Friday, June 09, 2006

Gay vs. Ex-Gay Christians 3: What is Success?

More than 3/4ths of gay men and lesbians who wanted to change through sexual reorientation therapies "satisfied the criteria for good heterosexual functioning." That is the conclusion of Robert Spitzer, the Columbia University psychologist who led the movement to delist homosexuality as a psychological disorder, an expert who no one would call a homophobe. Michelle Wolkomir, in Be Not Deceived, does not have a comparable study of the specific ex-gay ministry she studied, but the director estimated that perhaps a third gave up and returned to homosexual activity.

75%-plus seems like a pretty good success rate to me. Yet until reading this study, I had seen the routine summary that sexual reorientation or reparation therapies and ministries work with only a small percentage of people.

I think the gap between these two assessments depends on whether the aim of such programs is to change gays' and lesbians' orientation, or to help them get control of their behavior. Spitzer reports that for gay men, only 11% reported that they had changed their orientation, while 37% of the women changed theirs. However, an additional 66% of the men, and 44% of the women were functioning well as heterosexuals.

So, what is the right measure of success – changed orientation, or changed behavior?

The analogy that occurs to me is Alcoholics Anonymous. They do not aim to help people stop desiring alcohol. No matter how many days or years a member has been sober, they still introduce themselves as, "Hello, my name is Bill, and I am an alcoholic." Success for AA is helping people stop drinking.

Groups like "Expell," the ex-gay ministry that Wolkomir studied, are for people who are trying to resist temptations that they don't want to give in to. If most of them succeed in reaching that goal, that would seem like a successful ministry to me.


Anonymous said...

It's also important to realize that the group in question (folks who went the ex-gay route) were self-selected for a desire to change. That may indicate that their gay sexuality (preference and/or action) was a bit shaky to start with.

It's pretty easy for someone without access to a mirror to believe whatever soemone tells them (or whatever they decide to believe) about their eye color. Until they look in a mirror, they have no proof.

We still don't have the equivalent of a mirror to determine sexual preference, but studies are increasingly showing that some folks' brains (gay people) are wired differently than others of the same gender.

Maybe the successful ex-gays didn't have that genetic factor to start with, and chose a lifestyle that wasn't genetically imperative for them though it is for others.

Gruntled said...

Maybe, but heading in this direction starts to look like special pleading.

The aspect of the homosexuality debate that I know best is the argument over what the Bible says and means. One of the important developments in that argument in the past decade or so is that most churches now talk about homosexual behavior, rather than homosexuality. John Boswell pointed out years ago that the Bible does not talk about homosexuality or homosexual orientation -- a concept that was not invented until the 19th century.

The advantage of focusing on behavior rather than orientation is that it shifts the whole discussion away from the murky metaphysics of "identity" and back toward the familiar problems of acting right, no matter what our orientations and impulses are. Much of our lives and character is based on doing what we don't really want to, and not doing what we feel like doing.

Anonymous said...

My main point was that if a group selects for change, they are more likely to be successful in that change.

In much the same way, you could conclude that someone's "natural" weight was X lbs. Those who join a diet program are going to have a higher success rate than those who don't. They've chosen to attempt to modify their behavior and WANT to.

Those who feel that an extra 20 lbs is OK for them will have a lower success rate in meeting somebody else's "target" weight.

Note that I'm not arguing the merits of a particular weight here - just that if you take steps to lose you will do better at losing than those who didn't take those steps.

Gruntled said...


The basic issue is, is homosexuality a problem, or not?

Anonymous said...

Concerning the question: "Is homosexuality a problem?" - I would answer no in so much as being a sexual-being is not a problem in and of itself. The problem is when one's homosexual or heterosexual behavior is used for ill-will or is unhealthy.

Gruntled said...

Fair enough. The issue in the Presbyterian Church, which I have been studying, is that the Bible does seem unequivocally condemn homosexual behavior. This is not a problem, of course, for people and churches which are not bound by the Bible. For most Americans, though, it poses something of dilemma.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Becky. Monogamous homosexuality is fine with me. Given that there is no practical version of marriage under today's secular laws, I do not hold the lack of a marriage ceremony against a gay couple.

Promiscuity, unhealthy relationships (up to and including rape) and other similar situations need to be evaluated using a common set of values for heterosexual and homosexual relationships. (for example, sex between adults and children is out of the question in either case. Ditto for adultery)

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Anonymous said...

I hope that those who disagree with Gruntled on this, and with the church's historic teaching on this, realize that it is a very complicated task to engage. Perhaps you are ready to take up that task, but societies that dispense with very old mores and their attendant practices are left to reinvent the wheel.

I am not eager to do that, nor am I eager for my church to. The horrible consequences of tinkering with heterosexual mores - teen pregnancy, STD's, abortion, high rates of divorce, and all sorts of less obvious problems among teens - warn us about overturning centuries of accepted standards.

More fundamentally, with Gruntled, I trust the witness of scripture.

Anonymous said...


I submit that of the "consequences of tinkering with heterosexual mores" that you list, only one - high rates of divorce - is any different today than it has been over the centuries.

There have always been teen pregnancies and abortions (though the latter were more of the back alley type and were more often deadly). STD's used to be prevalent among those who followed ALL moral standards and were rampant among those who did not.

The only one that is "new" is the acceptance of high divorce rates. That's only really been true in the last century. My personal standard says that people don't take marriage seriously enough and that is the cause of the current high divorce rates.

Other than the bodily mechanics involved, if you accept a form of marriage for gay couples and allow adoption - what makes the mores involved any different than those for married heterosexual couples?

Anonymous said...


This discussion points out how we get stalled. "My" truth vs. "your" truth. I shouldn't have even gone there.

To your question: my point is that none of us can predict the consequences of treating the mores as exchangeable. The discussion from your perspective assumes that these are standards that are transferrable to committed, same-sex relations. From my perspective, they have been formed according to a variety of influences, but are fundamentally an expression of God's will, within the context of male-female unions.

I can't predict what happens when the transfer is made; nor could I in the midst of such consequences say to anyone's satisfaction, "See, I told you so."

We're stuck. We choose sides and believe what we believe. As a Presbyterian, I'm part of a body that turns to scripture as an authoritative word on the subject. I continue to listen to my brothers and sisters who seek to make the case, biblically, for this change. When that case is made, then I will have to obey, and will do so gladly.

Anonymous said...

Trackback to Family Scholars Blog where this topic has come up, again.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gruntled said...

The preceding deleted comment was a long Jehovah's Witness tract only slightly related to the topic at hand.