as an “expert” on homosexuality. Not surprisingly, many Catholics are concerned by the archdiocese’s increasing reliance on the discredited perspective and “findings” of NARTH to support and validate Church teaching on homosexuality.

No doubt NARTH cites as foundational the “research” of Masters and Johnson when promoting its views on homosexuality – the Catholic Medical Association, as noted above, certainly does. Yet as Thomas Maier’s article shows, the “gay conversion” therapy pioneered by the couple and used by all manner of conservative religious groups has never been proved.


Can Psychiatrists Really “Cure” Homosexuality?
By Thomas Maier
Scientific America
April 22, 2009

Masters and Johnson claimed to convert gays
to heterosexuality in a 1979 book. But did they?

A British survey published last month found that one in 25 therapists would assist gay and bisexual patients attempting to convert to heterosexuality. That’s despite the fact that many medical groups, including the American Medical Association, have for years condemned such practices, saying they don’t work and can actually cause harm.

It may not be surprising that Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson and televangelist pastor Jerry Falwell, among many others, have supported programs designed to convert homosexuals away from “sin” and into the arms of God-fearing heterosexuality. But what may surprise you is one of the research sources cited by the Catholic Medical Association in 2006 when it declared that science “counters the myth that same-sex attraction is genetically predetermined and unchangeable, and offers hope for prevention and treatment.”

That source? William Masters and Virginia Johnson, a husband–wife team who are perhaps the world's most famous sex researchers.

Back in 1979, on Meet The Press and countless other TV appearances, Masters and Johnson touted their book, Homosexuality in Perspective — a 14-year study of more than 300 homosexual men and women — hoping to build on their groundbreaking sex studies of heterosexuals that had helped ignite America’s sexual revolution. The results seemed impressive: Of the 67 male and female patients with “homosexual dissatisfaction,” only 14 failed in the initial two-week “conversion” or “reversion” treatment. (The 12 cases of attempted “conversion” were for men and women who had always believed they were homosexual and were troubled by it, while the 55 “reversion” cases were in people who believed their homosexuality was more fleeting.) During five years of follow-up, their success rate for both groups was better than 70 percent.

But were Masters and Johnson’s claims of “conversion” in those 12 cases – nine men and three women – even true?

Prior to the book’s publication, doubts arose about the validity of their case studies. Most staffers never met any of the conversion cases during the study period of 1968 through 1977, according to research I’ve done for my new book Masters of Sex. Clinic staffer Lynn Strenkofsky, who organized patient schedules during this period, says she never dealt with any conversion cases. Marshall and Peggy Shearer, perhaps the clinic’s most experienced therapy team in the early 1970s, says they never treated homosexuals and heard virtually nothing about conversion therapy.

When the clinic’s top associate, Robert Kolodny, asked to see the files and to hear the tape-recordings of these “storybook” cases, Masters refused to show them to him. Kolodny — who had never seen any conversion cases himself — began to suspect some, if not all, of the conversion cases were not entirely true. When he pressed Masters, it became ever clearer to him that these were at best composite case studies made into single ideal narratives, and at worst they were fabricated.

Eventually Kolodny approached Virginia Johnson privately to express his alarm. She, too, held similar suspicions about Masters’ conversion theory, though publicly she supported him. The prospect of public embarrassment, of being exposed as a fraud, greatly upset Johnson, a self-educated therapist who didn’t have a college degree and depended largely on her husband’s medical expertise.

With Johnson’s approval, Kolodny spoke to their publisher about a delay, but it came too late in the process. “That was a bad book,” Johnson recalled decades later. Johnson said she favored a rewriting and revision of the whole book “to fit within the existing [medical] literature,” and feared that Bill simply didn’t know what he was talking about. At worst, she said, “Bill was being creative in those days” in the compiling of the “gay conversion” case studies.

Until he died in 2001 Masters felt confident their book would be embraced eventually by the medical community, not just by purveyors of religious or political agendas. He believed the prospect of “conversion” therapy offered more hope, more freedom to patients than psychoanalysis ever could. “The criticisms are based on old concepts,” Masters replied dismissively to the press. “We’re reporting on 10 years of work with five years of follow-up—and it works.”

But despite his claims, the success of Masters’ “gay conversion” therapy have never been proved.

Thomas Maier is the author of Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How To Love, published by Basic Books.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Debunking NARTH (Part 1)
Debunking NARTH (Part 2)
“Conversion Therapy” and the Pseudo Science of NARTH
Former “Ex-Gay” Shares His Experience of NARTH
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!
Far from “Innocuous”
The Dreaded “Same-Sex Attracted” View of Catholicism
The Real Meaning of Courage
The Many Forms of Courage (Part I)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part 2)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part 3)
Beyond Courage
What Scientists in the UK Are Saying About Homosexuality
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace

Recommended Off-site Links:
Box Turtle Bulletin
Truth Wins Out


Brian R said...

Back in 1970 I underwent therapy here in Sydney, Australia. I was considered good material as although 26 years old I was a virgin (good little protestant church boy :-)
I was attached to machines measuring arousal and shown slides of pornography (first I had ever seen) some of young boys which angers me now. Apparently when aroused the slides switched to females. It was also the first time I knowingly spoke to another gay man (after glaring at each other in the waiting room for several days). There was a full week of this and then several follow-ups and I told them I was engaged, having followed their advice to seek out a nice girl. At least this saved me from going onto aversion therapy. Friends I have met since who underwent this all seemed to have personality problems although still gay. I did not go back to tell them the engagement was broken 6 months later.
Over 10 years later while teaching in a Catholic school, a student came out to me. I was upset when his mother took him to the same psychiatrist but the result was very different. The mother was told to accept the fact and live with it.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for sharing your story. I'm sorry you had to go through what you did, but am glad things have changed for the better in so may ways for gay people who are coming into awareness of their sexual orientation.

The ideas espoused by organizations like NARTH are becoming ever increasingly redundant - especially for the younger generations. Still, as I'm sure you'd agree, we need to identify and challenge their crap when it surfaces in public/church discourse around gay issues.



Joe said...

The "Catholic Medical Association" is a group of self-appointed anit-gay doctors; they have no qualification to claim to represent the Church. See

Masters and Johnson admitted the failure of their conversion therapy more than twenty years ago.

Anonymous said...

Whatever Brian experienced sounds scary. It doesn't sound anything like the therapies used by NARTH>

The post misses the point entirely, in my opinion. The Church never has required a person with same-sex attraction to attempt to eliminate said attractions, but invites them (like all people) to a life of chastity according to their state in life (as a single person, this would be abstinence... if married, this would be a chaste expression of conjugal love within marriage).

I have known some individuals who have benefited from reparative therapy. None claimed to be 'cured' , but they have reported benefits such as: freedom from inordinate shame, greater self-esteem, less anxiety, better relations with members of the same and opposite sex, increased capacity to live a chaste life and to avoid patterns that lead to acting out, etc. Therefore, I think it is a real injustice to tell them that their efforts are not only useless, but harmful. Who has a right to discourage another person from following the Gospel as faithfully as they can?

Another canard is that the therapies engaged in by NARTH are designed to 'reprogram' people with same-sex attraction. The whole notion of reparative therapy is that it is for people who experience their same-sex attraction as a burden (as "ego dystonic", to use clinical language)... and the goal is simply to heal or restore a sense of one's sexual identity. The idea is that the erotic same-sex desires are often a way that people seek to "repair" a wounded or deficient sense of connection with members of their own sex. When people are able to grieve and heal from past wounds, forgive others and themselves for past behavior, etc., many find that the erotic desires for members of their own sex diminish and, in its place, healthy patterns of connection and intimacy with others can emerge.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Anonymous notes the following characteristics:

" . . . freedom from inordinate shame, greater self-esteem, less anxiety, better relations with members of the same and opposite sex, increased capacity to live a chaste life and to avoid patterns that lead to acting out, etc."

Hmm . . . from my experience these are all the characteristics that result from accepting oneself as gay, i.e., "coming out" - regardless of whether or not one expresses one's orientation in a sexual relationship with another.

And I have to question if leaving anonymous comments is the best way to illustrate the "greater self-esteem, less anxiety," etc. that supposedly result from "reparative therapy."

Anonymous also said that:

"The whole notion of reparative therapy is that it is for people who experience their same-sex attraction as a burden (as "ego dystonic", to use clinical language)... and the goal is simply to heal or restore a sense of one's sexual identity."

Anonymous, this statement and your whole last paragraph reflects the pseudo-science of outfits like NARTH.

The goal of "reparative" therapy is to "repair" a broken sexuality. Yet as Dr. John C. Gonsiorek noted at a January 2008 CPCSM event: "It's nonsensical to have a treatment for a diagnosis that doesn't exist. With homosexuality being de-pathologized in 1973, what exactly is being treated? There is no data to support that sexual orientation can be changed and there's no reason to change it; there's no impairment."

But what about those folks who experience their sexual orientation and its expression as a "burden"?

Gonsiorek again: "What often happens with people who are maneuvered into reparative therapy is that they've been trashed for years by churches and communities – even by their own families. As a result, they're often depressed and anxious. That's what the problem is, and that's what requires treatment. So the reparative therapy is often done instead of what needs to be done – which is to undo the damage caused by harassment, ostracism, and disparagement."



Brian R said...

Thanks Michael.
No therapy helped me, rather it was learning that God loved me as a gay man. The mistakes in my life came about because I learnt it in my 30's rather than as a teenager growing up.
And, anonymous, I reject vigorously any suggestion that a person should be compelled (rather than voluntarily choose) by their sexual orientation to forgo forever the love and companionship enjoyed by heterosexuals. That is not the loving God I have come to understand. There are so many examples of the problems that causes in the priesthood.

Anonymous said...

There is no data to support that sexual orientation can be changed....The APA recently rejected claims of determinism in the matter of homosexual orientation:
"There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles..."

Just by way of saying: the APA is far less dogmatic on these matters than Gonsiorek.

What often happens with people who are maneuvered into reparative therapy is that they've been trashed for years by churches and communities – even by their own families. As a result, they're often depressed and anxious. That's what the problem is, and that's what requires treatment.I think most reasonable people would agree that maneuvering or manipulating people for any reason is wrong. But what about people who choose therapy freely?

The new APA pamphlet supports a person's right to self-determination:
"Mental health organizations call on their members to respect a person's [client's] right to self-determination."

Reparative therapy is often done instead of what needs to be done – which is to undo the damage caused by harassment, ostracism, and disparagement.The assumption here seems to be that reparative therapy cannot (or does not) contribute to undoing this damage.

At least admit that harassment and disparagement can have more than one source... Some of those who identify as gay harass, ostracize and disparage those who choose reparative therapy. Sin is an equal-opportunity employer.

You have not admitted more than one reason for unhappiness among those who experience homosexual attractions, or more than one approach to resolving that unhappiness. Is coming out the only solution? That would be as naive as saying that a homosexual orientation always arises from the same cause.

This is just an invitation to be open to the data that presents itself, even if it challenges your own. And to experiences that are different than your own.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Anonymous, you left out the last part of the APA quote:

“ . . . most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”

If we don't choose out orientation, neither can we choose to change it.

Furthermore, the APA is talking about the causes of homosexuality not yet being fully determined. Nowhere do they say that sexual orientation itself - gay or straight - is changeable.

In relation to your contention that the APA supports a person’s right to try “reparative” therapy you again are very selective in what you share from the source material. The entire text actually supports what Dr. Gonsiorek is saying. Here’s the full text:

"All major national mental health organizations have officially expressed concerns about therapies promoted to modify sexual orientation. To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective. Furthermore, it seems likely that the promotion of change therapies reinforces stereotypes and contributes to a negative climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. This appears to be especially likely for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals who grow up in more conservative religious settings.

"Helpful responses of a therapist treating an individual who is troubled about her or his same-sex attractions include helping that person actively cope with social prejudices against homosexuality, successfully resolve issues associated with and resulting from internal conflicts, and actively lead a happy and satisfying life. Mental health professional organizations call on their members to respect a person’s (client’s) right to self-determination; be sensitive to the client’s race, culture, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, language, and disability status when working with that client; and eliminate biases based on these factors."

Of course, no one can force a person to not try “reparative” therapy if that is what they really want to do. That’s all that’s being said in the part of the text that you quoted. Yet we also need to share with people the serious concerns about the safety and effectiveness of so-called reparative or conversion therapies.

Finally, Anonymous says: “You have not admitted more than one reason for unhappiness among those who experience homosexual attractions, or more than one approach to resolving that unhappiness. Is coming out the only solution?”

No. Finding a loving partner can be another. Being fully accepted by church and society would also probably help many LGBT people be less unhappy. The point is, just because I may experience unhappiness in my sexual life doesn’t mean I should seek to change my orientation.

I mean, I’ve met unhappy heterosexuals – men and women who are experiencing dissatisfaction, who are lonely, and even depressed about the state of their relational lives. Are you suggesting, Anonymous, that they should try living as gay people? Hey, if changing from gay to straight leads some to happiness, why can’t it work the other way? See how ridiculous the whole notion of changing one’s orientation is?

The bottom line is that life can be and often is difficult – and getting our relational lives right can be especially difficult, whether one’s gay or straight.

I think it’s reprehensible that gay people are made to feel that their orientation is somehow “broken” and needs to be “repaired” as a result of life experiences that everyone can and does encounter; as a result, in other words, of simply being human.

We don’t second guess the validity of heterosexuality when straight people screw up or experience dissatisfaction and/or difficulty in their relational lives. So why do some people insist on doing so when it comes to gay people?



Anonymous said...

I never said -- nor has the Church ever said -- that one must attempt to change one's orientation. Nor do the therapists of NARTH demand such a change from their clients.

I quote Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who is associated with NARTH. He writes that the client's desires and objectives are always at the center of therapy:

"Some clients, of course, change their worldview over time. 'Jason' recently left reparative therapy to live in a gay relationship. He had come to believe that homosexuality was, contrary to his earlier beliefs, truly compatible with his religion. His worldview had changed so much that he and I were no longer in fundamental agreement about the meaning of homosexuality, and we agreed to end our working relationship. He told me, 'I didn't change sexual orientation, but I can truly say that I've learned to be my own person.'

Other men enter reparative therapy as gay-identified from the start. With those clients, we agree on a precondition to our working together--that is, we will not address the issue of sexual-identity change, but we will work on all of their other problems in living. And so we work on issues like capacity for intimacy, problems with self-esteem, internalized shame, childhood trauma, and the search for identity.

The good therapist always conveys his complete acceptance of the client, even if that client eventually decides to gay-identify. Like Jason, some of our clients decide to change course and embrace homosexuality as 'who they are.' Some never lose their conviction that they were designed to be heterosexual, and they persist toward that goal. Others remain ambivalent about change, while going in and out of gay life over a period of months. We accept their choices even if we don't agree with them, because we accept the person."


Who is condemning those of homosexual orientation who do not agree with or choose to engage in reparative therapy? Who is insisting that they attempt to change? Certainly not the Church. Nor Courage. Nor even the therapists of NARTH, as it turns out.

Michael J. Bayly said...


I would argue that the condemnation is implicit, not explicit.

For example: If a supposed medical organization (such as NARTH) considers homosexuality a "disorder" (in contrast, it should be noted, to the views held by the mainstream medical establishment), then when a person opts out of their "reparative" therapy and embraces their homosexuality, the message they'll be leaving with from NARTH is that they are a disordered person. Oh sure, NARTH may say it accepts their decision and respects them as a person - but they're still viewed as "disordered," and in NARTH's view they failed in successfully "re-ordering" their sexuality.

The problem isn't so much that NARTH or the Vatican or Courage "demands" a change, but that they entertain and give credence to the idea and need for change in the first place.

Let me say it again: homosexuality is not a pathology. There's nothing to be repaired, re-oriented, or cured. Homosexuality is not inferior to heterosexuality; it is not a sign of "broken" or "disordered" sexuality.

If you're operating from any other basis than the above (which Nicolosi clearly is, and I sense you are as well) than, I'm sorry, but you have no credibility.



Anonymous said...

If you're operating from any other basis than the above... I'm sorry, but you have no credibility.So much for tolerance of views other than your own.

Michael J. Bayly said...

So, Anonymous, everything said by everyone at all times must be tolerated by everyone else? Is that what you think?

Hey, just count yourself lucky that I "tolerated" your views long enough to post your anonymous comments. Believe me, many other bloggers wouldn't.

Quit playing the victim and start taking some responsibility for the things you say that engender such strong responses from others.

And find the courage to identify yourself and share the experiences that I assume you've had so as to think the way you do. Again, without such honesty everything you've been saying lacks credibility in my view.



Unknown said...

All I have to say is WOW! I have read many of this kind of article; all of them have not spoken to me as the one you have written. They didn't "cure me" or convince me of the gay factor. After reading and re-reading the article several times and looking at the comments I have learned to just deal with it and tell myself that this is who God made me to be. Thanks so much for posting this article. I'll be looking for more.