Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Where are the journalist reorientation therapies?

Posted by metaphorical on 12 February 2007

It’s hard to know how much to condemn an article in today’s NY Times—either a lot, or just quite a bit. What’s wrong with the article is hidden by its title, “Some Tormented by Homosexuality Look to a Controversial Therapy.” If it were only about the poor deluded souls taken in by $240-a-session therapists, that would be one thing. But the article doesn’t get around to saying what bullshit these therapies are until the 7th or 8th paragraph, and then spends all to many subsequent paragraphs taking them seriously.

To be sure, the 8th paragraph is a TKO all by itself, or should be.

“There’s not a debate in the profession on this issue,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist and former chairman of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association. “This is like creationism. You create the impression to the public as if there was a debate in the profession, which there is not.”

It’s too bad its in the mouth of someone identified as, in effect, an advocate for homosexuality. That’s a tactic of a writer unwilling to write anything about a controversy that might look as if it takes one side or another. That’s just the wrong way to go when one side is 100% ideology and 0% science; even if the other side has some ideology as well, it also has 100% of the science going for it. I call it a tactic because it’s obviously deliberately done: it’s not as if it would have been hard to get an unaffiliated expert to similarly lift sexual reorientation therapy from the ever-replenishing pile of contemporary fad therapies and place it on the same dustbin of discarded psychological ideas as phrenology, Skinnerism, and hysteria.

Why do we need another 34 paragraphs to dismiss these therapies as a blend of religious wishful thinking and unadulterated nonsense—not that the writer ends up dismissing it at all, more’s the pity. Speaking of pity, the Times admirably looks the people desperate to put their psyches, their future happiness, and a not inconsiderable chunk of their wallets, into the hands of charlatans:

Despite the skepticism about whether ex-gay programs can work, there is no denying the struggle of those involved. Among them are evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Roman Catholics and others often driven by deeply held religious beliefs that run counter to societal voices that encourage them to embrace being gay. It is unclear how many people participate in these programs, but a leading Christian organization in the movement, Exodus International, estimated in 2003 it had 11,000 in its affiliated ministries.

It’s a common tactic by the religious right to portray themselves as the oppressed minority, but it’s hard to remember the last time a Greenwich Village fundamentalist teenager was robbed, severely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. Why the Times would buy into the 180-degree spin of reality suggested by the phrase “societal voices that encourage them to embrace being gay” is a question only its editors can answer.

Then there’s the term “ex-gay,” which is itself interesting in a troubling way. It’s introduced earlier, in this way:

Nevertheless, these efforts, commonly called the “ex-gay” movement, have become increasingly visible across the country, where the battle over gay marriage and sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have brought the divisive issue of homosexuality to the forefront in recent years.

The term presumes the conclusion that the therapists want and that science refutes: That a gay person can be made un-gay. Here, its usage is somewhat unassailable: these efforts are sometimes called by this name. Thus introduced, however, the writer is then enabled by some weird and difficult to articulate standard of contemporary mainstream journalism to freely use it to describe the therapies as if they merited the name. War is peace; freedom is slavery, and perpetual motion machines will solve the problem of global warming.

Naturally, the sexual reorienters have some pseudoscience to counter the overwhelming scientific evidence opposing them.

Defenders of sexual reorientation programs point to a 2001 study by Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, who interviewed 200 people who said they had successfully changed their orientation and concluded that many of their accounts seemed credible.

But after enduring an avalanche of criticism from peers who said he had given too much credence to the accounts of his subjects, many of whom were leaders of ex-gay ministries, Dr. Spitzer now says many advocates of sexual reorientation have misrepresented his views.

“Although I suspect change occurs, I suspect it’s very rare,” he said. “Is it 1 percent, 2 percent? I don’t think it’s 10 percent.”

The 200 subjects were given to Spitzer by Exodus and another Orwellian-named sexual reorientation advocacy group, the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). It’s hard to tell, but it seems Spitzer is saying that even of this highly self-selecting group, only a few percent can change.

But leaving that aside, Spitzer is only saying he “suspects” change occurs. That’s not the language of scientific proof. And it gets even worse when we look at Spitzer’s study itself. In fact, we don’t even have to anything as complicated and mentally taxing as that. Let’s look at NARTH’s own press release on the occasion of the study:

To the researchers’ surprise, good heterosexual functioning was reportedly achieved by 67% of the men who had rarely or never felt any opposite-sex attraction before the change process. Nearly all the subjects said they now feel more masculine (in the case of men) or more feminine (women).

What, then, was Dr. Spitzer’s conclusion? “Contrary to conventional wisdom,” he says, “some highly motivated individuals, using a variety of change efforts, can make substantial change in multiple indicators of sexual orientation, and achieve good heterosexual functioning.”

For my own part, I find this completely underwhelming; I myself have rarely felt same-sex attraction, and the couple of times I attempted same-sex relations, the results were similarly underwhelming. Yet I’m sure that after several years of hard work, enormous peer and community pressure, further pressure from the dominant national culture, expressed in everything from television ads to elevator jokes, and still more pressure from a same-sex partner I cared deeply about, there would be a two out of three chance I could manage to produce some “good homosexual functioning.”

In other words, the vaulted “transformation” being talked about is strictly one of performance by highly motivated individuals whose basic desires and psychological needs have changed not at all. There are many “indicators of sexual orientation”; if the quack therapists merely want to brag that a handful of highly motivated individuals can change a few of them, they’re welcome to that claim. It’s just hard to see why that justifies a 42-paragraph NY Times article.

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3 Responses to “Where are the journalist reorientation therapies?”

  1. CMD said

    I once had to copyedit an article on reorientation therapies for a professional therapy journal. There were a number of factual errors (or, at the very least, very misleading statements) about HIV and some other things that put me in the position of having to edit a lot more for content than was either usual or appropriate.

    The editor had accepted the article on the recommendation of the reviewers and invited a commentary by the man who’d been the guest editor for the special issue on GLBT issue a couple years prior to the publication of the reorientation article. I know the editor felt that this was the best and most balanced approach, but it absolutely had the effect of inserting an implied “advocate for homosexuality” before every point of his commentary.

  2. Blue Athena said

    I suspect it won’t turn too many who think it is rubbish away from reading the NYT, and will hook a few who can’t tell the difference for at least a short time. I would look at this more in terms of marketing than scientific reporting.

  3. Well, the article won’t make the Times any more popular on its home turf, but I read recently that it now sells more papers outside of New York than in. Top management is going to need more than a new chiropractor if they bend over backwards any further. (There’s a joke available here about bending over for the religious right, but I’ll refrain.)

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