NARTH Touts Jones and Yarhouse Study

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.”

The NARTH article does not link to the press release and does not mention the assessment that the study does not prove categorical change to be possible for anyone. The review is not as skewed as some I have seen, but it does shade the picture.

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.

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  • http://www.comingout4christians.net Dave

    Question for Dr Throckmorton…

    What .. in your opinion .. drives NARTH to do the things they do? … Why do you think they are spinning these tales? Do you think it is honest scientific disagreement .. or a theological or political or _____ agenda?

    Thanks,

    Dave

  • Ken

    Dave,

    I know your question was for Warren (and I’m sure he’ll give his own opinion on that), but I have my own ideas.

    When NARTH was founded, it members felt the removal of homosexuality from the DSM was wrong. And I suspect they all believed that the science from studying homosexuality (and sexuality in general) would prove them right. However, as more and more research was being produced showing the opposite of that, they refused to believe it. Initially, they had an understandable skepticism of the results and challenged them. As more scientific results supporting homosexuality as a normal variation of sexuality were produced, NARTH’s healthy skepticism changed to a dogmatic refusal to see it. And those members of NARTH who did see the research for what it was, started leaving (NARTH membership has dwindled significantly over the years), removing any voices of dissent and shifting NARTH to an even more extreme position. Until NARTH has become an organization that is more about anti-gay dogma than scientific principles.

  • Lynn David

    I see they continue the fudged statistics, first speaking of 98 people in the study and 53% “supposed success” – when that “supposed success” is based on about 61 total respondants. If they had the guts to stand up to the truth they’d talk about the 27 people who quit the program.

  • Lynn David

    Dang little box!

  • http://www.wthrockmorton.com Warren

    Dave – Good question. I think Ken has a plausible narrative. I saw lots of examples of confirmation bias during my sojourn in the alternative universe that is NARTH.

    Another facet of this is religious conservatism. The mix of LDS, conservative Catholic and evangelicals firmly believe that science proves their religious views to be correct. Everything is passed through the grid of their religious views.

  • Teresa

    I wonder how ‘anecdotal’ these results are? Granted, how do we assess orientation change, except by asking persons what their current experience is.

    How does this Jones/Yarhouse Study stand up against a real life experiences of former Directors of Exodus Affiliates: John Smid, Brian Pengally?

    Who do I believe in all this? Jones/Yarhouse in interviewing persons over a decade, or people who actually worked in the trenches of these ‘change’ ministries for many, many years? Who?

    Well, considering the language of snippets of this study, that Warren has Posted, it’s quite a motley assortment of what’s going on. People change, but maybe not, change is complex, it may be likely, but it may be not. This sounds to me much like the same old, same old … same twisted language, same possible, same not.

    I much prefer John Smid’s very straight-foward language: In 20+ years, he has never seen a gay man change to a str8 man. I’m sure John has worked with far more than 98 men, for years on end.

  • Teresa

    53% “supposed success”

    What comprises “success” in this study: less acting-out, chastity, real ‘orientation’ change, successful, long-term, opposite gender marriages … what is “success”?

    How was this study conducted, Warren? Phone interviews? Meeting personally with these people, and assessing mannerisms along with answers?

    Do people lie in phone interviews? Do we tell people what they want to hear? Do we tell ourselves what we want to believe?

    How objective in terms of trying to eliminate bias was this study? Are phone interviews more prone to interviewee bias?

  • http://www.comingout4christians.net Dave

    Thanks for your answer Dr Throckmorton..

    On a different note .. I believe people of certain religous ideologies (not all Christians but many of them) are dealing with the shame aspect of (a same sex) orientation. This ideology is reflected in statements that Alan Chambers makes such as that the opposite of homosexuality is holiness and that to claim a gay identity is as sinful (in his mind) as having gay sex. When people are ashamed of their (same sex) feelings and/or consider them sinful it is much more convenient to claim the feelings are gone or do not exist. Additionally, others around them (gay or straight) who have the same ideology are much more at ease to hear this than an honest introspective view. Thus I think it is very difficult to get an honest read on what is really going on in people’s minds because we can’t get inside people’s heads. This has the potential effect of skewing the results of any survey on orientation change.

    Dave

  • Teresa

    Dave said:

    When people are ashamed of their (same sex) feelings and/or consider them sinful it is much more convenient to claim the feelings are gone or do not exist. Additionally, others around them (gay or straight) who have the same ideology are much more at ease to hear this than an honest introspective view. Thus I think it is very difficult to get an honest read on what is really going on in people’s minds because we can’t get inside people’s heads. This has the potential effect of skewing the results of any survey on orientation change.

    I agree with you 100%, Dave. Further, I believe in ‘change’. But, let me qualify that term, by speaking of my own experience.

    I’m a gay woman. My faith belief is more important to me, than my orientation. Consequently, ‘change’ for me is living a life in harmony with those beliefs. Beliefs that are considered conservative, or traditional. Living that ‘lifestyle’ has helped me in any number of ways … I’ve grown and ‘changed’. But, MY ORIENTATION HAS NOT CHANGED.

    Do I like men? Absolutely. Can I have sex with men? Absolutely. Could I marry a man? Sure. However, I don’t believe I could bring the type of love or emotional bonding that a str8 woman could bring to a marriage. It would be unfair to do that simply to ‘prove’ that I could.

    I have my own pet theory on women and their sexuality. I think that most women are closer to ‘bi’ … and, can move along a continuum throughout our lives. I think the biggest drive for women is to have children, regardless of sexual attraction or not. Some of us can get away with that situation, some not.


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