[Let me wade into something that tends to fire up lots of feelings and lead to controversy. And let me ask all to be civil. Civility seems to be the first thing that disappears when we discuss matters near and dear to our hearts. But let us be different and listen to each other rather than talk at or past each other. As James tells us, let us be quick to listen and slow to speak.]
In recent days media outlets have picked up the story of the American Psychological Association’s release of a report and declaration of their official stance on reparative or conversion therapies for individuals seeking to change their sexual orientation. You can read their press release and find their 100 page research review here. Being a member of the organization, knowing a few of the players in the research side of things, and knowing how easy it is to get caught up in debate and miss some of the finer points, I thought I might make a few comments that may not make it to the public eye.
1. Researchers are beginning to distinguish between sexual identity and orientation. This is a good thing. I dare say that the public lags far behind on this matter. Separating these two different aspects of sexuality allows for individuals to consider and interpret their sexual feelings in accord with their beliefs and NOT as how either the minority or majority of the world tells them to define themselves. This is akin to biracial people determining how they want to self-identify rather than be forced to say they are black or white. Consider the following quote by one of the players (whom I don’t know),
The distinction between orientation and identity (or attraction and identity as we often describe it here) is key, in my view, in order for us to understand the experience of those who say they have changed while at the same time experiencing same-sex attraction….I hope we can agree that sexual attraction patterns may be one thing while meaning making aspects may lead two people with the same attraction pattern to identity in disparate ways. (emphasis mine; from http://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/EWThrockmorton/11607271/)
If I understand the relationship between identity and orientation, it would seem that one forms identity from a variety of “data” which leads to an orientation. This is true outside of sexual identity. A number of factors come together for a person to see themself in a particular way (this may include biology, family, life experiences, key “flashbulb” moments, etc) and in cementing that particular identity they develop an orientation towards the world. SO, this may explain why trying to change orientation has little positive effect. Until the person reviews, explores, and reconsiders their identity (something that happens in nearly every counselee I’ve ever worked with) and begins to practice another way of seeing self, not much is going to change in attraction and orientation. Further, what may change is one’s sense of importance (and therefore meaning) of various parts of themself. When my clients explore their identity, it is rare they come to understand that they were completely mis-perceiving their feelings or experiences. Rather, they begin to see those experiences and feelings from a different vantage point.
2. Change. What constitutes change is still up in the air. Ask a depressed person if they have changed even if they are only 50% less depressed and they will say likely say yes. Ask someone else and they may say “no, I’m still depressed.” In the realm of sexual orientation, however, many see orientation as all/nothing. All same sex or all opposite sex orientation. Many will tell you this is just not their particular experience. So, IF someone wanted to change their direction of sexual attraction, what standard would they use to determine if change had taken place? Would 50% change be good? Who would decide this?
There is another analogous scenario in psychology. Should psychologists provide weight loss treatment? Given that an extremely large portion of those who lose weight gain it back and more, many have felt it unethical for a psychologist to offer weight loss therapies when they know that success is extremely low. So, how long do you need to keep the weight off to make a treatment worthwhile? How much do you need to lose? Who decides?
My gut feel is that the APA is not accurate in saying that there isn’t evidence that individuals can change. There is some evidence. Not complete change, but let us not deny what is there. Neither are they accurate about their reporting of harm. Harm reports are difficult to objectify. The best research will show you that some are harmed and some are not. Instead of assuming harm, let us evaluate more closely how some are harmed and how some are helped. Just as one might do with the weight loss scenario.
3. APA makes an attempt to make room for the work of helping one to find congruence between faith commitments and sexual feelings. This is also a good thing. Now, just how a psychologist does this matters greatly. Does he or she evangelize here? By that I mean (a) encourage a client to choose a different faith or change it to fit one’s sexual feelings, or (b) encourage a client to deny feelings and deny the suffering one might have by choosing not to act on a desire? My personal opininon is that option c (stay neutral) does not exist and is not possible. So, where does that leave us? Informing clients of our personal positions and yet not attempting to force individuals into our view of the situation. In other words, truthful but humble without being demanding.
This is a divisive topic. Do individuals seeking to change their sexual orientation have the right to try to do so with the help of psychologists? Is change possible? Desirable? Damaging? And of course in trying to answer these questions you have a number of players on each side–each reading the “evidence” the way they would like to see it. You have those who have personal experiences in one direction or another. You have those with political or philosophical agendas. And, on top of that, you have media players interested in creating controversy where they can. I observed this last one myself where a local talk show host did his level best to create differences between two parties that weren’t disagreeing with each other as much he wanted them to.
So, what do you make of the difference between identity and orientation? Is it meaningful? How do we speak of change? Can we admit that it happens for some and not for others no matter our personal opinion whether change is good or not? And finally, can we avoid the “what if…” tendency in our conversations so that we deal with what is happening and not what we fear might happen?