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Reparative Therapy: Can It Change Someone’s Sexual Orientation?

I recently received an e-mail from someone asking for my thoughts on “reparative therapy” and why this type of treatment is not more widely known and practiced. In case you are not familiar with reparative therapy, it refers to a controversial set of procedures that attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation, usually from homosexual to heterosexual. It has increasingly been in the news these past few days, largely because presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s husband has reportedly been running a clinic providing such treatment (see here).

The e-mail went on to claim that reparative therapy is based in “science” and that there is even an organization, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), dedicated to investigating this treatment scientifically. I responded to this e-mail with my take on reparative therapy and NARTH and decided to share my analysis, given that there seems to be a lot of misconceptions in the media about whether therapy can and should be used to modify someone’s sexuality.  

I should begin by stating that there is no scientific evidence published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals indicating that reparative therapy actually works.1 In fact, the weight of the published research suggests that it is actually psychologically harmful to those who undergo this treatment. NARTH claims that there is a lot of research supporting the success of reparative therapy, but the studies they point to are typically riddled with major flaws. For example, bisexual people are often categorized as “homosexual” in such studies, and then when they enter a heterosexual relationship, it is considered a successful “conversion.” Most people probably would not find that to be particularly compelling support for the therapy, and rightly so.

Second, it is important to note that the mental health community has held for decades that homosexuality is not a psychological disorder.2 There are two definitive guides used worldwide by psychologists and psychiatrists in diagnosing mental illness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10), and neither includes a listing for homosexuality. In addition, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the World Health Organization have all taken the position that homosexuality is not a disorder. Thus, the use of psychotherapy to try and change one’s sexual orientation is not even warranted in the first place.

Third, the leading proponent of reparative therapy, NARTH, is not a credible source for information on homosexuality. They frequently cite theories and research that are wildly out of date or, in some cases, just plain false. For example, the author of the e-mail that sparked this article forwarded me some literature from NARTH claiming that homosexuality is caused by fathers who do not “reach out to their sons” (similar information can be found by doing a quick scan of NARTH’s website). As I have mentioned on Science of Relationships before, the idea that absentee fathers or dominant mothers are responsible for turning their children gay is simply not true and there is growing evidence in favor of a biological basis for homosexuality (see here). 

Finally, until just last year, NARTH counted Dr. George Rekers among its officers and scientific advisors. However, it was discovered that Rekers did not exactly practice what he preached after he was caught traveling across Europe with a male prostitute, who reportedly provided Rekers with daily nude massages. For someone to be having same-sex contact in private, while publicly encouraging gays and lesbians to change their sexuality just smacks of hypocrisy.

In summary, research on reparative therapy does not support its effectiveness, and important questions have been raised about those who are promoting this treatment. Just think about it—by calling it “reparative” therapy, they are not so subtly implying that anyone who is homosexual or bisexual is somehow broken and in need of “fixing.” On this issue, like so many others, it is essential that people start putting science before politics and stop trying to "repair" things that are not broken.

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1For a more extensive review of the research on reparative therapy see here (PDF).

2For more information on the American Psychological Association’s position on this issue, see here.

Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.

image source: salon.com

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