New Study Touts Success of “Praying Away the Gay”

The religious right is ecstatic this week with the release of a new longitudinal study that purports to find that it is possible to change sexual orientation.

From the press release: “Psychologists Stanton L. Jones (Wheaton College, IL) and Mark A. Yarhouse (Regent University) have just published in the respected, peer-reviewed Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy the final results of their longitudinal study of individuals seeking sexual orientation change through involvement in a variety of Christian ministries affiliated with Exodus International. The results show change to be possible for some, and the attempt not harmful on average. These results stand in tension with the supposed professional consensus…”

Both researchers are from conservative Christian colleges, which, of course, make the research suspect. But, as Timothy Kincaid over at Box Turtle Bulletin points out, Yarhouse has long been touting his conclusions that ex-gay ministries are “helpful.” Kincaid gives some background on Yarhouse, and his colleague, Rob Tisinai, gives a better breakdown of what the numbers really mean—and it isn’t a rousing success story about “change.”

“Out of 98 highly-motivated subjects, the authors found that a small, unspecified number can use prayer and counseling to shut down their sexual feelings or become a bit more bi. And possibly none who turned straight.”

Even the researchers call their conclusions “overly optimistic.”

“These results do not prove that categorical change in sexual orientation is possible for everyone or anyone, but rather that meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some. The results do not prove that no one is harmed by the attempt to change, but rather that the attempt does not appear to be harmful on average or inherently harmful.”

Even CitizenLink points out that the APA has deep concerns about the flawed methodology of the research, something Stanton Jones pooh-poohed.

“All methodologies have drawbacks,” he said. “The more rigorous you get, the further removed you get from real life. We followed more of a real-life model than a hyper-controlled experimental model. We think the results challenge the reigning mindset that change is impossible or is extraordinarily rare.”

Really, why try some proven methodology when one that gives you more of the results you want will do? The APA is so picky.

None of these qualifications, however, will stop the religious right from totally blowing this flawed research up into the proof it needs that you can “pray away the gay.”

Aside from the obviously flawed methodology and the laughably small sample size, the biggest problem with this study is that all of the “therapy” given to these 98 poor souls was religiously-based—and more specifically evangelical Christian.

The power of religious belief to sway one’s behavior cannot be overstated. People have convinced themselves of all sorts of things in the fog of religious fervor. They believe that venomous snakes cannot harm them or that they can be miraculously healed by touching the garment of the latest faith healer and saying “Baaay-bee!” Religion can also motivate people to kill others like abortion doctors, gays and lesbians, and transgender people all in the name of their god.

The single greatest motivator for these 98 subjects however most certainly was a fear-based one.  In short, they were all living under the threat of hell. The thought of eternal damnation—a true, fiery pit where you suffer endlessly forever and ever, amen—can be a great motivator for the true believer. It can motivate people to stop smoking, drinking, swearing, wearing their hair long, or cheating on their spouse or income taxes.

I get emails from gay and lesbian Christians on almost a daily basis who are deeply worried that living into their natural, God-given sexuality will earn them a one way ticket to Satanland. That fear is real, that fear is palpable, and these people are willing to do anything to avoid that fate—even if it means marrying someone from the opposite gender as proof positive of their “change.”

That being said, I am a firm believer in the Kinsey scale. I do believe that sexuality runs a continuum and that there are people who are genuinely bisexual. If someone is near the center of that scale, they may find it easier to put aside same-sex feelings and choose to follow their opposite-sex feelings. Perhaps the 14 percent (or less) “success” rate here comes from genuine bisexuals who may have more of a luxury to choose which gender attracts them. Sadly, we don’t know the details of these participants, so we can’t ask them these questions. We just have to take the researchers word for it that they’ve changed and that they’re happy about that change.

Another concern about not knowing the stories of these participants calls into question what kind of sexual “problems” they may have been dealing with in the first place. Often, when I hear from people who say they have “changed” and become heterosexual, they tell me about the problems they had with pornography and sexual promiscuity—as if homosexuality is exactly the same as these sexual problems.

I always respond by telling them that all they really needed to do was heal their porn or sexual addiction and they could have pursued a happy and healthy homosexual orientation. Addictions to porn and sex are not the same as homosexuality. Those are unhealthy sexualities that must be addressed outside of the subject’s primary sexual orientation. To conflate addiction with sexual orientation is psychological malpractice.

If, however, some of these participants truly—because of their religious beliefs—did not want to act on their homosexual feelings and did not have porn or sexual addictions troubling them and they fall into this “success” rate and have become heterosexually oriented, I will not dispute them. I would have to take their word for it.

There are many on the religious right who say that gay Christians don’t really exist, so I understand how painful and frustrating it can be to have your very identity denied. I refuse to do that to another human being. So, if someone tells me they are “ex-gay” then I believe them until they prove otherwise.

The problems arise when they believe their experience to be normative. Simply because one person, motivated by their religious belief that they will burn in hell if they remain gay, has had some success in changing, or suppressing, their orientation, does not mean that it is the path meant for everyone. There are plenty of people living healthy, happy, and yes, God-blessed lives, as gay, lesbian, bisexual and even transgender people (and as Christians!). They have a story to tell as well, and their story must also be respected if those who tout “ex-gay” ministries expect theirs to be respected.

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