In the October 2012 issue of First Things there is an article by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, respectively on the faculties of Wheaton College and Regent University (two banner institutions in the vanguard of the Evangelical intellectual resurgence). The article deals with a curious event in the world of “reparative therapy”, which seeks to induce homosexuals to become heterosexuals. Robert Spitzer was the author of a 2003 article which attracted wide attention—“Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change their Sexual Orientation?” On the basis of a study he conducted of individuals who had attempted this change, Spitzer concluded that a significant number achieved their goal. What has generated new attention is that Spitzer has changed his mind: He now says that his data did not justify his conclusion, and he apologizes to anyone who went into therapy under the influence of his article. Jones and Yarhouse challenge Spitzer’s recantation and argue that his own data still support his earlier conclusion. They on their part conclude that, although the scientific evidence on this issue is still inconclusive, their own work shows that some individuals do indeed emerge from “reparative therapy” with the desired erotic interest in the other sex rather than their own. They refer to their own article, published in 2011 under the ponderous title “A Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously Mediated Sexual Orientation Change”.
Needless to say, this is not just a theoretical dispute among practitioners in the pluralistic emporium of American psychotherapy (which has as many denominations as American Protestantism). The dispute has obvious relevance to a number of hot-button issues in the ongoing culture war, notably the current debate over same-sex marriage. First Things is not exactly neutral on these issues. In the same issue of the journal there is an extensive discussion of a manifesto by Douglas Farrow, a member of FT’s advisory council, “Thirteen Theses on Marriage”. Thesis 10 states that “The faithful marriage of man and woman provides the only context in which [sexual] intimacy can be properly realized and fully expressed”. In Thesis 12 heterosexual marriage is described as “the natural family unit”, which public policy should “encourage”. This closely replicates Roman Catholic teaching that homosexuality, whether congenital or achieved, is an objective disorder. Many Evangelicals share this view (even if they may not share the Catholic understanding of natural law). In this view the only moral options for a disordered but faithful individual is to either seek a cure from the disorder or embrace a life of chastity. If he or she goes for the first option, there is now a network of therapists ready to assist. Also in the same issue of FT there is an advertisement by NARTH, the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, founded in 1992 and, appropriately enough, housed in the Thomas Aquinas Clinic in Encino, California. Its mission statement proclaims “the right of all individuals to choose [my italics] their own destiny”. This then includes the right of individuals to seek therapy to be cured of “unwanted sexual attraction”.
It is not quite clear how one can choose one’s destiny—logically, it would seem to be the one or the other. I suppose in the context it could mean that one embraces rather than rejects an original sexual orientation. But in the same context of the NARTH offer the emphasis is clearly on choice: An individual may choose between three available options—to stay homosexual, to become heterosexual, or to be celibate. In the current cultural climate in America, and generally in the ethos of modernity, choice is a central value—in politics, lifestyle and even identity. Abortion is legitimated as “a woman’s right to choose”. On the other side of the ideological fence, “educational choice” is the buzzword in the campaign for charter schools and vouchers. Democracy and capitalism are based on the “right to choose”, by the citizen and the consumer. America has long been the country of second chances, where individuals can re-invent themselves. I have long argued that modernity itself brings about an enormous shift from fate to choice, from tools to meanings. And as feminists have been telling us, with a polemical edge against a certain old Viennese pessimist, biology is not destiny. Thus it is ironic that, in the current debate over homosexual identity, traditionalists peddling their “reparative therapy” appeal to the right to choose one’s sexual identity, while the supposedly progressive gay movement wants us to believe that homosexuality is a congenital condition that cannot be changed and must be recognized as such by society.
As far as I know, it was not always so. I had never paid much attention to homosexuality until an experience I had when I decided to attend a criminal trial in North Carolina, where I had my first full-time teaching job. The defendant was a married man from a prominent family, so that the trial attracted public attention. I was in court when the defendant was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison for the crime of “sodomy”; I happened to see the face of his mother when the sentence was pronounced. I recall turning to a colleague and exclaiming “This is barbaric!” Subsequently, in some early writings, I wrote against the persecution of homosexuals as based on the fanatic’s fear of freedom, including the fear of desiring a man instead of a woman. This led to a visit, in the mid-1960s, by one of the founders of the Mattachine Society, one of the predecessors of the gay movement (the term was not yet used then). We had a number of conversations. I don’t remember any reference to homosexuality as a biologically determined condition. Rather, it was defended in terms of individual freedom and the right to privacy. The defense in terms of a supposedly unchangeable disposition came later. The reason for this is very clear: If homosexuality is congenital in the same way as skin color, then the gay movement can define itself as an offspring of the Civil Rights Movement, and homophobia is a correlate of racism as a sin against the democratic creed.
Given the emotional temperature surrounding homosexual issues today, I should say a word about my own views. Ever since my vision of barbarism in a North Carolina court many years ago, I have been passionately committed to the human and civil rights of people whose sexuality is not approved by the Pope or the Southern Baptist Convention. I have been less committed to what now calls itself the LGBT movement. But then I am suspicious of all political movements, because they can easily morph into lynch mobs. (Have you read newspapers these days?) I have no idea what is “the natural family unit”, but I doubt whether it is the modern nuclear family, which is about as old as the steam engine. (In an earlier post I have discussed the issue of same-sex marriage, expressing a perspective which does not motivate me to march in either ideological parade. No need to repeat this discussion here.) As to the immediate matter of therapy for aspiring heterosexuals, I am sure that both sides in the dispute (and the so-called “peer reviews” that assess them) are tinged with ideology. (So are many “peer reviews”, at least in the human sciences—the “peers” are frequently either friends or enemies of the reviewees.) I have no intention of delving into the methodological esoterica of Spitzer-1, Spitzer-2 and his (or their) critics. But I don’t mind voicing a hunch, based on everything I know about human behavior: Some of it is biologically determined, most of it is not, but is rather the result of various processes of socialization. The hunch then is that some homosexuals are born that way and some are not, and some make deliberate choices one way or the other. I have no interest whatsoever in changing anyone’s sexual orientation.
All human identities are fragile, depending on social support (or what I have called “plausibility structures”). Therefore, they are in principle capable of being changed. This has always been the case (see the ubiquity of rites of passage). In a modern society, because of its plurality of social environments, many changes occur gradually and are less than total—secondary socialization processes (that is, those occurring after early childhood) caused by education, social mobility or migration. But there are also radical transformations of identity, sometimes imposed coercively on an individual, sometimes undertaken intentionally. In my early work on the sociology of knowledge I have called such transformations “alternations” (possibly a dubious contribution to the English language). What is more, I have provided a list of requirements for successful alternations. If I were unscrupulous enough, I could set up a consultancy for aspiring agents of alternation, teaching from an instruction manual that I could easily write. (I have consoled myself with the thought that such agents usually have their own rules of procedure—they don’t need me—and in any case, I would have scruples.)
There have always been institutions that sought to change the identity of their subjects. Some process volunteers, others are in a position to impose the alternation process by force. A full typology of these institutions will have to describe and account for the differences between the two types. In the contemporary world examples of the former type are monastic orders or elite military units, of the latter type prisons or (to a lesser degree) hospitals. Individuals apply to become novices in a monastery or recruits in the Marine Corps; no one seeks to become a prisoner or hospital patient. The term “brain washing” was coined by the Chinese Communists to describe highly sophisticated techniques of identity transformation (originally developed in the Soviet Union), used both in prison camps and cadre schools. It was much discussed in the wake of the Korean War, during which the techniques were very successfully applied to American POWs, a distressing number of whom were “turned” by their captors and then engaged in anti-American propaganda. The basic formula for successful alternation is quite simple: The original identity of the “alternee” is broken down, after which the new identity is constructed. In a curious way this process imitates what happens in primary socialization to a young child, who must develop strong emotional ties with those in charge and whose resources for resistance are very limited. (As the anthropologist Margaret Mead put it, “The adults always win”.) Primary socialization has a great advantage: It starts from scratch. The secondary socialization involved in alternation must dismantle before it can construct. A degree of infantilization is a requirement: The alternee is emotionally dependent on the alternator, and thus comes to identify with the latter. Physical abuse and humiliation are useful techniques. (Chinese prison guards have invented an ingenious way of quickly achieving infantilization: The prisoner is shackled, with the hands in back, for long periods of time, thus forced to urinate and defecate inside the clothes – dependent on the guards like a helpless infant in soiled diapers). The identification with one’s captor and/or torturer has been called “the Stockholm syndrome”, after a case in Sweden in which kidnap victims took the side of the kidnappers.
This process is obviously facilitated if its subjects can be physically segregated and separated from earlier significant others, at least during the “basic training” phase. Psychotherapists in America do not have this opportunity (at least not outside mental hospitals). The segregation must be “virtual” rather than actual. It is sustained by the emotional link with the therapist (Freudians have called this “transference”). Earlier significant others—parents, spouses, mentors—are re-interpreted in a “re-written” autobiography. Communist brain washing staffs required their subjects to write and re-write the stories of their lives, until they got it “right” in accordance with the official ideology; American psychotherapists can only induce virtual “re-writing”. In the process of alternation the subject’s life story is divided into two parts: “B.C.”, before the initiation into the new identity, and “A.D.” after its achievement. On whatever level of sophistication, those in charge provide theoretical resources to explain the transformation and to control doubt.
Back to the debate between Spitzerism, neo-Spitzerism and anti-Spitzerism: I have no difficulty believing that some homosexuals could be converted to heterosexuality, if the therapists in charge command the necessary techniques (even in the absence of physical means of segregation and coercion). By the same methods heterosexuals could be converted to homosexuality. (If, say, they work in the fashion industry, I could think of a motive.) Any unscrupulous sociologist will be able to write an instruction manual for a “clinic” devoted to either purpose. It seems to me that, in a democracy, individuals should be free to check themselves into either facility. I, for one, have sympathy for neither the one nor the other therapeutic program.