The End of Reparative Therapy

50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality
50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality

With the removal of homosexuality as a mental illness in the 1970’s came a change in how therapists treated gay, lesbian, and bisexual patients. Instead of attempting to change a patient’s sexual orientation, experts were told to help them understand it and learn to cope in what was still a very homophobic society.
When mental health professionals changed, however, religious organizations picked up the mantle and started ministries dedicated to “reparative” therapy. Their members—who were sometimes referred to as ex-gays—went through programs that varied from independent bible study to aversion therapy, which involved administering electric shocks every time a patient became aroused by gay pornography.
These groups were very vocal for a few decades and lent their support to efforts to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals; they argued against teaching about sexual orientation in schools, fought the formation of gay-straight alliances, opposed marriage equality, and worked to prevent LGBTQ individuals from adopting children.
Their arguments were all grounded in the idea that sexual orientation could change, that people didn’t have to be gay. Ex-gays were paraded around as success stories—such as in a 1998 ad that insisted men could “pray away the gay.”
And then the truth began to come out. Some leaders of this movement were caught having homosexual affairs, visiting gay bars, or meeting men online. Others stepped forward to admit they were wrong, that they are still gay, and that sexual orientation does not change. In 2013, Exodus International—one of the largest and at one point most powerful, ex-gay ministries—shut its doors.
Now, in the United States at least, it looks like the time of reparative therapy has passed. The courts have held up laws in two states banning the practice for minors. The White House came out against it. And two Democratic Senators recently introduced a resolution condemning it.
But probably the best sign that its days are numbered come in the apologies from those who once sang its praises. Like these words from Exodus’ last president Alan Chambers: “I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change….  I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse.”

Martha Kempner, 2015.
Martha Kempner is co-author with Pepper Schwartz of 50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality published 2015 by Wiley

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Focusing in on mental illness

459px-DepressionThe notion of a mental disorder, or illness, is an essentially normative notion. It is dependent on the availability of some metric of normalcy, or orderliness. Whether a given mental tendency is a disorder or not depends on whether or not, and in what ways, it deviates from what is considered normal, or orderly. But, what are the norms that determine this metric?

This question is highly controversial, and its importance transcends far beyond the walls of academia. Few such seemingly terminological issues have such a tremendous impact on the day to day lives of so many millions of individuals across the world. For example, until quite recently (1973!!), homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Its status as a disorder gave legitimacy to subject individuals ‘afflicted’ with this ‘disorder’ to psychiatric treatment, often leading to detrimental effects (not to mention the pervasive social and legal discrimination they faced). Characterizing a given tendency as a disorder has the potential to bring about terrible harms and injustices. However, there are also cases in which pursuing various corrective measures seems crucial. Certain tendencies, such as schizophrenia, can be so disruptive to an individual’s life that treatment seems necessary. Labeling such a tendency as a ‘disorder’ potentially brings with it various societal and legal commitments to provide support that can substantially alter the lives of suffering individuals for the better. It is clear, then, that much hangs on how we come to characterize a mental tendency as a disorder.

Continue reading “Focusing in on mental illness”