Today’s Wall Street Journal article by Stephanie Simon begins:
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.