Mainstream Western culture continues its war against therapy for unwanted same-sex attraction. The latest country to declare against ‘conversion therapy’ is Spain, whose health minister has called for a nationwide ban.
Meanwhile the BBC today has run a feature on a woman whose experience of ‘conversion therapy’ was unsuccessful and now feels that it haunts her. You’ll be waiting a long time to see this ‘impartial’ public broadcaster feature any of the stories of people who feel they benefited from such counselling, though they are not hard to find for anyone who wants to.
From this one-sided coverage you would never guess that prior to the 1980s therapy for people with same-sex attraction (of varying forms, mostly talking therapy but also some more brutal forms we wouldn’t defend today) was very common and the literature from this period, including numerous records of successful change, is vast.
Dale O’Leary has compiled an impressive list of 440 studies, articles and books relating to conversion therapy, many from peer-reviewed and professional journals, and provided excerpts from them totalling in excess of 45,000 words. You can find this incredibly useful resource here.
Here are a few highlights:
- E James, in a 1978 dissertation, reviewed 101 studies from 1930 to 1976. These showed: ‘37% of clients not improved; 27% improved; 35% recovered. Bisexuals, females, and clients participating in long-term therapy achieved great gains with respect to sexual reorientation.’
- J Nicolosi, A Byrd and R Potts, in a 1998 book Towards the Ethical and Effective Treatment of Homosexuality, surveyed 850 individuals and 200 therapists and counsellors, ‘specifically seeking out individuals who claim to have made a degree of change in sexual orientation.’ This found that before counselling or therapy, ‘68% of respondents perceived themselves as exclusively or almost entirely homosexuality, with another 22% stating they were more homosexual than heterosexual. After treatment only 13% perceived themselves as exclusively or almost entire homosexuality, while 33% described themselves as either exclusively or almost entirely heterosexual. 99% of respondents said they now believe treatment to change homosexuality can be effective and valuable.’
- A Ellis in 1956, in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, recorded that ‘of the 20 patients who came to therapy with a serious desire to overcome homosexual problems, all made some improvement and 16 made considerable improvement in their sex-love relations with members of the other sex… Of the 20 male and female patients who entered therapy with little or moderate desire to overcome homosexual problems (but who came, instead, mainly to work on other problems or to relieve their guilt over being homosexual), 10 (50%) achieved some improvement, and 3 (15%) achieved considerable improvement.’ The article concluded: ‘It is felt that there are some grounds for believing that the majority of homosexuals who are seriously concerned about their condition and willing to work to improve it may, in the course of active psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapy, be distinctly helped to achieve a more satisfactory heterosexual orientation.’
An early and vocal sceptic of conversion therapy was Dr C A Tripp. In 1971 he had a dialogue with Dr Lawrence Hatterer, which was transcribed and published in the journal Sexual Behavior. Here are a few excerpts of that discussion, which throw some light on the present controversy and its roots:
TRIPP: I know Dr. Hatterer believes he has ‘cured’ homosexuals; similar claims have often been made. I have never seen a major change in any adult’s sexual response, although patients on other therapists’ ‘cure’ list (not yet Dr. Hatterer’s) often come to me and to other therapists I know because they do not want to ‘disappoint’ their first doctor. In any event, there is not a single recorded instance of a change in homosexual orientation which has been validated by outside judges or testing. Kinsey wasn’t able to find one. And neither Dr. Pomeroy nor I have been able to find such a patient. We would be happy to have one from Dr. Hatterer. [Note: In fact, according to Dr W Pomeroy in Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research (1972), ‘Kinsey discovered “more than eighty cases of (previously homosexual) men who had made a satisfactory heterosexual adjustment.” He summarized successful change in therapy as being never less than 30%.’]
HATTERER: I have ‘cured’ many homosexuals, Dr. Tripp. Dr. Pomeroy or any other researcher may examine my work because it is all documented on 10 years of tape recordings. Many of these ‘cured’ (I prefer to use the word ‘changed’) patients have married, had families and live happy lives. It is a destructive myth that ‘once a homosexual, always a homosexual.’ It has made and will make millions more committed homosexuals. What is more, not only have I but many other reputable psychiatrists (Dr. Samuel B. Hadden, Dr. Lionel Ovesey, Dr. Charles Socarides, Dr. Harold Lief, Dr. Irving Bieber, and others) have reported their successful treatments of the treatable homosexual.
TRIPP: There is quite a misunderstanding here as to what constitutes fundamental change. …
HATTERER: I have treated numerous young men who were supposedly disturbed by their ‘homosexuality.’ But I do not look upon homosexuality as an entity. Rather it is a common symptom which appears in many individuals in response to innumerable, dissimilar situations.
TRIPP: But I know of many, many homosexual couples who do stay together for ten, twenty, and many more years. They evidence quite the same mutual concern for each other’s well-being found in warm and stable marriages.
HATTERER: Your experience is very different from mine. The homosexuals I have seen were in the main disgusted with the brevity of their relationships, disgusted by how they squandered their time, interfered with their work, dispensed with their integrity, and sacrificed hopes of an enduring relationship and family life by their driven pursuit of homosexual sex partners. …
TRIPP: I have a sample of 32 couples who have been together more than twenty-five years.
HATTERER: Are they still together sexually?
TRIPP: Yes, but not usually exclusively.
HATTERER: I have seen men who lived together for periods of five or seven years, but rarely for twenty. And those who do stay together generally allow each other a lot of freedom sexually, or they will both invite a third party in for sex relations. The sexual involvement declines or disappears.
TRIPP: Yes, that is often the case and it seems to work very well. … All sexual arrangements work. Homosexuality especially works because it has very minor differences from heterosexuality; the overlap is tremendous and the differences are essentially trivial. But all sexual patterns work. Sadomasochistic relationships work, transvestitism works, even transsexualism for those individuals who manage to achieve the bodily changes they want.
HATTERER: I would strongly suggest Dr. Tripp examine in greater depth his word ‘works’ when applied to all those situations he refers to. I believe he confuses it with ‘survive’. Obviously millions of men practicing homosexuality are productive at work and would report some periods of sexual happiness with their partners either in or out of sustained relationships.
TRIPP: Let me get your reactions to a situation that we who do therapy with homosexuals have often heard about. There are about five or six Turkish baths in New York City that are frequented exclusively by persons who want to engage in homosexual acts. There used to be one near the train station that was a ‘commuters’ bath’ in that many of the customers were married men who stopped off before they went home. They were primarily heterosexual, but engaged in this sporadically. If their lives were happy and well managed, would you say they were necessarily neurotic? Incidentally, many patients report that these men want to be passive in anal intercourse.
HATTERER: That’s a big if. In order to answer the question it would be necessary to investigate what was happening with these men and their wives at home. You are right that such men want to be ‘serviced’ by males or submit to them. But why? What and who drives them to such practices. …
TRIPP: From my point of view, there is no indication that fundamental changes in anybody’s sex life are ever wrought by therapy, nor would they be particularly desirable anyway. A person’s best sexual orientation is the one that helps him get the most out of himself, spontaneously. Killing off his guilt and his childish expectation that conformity is the road to heaven tend to give him confidence and the energy to make a much smoother social integration… Since homosexuality is an alternate orientation and not a disease, ‘cure’ is patently impossible. What passes for ‘cure’ is surface symptom suppression or outright avoidance.
HATTERER: You define cure in one way; I define it in another. I see the patient’s sexual life in the context of his entire life style. I had a patient recently who has had a rather extensive homosexual history. He’s married now and having seven heterosexual orgasms a week. He has occasional homosexual fantasies when under pressure or stress, which has nothing to do with his homosexual responsiveness but rather with his neurotic use of homosexual sex.
There are many points here that could be expanded upon, but for brevity I will draw attention to one. When critics of conversion therapy from Dr Tripp onwards claim that there are no verified cases of people whose sexual preferences have changed as a result of therapy or otherwise, they are simply disregarding the testimonies of hundreds of clinicians and thousands of clients who are on record saying otherwise.
The fact is that sexual preferences are no more nor less fixed than many other human desires, and no more nor less amenable to change in many cases. This may be an inconvenient fact for the proponents of immutable sexual identity and the opponents of therapy, but fact it remains.