The truth about new study claiming ex-gay conversion therapy works

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A newly published study that purports to show the benefits of ex-gay conversion therapy is exciting anti-LGBTQ groups like the Liberty Counsel that oppose attempts to ban the harmful and ineffective treatment. Unfortunately for those groups, the study’s scientific credentials are lacking and the research isn’t even new.

The study, “Effects of Therapy on Religious Men Who Have Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction,” was published last month in The Linacre Quarterly. According to the Liberty Counsel, it “confirms the overwhelming effectiveness of people receiving counseling to reduce or eliminate their unwanted same-sex attractions, behaviors, or identity.”

It doesn’t.

The researchers did not actually assess whether any particular treatment has any particular effect; they simply surveyed a group of 125 men who had undergone some form of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) to see whether they believed it helped. There was no before-and-after assessment. Instead, they simply asked participants to think back to how they believe they felt before they started conversion therapy.

This is particularly problematic for the results because there was no consistency in what kind of treatment the participants had actually undergone and quite a bit of disagreement as to which type of therapy was “helpful.” Some preferred a long weekend retreat, for example, while others preferred ongoing therapy. There was also a lot of disagreement over which individual techniques were the most helpful at SOCE, a finding which led to this humorous, if sad, sentence’s inclusion:

The techniques that participants rated as the most harmful to SOCE overall… were ““going to the gym” (16 percent), “imagining getting AIDS” (used as “covert aversion” 13.6 percent), “stopping homosexual thoughts” (12.8 percent), and “abstaining from masturbation” (10.4 percent).

One of the other’s study’s major flaws, as in past assessments of conversion therapy, is the complete erasure of bisexuality. Only 27 percent of participants indicated that their sexual attractions were “exclusively homosexual” before they began SOCE. After SOCE, only about 23 percent of participants reported that their attractions were now “mostly” or “exclusively heterosexual.” The researchers boast that the numbers show a “decrease” in homosexual attraction, but they definitely do not show a “removal” of homosexual attraction.

These same figures also demonstrate the participants’ bias. The change in how they identified their sexuality was far more significant than the actual change they reported in their attractions. Many more were calling themselves “exclusively heterosexual” than were actually experiencing heterosexual attractions. The reality appears to be that most of them already experienced some degree of bisexuality both before and after SOCE and they merely changed how they identify and interact with their sexuality.

The participants’ bias toward identifying as heterosexual undermines the study’s conclusions that the therapy had no harmful effects. A 2013 survey of people who underwent conversion therapy but later accepted their same-sex orientations found that 92 percent experienced some kind of harm, and 84 percent said that harm still affected them. The most common consequences they suffered were related to shame and emotional harm, experiences the new study’s participants would likely not volunteer if they still subscribed to the belief that they benefited from trying to conform to their anti-gay beliefs.

The parallel between the two groups is easy to see. The ex-gay survivors, as they call themselves, reported that the most significant reasons they attempted conversion therapy was cultural and religious pressure. It’s surely no coincidence that 98.6 percent of the new study’s participants identified as active believers, with 89 percent identifying as Christian.

The study’s origin

Separate from the flaws in the study’s methodology, a number of other biases further undermine its legitimacy.

First of all, the journal in which the study was published, The Linacre Quarterly, rejects the legitimacy of homosexuality. It’s a publication of the Catholic Medical Association (CMA), which states that its mission is “steadfast fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church,” and as such, it expects its members “to uphold the principles of the Catholic faith in the science and practice of medicine.”

The Catholic Church still believes that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” and the CMA itself describes homosexuality as having “personally disintegrative effects” and explicitly peddles conversion therapy.

Furthermore, the research is not technically even new. The article indicates that the data were actually collected way back in 2011. In fact, all available clues suggest that the new article is actually derived from lead author Paul Santero’s dissertation. Google Books indicates that Santero published a book with a nearly identical title in 2011.

Both Santero and one of the other authors, Dolores Ballesteros, are listed on the study as affiliated with Southern California Seminary (SCS). On his current bio, Santero indicates that he finished his doctorate in psychology at SCS in 2011, which is notably not accredited by the American Psychological Association. He has no known current affiliation with SCS. Ballesteros, who has no apparent credentials in psychology and now seems to be retired, was listed in a 2011-2012 course catalog for the seminary as “Dissertation Coordinator.”

Santero’s biases, including his long history of profiting off providing conversion therapy, are evident. Since 2012, Santero has worked for the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic, the conversion therapy clinic founded by none other than Joseph Nicolosi — often considered the father of conversion therapy. Indeed, the study personally thanks Nicolosi for being the “main contact for all of the therapists/counselors who advertised the survey.” The study also offers “deep respect” to the participants “for their tenacity in their prolonged SOCE task.”

Nicolosi passed away last year, and although his son Joseph Nicolosi, Jr. continues his work, the clinic appears to be closed. Google identifies it as being “permanently closed” and its phone number has been disconnected. It’s thus unclear where exactly Santero now works, although continues to actively post — including .

Santero founded and oversees a chastity support group in San Diego. Although the group states that its primary goal is addressing pornography addiction, its language about helping stem “unwanted sexual behavior” corresponds to code words used by other conversion therapy groups as well as Courage, the Catholic Church’s anti-gay celibacy ministry.

He is also listed as a counselor at Rachel’s Hope, a San Diego Catholic ministry that advertises “after-abortion healing and reconciliation,” where he leads day-long retreats for men whose partners have had abortions. His credentials listed there include his affiliation with the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the professional organization for conversion therapists that Nicolosi also co-founded.

Santero did not respond to a ThinkProgress request for comment.

It’s unclear how Santero came to collaborate with his co-author, Neil Whitehead, who the study identifies as a “semi-retired earth scientist” based in New Zealand. As a biochemist, Whitehead has no apparent credentials in the field of psychology, but his anti-gay prejudices are well-documented.

Whitehead is the author of a book called My Genes Made Me Do It, first published in 2000 and now in its fifth edition. The facetiously titled book purports to prove that “homosexual orientation is not biologically innate or fixed” and promotes sympathy and encouragement for those who wish to change their orientation. His website peddles the myths that gay people are more promiscuous, that their relationships are less stable, and that they are inherently more prone to psychological problems.

Whitehead has also published articles in the Journal of Human Sexuality, which is actually NARTH’s publication — not a legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journal. He even co-authored NARTH’s 2009 report defending the legitimacy of conversion therapy.

Just as Santero stands to profit from providing therapy to those who believe they can change their orientation, Whitehead stands to benefit from continuing to sell copies of his book convincing them to believe just that.

The implications

The reason Liberty Counsel believes this study is important is because it has been on the forefront of challenging state laws that ban conversion therapy for minors. So far, they have lost cases in both California and New Jersey, and the Supreme Court declined to hear their appeals both times.

In its recent decision allowing crisis pregnancy centers to lie to women to convince them not to get abortions however, the Supreme Court specifically addressed the language in one of those rulings and indicated it was wrongly decided. Combined with the likely conservative shift expected to follow Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, the Court seems poised to actually rule in favor of allowing conversion therapy. Following that ruling in NIFLA v. Becerra, the Liberty Counsel announced that it plans to try to reopen its past cases for reconsideration.

Meanwhile, another big fight over conversion therapy is on the horizon. The California Senate recently approved a bill that would define conversion therapy as a form of consumer fraud. If AB 2943 becomes law, which seems likely, it would be the country’s first ban on conversion therapy for adults. Conservatives have dubbed the legislation the “Must Stay Gay” bill and disingenuously claimed that it would ban the sale of the Bible.

In a piece for the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal this week, the Family Research Council’s Peter Sprigg called AB 2943 a threat to “core freedoms of speech and religion.” He specifically cited the Santero, Whitehead, and Ballesteros study as proof that conversion therapy can be “beneficial and effective.”

The Liberty Counsel believes the study “strongly refutes claims the American Psychological Association and other organizations have made aimed at discouraging counsel to change unwanted same-sex attractions, behavior, and identity.” This refers to the APA’s exhaustive report published in 2009, which reviewed all the available research and found that SOCE was ineffective and involved some risk of harm.

Given the new study’s flaws and biases — including the fact it doesn’t even specifically identify which kinds of therapy it claims are effective — it’s unlikely to impact the APA’s conclusions.

If, however, the Liberty Counsel can convince five Supreme Court justices that conversion therapy could be the least bit worthwhile, that would open the door to a new wave of shame-based treatments across the country — including for children who have no say in whether they are subjected to it.


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