Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Christian Perspective: Some Points of Agreement

I just came across a most interesting article in the April 2005 issue of the Christian magazine Perspectives. The authors are David Myers, a well-known Christian psychologist at Hope College, Michigan, and Letha Dawson Scanzoni, who is a founder of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus, and writes on sexuality and family issues in relation to Christian belief. They just have a new book out called What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage , published by Harpers San Francisco.

When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, I used Myers' textbooks in my classes, so I was a little surprised to come across his name in this regard -- I always considered him to be a generalist and researcher, though I knew he was at a small religious college.

The article, Changing Sexual Orientation? A Look at the Data, is drawn from the authors' book. They review the evidence and a little bit of the history of the controversy over "ex-gays" and therapies to change sexual orientation, and I think it is one of the most even-handed accounts I have seen.

The article is rather long, and lays out its case point by point; that makes it hard to just copy-and-paste some quotes. In other words, click on the link and go read it yourself.

Naturally, I will copy-and-paste a few quotes, just a couple of sections to give us something to think about...
...some learned behaviors are enduring. (Examples range from human language accents to ducklings imprinted to follow whatever they were exposed to at their life's beginning—usually their own mother, but sometimes a merry prankster researcher.) And some biological traits are modifiable or controllable. (Examples range from vision correction with glasses to growth hormones that correct dwarfism.) Thus understanding the roots of sexual orientation doesn't settle the question of whether sexual orientation can change.

On this question, there's a big divide among people of faith. A 2003 Pew Research Center study reported that by a 4 to 1 margin, "highly committed" evangelicals expressing an opinion believe sexual orientation can be changed. By a 2 to 1 margin, mainline Protestants (and White Catholics by a similar margin) think it can't. Nevertheless, those on both sides of this debate agree on some things.

First, people can act against their desires. Heterosexual prisoners may engage in sex with cellmates. Homosexuals can fulfill others' expectations by marrying and having children. (Genital friction, sometimes combined with eyes-closed fantasies, can produce intended results.) Sexual orientation is what one is, not what one does.

Second, sexual orientation is not reversed by experimentation. Heterosexuals (for whom opposite-sex attractions feel natural) may experiment with homosexual behavior, and homosexuals (for whom same-sex attractions feel natural) may experiment with heterosexual behavior, but both readily turn away from such. The handedness analogy is applicable here. Using the right hand feels natural to right-handed people. Using the left hand feels natural to lefthanded people. Persons in either category might try using the other hand for certain tasks (say, holding a fork, or writing), but that does not mean they've switched their basic handedness, and they quickly turn back to what is natural for them.

Third, people of either sexual orientation can struggle to resist enacting their desires or even to live a celibate life.

Fourth, doing so isn't easy (and sexually active married people might therefore think twice about preaching what they themselves don't practice, lest they replicate the Pharisees of whom Jesus said, "They tie onto people's backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry").

So, those are things that the audience of this article -- both evangelicals and mainstream Christians -- can agree on, a good start for the discussion.

The article then goes on to discuss so-called "reparative therapies" and ex-gay ministries.
Arguing that "homosexuality is preventable and treatable," Mike Haley, chair of the Exodus board of directors and manager of Focus on the Family's "homosexuality and gender department," offers his own testimony: "I went from having homosexual fantasies and dreams, and feeling that a sexual relationship with a woman was repulsive, to the opposite end of the spectrum of having a sexually gratifying, emotionally satisfying relationship with my wife....I prove homosexuality is not immutable, that it can be changed."

What troubles skeptics is that time and again such powerful testimonials turn out to have been either false, self-deceptive, or from people who never were genuinely homosexual. More than a dozen such organizations have, after touting successes, been abandoned by their own founders, who are now "ex-exgays." Jeff Ford, former executive director of a Minnesota ex-gay program and a "national speaker for Exodus," acknowledges that, despite his claims of being "healed" of homosexuality and helping others to be "healed," he actually "did not see that happen in my work with over 300 gay and lesbian people."

Myers and Scanzoni talk about Robert Spitzer's famous study of changed sexual orientation, including some revealing quotes from Spitzer himself, which I just don't have room to quote here.

The crux of the article, it seems to me, is in the authors' description of the experiment that would answer the question about changing sexual orientation. Of course, as they note, this experiment can't be done, mainly for ethical reasons, but this is what it would take to answer, once and for all, the question of whether sexual orientation can be changed through therapy.
Given the problems with retrospective testimonials--even snake oil received glowing testimonials--what's needed, Spitzer agrees, is some sort of "prospective" experiment comparable to drug efficacy experiments. (Whether such an experiment would be feasible or desirable is another question.) To assess the efficacy of a diet drug, for example, one would never just solicit testimonials from a relative few people who claim to have lost weight after taking the drug (trusting their recall and not counting those who hadn't lost weight). Thus, the necessary if impractical experiment would:
  • Identify male volunteers wishing to undergo sexual reorientation and measure their genital sexual responses to same- and other-sex erotic stimuli (to verify sexual attraction solely to same-sex stimuli).
  • Randomly assign some to receive a proposed treatment (perhaps reparative therapy as part of a transformation ministry), the others to a waiting list.
  • After the treatment, reassess sexual orientation by the same physiological measure.

If many of the treated volunteers evidence a reversed sexual attraction, and if this result could be sustained and confirmed by another research team, the skeptics could be refuted.

See, that's the textbook-writer talking; the experimental method is the only known way to answer a question of causation. You assign subjects randomly to groups, give each group a different treatment, and measure the difference in the dependent variable. Without doing that, you simply can't say whether changes in the independent variable cause changes in the dependent variable; in this case, you can't say whether therapy changes sexual orientation without an experiment.

They wrap up with this comment:
If American Family Association president Donald Wildmon was right that the national "Coming out of Homosexuality Day" dispelled "the lies of the homosexual rights crowd who say they are born that way and cannot change," then perhaps he would welcome such an experiment. But he likely was given pause when Michael Johnston, the national chair of Coming out of Homosexuality Day and a featured "exgay" spokesperson in TV and print ads, closed his ministry and ceased organizing the day after acknowledging that he had recently engaged in sexual encounters with other men.

"Can leopards change their spots?" asked the prophet Jeremiah (13:23). Wellmeaning people of faith will continue to struggle with new forms of Jeremiah's question as they seek grace to accept with serenity what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to discern the one from the other.

Unfortunately, I had to leave out a lot in summarizing this for the blog. Please, go read the article, and see what you take away from it.

This argument that prayer and therapy can change people's sexual orientation is a tricky and complicated deal, with intensity on both sides.

The question is, in the absence of a defining experiment, should you assume that orientation can change, or that it can't? How do you resolve that? One thing is to look at evidence that it changes. There is some small amount of ambiguous evidence that some people believe their orientation has changed. Some of these are mentioned above. So we can't rule out that it's possible, in some small percentage of cases. That doesn't even imply, though, that everyone, or even a majority of people, can change their sexual orientation through therapy.

Another approach is the pragmatic one: look at the consequences of believing sexual orientation can and can't change. Of course you could hold either belief and still treat gay people fairly, but for some reason that doesn't happen. Thinking that it can change seems somehow to go together with thinking that it should change. But that seems simply to represent a form of disrespect for people who are gay and not unhappy with the deal. Why should they change? Some people think it's a sin, think it's immoral, think it's disgusting, think it's dangerous for society -- can you imagine hanging around with people who feel that way about you?

Believing that it can't change would seem to lead you to a position of accepting the person as they are. This assumption, which is supported by the greater amount of evidence, appears to take one down the road toward respect and tolerance, which are generally considered to be good things.

For me, the resolution is something like this. It is obvious that sexual orientation doesn't usually change, even with therapy. Whether it "technically" can change is immaterial and unanswerable until Myers' experiment is run, which will be never. In the meantime, another person's sexual orientation is none of my business, it doesn't hurt anything one way or the other, if that's the way they are then that's ... just ... the way they are. You shouldn't have to understand the etiology of it to respect that person as a human being. Almost everyone reports that their sexual orientation emerges without prompting, they don't decide, and they don't have much control over it, it just happens. So why worry about it?

The tolerant approach has another implication. If a gay guy decides for whatever reason that he doesn't want to be gay, and he starts dating women and living as a straight person, then the same thing: cool. Why would I care? What does it matter if he wasn't really gay to begin with, or if he's going against his real feelings, or he's actually bisexual, or he's changed, or he has some motive that is not clear to me? I hope he's happy. The experiment hasn't been done, we can't say it's impossible. Improbable, yes, we can say that; very rare, yes we are sure of that; impossible, who knows? Kind of like the Loch Ness monster, I guess, you can't rule it out.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I had to deal with a lot of epithets and accusation on the other post yesterday. I'll try to give you some thoughts on this today. Also, have any of you put up what the points Throckmorton made at the forum that you keep talking about?

November 30, 2005 9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said-I had to deal with a lot of epithets and accusation on the other post yesterday.

No you had to deal with not being forthright and misleading. Too many smart people on this blog catch you every time.

"anon free"

November 30, 2005 10:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, free. You did accuse me of lying but now it's unforthrightness and misleadingness. Let me know when you want to specify what you're talking about.

November 30, 2005 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anoymous said---Ah, free. You did accuse me of lying but now it's unforthrightness and misleadingness. Let me know when you want to specify what you're talking about.


Well which personality do you want to assume today? You do all three.

"anon free"

November 30, 2005 12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, Dana, I just wanted to know briefly what Throckmorton's rationale was before I gave a reaction that some have asked for. I think some of you said that he said that sexual orientation is not chosen but what did he say determines it and did he point to any particular studies?

I just read this post and it seems like a lot to react to so if you had certain things you were referring to, could you let me know? I think I've said before that there is a great diversity among evangelicals with a few essentials defining us. The ideas that you choose your sexual orientation or that it can be changed, short of miraculous inervention, are not essentials of the faith. If it turned out that it can't be chosen or that it is immutable, I do think evangelicals who read scripture honestly would still be obligated to eschew homosexual activity.

November 30, 2005 1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It just occurred to me, Dana, that you could e-mail the PDF to me. My e-mail is EHollis4123@aol.com. Thanks.

November 30, 2005 1:17 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

To the EHollis Anon:

The CRC hosted Dr. Throckmorton, Dr. Jacobs, and CRC President Michelle Turner as speakers at their meeting on November 19, 2005. The sound quality at the meeting was poor -- the sound for Dr. Throckmorton's film segment didn't work at all and the speakers' voices were not amplified.

Dr. Throckmorton posted his paper on his own website and Dana thoughtfully provided the URL for it earlier.
Here it is again, FYI. You're welcome.

I have checked the CRC's website every day since that meeting but they have not yet posted anything other than the meeting announcement. No one at Teachthefacts.org knows why they haven't posted their speakers' papers yet.

May I be so bold as to suggest that you sign your posts with "EHollis" to separate you from the rest of the Anons? It's only a suggestion.


November 30, 2005 2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, ma'am, I'll try, but I have a tendency toward forgetfulness

thanks for the link- if it was posted before, it somehow missed my attention or I didn't understand what it was

November 30, 2005 2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Jim said, if someone really changes their sexual orientation and is happy with that, cool. BUt most of the people I met involved with reparative therapy or church groups were troubled in some way, often with stomach ailments and recurrent doubts. Certainly I think that we should not present this potentially very harmful information to students, who during their coming out process might develop false hopes or get involved in something that really isn't good for them.

December 01, 2005 8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the file. Silly had me pointed to a place to find it yesterday and I read much of it. I generally like the way he gave all viewpoints on matters that are not proven but I'll elaborate when finished.

December 01, 2005 9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I read Throckmorton's curriculum and, for the most part, think it was a good summary. I know he included some statements that were also in the discarded curriculum but he placed them in proper context, correctly identifying them as opinions. Two criticisms:

1. when saying one has no choice about feelings, I think he could have made the point that fleeting feelings can be indulged or resisted, and so, in a sense you do have a choice; I guess he says that later in his discussion about reparative therapy but I think he should have made the point that if a feeling is against societal norms, a mentally stable person can choose to resist; think of it this way, everyone occasionally is tempted by certain feelings. if you choose to indulge them, they grow stronger; choose to resist them and they diminish; so, initial twinges are beyond control but lasting inclinations, such as define sexuality, can be altered

2. The other thing is that he should make some mention of the negative consequences attendant to pursuing a homosexual lifestyle; stigmatization is one but there are others; kids should know about and not have a sugar-coated image presented to them

Having read the curriculum, I don't know why your group is so excited about it. Just a couple weeks ago you were demonizing this guy and now he's your newest bar-room buddy. I don't he's changed. Were you guys making a premature judgment about him? I know many of you have also made disparaging remarks about his college, too.

Finally, since you guys like this so much, any chance your CAC rep will push for its adoption in MCPS? Maybe Jim and Peter Spriggs will be bar-room buddies, too.

December 01, 2005 1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I have been communicating with Warren for quite some time now, and I haven't changed my position. I always thought he was much more nunaced than the groups to whom he was speaking. I find the fact that he works for them to be distressing. I believe he shades the facts to buttress his argument, which ends up stigmatizing people. And he HAD given a very strong impression that he believed in conversion therapy until recently. It was when he blogged that he did not, in any way, subscribe to the practice, that the situation changed. Then at the CRC meeting his presentation was much more enlightened than even I had expected. So there is movement, yes, and I have no problem with it."

So the change that should have distressed the CRC was that he no longer believes in reparative therapy. I didn't see that in the curriculum you sent. Did it first come out at the CRC meeting?

What do you mean "works" for CRC? Was he being paid other than for travel expenses?

December 01, 2005 4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So, no, these are not the same "feelings.""

I'm not sure you're right about that. Sex drive is obviously wired and perhaps whether you're the aggressive or passive but preference of an object of the drive seems an aesthetic. I don't think there's evidence that would counter that.

"As I suggested before, you should read Andrew Sullivan's "The End of Gay Culture," published in The New Republic"

I'll try to. I've read things by him before, probably Op-ed, and I think he used to do columns in Time magazine.

December 01, 2005 4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you're all f'ng nuts

December 06, 2005 8:23 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

We're all flinging nuts? Occasionally, the walnuts do fly in my kitchen when I crack them- but I wouldn't say I was flinging them. We're all frying nuts?- I do know quite a nice spiced pecan recipe-although it is more of a saute than a fry. I guess I am not sure what Anon is trying to say.

December 07, 2005 12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

you're all f'ng nuts


Anon showing us the bottom of his barrel.

"anon free"

December 07, 2005 8:49 PM  

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