To a packed house of interested counselors but few reporters, researchers Stanton Jones (Provost, Wheaton College) and Mark Yarhouse (Professor of Psychology, Regent University) presented their research during the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference in Nashville. The study was funded by Exodus International, a Christian ministry dedicated to helping people change homosexual behavior. With refreshing candor, Jones and Yarhouse were straightforward about the Exodus connection, but stressed that the funding came with no strings attached. Not knowing in the beginning what they would find, the researchers made a commitment to fairly and freely report their outcomes even if those results were embarrassing to Exodus. In doing so now, they provide a rare research based look into religiously motivated attempts to change homosexual orientation.
The study addressed two questions: Is change of sexual orientation, specifically homosexual orientation, possible? And, is the attempt intrinsically harmful? Most professional mental health societies promote the view that the answers are no and yes, respectively. However, Jones and Yarhouse now believe the results are just the opposite. Their findings lead them to conclude that change of sexual orientation is not impossible for some people and that, on average, the effort does not significantly erode well being for those who continue.
The authors were careful to point out that the participants were not engaged in professional therapy and so the variable of interest was participation in Exodus ministries, not a specific type of counseling. Also, they noted that change overall is modest and some became dissatisfied with the effort. Beginning with 98 subjects referred by Exodus, they ended up with information from 73 participants, a respectable retention rate of 74.5%.
The authors reported their assessments of change in several ways. First of all, when simply asked to describe their sexuality, the participants described the following changes over an average of three years.
- 33 people reported change in the desired manner (from homosexual at the outset toward heterosexuality at follow up) (45%)
- 29 reported no change (40%)
- 8 reported change toward a gay identification (11%)
- 3 were unsure how to describe their experience (4%)
Modified for statistical purposes, the researchers also asked their participants to rate themselves using a scale developed by sexologist Alfred Kinsey – a seven means entirely homosexual along a continuum to one for entirely heterosexual. For the whole group, an average rating of 5.07 was reported at the beginning. At final follow up, the average score was 4.08, or almost a one point decline. Some people reported lots of change, others not so much. On average, the changes were statistically significant.
Some observers might wonder if these changes were of a sufficient practical difference to be meaningful. The authors addressed this question in the book by providing ample opinions of the participants in their own words. For people who are seeking greater congruence with their values and beliefs, even modest change was experienced as beneficial.
One of the key findings is that many participants experienced benefit despite small changes in sexual attractions. Only 15% reported large shifts – i.e., substantial reductions in homosexual desire and the addition of heterosexual functioning. Another 23% described reductions in homosexual desire and were living in chastity. Including another 29% who experienced little change, a full two-thirds remained satisfied with their Exodus experience and committed to living out their beliefs about sexuality. To me, this point may be the biggest story. The participants realized personal gains from involvement in Exodus ministries even if their sexual attractions did not change to the degree originally desired.
Although the authors do not minimize problems reported by some former Exodus participants, they did not discover evidence of widespread harm. Average ratings of general emotional distress remained steady from start to follow up, both for the entire population and more specifically for those continuing the change process.
In a way, this book has something for everyone. Critics who say change is rare will note that a relatively small percentage made complete shifts. And the authors disclosed that same-sex attractions lingered for many participants. Social conservatives will point out that, for many people, living in accord with traditional religious teachings regarding sexuality does not appear to increase emotional distress. From my perspective, the study highlights the beneficial role that faith and religious community can have in supporting valued identity and behavior.
The authors are to be commended for the cautious and candid way they describe their methods and results. For anyone interested in sexuality, religious faith and personal change, this book is highly recommended.
Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College (PA). He can be reached through his blog at www.wthrockmorton.com.
Ex-gays? is published by Intervarsity Press.
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