The “ex-gay” myth is back in the news. Interest in this subject began to percolate after Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1172, a bill prohibiting reparative therapy for minors in California. It intensified after the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), its director, Arthur Abba Goldberg, and life coach Alan Downing. The following day, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced the “Stop Harming Our Kids” (SHOK) resolution at a Capitol Hill press conference. The same week, a poorly produced show on the topic by NBC’s Dr. Oz added fuel to the raging fire.
In this fervent culture war battle, lines have been drawn, passionate words exchanged, and sides chosen. However, very few people actually know what reparative therapy is, whether in theory or practice.
Let’s begin with the theory, which is not scientifically supported: Gay people are genetically predisposed to be sensitive. The overly sensitive child perceives rejection by his or her same-sex parent. In a state of conscious or unconscious rebellion, they strike back at the parent’s rejection by renouncing their gender. It quickly leads to gender variant interests and making opposite sex friends. This causes a lack of social bonding with the same-sex, which eventually leads to the same-sex seeming exciting and mysterious. As reparative therapists like to say: The exotic becomes the erotic. (In the case of women, reparative therapists often blame sexual abuse as the cause of lesbianism)
The simplistic causation model has an equally shallow and unscientific solution: Gay people are encouraged to make non-sexual, same-sex friends. Reparative therapists believe that by doing so, the same sex will ultimately be demystified and the gay person will become more comfortable with his or her gender. Once the same sex is no longer mysterious and a gay man becomes “one of the guys” and a lesbian becomes “one of the girls,” opposite sex feelings will magically come rushing in. And presto – the gay person is now straight.
Getting to the point of heterosexuality, reparative therapists say, can take years. They almost always begin the process by keeping gay clients away from potential sexual partners. They are obsessed with isolating the client so they can avoid temptation and not “fall,” “slip,” or “relapse.” One technique is to have a client wear a rubber band around his wrist and snap it every time he finds himself attracted to a man. This mild stinging sensation supposedly snaps him out of his attraction trance. To help avoid pitfalls, reparative therapists demand that clients find same-sex accountability partners, who will serve as mentors, watchdogs, and emergency contacts in case an outbreak of homosexual behavior is imminent.
To fill the several year gap between homosexuality and the elusive heterosexual feelings that allegedly will develop, reparative therapists desperately work to distract their clients and keep them extremely busy. They focus, as well, on behavior modification and what they perceive to be gender appropriate activities, such as sports for men and encouraging women to act and dress more feminine.
This exhaustive obstacle course usually includes heavy doses of prayer, since most of the therapists who practice this psychological voodoo are devoutly religious. It also consists of endless exploration into the roots of one’s sexual orientation, which includes delving into a maze of childhood memories. In the immortal words of reparative therapist David Pickup, his program “helps a man dealing with homosexual issues go deep.”
A key component of reparative therapy is separating one’s identity – how an individual labels oneself — from one’s genuine sexual feelings. Indeed, such therapists do not believe that gay people even exist. To quote convicted felon Arthur Abba Goldberg of JONAH, “Every person that we work with is really a heterosexual person who may have a homosexual problem.”
Unfortunately, such cognitive dissonance often creates deep denial, where clients are urged by their therapist to publicly claim they are straight, even if they still have strong desires for same sex relationships.
In practice, Reparative therapy is simply bizarre by any objective measure. NARTH therapist, James E. Phelan (pictured), in his revealing book, “Practical Exercises For Men In Recovery of Same-Sex Attraction (SSA),” outlines the most thorough example of what occurs inside such clinics. It is a veritable, step-by-step guide on how one would attempt to transform from gay-to-straight.
This workbook is considered an authoritative model on how such programs are organized and executed, given the prominence of those who have endorsed it. This includes National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) co-founder Joseph Nicolosi, NARTH board member Gerald Schoenwolf, JONAH co-founders Arthur Abba Goldberg and Elaine Berk, International Healing Foundation (IHF) founder Richard Cohen, and Exodus International President Alan Chambers (although Chambers renounced his support for reparative therapy earlier this year)
What one first notices in Phelan’s workbook is the great irony in how the Herculean effort to not be gay ends up consuming one’s life by placing homosexuality at the very center of it. It quickly becomes apparent that such therapists can’t change attractions, as the client truly wants, so they urgently focus on keeping the individual away from potentially sexual situations and filling his or her life with busy work.
For instance, Phelan offers a comprehensive list of 236 activities clients can participate in whenever they feel homosexual urges. This list includes: Bowling, singing to myself, watching the sky, reading maps, caring for houseplants, going to a revival or crusade, seeing famous people, crying, seeing or smelling a flower or plant, going to a drive-thru (Dairy Queen, McDonalds, etc.), walking barefoot, bird watching, smiling at people, playing Frisbee, and going to auctions. (Pgs. 93-97)
This is just the beginning. Phelan assigns seventy-nine interminable homework assignments including: creating a daily tracker, keeping a diary, finding a mentor, writing a personal story, and penning various letters to oneself or to “confront your abusers.”
One of the more disconcerting aspects of such therapy is the level of control Phelan suggests clients give to their accountability partner (AP). In a breathtaking act of irresponsibility, the author actually tells clients to give their APs bank “account access,” asking, “is any money going to fuel SSA?” One can easily see where this could backfire, with a crooked AP cleaning out a client’s bank account or ruining credit. Would Phelan and other NARTH therapists reimburse clients if thievery occurs? (p. 31)
The author further infantilizes his clients by demanding that they “allow your AP to monitor your [Internet] activity. Link your activities to their computer for monitoring. Give them the passwords.”
One is then asked to give the all-powerful watchdog a copy of his or her daily schedule. “Discuss down times and have plans,” the workbook demands. The intrusiveness escalates when Phelan writes, “share with your AP work stress and any conflicts. Don’t be proud. Don’t hide anything.”
This gross invasion of privacy becomes creepier and devolves into a peculiar voyeur/exhibitionist relationship between the all-powerful AP and the subservient client.
“You must be able to discuss all areas of sexuality with your AP including histories, slips, and relapses,” writes Phelan in Exercise 29. This includes what the NARTH therapist calls, in exercise 27, a “Masturbation Inventory.” According to Phelan:
“Compulsive masturbation with SSA fantasies is an area many men in recovery from SSA struggle with. Many of my clients complain, ‘Jim, you don’t understand, jerking off is the only thing I have.’ As if they will die if they don’t masturbate! However, it is not a necessity like food, clothing, and shelter. But to listen to some of these guys you would think it was. In my opinion, it’s all manipulation. It is a way to avoid true recovery.” (p. 29).
The author then urges his horny clients to “develop a [masturbation] action plan ASAP,” lest they relapse.
Phelan’s book is obsessed with sex and asks his patients, ad nauseam, for the most intimate, private details about their sex lives. Clients are asked, “With what frequency did you practice masturbation in puberty” and “Are there any peculiarities in your sexual practices or fantasies (masochism, sadism, etc.). Describe succinctly and soberly which fantasies or behaviors of others are exciting to you, for these may reveal something about the areas in which you feel inferior.” (pgs. 5 and 14)
(Or, maybe a repressed gay therapist uses this overabundance of information to get off?)
It seems the lack of intimacy and masturbation – while incessantly talking about fantasies — is not curing his clients, but potentially making them focus even more on their desire for sex. According to Phelan, his clients can’t be trusted alone in a car, so he urges them to “practice safe driving” in exercise 28.
“Keep your eyes on the road, not on other peoples’ cars,” the therapist warns. “Focus on driving, not having sex with other drivers.” He also urges clients to “avoid driving alone at all possible” and “avoid listening to those media trap radio stations and music that glorifies SSA.” If that isn’t enough, one is supposed to tell their accountability partner, “when you will be on the road and when you will reach your destination.” (p. 30)
If the patients can’t drive, they certainly can’t be trusted to go to the gym. “The worst thing to do,” Phelan advises, “is to work out alone.” (p. 11)
And, under Phelan’s plan, what should be normal travel becomes quite an ordeal:
“Never travel alone if at all possible. Man is not meant to be alone…Travel is not a time to call escort services to ‘check out’ what kinds of guys they have in the town or call masseurs to see if they do “release” techniques…Give everyone you are accountable to your hotel number. Tell them to call, especially at night…Call your hotel ahead of time and tell them to cancel all adult channels and pay per view TV…put scriptures out by the bed…if you are married and/or have children, put their pictures up in your room.” (p. 58)
Knowing that clients are often sexually frustrated and lonely, reparative therapists often suggest that they serve as surrogate parents who caress their clients. This is converted into a strange “therapeutic” practice called, “touch therapy,” which is associated with discredited “ex-gay” therapist Richard Cohen, who was permanently expelled from the American Counseling Association for multiple ethics violations. It is clear that Phelan backs this approach, which has repeatedly led to sexual abuse, with repressed therapists manipulating and taking advantage of clients.
“Ask someone to hold me,” Phelan advises in his workbook. “Someone who won’t let me sexualize the situation.” (p. 47)
The “ex-gay” industry denies it engages in brainwashing, but the vice-grip level of control they exert over participants is alarming and certainly does appear in line with what society traditionally considers cults. Indeed, Phelan has an exercise, 22, that he labels, “Retrain your brain.” He tells clients that they should be, “training your brain to not connect the thoughts of the same gender with sexuality…train your mind to think of something else in men.” (p. 24)
Phelan’s “scientific” answer is simple:
“Once you see a man you admire: Stop, count to three, and look him in the eyes. Do not look at his body; rather look him in the eyes.” (p.25)
One must remember that to buy into reparative therapy, it is imperative to adopt a hardcore fundamentalist worldview. This requires more than simply condemnation of homosexuality, but an anachronistic view of gender and the place of women in society. This is made clear in exercise 57, where Phelan advises male clients what to tell their wives:
“It is up to you to help educate her about your needs. Tell her, ‘I need to be the man of the house. Let me be the man of the house.’ Dominant women only demasculinize men. A man has got to be the lion of the den.” (p. 61)
Such retrograde beliefs is reminiscent of NARTH board member Gerald Schoenwolf, who in 2006 seemed to justify slavery on the organization’s website:
“With all due respect, there is another way, or other ways, to look at the race issue in America,” wrote Schoenwolf. “It could be pointed out, for example, that Africa at the time of slavery was still primarily a jungle, as yet uncivilized or industrialized. Life there was savage, as savage as the jungle for most people, and that it was the Africans themselves who first enslaved their own people.
They sold their own people to other countries, and those brought to Europe, South America, America, and other countries, were in many ways better off than they had been in Africa. But if one even begins to say these things one is quickly shouted down as though one were a complete madman.”
There is also a significant level of spiritual coercion in reparative therapy, which is interesting because NARTH claims to be a secular organization. According to Dr. Nicolosi:
“We, as citizens, need to articulate God’s intent for human sexuality,” he said on CNN’s AC360, April 14, 2007. At the Feb. 10, 2007 Love Won Out conference in Phoenix, the “secular” therapist told the audience, “When we live our God-given integrity and our human dignity, there is no space for sex with a guy.”
Although not as explicit, Phelan makes a strong effort to bring faith to the unchurched:
“I have found that those with a higher level of spirituality do the best in their recovery,” Phelan explains to readers. “In this exercise (#7), assess your level of spirituality and see what you can do to increase your spiritual involvement. If you are agnostic or an atheist, your exercise would be to talk with people who are spiritual and interview them. Ask them what spirituality means to them. Another exercise would be to visit a place of worship or make an appointment with a clergyman and witness the environment for yourself.” (p. 9)
Before we go any further with the specifics of Phelan’s program, it is critical to explore why people are interested in going to a reparative therapist in the first place. NARTH likes to say that it only wants to help those who are unhappy with their homosexuality. But, isn’t the group’s false portrayal of gay people as pathological and perverted a significant reason that some gay people want to be heterosexual?
Here is a quick snapshot of the disingenuous and scientifically flawed assumptions about homosexuals presented to Phelan’s patients. It is important to note that when he says “men struggling with SSA,” he is generalizing about all gay people, not just his clients:
- Men who struggle with SSA generally have had mothers who have been smothering and fathers who have been distant and hurtful. (p. 12)
- Shame is inherent in SSA (p. 15)
- Many who struggle with SSA find shame as a core issue. (p. 78)
- In public, men struggling with SSA tend to over analyze and compare themselves to other men…and then he starts sexualizing most guys he sees. (p. 25)
- One of the problems in SSA is unhealthy narcissism. (p. 26)
- Men with SSA generally lock up or cover up their feelings and expressions. And if they do express them, they do so in the false self. (p. 36)
- Men struggling with SSA find communication to be a major issue. (37)
- One problem with men struggling with SSA is passive aggressive behaviors. (p. 38)
- SSA comes with a cost. In SSA, there is much stolen. Examples include broken marriages, health, finances, emotional wellness, and so on. (p. 59)
- I’ve worked with numerous men dealing with SSA and each one has had a problem relating to women in one way or other. (p. 63)
- The problem of homosexuality is based in infantile childish complaining…So, keep a log of any self-pity parties you have and then make an action plan. (p. 72)
- Men dealing with SSA have had less than desirable childhoods. (p. 83)
Legitimate medical and mental health organizations have not considered homosexuality a pathology for decades. Yet, NARTH unethically paints a grossly misleading portrait of LGBT people, leading clients to think their sexual orientation is a pestilence that must be eradicated to find wholeness and happiness. Using a combination of guilt, shame, and junk science, NARTH manipulates potential clients into believing they have all the solutions – when they are really a large source of the problem. For this reason alone, reparative therapy should be strictly banned for minors in every state.
Now, let’s return to Phelan’s odd reparative therapy program, which is endorsed by NARTH. In one of the wackier exercises, #42, Phelan asks clients to begin “dialoguing with SSA,” which he admits “sounds strange.” Yeah, it does raise eyebrows when a man who bills himself as a therapist is asking clients to write letters to their sex drive. Even more off the wall, the author asks patients to place themselves in the role of the sex drive: “Next, be SSA and write a response to the issues you raise about it.” (p. 45)
The climax of this outlandish quackery comes in exercise 56, when Phelan instructs his clients to write “a goodbye letter to SSA.” Phelan asks his clients to “tell it what it did to you, what you won’t miss, and the new joy you’ll have. Share your grief, what you’ll miss about SSA, what adaptations it served for you. Tell it how it has been replaced. Finally, tell it how it needs to go away and how you will live your life without it.” (p. 60)
To ensure one’s homosexuality is away for good, Phelan tells clients: “Draw two pictures, one with yourself in SSA, and one without. Compare and contrast. Process this with someone.” (p. 62)
Just like that, after spending thousands of dollars and wasting years of one’s life, these outlandish, if not insane, exercises are supposed to transform one from homosexual to heterosexual.
The one thing that reparative therapy is not – is a legitimate medical or mental health procedure carried out by trained experts. It is hurting in the guise of healing and mendacity posing as medicine. I am quite confident that when people – even many conservatives — learn the facts about reparative therapy, support will dwindle to almost non-existent levels.
Reparative Therapy Survivors
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Dr. Robert Spitzer Renounces Ex-Gay Study
Real Scientists Debunk JONAH’s Junk Science
Masters & Johnson’s Ex-Gay Study Invalidated