This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
Treating Homosexuality as a Disease to be Cured by Timothy Harvey
Prior to the 1970s, homosexuality was seen in pathological terms as a mental illness. Since homosexuality was seen as an illness, people began searching for cures. Like with all cures, some were viewed to be more valid than others and some seemed to resemble snake oil. However, in 1975, the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Other health organizations followed suit and homosexuality was eventually declassified by the World Health Organization in 1990. These declassifications meant that the disease never truly existed and that all treatments were fraudulent. Some health organizations even claimed that these supposed cures were actually harming the individuals instead of helping them. However, some people still believed that homosexuality was a disease and that it not only could be cured but must be cured for the betterment of society.
Today, most scientifically educated people believe that homosexuality cannot be cured. The remaining radicals are typically members of fundamentalist religious groups. There are a few secular groups that claim to be able to cure homosexuality but they are usually partnered with some kind of religious institution. The most famous and scientific-appearing organization is called the National Association of Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). NARTH disagrees with the global scientific consensus that homosexuality is not a disorder. In a paper by founder Dr. Benjamin Kaufman, he explains that NARTH was established in 1992 to “stimulate discussion” since the American Psychological Association refused to study homosexuality as a disease. This organization claims that homosexuality is not a biological feature and can be changed.
There have been various treatments to treat homosexuality. Psychoanalysis, which in itself is a pseudoscience, has been used to treat homosexuality since its creation. In this view, origin of this disease was seen as an unhealthy relationship with the patient’s parents during childhood. The talk therapies to treat homosexuality are not standardized and have yielded no significant results. The other more common treatment for homosexuality involves the behaviorist method of conditioning. These behavior modification treatments typically involve an aversive condition paired with a homo-erotic stimulus. The aversive condition is often electrical shocks and nausea-inducing drugs. These aversive conditions are removed when a hetero-erotic stimulus is present. Some therapists claimed to have incredible success with this therapy but further analysis suggests that these “Individuals undergoing such treatments do not emerge heterosexually inclined; rather they become shamed, conflicted, and fearful about their homosexual feelings.” The problem with this treatment is that it treats homosexuality as a learned behavior. If this was true, then simple conditioning would prove effective but it is not.
Religious groups such as the recently shutdown Exodus International claimed that through a mixture of behavioral modification, psychoanalysis, pray and a step-program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous they could curve their homosexual desires. Borrowing steps from another NARTH founder, Joseph Nicolosi, these steps as the following: “(1) participate in sports activities, (2) avoid activities considered of interest to homosexuals, such [as] art museums, opera, symphonies, (3) avoid women unless it is for romantic contact, (4) increase time spent with heterosexual men in order to learn to mimic heterosexual male ways of walking, talking, and interacting with other heterosexual men, (5) Attend church and join a men’s church group, (6) attend reparative therapy group to discuss progress, or slips back into homosexuality, (7) become more assertive with women through flirting and dating, (8) begin heterosexual dating, (9) engage in heterosexual intercourse, (10) enter into heterosexual marriage, and (11) father children.” Many of these programs concede that there may not be a cure for homosexuality but that they can choose not to engage in homosexuality through the help of their support group and God. These groups see homosexuality as an addiction similar to narcotics and that they must fight against temptation for the sake of their family and their soul. There are many ex-gays who leave the programs and relapse into homosexuality. However some are able to control their homosexual behaviors and go on to develop heterosexual relationships.
Many of these groups claim high success rates but they rarely perform actual studies to see if this is true. The few studies that have been performed are flawed or show that homosexual behavior can be controlled but homosexual desires and feelings cannot. One of the most famously flawed studies was performed by Robert Spitzer. The findings of his testimonial study suggested that reparative therapies were effective. Reparative therapy groups began using this study as scientific proof that reparative therapy was effective. However after several researchers critiqued his study, they all found it to be flawed. Mainly, the participants in his study were suffering from placebo effects and were asked questions about whether the believed that reparative therapy was working. Robert Spitzer himself even reassessed his study and found he critiques of his work to be valid.
For the past decade, there have been numerous studies examining the dangers of conversion or reparative therapy and have led many organizations to speak out. Some of the side effects of reparative therapy include low self-esteem and self-regard, depression, drug abuse, promiscuous sexual behavior, isolation from family and friends, and suicidal thoughts and actions. These findings have led to the shutdown of some reparative clinics like Exodus International and have led to legislation banning reparative therapy for minors in California and New Jersey. After the shutdown of Exodus International, the former leader of the organization, Alan Chambers, offered an apology to those individuals hurt by his program. He acknowledged that his organization had done more harm than good for their patients and that he was sorry.
Although some conversion clinics have closed in the United States, there are clinics worldwide that still offer conversion therapy. Along with these clinics there are also camps and retreats designed to convert sexually questioning minors to heterosexuality. Some have these camps have been shown to be quite damaging and even deadly. Many of these institutions lack psychological training and are usually run by members of a religious organizations offering conversion therapy style counseling for homosexuals.
Organizations like NARTH believe that if a client wishes to change their sexuality, the counselor must help them. They believe it is an issue of respecting their patients’ wishes. However, the urge for the patient to change their sexuality usually comes about as a method of avoiding discrimination and the negative connotations of homosexuality. When it comes to minors, the counselor must keep in mind that the parents of the child may want the conversion therapy more than the child. Homosexuals do not need conversion therapy but rather it is the entire planet that desperately needs to learn tolerance and respect for one another. Since conversion therapy is easier, it is unlikely that this treatment will go away anytime soon.