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CAPITOL WEEKLY: Let’s talk about sex – therapy, that is.
May 16, 2012
By Greg Lucas
David Pickup says conversion therapy was so effective in overcoming his “homoerotic attractions” that he himself is now a Glendale-based practitioner trying to help others change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
“Like most guys who deal with these issues, I’m still on my journey. I was depressed years and years ago, clinically depressed and I’m not anymore,” says Pickup.
“Reparative therapy was one of the main things that helped me through that. I got rid of any kind of shame whatsoever for having homosexual feelings. It really heals those inner wounds especially for those of us molested as children by older males.”
Peter Drake, a 55-year-old San Francisco real estate investor, says he was driven into severe depression by three years of such therapy in which, among other things, he was encouraged to learn more about sports and focus on the female anatomy.
“The therapy was positioned as a way to fix something that was broken in me,” said Drake who was in the 28th year of a straight marriage at the time. “Of course I wasn’t broken and I didn’t need fixing so I only got more depressed, more frustrated and more upset.”
Both men have testified on either side of first-in-the-nation legislation moving through the state Senate to prevent such treatment being given to minors and require adults who want the treatment to sign a statement acknowledging that “sexual orientation change efforts have not been shown to be safe or effective and can, in fact, be harmful.”
Among the risks of the therapy, the bill says, are: “depression, anxiety, self-destructive behavior and suicide.”
Opponents counter that the bill usurps the ability of parents to choose the right psychological care for their child and subjects therapists who practice sexual orientation change efforts to potential liability.
“This blanket prohibition on communication between a psychotherapist and a minor patient is unprecedented,” said Matt McReynolds, a lawyer with the Pacific Justice Institute in Sacramento. “That’s the central issue for us.”
Reparative or conversion therapy surfaced during the GOP presidential debates last year when Rep. Michele Bachmann was asked if her husband’s Christian counseling business engaged in it.
The California legislation -- SB 1172 by Sen. Ted Lieu, a Torrance Democrat -- has received a higher national profile after President Obama’s May 9 announcement that he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
“If this was just a case where people were wasting money on therapy that didn’t work, that would be one thing. But this is a case where not only does the therapy not work but the therapy can be dangerous, leading you to feelings of guilt and shame,” Lieu told Capitol Weekly.
“Government intervenes to protect children from danger. That’s why we ban alcohol and cigarettes from minors regardless of whether their parents consent.”
Under Lieu’s bill, adults seeking such therapy would need to sign a waiver that contains statements by various groups saying that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation is unlikely to work.
The consent form includes this 1997 statement from the National Association of Social Workers:
"Social stigmatization of lesbian, gay and bisexual people is widespread and is a primary motivating factor in leading some people to seek sexual orientation changes. Sexual orientation conversion therapies assume that homosexual orientation is both pathological and freely chosen. No data demonstrates that reparative or conversion therapies are effective, and, in fact, they may be harmful."
At the center of the debate is whether homosexuality or bisexuality is immutable or whether it’s a behavior that can be “cured ” because it may stem from environmental factors like sexual abuse or other trauma which can be worked through by counseling.
And reparative therapy also appears to be favored by those sharing the religious belief that homosexuality is a “sin” and must be purged.
Exodus International, the world’s largest Christian referral network for reparative therapy, reports 260 “ministries, churches and counselors” nationwide. The organization lists 35 affiliates in California including 24 local churches “who embrace individuals affected by homosexuality while holding to Biblical sexual standards.”
A 2009 report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation noted that participants in most recent studies of reparative therapy were “well-educated individuals, predominantly men, who consider religion to be an extremely important part of their lives and participate in traditional or conservative faiths (e.g., The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, evangelical Christianity, and Orthodox Judaism.”
Some who had undergone the therapy reported benefits but the task force concluded the studies did not provide “conclusions regarding efficacy or safety.”
Lieu and backers of his bill cite evidence saying sexual orientation is a biologic and genetic condition that can be changed through behavioral modification.
“These therapists are saying to their patients there’s a cure that can eliminate homosexuality and that’s factually not true,” said Rebekah Orr, a spokeswoman for Equality California, the sponsor of Lieu’s bill.
That’s a view shared by several major medical groups for almost 20 years.
"Most of the emotional disturbance experienced by gay men and lesbians around their sexual identity is not based on physiological causes but rather is due more to a sense of alienation in an unaccepting environment. For this reason, aversion therapy (a behavioral or medical intervention which pairs unwanted behavior, in this case, homosexual behavior, with unpleasant sensations or aversive consequences) is no longer recommended for gay men and lesbians. Through psychotherapy, gay men and lesbians can become comfortable with their sexual orientation and understand the societal response to it," reads the December 1994 Health Care Needs of Gay Men and Lesbians in the U.S.: A Report Presented by the Council on Scientific Affairs to the (American Medical Association) House of Delegates Interim Meeting, December 1994.
The 2009 psychological association task force recommends:
“Parents, guardians, young people, and their families (should) avoid sexual orientation change efforts that portray homosexuality as a mental illness or developmental disorder and to seek psychotherapy, social support and educational services that provide accurate information on sexual orientation and sexuality, increase family and school support, and reduce rejection of sexual minority youth.”
On the other hand, the National Association of Research and Therapy for Homosexuality, for which Pickup is the chair of the Clients Rights Committee, says “effective therapeutic treatment” can help those who “struggle with unwanted homosexuality.”
In essence, NARTH says that behavioral modification and counseling can suppress or eliminate homosexual feelings.
Pickup says that while many believe homosexuality is inborn “there are a lot of people who believe through scientific evidence it’s a cause-effect relationship. That (it) comes from wounds kids receive – usually in childhood – that reverberate throughout adolescence and adulthood.”
Although NARTH’S website is replete with defenses of reparative therapy, case studies of its success, and offers spirited opposition to Lieu’s bill, no Senate committee has yet to list the group as an opponent.
Pickup studied under Joseph Nicolosi, a founder of NARTH and the author of 2002’s A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality and 2009’s Shame and Attachment Loss, The Practical Work of Reparative Therapy.
“This book is for psychotherapists who seek techniques to assist a systematically ignored group, the non-gay homosexual – a population thought by most of my colleagues not to exist, “Nicolosi writes in the introduction of the latter book.
“Non-gay homosexuals are same-sex attracted men whose deeply held values and sense of self prevent them from embracing a gay identity. In the past 20 years, I have worked with more than 1,000 such client, all of whom seek to diminish their unwanted homosexuality and develop their heterosexual potential.”
Pickup says that, like all forms of psychotherapy, conversion therapy has risks but it can also benefit.
“There have been thousands of cases where men have become so happy. Their depression has been lifted, their anxiety,” said Pickup. “This bill demonizes an entire therapeutic community.”