Sunday, 3 February 2013

Radio Four debate on ‘change therapies’ for unwanted same-sex attraction

This morning I took part in a short documentary on the Radio Four Sunday programme on ‘change therapies’ for those with unwanted feelings of same sex attraction.

The presenter was Ed Stourton (pictured).

‘Change therapy’ (more accurately SOCEs - sexual orientation change efforts) is aimed at altering the strength and direction of sexual feelings and is currently banned in the UK by counselling organisations such as the BACP and UKCP. ‘Change therapists’, however, continue to practise under auspices of professional counselling bodies in the US and Canada.

The UK ban is primarily on the basis of the argument that sexual orientation is biologically caused and fixed, that change is therefore impossible and that therapy aimed at change is harmful (I have previously critiqued this view here, here and here).

The Sunday Programme item was prompted by a debate earlier in the week in the Houses of Parliament where Professor Michael King of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Gay Rights Activist Peter Tatchell took on Consultant Psychiatrist Joseph Berger and therapist Mike Davidson (See my previous reviews of the arguments Tatchell and King presented).

The Sunday Programme piece was reported by Trevor Barnes and featured six interviewees – Mike Davidson, Di Hodgson, Pamela Gawler-Wright , myself and two clients who had experienced change therapy. It was commendably well-balanced.

You can listen to the whole (8 minute) piece on I-Player here (starts at 30.50 and ends at 38.30).

The programme began by playing an interview of a man who had not found ‘change therapy’ helpful and ‘left very quickly’.

This was followed by the testimony of ‘Robert’, a 55 year-old man, now divorced, who had struggled for years with a promiscuous homosexual lifestyle. He explained how he had sought Christian therapy to help him to change:

‘I had been allowing myself to be labelled by an activity. In fact I realised I was in bondage to that addiction in my life. Through the help of counselling, through the help of my pastor, through the help of an accountability elder that I had within my church I came to understand that my identity is not in the things I did, for example in the act of homosexuality. My true identity is in Christ’

I argued that with some groups of people, as with Robert, counselling and other forms of therapy can be successful :

‘The evidence shows that some people will experience a change in the strength or direction of their sexual feelings either spontaneously or with therapy from a skilled therapist. People who experience a dissonance between their feelings and their values or desires will sometimes seek professional help and if they can harmonise their lifestyle choices with their values then they do feel better.’

Di Hodgson, chair of the Diversity, Equalities and Social Responsibility Committee of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), questioned the very principles underlying the therapy:

‘I think there is very conflicting evidence. But in some ways, to me, that’s really not the right question to ask, if I may say, because whether or not something works doesn’t mean that it is ethical or in the public interest or the right thing to do for someone. So we have taken a view in a way which is regardless of the scientific findings. We still believe that it is unethical to seek to agree or to work towards changing someone’s sexual orientation through psychotherapy.’

I thought this was quite an extraordinary admission by someone speaking on behalf of an organisation that seeks to de-register therapists who practise ‘change therapy’ on the pretext that it does not work.

A psychotherapist, Pamela Gawler-Wright, was then interviewed. She claimed that she had personally met many people who had been harmed by ‘change therapy’.

Mike Davidson, a therapist who has been suspended by the UKCP for practising ‘change therapy’, conceded that it is not for everyone but argued that clients should not be banned from seeking it:

‘Any therapy in the wrong hands is potentially damaging but therapy that overrides a person’s right to choose the pathway that suits them and is consistent with their own values is damaging. So I’m not arguing that everybody should change, or that everybody can change, but I think people need to have the right to explore the possibility if that is what they want.’

He went on to argue that much of the objection to ‘change therapy’ is not actually evidence-based but rather ideology-driven.

‘I think one of the reasons that there is such a reaction to this is that it is perceived to be a threat to the idea that homosexuality is innate and therefore unchangeable. Anything that comes along that demonstrates that actually the reverse is true, that in some cases it can be changed - and certainly homosexual feelings can be reduced and sometimes eliminated - is a threat to that ideological position.’

‘Robert’ later gave more of his testimony:

‘Through Christian counselling I now have a true understanding of my identity. My identity is not based on an activity. It’s based actually on a relationship with Jesus Christ . It’s that knowledge that is the source of my liberation. It’s that knowledge that is the source of my freedom. Is it wrong for a Christian counsellor to help me find that?’

Pamela Gawler-Wright responded by outlining her concerns that ‘change therapists’ start from a belief that homosexuality is wrong, is caused by unhappiness, and causes unhappiness. She objected to what she saw as the underlying ideology and ethical framework.

I concluded by arguing for a more even-handed approach:

‘People already can have ‘gay affirmative therapy’ which affirms their feelings and helps them to harmonise their lifestyle choices with those feelings. So we think there should be a level playing field and that people who would like to harmonise their lifestyle choices with their values should be able to have professional help for that as well.’

The programme, perhaps for the first time, gave an opportunity for those of us who support appropriate ‘change therapy’ to give our side of the argument. It also brought out clearly the point that objections to change therapy seem to be based much more on ideological grounds than on evidence.

I have previously on this site critiqued the arguments that have been used to discredit ‘change therapy’ (see links above) and would recommend to anyone wanting to know more detail about the evidence to read the booklet ‘Unwanted Same Sex Attraction’ which is available on the CMF website.

Some ‘change therapies’ are harmful and some ‘therapists’ are not properly trained but I cannot see why people seeking this kind of help should not in a free society have access to professional accredited therapists who are in sympathy with their values.

Change therapists are free to practise in the US and Canada under the auspices of their professional bodies but not in the UK. This seems to be primarily because those people who oppose ‘change therapy’, on seemingly ideological as much as evidence-based grounds, have managed to get into positions of power in the UK organisations that accredit therapists and put these bans in place (more on this here).

My hope is that this Radio Four documentary will be one small step towards that beginning to change.


  1. Replies
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  2. Ed Stourton introduced this programme very well. So far, he is the best radio or television presenter and interviewer in secular media on this issue.

    Di Hodgon's response is VERY important to publicise, because it shows her up as bigoted and dangerously prone to press people to stay with homosexual orientation even when she knows full-well that some do change. Well done! More GOOD publicity for therapy!

    If people do change to experience heterosexual orientation, how is that a threat to them? It's not, obviously.
    The only people who complain of harm are those who don't manage to change, and who then complain that they were given the impression that homosexuality was wrong, and thus that in failing to change they had somehow colluded with this wrong.

    The people who are threatened by therapy for unwanted same-sex attraction are therapists who make money from gay-affirmative therapy in private practice, and those who are professionally employed to train and lecture them on therapy and counselling courses up and down the country. It's very important to get the point about the financial issues here. It's very similar, statistically speaking, to why gay activists censor the truth about change. They know that there are always people who try to leave homosexuality behind, which means shrinking the gay dating pool. This is bound to trigger jealousy in those who stay behind. More people seeking change and succeeding means more power and money to traditional therapists, and considerably less credibility and money to pro-gay therapists.

    1. “They know that there are always people who try to leave homosexuality behind, which means shrinking the gay dating pool.”

      Rather fanciful. You might as well suggest that people who push “conversion therapy” at gays are doing it in an attempt to expand the straight dating pool. Whatever the theoretical logic behind it, this kind of thinking is quite detached from real life.

  3. "because whether or not something works doesn’t mean that it is ethical or in the public interest or the right thing to do for someone. So we have taken a view in a way which is regardless of the scientific findings. We still believe that it is unethical to seek to agree or to work towards changing someone’s sexual orientation through psychotherapy."

    I find this comment alarmingly arrogant and authoritarian. For me, my sexuality isn't about my feelings or attractions - these are too fickle to base anything on. It's about how I feel about my body. Being in a relationship with a woman would mean shutting down a part of myself that should be open to life - and I mean life from someone I'm in a relationship with, not some anonymous sperm donor. It would also mean closing off the possibility of getting to know intimately (I don't just mean sexually) someone of the opposite sex. Someone who thinks and acts and feels quite differently from me. Who isn't going to always understand me, and who I might not always understand. But this is what makes it exciting and touching when they try to communicate their love in a kind of blundering-about-in-the-dark way. And you kind of grow up through it, and it actually brings you home to your sexuality - as a woman, and what that means.

    None of this means that there aren't lots of positive things about lesbian relationships - like someone who understands your feelings and your body better, and feeling that bond of love that perhaps comes more naturally to you. But if you willingly give that up for another journey - perhaps not always so comfortable, but more exciting that way - then why not? Because 'it's not in the public interest'? Are we living in a Marxist State? Next are we going to be told that 'it's not in the public interest' for us to produce children in the unplanned haphazard way heterosexual couples often do, which is so bad for our health and population planning?

    Mind you, if I worried there was 'something wrong with me' every time I had a same-sex erotic dream or felt myself emotionally drawn to a woman, then I would become a nervous wreck. Perhaps this is where therapists have gone wrong and caused people harm? But nobody can follow all their dreams and feelings (if the person your drawn towards is married to someone else for instance, or if you find faithfulness difficult or unexciting).

    We were all 'born this way'. God loves us this way, and if being this way is sometimes painful, then it's by his wounds we are healed.

  4. Oops! That should, of course, have been 'if the person 'you're' drawn towards is married'. Pity this blog doesn't have an edit button :)

    Also, perhaps discovering a wound from your childhood can help you to feel more confident in yourself and open to a relationship with the opposite sex, but therapists should be careful not to get too hung up on this. It's not going to 'fix' you or turn you 'straight'. It's part of a journey of discovering that part of yourself and your sexuality you've cut yourself off from.

  5. Sadly, I'm not sure that Radio 4 programme did do a lot to help the pro-reorientation side. The therapist has a point - that the problem with re-orientation therapy is that it begins with the assumption that homosexuality is caused by unhappiness and causes unhappiness. Although she is quite wrong in claiming that all psychotherapists respect Christian spirituality (there's a huge bias against Christian teaching on sexuality in the UK health profession - including the view that celibacy before marriage causes unhappiness), the other side didn't present any scientifically grounded challenge to her claims.

  6. I imagine the Royal college plays down environmental factors deliberately, so as not to raise the possibility of change.

    But science is not like the law court - good science does not ignore evidence just because you dont like the answer.

    Was it really the Royal college, or was it really the gay activist commitee at the Royal college, chaired by Professor King, idelogically opposed to change.

  7. It does not reflect well on the BCAP that they cited Professor King's groups statement made as part of the listening process in advising against therapy. It is not a peer reviewed document. One can easily ask the question - given how weak the statement is, whether it really the statement of a gay activist group within the Royal college puporting to be a balanced document of an expert.

    The Christian doctors should be pressing for judicial review of the whole process for BCAP and other bodies (clearly medical opinion is not with BCAP, as gay activists were not able to bring this change in the US or Canada - so Professor King has not expressed the predominant opinion of his profession, despite tough opposition in those countries - in view of the harm that is being inflicted on their patients - the Christian have a moral duty to do so.

    It seems that you have to go to the US to get proper care - what a farce. Shame on the profession in this country.

  8. It is interesting to read the book Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth by Dr Jeffrey Satinover, especially concerning the antics adopted by activists to have homosexuality remove from the list of disorders - wanting to give the impression that most enjoyed the conditions, and those that didnt had merely internalised homophobia.

    It would be intersting to consider what evidence, independently sourced by experts were received by the various therapy bodies in the UK and the BMA - What did the BMA actually review? A resolution to ban praying away the gay, double-billed with homeopathy?

    Ironically I'm told that one of the most successful therapies - around 30%, compared to the usual 1%, is in the treatment of alcoholism, and in the 12 step program of AA involves asking help from the higher power - ie praying away the alcoholic. Atheists take note.

  9. Isn't it interesting that those who speak out so vehemently about tolerance are so often those who show intolerance towards those who hold differing opinions...

    individual therapy


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