Same-sex attraction: science and philosophy

We hear a lot from people who claim they
are happy with their homosexual or lesbian orientation and want social
recognition for it. But what of people who are unhappy with their attraction to
others of the same sex? What help is available and on what scientific and
ethical grounds is it based? We asked Dr Phillip Sutton, a licensed
psychologist, therapist and counselor based in Indiana and Michigan in the US. He is also Editor of the
Journal of Human Sexuality, a
peer-reviewed scholarly publication of the National Association for Research
and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH)

In the second part of a two-part email
interview Dr Sutton describes his experience and methods of serving people with
these issues.

MercatorNet: Many professionals, even
professional groups, claim that sexual orientation is fixed and it is harmful
to change it. What does the scientific research and empirical evidence actually
tell us about this, to date?

Dr Sutton: Permit me to acknowledge
that I am editor of the Journal of Human Sexuality, a peer-reviewed scholarly
publication of the National Association for Research and Therapy of
Homosexuality  (NARTH). NARTH is a
professional, scientific organization -- thankfully with a number of lay
supporters -- which internationally promotes the rights of persons with
unwanted same-sex attraction (SSA) to receive competent psychological care if
they choose and the rights of qualified mental health professionals to offer
such care. In addition, NARTH is committed to the ensuring the valid conduct of
relevant clinical and scientific research and a fair reading, the responsible
reporting, and accurate education of both professional and laypersons about what
such research actually shows.

Homosexuality is not innate, immutable or
without significant risk to medical, psychological and relational health.
2009, NARTH published a review of over a century of experiential evidence,
clinical reports, and research literature on professionally and other assisted
change in persons’ experience of homosexuality. NARTH’s report, What Research Shows (WRS),
documents that it is possible for both men and women to change from
homosexuality to heterosexuality; that efforts to change are not generally
harmful; and that homosexual men and women do indeed have greater risk factors
for medical, psychological and relational pathology than do the general

A decade before WRS was published, Stanton Jones
and Mark Yarhouse (Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the
Church’s Moral Debate
, InterVarsity Press, 2000) reviewed the historical and
then recent evidence for intentional change in unwanted homosexuality and
concluded that there was sufficient evidence that, as a result of professional
assistance, some people experienced one or more of the following: “reduced
preoccupation with homosexual thoughts, reduced homosexual activity, reduced anxiety
about heterosexual functioning, increased heterosexual activity, increased
heterosexual fantasy, celibacy, heterosexual marriage and reports of [change of
sexual orientation] from homosexual to heterosexual.” (p.151)

Research reports even more recent than WRS have shown similar results. (Jones and Yarhouse, 2009: Ex Gays? An Extended
Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual
; Elan Karten and Jay Wade, “Sexual orientation change efforts
in men: A client perspective”, The Journal of Men's Studies 18, 2010, 84-102). Also,
there is a fair amount of both anecdotal and quality population-based research
which shows that many persons diminish same-sex attractions and behaviors and
increase opposite-sex attractions and behaviors, on their own, i.e., without
professional assistance.

In 2008, the American Psychological
Association (APA) finally -- and stealthily (i.e., without publicity or
acknowledgement that it was “softening” its prior public views to the contrary)
-- acknowledged the quite large body of clinical
and scientific literature
which shows that homosexuality is not ‘innate’;
that children, men and women are not simply “born that way”;
and that psychological and social factors, as well as genetic and other
biological factors (i.e. both nature and nurture) appear to influence the
development of homosexuality.

A couple of month’s after NARTH released What
Research Shows
, the long anticipated 2009 APA Report of
the Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation
released. While in this report the APA claims that there is insufficient
empirical evidence to show that sexual orientation itself may be changed
through therapy or other (e.g. pastoral) means, the APA does acknowledge that
sexual behaviour, attraction and orientation identity are “fluid,” i.e., not
fixed or immutable. Unfortunately, the Report warns potential consumers that
“sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE) may be harmful, yet also admits that
“there are no scientifically rigorous studies of recent SOCE” which adequately
document or provide an empirical basis for the APA’s concern.

The 2009 APA report expresses views that supporters
of NARTH’s mission can accept. For example, the report formally promotes: 1) The
rights of clients to determine their own direction of treatment, including “autonomous
decision making and self-determination”
and "the avoidance of and avoid coercive
and involuntary treatments”
(p. 76).  2) “Effective psychotherapy that increases a client’s abilities to cope,
understand, acknowledge, explore, and integrate sexual orientation concerns
into a self-chosen life in which the client determines the ultimate manner in
which he or she does or does not express sexual orientation”
(p. 69). 3)
Offering clients “interventions that emphasize acceptance, support, and
recognition of [the clients’] important values and concerns”
(p. 63). 4) “For
individuals who experience distress with their sexual attractions and seek
SOCE… [t]he following appear to be helpful to clients: • Finding social support
and interacting with others in similar circumstances. • Experiencing
understanding and recognition of the importance of religious beliefs and
concerns. • Receiving empathy for their very difficult dilemmas and conflicts.
And, • Being provided with affective and cognitive tools for identity
exploration and development”
(p. 61). 5) Respect for religious beliefs with
regard to homosexuality must be respected (cf. p. 5, 19- 20, 51, 53, 56, 59,
64, 69, 70, 77-78, 82, 120), as well as the convictions of those who decide
(apart from religious reasons) that their sexuality does not reflect their true
self (cf. p. 18, 56, 68-69). And, 6) Offering “accurate… scientific and
professional information about sexual orientation…in order to counteract bias
that is based in lack of knowledge about sexual orientation.” (p. 122)

NARTH does not agree with everything
written in the APA report, which we have critiqued elsewhere (summary
Sadly, I fear that much of what I and NARTH can agree with in the report may be
only “lip service” by the APA. Time will tell. The professional ethics of all
of the mental health professions in the U.S. support freedom of
self-determination and also of religion. The challenge lies in ensuring that
this is true in practice, not just in theory. Potential consumers of mental
health services for any “presenting problem” are advised to ask a potential,
new therapist the “tough questions” -- to ensure that one’s deeply held values
and lifestyle practices (including faith and religion) will be respected, if
not understood, and that one’s goals for therapy will be supported.

It must be acknowledged that -- like all
approaches to psychological care for any issue -- many who attempt to use
professional care to facilitate their process of changing their experience(s)
of SSA do not achieve their initially stated or desired goals, and that for
those who do, this process is commonly long, hard, and uncomfortable, with many
setbacks and “slips” along this healing and growth journey. While apparently
not strictly necessary to achieve such changes, people of religious faith have
found that seeking a professional who truly supports -- if not shares -- his or
her values is important for resolving not only unwanted SSA but also psycho-social

Everyone, including the professional, comes
to the issue of homosexuality with their own philosophical or ideological or
religious convictions about it. What, briefly, are yours?

Let me begin by stating that I am
unabashedly a practicing and devout Catholic who is loyal to the Church’s teaching
about faith and morals. That said, I have found that both my own and others’
clinical experience and the clinical and research literature, as a whole
support what I privately and the Church publicly believe and propose about the
issue of homosexuality -- and the value of chastity or sexual purity/integrity
for all human beings. I consider that a ninth beatitude would be appropriate:
“Blessed are the chaste (those with sexual purity or integrity), for they will
know the peace and joy that comes with sexual self control in the service of
authentic love (charity, agape).

My professional views are consistent with
the natural law, i.e., the understanding of what constitutes healthy, humane
behaviors; which actions do and do not allow and foster authentic human
flourishing. Same-sex attraction or SSA needs to be understood in the context
of what is healthy, mature sexuality and what is not. I believe that all unchaste
behaviors -- including fornication, contraception, adultery, masturbation,
pornography, coerced, and prostitution, as well as explicitly homosexual
behaviors -- are both a cause and effect of immature sexuality. Often,
especially if they are compulsive or addictive, all of such behaviors also may
be self-defeating attempts to resolve or at least “self-medicate” one or more
emotional or psychological problems.

In spite of claims that relationships based on gratifying SSA are a natural and normal variant of
human sexual expression, a growing body of evidence clearly reveals otherwise. Those
engaging in SSA behaviours have significant, alarming risks of harm to their medical, mental and
relational health compared with those who don’t. These risks include a myriad of medical problems and diseases directly related to
homosexual practices; AIDS and STD’s; substance abuse; suicidal ideation and
attempts; psychological and psychiatric concerns, including depression,
anxiety, paranoia, personality and eating disorders; and same-sex relationship

These are not just concerns for adults. The
concerns of parents, family members and friends of teenagers whose sexual
behaviors and/or attractions leave them at risk for such harms are understandable and scientifically and clinically justified. An adolescent’s
desire to prevent or cease experiencing these serious health problems or risks
is sufficient reason for him or her to seek and receive competent psychological
care to minimize or resolve the desires, behaviors and lifestyles associated
with such increased risks.

Finally, I think that recent social and
political efforts to allow for same-sex “marriage,” adoption, etc., ignore not
only the natural law, but also good science. Permit me to quote from the abstract
of a paper
by Dean Byrd in the most recently published volume of the Journal
of Human Sexuality
: “All family forms are not equally as helpful or healthful
for children. More than two decades of research demonstrates that children do
better in a home with a married mother and father. Children in this one family
form navigate the developmental stages more easily, are more solid in their
gender identities, perform better in academic tasks, have fewer emotional
disorders and become better functioning adults. This conclusion clearly makes a
strong case that gender-linked differences in child-rearing are protective for
children. Men and women do indeed contribute differently to the healthy
development of children.”

By contrast, recent reports claiming that children raised
by two lesbians fare as well or better than those raised by their own married
mother and father, actually have shown that being raised by two lesbians
results in an increased
of non-heterosexual identity and behaviors for these children.
Other critiques also highlight the poor quality of such research.

With all of the media-stoked debate and
activism about whose definition of marriage and family will stand, I’m mindful
that the good-enough marriage and family based on lifelong, faithful and
fruitful marriage between a man and a woman who conceive and raise their own children as a fruit of their
conjugal love is the “gold standard” for how the vast majority of human persons
were meant to live out their lives as sexual beings.

Dr Phillip Sutton, is a licensed
psychologist, therapist and counselor based in Indiana and Michigan in the US. He is also Editor of the
Journal of Human Sexuality, a
peer-reviewed scholarly publication of the National Association for Research
and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH

Further reading of Dr Sutton’s work:

Who Am I? Psychological Issues in Gender Identity and
Same-Sex Attraction. In
H. Watt (Ed.), Fertility
& Gender: Issues in Reproductive and Sexual Ethics
(Oxford: Anscombe Centre, 2011).

Cretella, Michelle, M.D. & Sutton,
Philip, Ph.D. Health
Risks: Fisting and Other Homosexual Practices
. (2010).

Report of symposium at the American Psychological
Association’s 2009 convention in Toronto, Canada, 2009, entitled:  Sexual Orientation
and Faith Tradition: A Test of the Leona Tyler Principle


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.