From triple helix - summer 2008 - Ex-gays? - A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation (Book Review) [pp16-18]
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In the words of the authors, this book about the effectiveness of 'Ex-Gay' ministries 'catapults us into the eye of a storm'. On the one side, it is argued that attempts to change somebody's sexual orientation subvert three decades of progress towards 'accepting people for who they are'. Opponents of 're-orientation therapies' (and religionbased programmes offering the chance to explore change) believe these approaches restigmatise homosexuality, re-cast gay people as somehow sick or disordered, and risk untold psychological damage. They say that such therapies are unproven, unethical and that they should be proscribed.
On the other side, advocates question the validity of the whole concept of sexual orientation. They point out that our categories of homo- and heterosexual are relatively modern inventions with poor biological validation, and they cite evidence of cross-cultural and within-individual variations in sexual desire and behaviour. They highlight anecdotal narratives from people who say they have walked the journey from gay to straight, in both secular and religious contexts. Above all, they believe that people with unwanted Same Sex Attractions (SSA) have the right to choose for themselves whether they want to explore the possibility of change.
So where does the truth lie? Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones, two US psychology academics, have made a significant contribution to this debate. Their book is essentially a research report from a longitudinal study of outcomes in 98 people who undertook some form of 'Ex-Gay ministry'. They find that, whilst major change happens in a relatively small proportion of subjects, more individuals can achieve substantial satisfaction in managing diminished levels of SSA, even if that means a life of celibacy. One of the most important findings was that there were few examples of psychological harm as a result of participating in the programme.
The authors recognise that, given their methodological limitations, they need to be cautious in interpreting their findings. Quite so. There are potential problems with sampling biases, reporting biases, attrition in follow-up, the handling of missing data, and debates to be had over the choice of measures. Further, whilst around 15% achieved substantial change and 23% achieved satisfaction with chastity (that is, diminished SSA but little kindling of other-sex attractions), at follow-up some 29% were still 'continuing' (with uncertain outcomes) and the remainder achieved little change. So expectations need to be modest and realistic.
Evaluating these programmes is a work in progress and it is difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions on current evidence. However, for those interested in one scholarly overview of this contentious field, this is a recommended read.