Pseudoscience

No Tolerance for Conversion

So, I’ve been experiencing gay thoughts for the past few months, but I’ve heard of this thing called “conversion therapy”. Does it really work? Can they make me straight again?

“Conversion therapy”, also known as “reparative therapy”, does not work and is certainly not science. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association condemns treatments of the sort.

Aren’t those the same guys who list “homosexuality” as a psychiatric disorder?

They came to their senses. In 1952, they published the first edition of the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in which homosexuality was indeed listed as a disorder. By the time the seventh printing of the second edition came out in 1974, homosexuality was no longer listed as a disease. Why the change of heart? Gay rights activists protested loudly and clearly but, perhaps more importantly from a scientific perspective, research started to show that homosexual men were as happy and well-adjusted as heterosexual men.

Besides, the DSM has been widely criticized on matters of diagnostic reliability and validity.

So why doesn’t conversion therapy work?

Simply put, because sexual orientation is not a choice. Next time someone invites you to be converted back to the righteous path of heterosexuality, ask him or her when exactly he or she decided to be straight. When did this person decide to put aside their same-sex attraction and choose to be exclusively attracted to members of the opposite sex?

So what happens to people who claim to have been cured of their gayness?

You can certainly refrain from acting out on your same-sex attraction and pretend to be happily married to a member of the opposite sex, just like you could be taught to refrain from smiling for the rest of your life. Would that make you happy, not smiling for the rest of your life because a minority of embittered people claim smiling is unnatural? Likewise, one cannot change one’s true sexual orientation.

But these people were cured!

Perhaps the most famous study claiming a cure rate through conversion therapy (66% of men now good functioning heteros! 44% of women!) was published by Robert Spitzer in 2003. It was quickly shredded to bits. Almost all participants had dearly wanted to change their orientation for religious reasons (a strong incentive to report change): self-deception was not taken into account. Moreover, participants were asked to recall how they had felt prior to the “therapy” as opposed to documenting their feelings before beginning “treatment”. In 2012, Spitzer himself renounced this study and issued a statement which concludes thusly: “I believe I owe the gay community an apology.” The study had not been done out of a personal conviction that homosexuality was a disease but from a scientific curiosity as to whether or not the preexisting phenomenon of conversion therapy really worked. Unfortunately, the study was poorly put together and was then used by conservative Christians as proof that gay people could be “cured”.

But what about women? Sometimes they’re lesbians, sometimes they’re straight. They seem to change their mind all the time!

Our current understanding of human sexuality is that women’s sexuality tends to be more fluid than men’s. It sounds like science is saying “See? It *is* a choice!”. I would argue that fluidity implies an underlying bisexuality. Human sexuality is not binary (either homo- or heterosexuality); it is more of a spectrum. If bisexuality is more prevalent than we once thought, then the choice is not in one’s sexuality but in the gender of one’s current partner. If I am attracted to both men and women, I can choose to seek out a female partner for now; if I am only attracted to men, I cannot choose to hook up with a woman without betraying my orientation.

So… if I am gay—and I’m not saying I am—but if I am… I can’t change it?

Sorry. If you are gay, and not bisexual, it seems you will have to settle for dating other gay or bisexual individuals of your gender, forming long-term relationships, moving in with them, getting a cat or dog, getting married, and perhaps even adopting kids and cleaning up after them… just like everybody else.

***

The New York Times has a great article about Dr. Spitzer’s role in inadvertently helping “prove” homosexuality could be cured. Well worth reading.

(Feature picture by essygie)

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