Tag Archives: homosexuality

The APA on identity therapy and conversion therapy


[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?

7 Comments

Filed under APA, Christianity, counseling science, ethics, homosexuality, Psychology, sexual identity, sexuality, Uncategorized

Third party to the sexual identity debate?


[Note: please keep comments civil and on point with my questions at the end. We seek constructive and instructive dialog, not debate or lecture]

David Benkof has a stimulating opinion piece in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer on a third way in responding to the gay/straight debate between Judeo-Christians. On one side, folks argue that their gay identity should be embraced (and their same-sex relationships). On the other side, folks argue that the Bible speaks against homosexuality at every turn, thus only heterosexual identity is possible.

Benkof, a man of Jewish faith, suggests a third way in his piece against Soulforce (a group traveling around to Christian colleges to raise awareness of homosexuality as a legitimate part of humanity and the Christian community). He suggests it is possible to have a gay identity but believe that the Bible must be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In his study he does not believe the bible supports gay activity. He is asking that debates about sexual identity include folks similar to himself.

Interesting fellow. You might want to read his wiki entry to get some background. Obviously a controversial fellow for some.

It raises this question: What would healthy, Bible-honoring, dialog look like between those who feel they best identify as gay and those who do not regarding? How would they approach the interpretive act? (Assume for the moment that biblical interpretation is important) How might conservative theologians change their dialogical stance?

I do think one question might be really important. If Benkof believes same sex activity is wrong (and it seems he does) then why does he self-identify by something broken? Is it a parallel when some former alcoholics self-identify as an alcoholic even though they haven’t taken a drink in 20 years? What is the benefit of this self-identification? The drawback?

11 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Identity, sexual identity, sexuality

APA says sexual orientation isn’t biological but from yet to be determined factors


Last week I commented on sexual identity formation in little kids. It spawned a large number of comments, both on and off topic. Hesitantly, I will make another post on the topic of sexual identity–this time from a brochure published by my own clinical association.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has a pamphlet on sexual orientation and homosexuality designed to aid understanding and reduce prejudice. My friend, John Freeman, gave me this to me and pointed out an interesting line which we’ll look at in a moment. But first, let me summarize the pamphlet

Sexual orientation, according to the APA is

“an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.”

Right away it is clear they don’t really distinguish between attraction and identity and orientation and identity. You see the simple equation: attraction=orientation/identity. This is where Yarhouse’s studies with individuals within a gay affirming church give ample concrete evidence that such an equation is simplistic and mischaracterizes a set of complex issues. The reality is that one may recognize an attractional pull without it forming a private or public identity.

The APA document continues with the following,

“According to current scientific and professional understanding, the core attractions that form the basis for adult sexual orientation typically emerge between middle childhood and early adolescence.”

Again we see the attractions = orientation. This fits with the popular identity development theory that one moves from discomfort with to pride in attractions and accepts orientation as a given. Interpretive assumptions are given short shrift here.

Now to the good stuff. The brochure asks the question: What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation? And here is their answer,

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 scientist to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

This is an interesting paragraph. The APA rightly recognizes that no one factor is likely to determine later orientation. In fact, we’re not really at a point where we can say one factor is X% of the equation. There is no equation yet. It doesn’t mean we won’t have a better sense of it in the future, but as of yet, the problem is not merely a biological process. So, this opens the door to choice and manipulation of one’s orientation unless one subscribes to behavioral naturalism–something most of us would not accept in other areas of life. Obviously no one is suggesting that sexual orientation is as transitory as a passing fancy. And yet the APA recognizes that even when folks don’t experience themselves choosing orientation, there is an interpretative and choice element however subtle and slow the process.

At this point the brochure turns to the problem of discrimination and its impact on gay and lesbian people. No matter your beliefs about homosexuality, you ought to recognize that there is great stigma and mistreatment for those so identified (and also for those who may not fit stereotyped roles but do not have a gay identity). Then the brochure covers the question of mental disorder. 

Is homosexuality a mental health disorder? No says the APA and I agree based on the definition of mental illness where it has to cause distress. Not all with a gay identity are distressed, period. This really isn’t the issue.

The brochure goes on but I will mention only one last section. They discuss the validity of therapy intended to change orientation. They state there is, “no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation is safe or effective.” First, this sentence is full of highly charged words whose meaning can be debated: adequate…safe…effective. What constitutes adequate? Safe? Effective? There is some data that is not merely anecdotal suggesting that change is possible and not unsafe (see Yarhouse and Jones’ Ex-Gays(IVP). Now, their data isn’t as strong as it could be, isn’t overwhelmingly positive, but neither can it be denied as an anecdote. On the flip side, there isn’t any adequately scientific data suggestive that change therapies are unsafe and ineffective. Both sides of the research agenda have the same set of weaknesses that one would expect in researching this particular population (i.e., convenience samples).

I agree with the APA that we therapist must respect and person’s right to self-determination. But the APA violates this very principle by disrespecting those who have carefully thought about change. It is a paternalistic stretch to say that every person who wishes to change orientation only does so because of biases or because of a fundamentalist upbringing. The APA wants to be sensitive to a client’s “race, culture, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion…” as long as their religion doesn’t guide them to see sexuality in a different light.

All in all, the APA takes a complex set of factors and ends up with, “It just is, so be nice!” I’m all for reducing mistreatment and violations of constitutional rights. But, I expect my scientific organization to spend my dues in a more balanced manner–faithfully representing what is true, whether attractive or not.  

13 Comments

Filed under Psychology, sexual identity, sexuality, Uncategorized