I was wondering when NARTH would weigh in on the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy publication of the Jones and Yarhouse study. Dated October, 2011, the title of the post — Change in Sexual Orientation is Possible — immediately spins the study. Here is what the press release about the Jones and Yarhouse study says:
WHEATON, Ill., Sept. 27, 2011 /Standard Newswire/ — Many professional voices proclaim that it is impossible to change homosexual orientation, and that the attempt to change is commonly and inherently harmful. Psychologists Stanton L. Jones (Wheaton College, IL) and Mark A. Yarhouse (Regent University) have just published in the respected, peer-reviewed Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy the final results of their longitudinal study of individuals seeking sexual orientation change through involvement in a variety of Christian ministries affiliated with Exodus International. The results show change to be possible for some, and the attempt not harmful on average. These results stand in tension with the supposed professional consensus; more information is available at www.exgaystudy.org.
In prior studies, in the words of the American Psychological Association, “treatment outcome is not followed and reported over time as would be the standard to test the validity of any mental health intervention.” This study assessed evolving sexual attractions and psychological distress levels of 98 individuals seeking sexual orientation change beginning early in the change process, and then followed them with five additional assessments over a total span of 6 to 7 years. The researchers used standardized, respected measures of sexual orientation and of emotional distress to test the study’s hypotheses.
Of the original 98 subjects, 61 were successfully categorized for general outcome at the last assessment. 53% were categorized as successful outcomes; specifically, 23% reported success in the form of successful “conversion” to heterosexual orientation and functioning, while an additional 30% reported stable behavioral chastity with substantive dis-identification with homosexual orientation. At the 6 year mark, 20% reported fully embracing gay identity. Modest but statistically significant changes were reported on average for decreases in homosexual orientation. The measure of psychological distress did not, on average, reflect increases in psychological distress associated with the attempt to change.
These results do not prove that categorical change in sexual orientation is possible for everyone or anyone, but rather that meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some. The results do not prove that no one is harmed by the attempt to change, but rather that the attempt does not appear to be harmful on average or inherently harmful. The authors urge caution in projecting success rates from these findings, as they are likely overly optimistic estimates of anticipated success. Further, it was clear that “conversion” to heterosexual adaptation was a complex phenomenon.
Jones and Yarhouse argue that implications of their findings include respect for the integrity and autonomy of persons seeking to change unwanted sexual attractions for moral, religious, or other reasons, just as we respect those who for similar reasons desire to affirm and embrace their sexual orientation. Full information should be offered to consumers about the options and their potential risks. The results also suggest that it would be premature for professional mental health organizations to invalidate efforts to change sexual orientation and unwanted same-sex erotic attractions.
Some might argue that the press release is not appropriately clear because it speaks of change of orientation in the same release as it says this:
These results do not prove that categorical change in sexual orientation is possible for everyone or anyone, but rather that meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some.
Most of the reviews of this study have missed this statement. Categorical change — moving from a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual one — is not what has been reported by the Jones and Yarhouse. Clearly some people reported changes which allowed them to make an attribution change to themselves – they feel more straight and so they identify with the label. However, the absolute shifts on average were modest, leading to the assessment from Jones and Yarhouse that “meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some.”
I have a more focused post about the study planned, but for now, let me add that the concept of bisexuality is not satisfactorily addressed by the study or by reviewers. Bisexuals I have spoken to describe their lives as a series of shifts. For whatever reason, the direction of their attractions shifts with time and/or with relationships. From their point of view, they are not changing orientation when they fall in love with an opposite sex person after a period of same-sex relationships. Instead, they are flexing along a continuum, all of which is understood to be within their essential orientation.
The other group of people which I worked with are the mixed orientation couples. Some of them believe they have become straight because they have fallen in love with an opposite sex spouse. However, these folks do not plan this, nor does it appear to be subject to manipulation or ministry.
Another issue not addressed well by the study or the reviewers is the difference between men and women. Women are probably more likely to report big changes than men. However, Jones and Yarhouse have mixed groups. Separating men and women in the analyses would clarify the possibility that women change more than men.
In all, I am disappointed that the study has re-ignited the “change is possible” political machine. There is fluidity for some people in their sexual attractions, however this says very little about the experience of people who don’t experience that fluidity. Change of orientation for a small group of people is one hypothesis. However, there are other explanations. I think explanations incorporating the reality of bisexuality, cross orientation relationships, and male-female differences are also plausible. In fact, I think they are more plausible.
As an aside, the NARTH review ends with the obligatory slap at the APAs:
Unfortunately, however, the major mental-health associations appear to be moving further away from a purely scientific approach and toward one apparently directed by activists, whereby the purpose of their science does not seem to be understanding those who report change, but rather debunking, dismissing, and ignoring them.
All I can say is: takes one to know one.
NARTH does the same thing they accuse “major mental-health associations” of doing, just on the other side of the ideological perspective. The purpose of NARTH’s “science” seems to be to debunk, dismiss and ignore those who report no change. Regarding activism, NARTH is featuring anti-gay activist Michael Brown in a plenary session at this year’s conference. Brown has no scientific credentials but will be there as an activist, decrying the “homosexual agenda.”
Even more ominous is the presence of Sharon Slater at this year’s conference. Slater runs Family Watch International, a group who lobbies foreign governments at the UN and internationally to maintain laws criminalizing homosexuality. Slater uses NARTH materials in her work. Slater has no scientific credentials, she is there as an activist. I have asked NARTH but gotten no answer as to what scientific benefit Brown and Slater bring to the NARTH audience.
NARTH’s approach may not be “directed by activists.” Perhaps, it is more of a partnership.