Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Review: "academic" study on "ex-gay" conversions
Authors: Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse.
Title: Ex-Gays: A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation.
Publication: Chicago: IVP InterVarsity Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8308-2846-3. 414 pages, paper. 10 Chapters, heavily indexed, many detailed charts and tables.
I composed a personal introduction to this topic, and then I decided to put it on another blog, with the link here. But I add that I’ve heard plenty of sermons in MCC churches on “debunking the ex-gay myth” over the years.
The authors remind us (almost apologetically) of their awareness of the sensitivity and controversy of the subject matter. They are constantly restating the methodology they used to address the topic of changing sexual orientation. They do give a complete account of the various ex-gay groups that purport to do this, and review all of the Biblical references. The authors do make an intellectually cogent case that various passages in both Testaments do (literally, and by implication) condemn homosexual activity per se, but admit that others are free to interpret these passages differently. The authors review the history of the psychiatric and psychological professions approach to the definition of mental illness (there is a lot of discussion of DSM categories), the question of immutability, and whether change is “harmful.” They challenge some widely accepted results of identical twin studies that supposedly support concordance and the likelihood of genetic causes. They sidestep the moral questions about how to play the immutability card, because using immutability arguments is not useful when dealing with behaviors (alcohol, drugs, etc) believed by society now to be objectively harmful.
Most of the book is academic and technical. The authors constantly review their methodology, as with a discussion of “reliability” v. “validity.” There are many tables and charts (no doubt produced by powerful software like SAS, as often used in academic social sciences research, as well as in political lobbying).
The overall conclusion is, of course, that in some focused programs with a religious or faith-based purpose, some homosexuals do “change.” The authors are careful about their semantics. There are many contexts of sexual orientation, and many outcomes (ranging from full marriage with children, to chastity or abstinence, to no change at all). No wonder they need so many charts and tables! One surprise is that the “Truly Gay” seem to have more “success” in “changing” than others. Although the writing in the book seems as benign and reassuring as possible, there is no question that the book would suit the agenda of the religious right. Even other reviews of the book reflect this.
Now, we come to the real question. Who cares? So what? Why? Well, for one thing, homosexuals are pursued for their “private lives” or for what others perceive their lives to mean. It’s much better today, maybe, but we still have “don’t ask don’t tell” and troubling questions in our culture as to who will make the sacrifices when things get tough. Homosexuality has been perceived as a fundamental moral evil, but if so the “wrong” is qualitatively very different from other behavior sets that we view as wrongful today. Homosexuality does not invoke aggression, it does not steal wives or beget unwanted children, etc. It seems related, with a certain amount of paradox, in the propagation of ego, but then so do most male heterosexual behaviors. So, a pastor especially must ask, what’s the big deal?
The authors, as noted, discuss the religious arguments, and write the book as if religious motivation were all that mattered in deciding to “change.” Christian faith, in their view, regards sexuality as designed carefully by God and fixed in purpose (procreation and taking the responsibility, along with some uncertain risks, of providing and raising the next generation), rather than expressive of individual aesthetic values, as if often seems in modern liberal western society. That presents a problem in designing a study because, even as the authors point out, the very notion that there are “homosexual people” as such (an idea generally supported by modern biology) or whether there exist only some sets of homosexual conduct and personal values, is itself controversial, especially in faith contexts.
Homosexuality, especially in men, does seem connected to profound questions about how we share the risks and reap the rewards of living in our free society. It seems to relate to how we share each other’s burdens, and how we give the lives of others meaning when they cannot take care of themselves (whether as children, or later in life some of the elderly and disabled). Homosexuality is connected to that complicated issue of “shared sacrifices” and overlaps it in a “set theory” sense, but it is not the same issue. I can relate to this with personal history, having started out as a “sissy boy” who perhaps did not share the risks of other men in sharing the duties of protecting others; and I know that not all gay men had the same experience, and the current debate about gays in the military today then provides a certain irony. I had my own talents (like music), and came away with the impression that “doing my chores,” pampering women and being available for the draft were all the obligations to meet in order to live with relative freedom in a dangerous world. I resented this, and so did many other young men (as is so easy to find on the Internet today).
Anti-homosexual attitudes, in a practical sense, must reflect “real need.” Parents, especially those who do stay married and faithful, really do need a lot of support from society, and they need the loyalty and solidarity of their children. The "Fifth Commandment" does sound like a "key" to necessary intergenerational responsibility and connectedness. Sometimes, in a world that offers uneven opportunity, that gets expressed as a need for biological loyalty – grandchildren. Sometimes it leads to an attitude that heterosexual marriage needs to monopolize all sexuality in order to work at all as a socializing institution that raises children and binds generations together. (That belief seems to account for Vatican pronouncements on homosexuality, whatever the theology.) Gay men, especially, often report being treated as “second class citizens,” in a way partially comparable to what was experienced by African Americans (the analogy cannot be complete). They will report being challenged by retorts like, “if you want us to respect you, why don’t you respect yourself enough to want your own children?” But that kind of thinking leads to its own dead ends. I think one remaining area concerns the question of “fantasy” and “upward affiliation,” which is seen as intended to marginalize others rather than respond to and meet their real needs; more debate on both gay marriage and adoption, and filial responsibility (in the same debate) could help address this and reduce the social and political polarization that gay issues cause. Nevertheless, many people see institutionalized heterosexual marriage as essentially responsible for and needing to have authority over adults within the family who do not by themselves marry and reproduce. The social management of complementary sexuality through marriage is sometimes seen as giving married couples the responsibility of transcending the differences of ability among family members.
It’s the difficulty of coming up with a principled philosophy that both protects individual rights, shares burdens and protects the needy within the family, that leads many people back to monolithic ideas in religion. At some point, they say, God just had to lay down the rules: the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and maybe human societies. Faith presents a paradox: acceptance of certain "truths" without question is supposed to lead to some kind of emotional release. Maybe this makes "change" possible for some people. They become willing to "let go" and "feel" emotion and "empathy" that they previously resented and resisted.
Update: Feb. 12
Please see the comment. Some have questioned the "peer review" for this book. Visitors can go to Amazon's link and look at the comments there. One reviewer (Dr. Rekers) claims to have done an "academic peer review." Other reviewers point out the connections of the authors, the publishers, and other commentators to the "Christian right," and particularly the Family Research Council. The Amazon sales ranks does show some significant sales activity.
One of the most challenging ideas seems to be the notion that God, or others, or one's "family" can make a "pre-existing claim" on one's own sexuality, for the good of the group as a whole or as part of some kind of "bargain" to give one a good life in a dangerous world. That seems to challenge the way we characterize individual rights and freedom today.
Update: Feb. 23, 2008
Chris Johnson has a story in The Washington Blade (Feb.22, 2008), "‘Ex-gay’ group claims success in ‘changing’ gay men; Gay Experts denounce methodology as ‘bizarre,’ unscientific", about a Virginia-based group called "People Can Change" with its "Journey into Manhood" retreats. The link for the story is here.
I suspect that "ex-gay" therapy tries, often in religious terms, to convince the patient of his family "life affirming" duty to procreate, and to claim that no outside party has the right, even with cultural expression, to distract him from being able to do that in a "competitive" sense. I have a review of the monologue play by Peterson Toscano "Doin' Time in the No Mo Homo Halfway House" (2004) here. Subjects are often not allowed to be by themselves.