Review of Studies on Sex Reorientation Therapy
Lee Beckstead, Ph.D
Lee Beckstead has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Utah and has a private therapy practice in Salt Lake City.
You will find as you talk to people in the church who are dealing with homosexuality or same sex attractions (SSA) that there are some strong and divergent points of view. There has been a long history of heated institutional debates concerning the pros and cons of sexual reorientation therapy. Other terms for sexual reorientation therapy include conversion therapy, reparative therapy, or change therapy. Some believe this type of therapy should be banned whereas others believe it is beneficial and existing treatments should be further developed. Both sides agree that there are individuals with same-sex attractions who seek help or a "cure" from their attractions. Options open to such individuals are limited to becoming an "out" gay (lesbian/gay/bisexual affirming) or an "ex" gay (someone who is against the idea of being gay and seeks to act and be heterosexual). These polarized views and options may not serve all clients with same-sex attractions who are seeking help in dealing with religious conflicts.
In order to gain more understanding concerning change therapy, I conducted two qualitative research studies (Beckstead, 1999, 2001). The studies sought answers to what the reasons are that individuals seek reorientation therapy, what the effects are of that therapy, and how the individuals are able to resolve their desire for change of their sexual orientation. Conclusions showed that there were some who experienced a change for good through therapy, but not the type of change which is being claimed by proponents of the therapy. Others experienced harm through the same therapy. The rest of this paper will identify these results in greater detail.
Over a four-year period, perspectives were gathered through individual interviews, journal writings, focus group discussions, and participant checks. Fifty individuals with same-sex attraction were included in this study (5 women, 45 men). All underwent counseling to change their sexual orientation. The individuals fell into two groups: those who believed that reparative therapy worked and those who did not. Those who believed in the effectiveness of reparative therapy believed that:
Reported Outcomes of Change Therapy
Positive outcomes reported by participants in these therapy programs included:
Distressful identity problems had developed in participants from feelings of not fitting in while growing up in homo-negative or heterosexist environments. Resolving the identity problem made many involved in the therapy feel that the therapy was successful in spite of not having any increase in attractions for the opposite sex. Instead of identifying as gay, they learned to accept the fact that they had attractions to the same sex. They learned that these attractions were not something they chose and having these attractions does not make them a bad person, only what they choose to do with those emotions has a moral implication. The new label, Same Sex Attracted (SSA) provides a way of accepting ones homosexual attractions without an acceptance of the distressful identity of being gay.
Although elements of reparative therapy can be beneficial, its underpinnings and current practice also have potential for harm. Some elements have the potential for both benefits and harm. For example change therapies encourage a closer affectionate relationship with a father figure which can be good, but can also place blame on parents for the person's condition and can hurt relationships and the healing process.
Effective and beneficial results from therapy programs that participants experienced include:
Alternative Therapy Plan
Many participants stated that the current alternative to change therapy, LGB-affirmative therapy, is not an option for many same-sex attracted individuals. This latter therapy seeks to help persons identify and express themselves as "out"-LGB individuals. Research participants expressed a need for a therapeutic environment open to many possibilities. Many of them desired to remain heterosexually married as they continued self-acceptance of having same-sex attractions. These two research studies provide the foundation for establishing a broader-based therapy plan, based on participants’ descriptions and objectives, which is designed to produce the most therapeutic benefit, the least harm, and workable solutions. Above all, the goal is to facilitate positive identifications, regardless of sexual identity.
The debate over conversion therapy hopefully can change from a war between opposing camps, with reparative therapists on one side and LGB-affirmative therapists on the other. Ultimately, the client is the one who will be hurt from such divisions. Society in general tends to have a knee-jerk response to homosexuality, without recognizing the consequences these negative actions have on individuals’ self-worth and potential. It is important to find ways to eliminate messages that wound, shame, and disenfranchise. Religion plays a role in this conflict due to its imposed penalties and powerful influence to dictate members’ attitudes and behaviors. Spiritually faithful, same-sex attracted individuals may find little comfort or sense of belonging in religious doctrines and in their communities because of the lack of acceptance or understanding. With current traditional religious frameworks, options seem limited for integrating sexual and religious identities into one complete sense of self.
It is confusing for many when different information and views are expressed by professional therapists (reparative vs. LGB-affirmative therapists) and those who are dealing with this issue in their lives (ex-gays vs. gays). These groups confront each other with different value systems. They expect their opponent to conform and disagree with any opposition to their singular point of view. With this situation, the channels of communication, understanding, and resolution are shut down.
Although psychological institutions may not be able to change the doctrines of religion and religious institutions may not be able to change the views of LGB-affirmative advocates, it can be productive to seek a dialogue that draws upon the strengths of each viewpoint. Both groups can try to learn acceptance, honesty, and understanding in regard to the other side and a forum for all voices to be heard and respected could be made. The objective of this dialogue could be of ceasing the intolerance, discrimination, and separation that exist in our society. As one research participant expressed, "I feel that more good could be done by the psychological and religious communities if they were to band together and help sexual minorities shed their self-hatred and find a respected place in society."
To Church Leaders
For those who counsel with church members who are dealing with same-sex attractions, there are several messages here I would ask you to consider. These include the following:
Beckstead, A. L. (1999). "Gay is not me": Seeking congruence through
sexual reorientation therapy. Unpublished master’s thesis,
University of Utah.