The men who seek help from evangelical counselor Warren Throckmorton often are deeply distressed. They have prayed, read Scripture, even married, but they haven't been able to shake sexual attractions to other men -- impulses they believe to be immoral.
Dr. Throckmorton is a psychology professor at a Christian college in Pennsylvania and past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. He specializes in working with clients conflicted about their sexual identity.
The first thing he tells them is this: Your attractions aren't a sign of mental illness or a punishment for insufficient faith. He tells them that he cannot turn them straight.
But he also tells them they don't have to be gay.
The article delves into more detail about Throckmorton's therapy:
For many years, Dr. Throckmorton felt he was breaking a professional taboo by telling his clients they could construct satisfying lives by, in effect, shunting their sexuality to the side, even if that meant living celibately. That ran against the trend in counseling toward "gay affirming" therapy -- encouraging clients to embrace their sexuality.
Later in the WSJ article, I comment on the section of the APA's guidelines that seem to say that Throckmorton's type of therapy may fall within its new guidelines:
"It's incredibly misguided," said Wayne Besen, who runs a group called Truth Wins Out, which fights conversion therapy. He says trying to fight their same-sex attractions can cause immense suffering. "People have their lives destroyed," Mr. Besen said.
I want to clarify that I am supportive of the overall APA report. I think they did a terrific job stating how therapists should handle clients who are struggling to accept their sexual orientation. Most important, they directly challenged "ex-gay" therapists who mislead clients about gay life.
And, the APA made it crystal clear that such charlatans should not be selling snake oil by claiming they can magically turn clients from gay-to-straight. In my view, any therapist who makes such a pitch is a con artist. Any organization that offers such bogus and far-fetched promises is guilty of consumer fraud.
Additionally, the APA should be commended for tackling the affects of religious faith on people working through this issue. Their landmark report explicitly tells religious therapists that clients should be given room to explore who they truly are, without the therapist burdening them with excessive faith-based guilt. This is a step forward, considering that nearly every "reparative therapist" uses shame-based methods to pressure vulnerable and desperate clients into suppressing their natural sexual orientation.
However, (although I am not a psychologist) I remain largely skeptical of the therapy offered by Throckmorton and other conservatives. Throckmorton tells The Wall Street Journal that he starts his sessions by helping clients prioritize their values.
This is where it can get tricky.
Religious therapists (I am not referring specifically to Throckmorton) can manipulate the framing of priorities. For example they may ask clients what they find more important to their value system: "ephemeral hedonism" or "eternal life in heaven". Given this loaded option, clients may feel they have no "choice" but to live a life of hell on earth in order to get the keys to the Kingdom when they die. This is quite a mental burden for clients to carry and surely can't be conducive to optimum mental health.
Clients can also be easily manipulated by therapists who induce guilt by saying, "it is fine if you choose to exercise your options in a selfish manner by choosing your sexuality over Scripture." Such diabolical therapists may be within the new guidelines (barely) by ostensibly offering a troubled client the "choice" and "freedom" to be a "bad" person. But, we all know this is just a tricky form of psychological abuse. While the APA guidelines are helpful, the group may need to address in the future how unsavory counselors use loopholes to continue tormenting the fragile minds of clients.
The WSJ article also mentioned how the APA report considers celibacy a viable "option":
But if the client still believes that affirming his same-sex attractions would be sinful or destructive to his faith, psychologists can help him construct an identity that rejects the power of those attractions, the APA says. That might require living celibately, learning to deflect sexual impulses or framing a life of struggle as an opportunity to grow closer to God.
"We're not trying to encourage people to become 'ex-gay,'" said Judith Glassgold, who chaired the APA's task force on the issue. "But we have to acknowledge that, for some people, religious identity is such an important part of their lives, it may transcend everything else."
The APA has long endorsed the right of clients to determine their own identities. But it also warned that "lesbians and gay men who feel they must conceal their sexual orientation report more frequent mental health concerns."
It is true that in extreme cases, a lifetime of celibacy may lead to a happier existence than coming out of the closet. These rare people, unfortunately, are often so damaged by fundamentalism that they are unable to express their sexuality in healthy ways. Indeed, they are stricken by excessive guilt if they enjoy any form of pleasure that is not sanctioned by their church.
In such instances of irreparable damage to victims of faith-based oppression, celibacy may work (sort of) as a last ditch effort to help these people find a small measure of peace. There are also individuals with low sex drives who may not have an inordinate amount of trouble conforming to onerous religious strictures.
However, celibacy is not a serious option for healthy individuals with normal desires. If a therapist tells a teenager that he or she will have to live the next 50 or so years sexually frustrated and without the possibility of love, you are not going to convince me that this is in the best psychological interest of that conflicted youth.
Imagine being that young person with raging hormones, yet having to suppress powerful urges every minute of the day. On weekends, you stay home playing video games while your friends are dating. At lunchtime in the cafeteria, you have to hear about their sexual exploration, while you bitterly nurse longings that will never be fulfilled. On the way home from school, love songs play on the car radio that are meant for everyone but you. And then you settle on the couch and watch television shows brimming with a sensuality that you will never discover.
Living in such a way would, in the vast majority of cases, make an otherwise healthy person neurotic, depressed and even suicidal. Celibacy, for the most part, is a fantasy concocted by conservative therapists who so despise homosexuality that they would rather see a person loveless and lonely than openly gay.
I also worry that suppression of sexuality will lead to increased mental and sexual abuse in society. The ex-gay ministries (and the Catholic Church) are rife with examples of supposedly celibate or "healed" leaders taking advantage of young people in their care. Youth are easier to manipulate (see TWO video below)and the path of least resistance for the tortured and troubled souls who swear off sexuality (heterosexual and homosexual), only to find that it is not possible over the course of a lifetime. Celibacy is not realistic, nor advisable for most people, and can have deleterious side effects. The idea of the "satisfied celibate" is largely a misguided myth perpetuated by therapists who can’t overcome their own anti-gay leanings.
Ultimately, the more ex-gay ministries and counselors are forced to move away from stigmatizing homosexuality, promising fake miracles and selling false hope, the better off clients will be. If these groups can't sell the proverbial "heterosexual light at the end of the tunnel", the vast majority of young gay people will leave the traumatic tunnel behind and come out into the light of freedom and honesty.
Everyone deserves the chance to love and be loved -- and conservative therapists will have an increasingly difficult time telling gay clients that they are exceptions to this rule. By calling for more accountability among anti-gay therapists and demanding they be truthful and adhere to modern science, the APA has made a worthy contribution with its report.
This conclusion did not surprise those of us who work with people who have been harmed by such programs. For example, I just interviewed Patrick McAlvey, who entered therapy to change his sexual orientation at the age of 19. His counselor, Mike Jones, is the director of Corduroy Stone, an affiliate of Exodus International.
McAlvey says that his sessions included prolonged hugs, the suggestion that he use handyman tools to increase his masculinity and questions about the size of his genitalia. There was also an episode of "holding therapy" where he reclined into the lap of his supposedly "ex-gay" counselor for an hour. The goal, according to McAlvey, was to get comfortable with his own manliness by "feeling the strength" and "smelling the smell" of another man. What Jones and other ex-gay counselors routinely call "therapy" can seem a great deal like foreplay to the rest of us.
"I think it does a lot of damage to peoples' mental health," said McAlvey. "If I had had a fair representation (of gay life) I could have avoided a lot of suffering."
Of course, such therapy and ministry programs can only exist by grossly distorting the lives of gay people. For example, in a recent radio interview, ex-gay activist Charlene Cothran claimed that gay people do not want legal equality and are really only interested in the "freedom to be a homosexual in a park with no clothes on."
The APA deserves credit for taking ex-gay therapists to task for twisting the truth and holding them accountable for their scare tactics, such as claiming that there are no happy gay people.
"The limited published literature on these programs suggests that many do not present accurate scientific information regarding same-sex sexual orientations to youth and families, are excessively fear-based and have the potential to increase sexual stigma," said the APA report, "Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation."
It was encouraging to see the APA question the ex-gay tactic of teaching vulnerable clients to live in a fantasy world. Groups like Exodus and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), regularly encourage clients to say they have converted, even though they are still gay. The idea is that by proclaiming a false heterosexual identity in advance of any legitimate change, the desired transformation will eventually come.
This idea is equivalent to me wanting to play professional basketball, so I begin to identify as a member of the New York Knicks. Never mind that I am too short, too old and not good enough to make the roster. If I embrace this surreal existence long enough, I will one-day be dunking the ball under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
It is imperative that clients are honest about who they are and not prodded to make claims that are not true. Such a gap between fantasy and reality, according to the APA report, can create "cognitive dissonance" and does not resolve "identity conflicts."
Most important, the APA report smacks down the absurd notion, pushed by charlatans, that allowing such quackery increases the "self determination" of clients. Contrary to their lofty claims, ex-gay counselors are actually providing the opposite of what effective therapy should offer, which is a nonjudgmental atmosphere where clients can embark on a journey of authentic self-discovery.
Instead of a neutral facilitator, these unethical practitioners set themselves up as surrogate father (or mother) figures. Appropriate client-centered therapeutic models are displaced by therapist-centric sessions, where the main goal is not letting down "Daddy" or "Mommy", and his or her often religious-based expectations. In such situations, it is the ideological needs of the therapist that are paramount, not the mental health of clients.
The APA's report also pointed out the difference between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, saying that, "At most, certain studies suggested that some individuals learned how to ignore or not act on their homosexual attractions."
Reinforcing this point is Exodus International's President Alan Chambers, who said in an interview last week that he lives in "self denial" and that "ex-gays" are successful by "denying what might come naturally to us." While extraordinary mental gymnastics may allegedly work for Chambers, most people would find that such repression is destructive to self-worth and psychological well-being.
To counter the APA's rigorous effort, NARTH produced a shoddy report that cherry picked outdated research, including dated shock and aversion therapy experiments to "cure" homosexuals. It is telling that NARTH included examples of torture to support its tortured attempts to make ex-gay therapy appear ethical and effective.
The APA pulled few punches and couched its top-notch report in direct terms. Hopefully, this effort will limit the number of psychological casualties produced on the couches of ex-gay therapists.