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Changing Sexual Orientation? A Look at the Data

An affirmative answer to Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer begins with the wisdom to distinguish what we can change from what we cannot. Some traits, it’s now clear, are naturally predisposed and not amenable to change; other characteristics lie within our control.

Our temperament is one trait that we receive rather than choose. From womb to tomb, some people tend to be excitable, intense, and reactive; others are easygoing, quiet, and placid. People may mellow a bit with age, but the hot-tempered young adult usually becomes the relatively irascible older person. That being so, we had best find the serenity to accept and wisely manage our temperament and try to understand the temperaments of those around us. Our body type is also naturally predisposed. People used to presume that obesity resulted from gluttony, from a failure of the will, or from repressed guilt or hostility. With effort or therapy one presumably could elect a different body. But the truth is told by studies of identical twins (who share similar body types) and of adopted children (who resemble their biological parents more than their adoptive parents and siblings). Although diet and exercise can make a difference, our body fights to maintain its “settling point” weight, much as a thermostat maintains room temperature at a set point.

Other things we can change. In What You Can Change…and What You Can’t, clinical researcher Martin Seligman offers facts about what you can change:

  • The sexual “dysfunctions” frigidity, impotence, premature ejaculation can be unlearned.
  • Our moods, which can wreak havoc with our physical health, can be controlled.
  • Depression can be alleviated by changes in conscious thinking or helped by medication, but rarely by insight into childhood.
  • Optimism is a learned skill. Once learned, it increases achievement at work and improves physical health.

What about sexual orientation? Even if we didn’t willfully choose it and our parents didn’t shape it, can we change it?

On the assumption that what has been learned can be relearned differently, conservatives have tended to favor environmental explanations of sexual orientation.   By a 4 to 1 margin, “highly committed” evangelicals believe sexual orientation can be changed. By a 2 to 1 margin, mainline Protestants think it can’t.   Their belief that sexual orientation is chosen makes it easier to go to the next step and argue that gays and lesbians can make a new choice for heterosexuality, leaving their former homosexual lives behind. Conversely, liberals (and gays) have tended to welcome biological explanations on the assumption that what’s biologically disposed should be accepted. “We know from our own experience that sexual orientation is inborn, and can’t be changed,” explains gay blogger Scott Bidstrup.

Actually, some learned behaviors are enduring. (Examples range from human language accents to ducklings imprinted to follow whatever they were exposed to at their life’s beginning usually their own mother, but sometimes a merry prankster researcher.) And some biological traits are modifiable or controllable. (Examples range from vision correction with glasses to growth hormones that correct dwarfism.) Thus understanding the roots of sexual orientation doesn’t settle the question of whether sexual orientation can change.

On this question, there’s a big divide among people of faith. A 2003 Pew Research Center study reported that by a 4 to 1 margin, “highly committed” evangelicals expressing an opinion believe sexual orientation can be changed. By a 2 to 1 margin, mainline Protestants (and White Catholics by a similar margin) think it can’t. Nevertheless, those on both sides of this debate agree on some things.

Possible Areas of Agreement

First, people can act against their desires. Heterosexual prisoners may engage in sex with cellmates. Homosexuals can fulfill others’ expectations by marrying and having children. (Genital friction, sometimes combined with eyes-closed fantasies, can produce intended results.) Sexual orientation is what one is, not what one does.

Second, sexual orientation is not reversed by experimentation. Heterosexuals (for whom opposite-sex attractions feel natural) may experiment with homosexual behavior, and homosexuals (for whom same-sex attractions feel natural) may experiment with heterosexual behavior, but both readily turn away from such. The handedness analogy is applicable here. Using the right hand feels natural to right-handed people. Using the left hand feels natural to lefthanded people. Persons in either category might try using the other hand for certain tasks (say, holding a fork, or writing), but that does not mean they’ve switched their basic handedness, and they quickly turn back to what is natural for them.

Third, people of either sexual orientation can struggle to resist enacting their desires or even to live a celibate life.

Fourth, doing so isn’t easy (and sexually active married people might therefore think twice about preaching what they themselves don’t practice, lest they replicate the Pharisees of whom Jesus said, “They tie onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry”). Christianity Today offered the testimony of one married gay man who reported that with prayer, counseling, and great effort he was able to “control the behavioral manifestations of my sexual orientation” and to have a “fulfilling heterosexual life” even while struggling with his continuing attractions to other men and his “recurring bouts of almost suicidal depression.”

Reparative Therapy

In decades past, mental health workers sought to change sexual orientation with treatments ranging from psychoanalysis to aversion therapy (in the case of gay males, pairing electric shocks with pictures of naked men). Such methods were largely ineffective and therefore abandoned. Then in the 1980s, British theologian-turnedpsychologist Elizabeth Moberly and, soon after, American psychologist Joseph Nicolosi followed Freud’s lead in suggesting that early parent-child relationships shape the sexual clay. They have argued that a young boy, suffering a painful mismatch between his needs and what his disappointing father offers, may “defensively detach” from his father. Still longing for the warmth and love his father never gave him, he may develop attachments to older boys who help fill that vacuum. After puberty, such longing for male intimacy supposedly becomes sexualized.

In keeping with Freudian psychology’s history of parent blaming, the implication for dads seems clear: If they are distressed to find themselves with a gay son, they’ve got themselves to blame. Homosexuality is said to be their son’s effort to repair the broken or nonexistent father-son relationship, and during therapy their sons may learn to voice how distant or un-nurturing their dads were.

Reparative therapy (sometimes called “conversion therapy” or “reorientation therapy”) seeks to redirect the repair effort by offering the gay client intimate nonsexual relationships with other males via the therapist and peers in support groups.   The major American mental health organizations reject the belief that reparative therapy can enable gays and lesbians to reverse their sexual desires.   Men are encouraged to develop their sense of masculinity (and women their femininity) on the assumption that strong gender identifi- cations promote heterosexuality. Because the therapy espouses sexual reorientation and teaches traditional gender roles, conservative Christian groups (which normally would steer clear of Freudian ideas) have promoted reparative therapy.

The major American mental health associations, representing nearly half a million professionals, are essentially unanimous in rejecting the assumption of reparative therapy (that homosexuality is a disorder that needs a cure) and in challenging the belief that such therapy can enable gays and lesbians to reverse their sexual desires. Several of the associations [the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychiatric Association] have declared that reparative therapy has potential for harm….

Ex-Gay Ministries

“Change is possible,” declares the home page of Exodus International, a network of 135 ministries to homosexual persons in seventeen nations. It goes on to say that Exodus proclaims “the Biblical truth that freedom from homosexuality is possible when Jesus is Lord of one’s life….Exodus affirms reorientation of same sex attraction is possible.”

Hearing such claims, religiously-minded homosexual individuals may turn to such “transformational ministries,” hoping to find relief from their struggles. Many have been rejected by their families and perchurches. They have prayed repeatedly–often for many years–that God will deliver them from their same-sex desires. They have gone forward in revival services, talked with ministers, made promises to God. Some have sought change through therapy, entered marriages to persons of the other sex, even tried exorcism. Some have asked God to let them die or have actually attempted suicide. Groups that promise them escape from their homosexual proclivities seem to be the answer they have been looking for.

Arguing that “homosexuality is preventable and treatable,” Mike Haley, chair of the Exodus board of directors and manager of Focus on the Family’s “homosexuality and gender department,” offers his own testimony: “I went from having ho
mosexual fantasies and dreams, and feeling that a sexual relationship with a woman was repulsive, to the opposite end of the spectrum of having a sexually gratifying, emotionally satisfying relationship with my wife….I prove homosexuality is not immutable, that it can be changed.”

What troubles skeptics is that time and again such powerful testimonials turn out to have been either false, self-deceptive, or from people who never were genuinely homosexual. More than a dozen such organizations have, after touting successes, been abandoned by their own founders, who are now “ex-exgays.” Jeff Ford, former executive director of a Minnesota ex-gay program and a “national speaker for Exodus,” acknowledges that, despite his claims of being “healed” of homosexuality and helping others to be “healed,” he actually “did not see that happen in my work with over 300 gay and lesbian people.”

In Britain, the formerly ex-gay Courage Trust organization is no longer attempting sexual reorientation. Its founder, Jeremy Marks, explained that his organization “not only failed to preserve the moral purity of gay people (or the church) but, on the contrary, has proved to have an extremely destructive effect on the lives of many gay people [and] has had an extremely corrosive effect on their faith in God.”   The ex-gay ministry literature acknowledges continuted struggle with homosexual temptations by many who consider themselves no longer gay.   Today, Courage Trust declares itself “an evangelical Christian organization [for] gay and lesbian Christians who are seeking a safe place of friendship in which to reconcile their faith and sexuality and grow towards Christian maturity.”…

The ex-gay ministry literature acknowledges the continued struggles with homosexual temptations experienced by many who consider themselves no longer gay. “God does not replace one form of lust with another,” explained Bob Davies and Lori Rentzel in Coming Out of Homosexuality. Ex-gays commonly are aware of homosexual attraction and typically “do not experience sexual arousal solely by looking at their wife’s body.” According to Davies, those who have left the ex-gay movement (“ex-ex-gays”) are people who “abandon their previously-held view that homosexual behavior is sin…[and] go with their feelings, rather than submit to the author of the Scriptures.”

Consistent with such candid statements from the leading ex-gay ministry, gay evangelical psychotherapist Ralph Blair observes that “When pressed, and in fine print, what reparative therapy and the ex-gay movement admit is that people are trying to control the expression of their sexual urges. (And some who are helped to do so are coming from extremely sordid sexual lifestyles.) There are a few claims of reorientation but these are becoming fewer and fewer. And those that have claimed reorientation keep ‘falling.'”

Consider statements from the Exodus organization after ex-gay leader, John Paulk–Mike Haley’s predecessor as chair of the Exodus Board of Directors, head of Focus on the Family’s transformation ministry to homosexuals, and a featured ex-gay on the cover of Newsweek–was found in a gay bar. Exodus staff director Davies stated that “as an organization, we also need to re-examine…the public perception of our use of terms such as ‘healing’ and ‘change.'”…

Is there a bridge across the divide here? To the extent that “healing” ministries aim not, as they publicly declare, to reverse sexual orientation but to support people in escaping unrewarding and unhealthy sexual behaviors, and in living free of drugs and alcohol, most people of faith could applaud their efforts. (Regardless of one’s sexual orientation, there are moral and health-related issues worth contemplating.) Transformational ministry advocates and skeptics agree that sexual behavior can change; people can be convinced to choose celibacy, and others to marry someone of the other sex (even if that often involves fantasizing a samesex person during lovemaking). Advocates and skeptics also agree that sexual identity can change, as ex-gay support groups encourage members to think of and proclaim themselves as no longer gay (unlike AA members, who view themselves as forever alcoholic and vulnerable to relapse).

Virtually everyone further agrees that sexual orientation is more resistant to change. Reparative therapists and ex-gay ministries declare that in many cases it can change; the mental health associations say it cannot. Thus the issue narrows to whether, aided by therapy and ministry, the likelihood of sexual reorientation is suf- ficient to encourage the effort, rather than encouraging people ‘to accept the thing that cannot be changed.’ Is the failure rate of reparative therapy and ex-gay transformation ministries 50 percent? 80 percent? 100 percent? And if the failures bear a cost of increased guilt, depression, and risk of suicide, what success level would warrant encouraging those desiring change to enter such therapy?…

Convincing Evidence of Change?

The battle of anecdotes of supposed sexual reorientation versus anecdotes of failures and of ex-ex-gays will not resolve the issue. Just as we don’t trust anecdotal before-and-after diet ad photos as a substitute for evidence, so we should be cautious about drawing conclusions from anecdotes of sexual reorientation successes and failures. What’s needed is some decisive evidence.

For many sexual reorientation proponents, persuasive evidence seemed to come at the 2001 American Psychiatric Association convention when Robert Spitzer reported on “200 Subjects who Claim to Have Changed their Sexual Orientation from Homosexual to Heterosexual.”   If the failures of such therapy bear a cost of increased guilt, depression, and risk to suicide, what success level would warrant encouraging it?   “Psychiatrist now says homosexual can change,” headlined the American Family Association. “Robert Spitzer’s recent study argues that people can change their homosexual behavior,” echoed Christianity Today. The study became prominent national news partly because its author was a Columbia University psychiatrist who nearly three decades earlier had played a key role in getting homosexuality eliminated from the psychiatric classification of disorders. After talking with several self-proclaimed ex-gays at the 1999 American Psychiatric Association meeting, Spitzer got to wondering about their claims. Hoping to satisfy his curiosity, he found, with assistance from ex-gay ministries and the reparative therapy association–though “with great difficulty”–274 Americans who called his office hoping to provide their evidence of change.

With hundreds of therapists belonging to the association for reparative therapy, each presumably with many present and past clients, and with 153 Exodus-affiliated organizations with numerous members, one might have presumed a willing pool of tens of thousands of ex-gays. In fact, reports Spitzer, “it was necessary to repeatedly send notices of the study over a 15-month period to a large number of participants who had undergone some form of reparative therapy” in order to recruit these relatively few cases. This, he concluded, suggested “the possibility of change in some gay men and lesbians” but also that sexual reorientation “may be a rare or uncommon outcome of reparative therapy.”

After eliminating 74 whose behavior and identity had changed, but not their attraction, Spitzer conducted lengthy interviews with the remaining 200. Of these, slightly less than half of both the men and women recalled being “exclusively homosexual” before the change effort, and only 17 percent of the men and 54 percent of the women were “exclusively heterosexual” after. Moreover, nearly half the males who masturbated still had occasional
same sex fantasies after their “change.”   Robert Spitzer’s 2001 study concluded that “the vast majority of gay people would be unable to alter by much a firmly established homosexual orientation.”   Reflecting on the difficulty of finding self-proclaimed ex-gays, and on the seeming difficulty of complete transformation, Spitzer concluded that, “To my horror, some of the media reported the study as an attempt to show that homosexuality is a choice, and that substantial change is possible for any homosexual who decides to make the effort….In fact, I suspect that the vast majority of gay people would be unable to alter by much a firmly established homosexual orientation.”

Such interview research suffers the problems of human recall. Time and again, researchers have observed participants in weight-control, anti-smoking, academic skills, and delinquency prevention programs testifying to substantial benefits. “This program changed my life!” Yet time and again, when the participants’ actual behaviors (their weights, smoking habits, grades, or arrest records) are compared with those of comparable people in an untreated control group, no therapy effect is evident.

There is an understandable reason for the misleading self-reports: Memories are malleable and fallible. As they recall their histories and report their present, people tend to justify what they want to believe. We author and revise life stories in the context of our current beliefs and attitudes. Thus, noted the late evangelical writer Mike Yaconelli, “every moving illustration, every gripping story, every testimony, didn’t happen (at least, it didn’t happen like the storyteller said it happened).” Having expended time, effort, money, and ego on a change effort, people are highly motivated to think, “I may not be perfect now, but I was worse before; this did me a lot of good.”

Data published by sex researchers Masters and Johnson in 1979 are also still cited by some ex-gay ministries who claim they can help homosexual persons leave homosexuality. Masters and Johnson had worked with clients and their opposite-sex partners who reported dissatisfaction with their homosexuality and a desire to function heterosexually. These clients were strongly motivated (many were in marriages and some were likely bisexual), and the Masters and Johnson two-week daily therapy program proved effective for 29 out of 67 clients, in that these individuals were helped in terms of behavior. Their fantasies, dreams, and erotic arousal were not taken into account, which other sex researchers view as a serious flaw in the research and the conclusions often drawn from it. The key is the word function. Being able to function or “perform” heterosexually does not signify a conversion to heterosexuality if their psychic response had not altered along with the change in behavior.

Given the problems with retrospective testimonials–even snake oil received glowing testimonials–what’s needed, Spitzer agrees, is some sort of “prospective” experiment comparable to drug effi- cacy experiments. (Whether such an experiment would be feasible or desirable is another question.) To assess the efficacy of a diet drug, for example, one would never just solicit testimonials from a relative few people who claim to have lost weight after taking the drug (trusting their recall and not counting those who hadn’t lost weight). Thus, the necessary if impractical experiment would:

  • Identify male volunteers wishing to undergo sexual reorientation and measure their genital sexual responses to same- and other-sex erotic stimuli (to verify sexual attraction solely to same-sex stimuli).
  • Randomly assign some to receive a proposed treatment (perhaps reparative therapy as part of a transformation ministry), the others to a waiting list.
  • After the treatment, reassess sexual orientation by the same physiological measure.

If many of the treated volunteers evidence a reversed sexual attraction, and if this result could be sustained and confirmed by another research team, the skeptics could be refuted.

If American Family Association president Donald Wildmon was right that the national “Coming out of Homosexuality Day” dispelled “the lies of the homosexual rights crowd who say they are born that way and cannot change,” then perhaps he would welcome such an experiment. But he likely was given pause when Michael Johnston, the national chair of Coming out of Homosexuality Day and a featured “exgay” spokesperson in TV and print ads, closed his ministry and ceased organizing the day after acknowledging that he had recently engaged in sexual encounters with other men.

“Can leopards change their spots?” asked the prophet Jeremiah (13:23). Wellmeaning people of faith will continue to struggle with new forms of Jeremiah’s question as they seek grace to accept with serenity what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to discern the one from the other.

Excerpted and condensed from Chapter 6 of their forthcoming book, What God Hath Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). Used by permission.


David G. Myers is Professor of Psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He has authored numerous books relating psychology to cultural values and Christian faith. His textbooks in psychology are widely used in American higher education. He serves on the Advisory Board of the National Marriage Project.


Letha Dawson Scanzoni has written and spoken widely on sexuality, gender, marriage, and family in the context of the Christian faith. She is a founder of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.