Lee Beckstead

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.


The Studies

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:

  • Heterosexual marriage is the ideal.


  • Homosexual desires are emotional attractions for the same-sex. which become sexualized during developmental years.


  • Physical attractions to the same sex can be unlearned.


  • Using the identity label "same-sex attracted (SSA)" is healthier, more fulfilling, and productive than using the identity labels lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB).
In other words, those who believe in this therapy chose to label themselves as having SSA rather than to accept the identity of being homosexual or bisexual. They then attempt to "unlearn" their attractions for the same sex and follow the ideal of heterosexual marriage.


Reported Outcomes of Change Therapy

Positive outcomes reported by participants in these therapy programs included:
  • They found ways to reconcile their previously distressful identity.


  • They were able to control their homosexual behaviors better.


  • They felt their attractions to the same-sex became less intense.
What did not result from the therapy programs was a substantial or generalized heterosexual arousal, or being able to eliminate their physical attraction to their same sex. Since no increased attractions to the opposite sex ensued, those who reported that their attraction to the same sex diminished due to reparative therapy probably experienced a move toward asexuality (i.e., an absence of fantasies for either sex) rather than a move toward heterosexuality.

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:
  • They are not the only ones with such feelings.


  • They found love and support through the program.


  • They were able to get a broader perspective of their situation and find a variety of options.


  • They can find ways to feel and have more control of their lives.
Ineffective and harmful results from therapy programs that participants experienced include:

  • Misrepresentation of treatment outcomes.


  • Internalization of treatment failure.


  • Presentation of misinformed biases. (For example, the idea that Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual self-identifying persons are all fundamentally unhappy.)
The false hopes can lead to hopelessness and major depression. For some, this sense of hopelessness and inability to reconcile sexual, social, and religious conflicts led to suicide attempts.


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:
  1. You can help persons with same-sex attractions by emphasizing that there are a number of others who have these feelings, even among active members of the church.


  2. Some with attractions to the same sex have found they can reduce the behaviors motivated by their attractions but in general persons are unable to eliminate the tendency to be attracted to the same sex and are unable to increase opposite-sex attractions.


  3. There are more than two choices. They can accept their feelings as being normal and not evil and with support they may be able to make behavioral choices regarding their same-sex attractions (e.g. celibacy, etc.). This is a way of being affirming of the individual while living within church standards. On the other hand, they may find ways to be spiritual and maintain much of their religious belief system and ethical code of conduct even if they decide to become more affirming of a lesbian, gay or bisexual identity.


  4. Marriage may be an option, especially if they experience bisexual attractions. However, open and informed dialogue between the individual and fiancée needs to occur regarding options, limitations, needs, commitment, honesty, and authenticity. Unless an informed awareness and discussion had occurred, the marriages of individuals in my studies were troubled and spouses also tended to internalize the failure of reparative treatments and blame themselves for their spouses' inability to be heterosexually aroused.


  5. A more open and accepting environment needs to be developed in which LGB/SSA individuals have a valued place in the Church and experience the blessings of the Gospel, whether they choose to look at themselves as someone who struggles with SSA or whether they are more LGB-affirming.

References

Beckstead, A. L. (1999). "Gay is not me": Seeking congruence through sexual reorientation therapy. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Utah.

Beckstead, A. L. (2001). The process toward self-acceptance and self-identity of individuals who underwent sexual reorientation therapy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Utah.