• The Bad “Science” behind Reparative Therapy

    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.


    The Bad “Science” behind Reparative Therapy by Faris Ghani

    “It is not natural.”

    “It is a choice.”

    “It is a disease.”

    “There is a cure.”

    These are the words echoed by those who regard homosexuality as morally unacceptable or impermissible. These are the arguments used to perpetuate prejudice, segregation, and abuse.  Unfortunately, these arguments have manifested in a form that is not only hate, but actually harmful to homosexual individuals — “reparative therapy.”

    Despite the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to declassify homosexuality as a “disorder,” or “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the 1970s, the idea that sexual orientation can be changed persists. This idea lives through organizations such as the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (or NARTH) and Exodus International.

    The claim that homosexuality can be “cured” is rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis. Apparently, human beings are “born bisexual and can move along a continuum from one end to the other.” This view is inconsistent with the claim that homosexuality is an abnormality that needs to be cured. If one were to move along the continuum due to his or her own “natural” predisposition, there is no abnormality to be cured in the first place. However, it does support the claim that sexual orientation can be changed.

    According to a 2004 article in the British Medical Journal, reparative therapy in the 1960s and 70s included aversion therapy: patients were shocked or given nausea-inducing drugs when exposed to homosexual erotica. Another psychoanalytic view posits that the “disorder” of homosexuality originates from overbearing mothers and distant fathers. This “theory” was touted by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a former president of NARTH. A patient of his, Gabriel Arana, a senior editor at The American Prospect, was told to distance himself from his parents and his female friends. The problem with “reparative therapy” (also called “sexual reorientation” or “conversion therapy”) is that it relies on the pseudoscience of psychoanalysis. The World Health Organization  stands against reparative therapy because it does not successfully convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. Instead, it “lack(s) medical justification and represent(s) a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.” “Repression of sexual orientation has been associated with feelings of guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.”

    With homosexuality no longer classified as a “disorder,” it appeared that religious organizations such as Exodus International had taken up the fight to “cure” homosexuals. The pseudoscience used to back themselves up became — if at all possible — less scientific with the inclusion of the Christian God. Even NARTH, the most secular-looking proponent of reparative therapy has ties with socially conservative advocacy groups. Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, one of the psychiatrists responsible for the American Psychological Association’s dropping of homosexuality as a “disorder,” ran into a group of protesters in 1999 — self-proclaimed ex-gays. This sparked something in Robert Spitzer: an interest in reparative therapy. Specifically, an interest in its efficacy in “reorienting” homosexual individuals. Spitzer went on to conduct a study that was seriously flawed. It relied on the testimony of the individuals who had gone through reparative therapy. Further, according to the New York Times, “…it did not test any particular therapy; only half of the participants engaged with a therapist at all, while the others worked with pastoral counselors, or in independent Bible study.” Spitzer’s study has failed the rigors of the scientific method. Despite this, his study was still the “scientific” push needed by reparative therapy groups to seem more legitimate. He maintained that the study did not advocate that homosexual individuals should be cured. Instead, it showed that they could be.  That does not actually vindicate the harm Spitzer’s study has caused.

    Dr. Robert Spitzer

    Sorry.” After over a decade, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer issued an apology to the gay community for his study that was snatched up by ex-gay and reparative therapy groups to be used as evidence for their position. Spitzer finally recognized the mentioned flaw in his study; he agreed that testimonials are not sufficient for a scientific study. Calling people up and asking them if they had changed is not scientific evidence. Human beings not only lie to others but to themselves. This recognition led Spitzer to ask “How do you know someone has really changed?”

    Sorry.” John Paulk, the former leader of the ministry Love Won Out and former chairman of Exodus International, disavowed reparative therapy, finally identifying as a gay man. Paulk went on to say that reparative therapy does not change sexual orientation and in fact, causes great harm to many individuals.

    Sorry.” Exodus International’s Former President, Alan Chambers, also issued an apology as he announced the shutdown of the organization. Chambers said in an interview, “The therapeutic aspect of [Exodus International], not to mention the short stint we had in the political world on this, really did a disservice.”

    Is “sorry” enough for the damage they had done? These men have ruined the lives of many individuals. They had perpetuated a sense of self-hatred, guilt, and shame in people. They have even driven some to the point of suicide.

    The movement of reparative therapy has met quite a challenge as of late. Spitzer, Paulk, and Chambers, have come forward and admitted that their work has had a negative impact on homosexual individuals. Spitzer’s study has been discredited and one of the biggest reparative therapy organizations has been shut down. In California, attempts to force minors into these forms of therapy have been banned by the state and this law was upheld after facing opposition. The opposition claims that this ban is a violation of the First Amendment rights of therapists to free speech. There is a difference between free speech and abusing homosexual individuals — especially minors. Parents claim this ban has taken away their right to raise their children in any way they deem fit. However, parents do not have a right to force their children into something that has shown to be pseudoscientific and harmful to their mental health. New Jersey has followed in California’s footsteps and has banned reparative therapy. Tim Eustice, the assemblyman and sponsor of the bill in New Jersey called it “an insidious form of child abuse.”

    Reparative therapy needs to be abolished for what it has done and could do to homosexual individuals. These organizations merely take advantage of individuals who seek to change their sexual orientation for the sake of avoiding prejudice and discrimination. From a philosophical stand point, there also seems to be a false dilemma occurring. Homosexuality is either natural or unnatural. Even if it were the latter, what of it? How does something unnatural equate to immoral? If reparative therapy advocates truly want to define something immoral as unnatural, they will have to start fighting against everything from prescription glasses to the computers they type out their hateful propaganda on.


    Category: HealthMental HealthPoliticsPseudosciencePsychologyReligionTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com

    2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Bethany Barnett

      I’m glad to hear that states are starting to realize the possible psychological harm these programs entail and have begun to outlaw them. I guess since the big wigs have started coming out with apologies and claims against reparative therapy their nationwide outlaw may have been sped up.

    • ahuskey

      The rate of people being marginalized in the name of “morality” and religion is truly alarming. God forbid anyone be allowed to be different. Research is continually supporting the idea that most individuals are somewhere on a continuum of sexuality, suggesting that the social boundaries and labels that have been placed on gender are largely arbitrary. Despite the ignorance that still abounds, it is good to see a growing awareness of the absurdity of “homophobia.” The removal of homosexuality from the DSM is a testament to that, not to mention the incredible advances that have been made in some states over the last few years in terms of legalizing same-sex marriage.

    • jaymacg

      I think that any organization that claims to be scientific while also calling themselves a religious organization should immediately be met with skepticism.

    • pdavis13

      I completely agree that it should be outlawed. And Alisa is right on the money with her comment about the removal of homosexuality from the DSM and states legalizing same-sex marriage as of recently. These programs treat people like they have some kind of infectious disease, when that’s so not the case at all. Anyone should be allowed to love whomever they want without “orientation” rules attached.

    • Dustin Belden

      I consistently like to believe that everyone has the right to their belief. The problem arises when people use beliefs to reason change. It is just time for the Bible to not be held to the same scientific standard as.. a 3rd grade textbook. Motivated reasoning needs to evolve, away.

    • CathlinaSmith

      It is truly amazing to me that in the year 2013, we are still talking about homosexuality as a disease with a cure. It’s no more a disease than me being straight. I truly do hope that my children will be able to grow up in a time when anyone can be who they are without having someone try to “cure” them. For some people, ignorance truly is bliss.

    • shanshan1314

      People say to forbiden the exist of homosexuality should educate when still young. But actually people did not give a choice for the children to choose. A person has the right to choose who they want to spent for the rest of their life. Like the Media that we watched for the Creationism, the adults should give their children to choose if they want to accept Creationism or Evolutionism. It is their right to choose, people should not deprive their right. It is sad that people are against homosexuality. In China, never say that you are a gay, there are famous gays in China but most of gays still cannot be accepted in China. People concentrate on their power to freedom so badly now, we are free to talk and free to do anything that we want, but are those real freedom? At least a lot of people are not free to love the person that they really love, that’s sad.

    • dandymandyl

      It is really upsetting to know that these things have happened to people and even though the damage to those people may not ever be undone, steps are being taken to try to prevent this from happening to people in the future.

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