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Change happens: new evidence on sexual orientation
Groundbreaking research published this week shows successful change in religiously motivated men and women.
A chorus of voices in the professional world today proclaims that it is impossible to change sexual orientation, particularly homosexual orientation, and that the attempt to change sexual orientation is commonly and inherently harmful. For example, for many years the Public Affairs website of the American Psychological Association stated: “Can therapy change sexual orientation? No. . . . [H]omosexuality . . . does not require treatment and is not changeable.”
Regarding harm, the American Psychiatric Association’s statement that the “potential risks of ‘reparative therapy’ are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior” is often cited.
In tension with this supposed professional consensus are the final results of a longitudinal study we have conducted over a period of seven years, now published in The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, a respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal. This study involved a sample of men and women seeking religiously-mediated sexual orientation change through involvement in a variety of Christian ministries affiliated with Exodus International.
A scientifically rigorous study
This study meets high standards of empirical rigor. In other studies, in the words of the American Psychological Association, “treatment outcome is not followed and reported over time as would be the standard to test the validity of any mental health intervention.” Prior research has been appropriately criticized for
* Failing to follow subjects over time (i.e., not longitudinal)
Our study was designed to address these empirical standards. It is a longitudinal and prospective quasi-experimental study of a respectably large sample of persons seeking to change their sexual orientation via religiously-mediated means through Exodus ministries groups.
Among those endorsing an earlier book  describing the study and its results at the 3-year mark was former president of the American Psychological Association Nicholas A. Cummings, Ph.D., Sc.D., who stated: “Research in the controversial area of homosexuality is fraught with ideology and plagued by a dearth of science. This study has broken new ground in its adherence to objectivity and a scientific precision that can be replicated and expanded, and it opens new horizons for investigation…. I have waited over thirty years for this refreshing, penetrating study of an imperative, though controversial human condition. This book is must reading for psychotherapists and counselors, as well as academic psychologists studying human behavior and sexuality.”
This study assessed the sexual orientations and psychological distress levels of 98 individuals seeking sexual orientation change beginning early in the change process, and then followed them longitudinally with five additional independent assessments over a total span of 6 to 7 years. The researchers used standardized, respected measures of sexual orientation and of emotional distress to test the study’s hypotheses. This new report extends out to between 6-7 years the findings previously reported at the 3-year mark for the subjects in the study.
An earlier version of these results was presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association on August 9, 2009; that two former presidents of the APA, Dr. Nicholas Cummings and Dr. Frank Farley, discussed the findings in that presentation underscores the significance of the study.
The findings in brief
Of the original 98 subjects (72 men, 26 women), 61 subjects completed the key measures of sexual orientation and psychological distress at the conclusion of the study, and were successfully categorized for general outcome. Of these 61 subjects, 53 per cent were categorized as successful outcomes by the standards of Exodus Ministries.
Specifically, 23 per cent of the subjects reported success in the form of successful “conversion” to heterosexual orientation and functioning, while an additional 30 per cent reported stable behavioral chastity with substantive dis-identification with homosexual orientation. On the other hand, 20 per cent of the subjects reported giving up on the change process and fully embracing gay identity.
On the measures of sexual orientation, statistically significant changes on average were reported across the entire sample for decreases in homosexual orientation; some statistically significant change, but of smaller magnitude, was reported in increase of heterosexual attraction. These changes were less substantial and generally statistically non-significant for the average changes of those subjects assessed earliest in the change process, though some of these subjects still figured as “Success: Conversion” cases.
The measure of psychological distress did not, on average, reflect increases in psychological distress associated with the attempt to change orientation; indeed, several small significant improvements in reported average psychological distress were associated with the interventions.
In short, the results do not prove that categorical change in sexual orientation is possible for everyone or anyone, but rather that meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some. The results do not prove that no one is harmed by the attempt to change, but rather that the attempt to change does not appear to be harmful on average or inherently harmful.
The authors urge caution in projecting success rates from these findings; the figures of 23 per cent successful conversion to heterosexual orientation and 30 per cent to successful chastity are likely overly optimistic projections of anticipated success for persons newly entering Exodus-related groups seeking change.
Further, it was clear that “conversion” to heterosexual adaptation was a complex phenomenon; the authors explore a variety of possible explanations of the findings including religious healing and sexual identity change. Nevertheless, these findings challenge the commonly expressed views of the mental health establishment that change of sexual orientation is impossible or very uncommon, and that the attempt to change is highly likely to produce harm for those who make such an effort.
In our 2007 book, Ex-Gays? (IVP), we discussed the implications of the findings of this study, and those implications are still worthy of consideration. Most importantly, the study suggests that since change seems possible for some, then all should respect the integrity and autonomy of persons seeking to change their sexual orientation for moral, religious, or other reasons, just as we respect those who for similar reasons desire to affirm and embrace their sexual orientation.
This requires that space be created in religious and professional circles for individuals to seek sexual orientation change or sexual identity change with full information offered about the options and their potential risks. We would do well to put as much information as possible in the hands of consumers so that they are able to make informed decisions and wise choices among treatment options.
The results also suggest that it would be premature for professional mental health organizations to invalidate efforts to change sexual orientation and unwanted same-sex erotic attractions.
Stanton L. Jones is Provost (Chief Academic Officer) of Wheaton College (IL) and has served a three-year term on the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association. Mark A. Yarhouse is the Rosemarie Scotti Hughes Endowed Chair and Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology and Counseling at Regent University.
Article citation: Stanton L. Jones & Mark A. Yarhouse. (2011). “A longitudinal study of attempted religiously-mediated sexual orientation change.” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, Volume 37, pages 404-427.
American Psychological Association (2005). “Answers to Your Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality.” Retrieved April 4, 2005, from www.apa.org/pubinfo/answers.html. This statement was removed some time after 2007.
 American Psychiatric Association (1998). “Psychiatric treatment and sexual orientation position statement.” Retrieved from http://www.psych.org/Departments/EDU/Library/APAOfficialDocumentsandRelated/PositionStatements/200001.aspx
 American Psychological Association (2005); ibid.
 Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse (2007). Ex-gays? A longitudinal study of religiously-mediated change in sexual orientation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
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