The young man had the rapt attention of his college classmates when he spoke:
“I was 8 years old, a long way from puberty. I was watching an episode of the old Star Trek TV show from the ‘60s. There was a scene when Captain Kirk had no shirt on, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I didn’t feel any sexual attraction, but I just wanted to wrap myself around that chest. Years later as I moved past puberty and into my teens, I realized that I was sexually attracted to guys, not girls. I remember thinking back to my Captain Kirk episode and being surprised; I guess my brain realized I was gay before my body did.”
For two reasons, this classroom comment was not as surprising as you might think. First of all, the student was well-known on campus as gay because he made no attempt to hide his orientation. Second, in class that day we were discussing the psychology of sexual attraction, and had begun talking about whether our attractions were based on conscious choice or an inborn nature present at birth. The question I had posed to the class was simple: “Do you think a therapist could use psychological persuasion techniques to change your sexual orientation?”
After telling his Kirk story, the young man answered my question: “Absolutely not. I did not choose to be gay. It’s who I was at 8 and it’s who I am now. No therapist could possibly change that.”
I asked that question in class many times over the years: “Think about what gender you find sexually attractive. If you decided you wanted to change because the attraction was causing you anxiety, depression, and all sorts of coping difficulties, do you think a psychologist could change you? If you are attracted to the same sex, could the therapist change you so you would be attracted to members of the opposite sex?” In 41 years of teaching college psychology, I asked that question many times, and never did a student say, “Yes.” A fair number said, “No,” but most just sat there, perhaps afraid they might divulge something about themselves. Never, however, did a student say, “Yes.”
To give the class discussion some concrete psychological basis, I would then proceed to describe examples of “conversion therapy” for sexual attraction. Conversion therapies are based on fundamental conditioning principles, and were used on those who were bothered by their sexual preference and wanted to change to conform better to larger society. The basic model was simple: For a homosexual male, combine images of attractive men with pain, and images of attractive women with relief. Unfortunately, even when conducted on a willing participant, the pain part often bordered on torture.
One version of this therapy was called “Playboy Therapy,” and was used in the late ‘60s and into the 70s. A homosexual man would sit in front of a screen. At times, a photo of a naked attractive man would appear on the screen, and be accompanied by a very painful shock to the client. The shock would end when a new picture, a relief stimulus, appeared, a naked Playboy centerfold woman. The idea was to condition the client to consider the naked male disgusting and the naked female pleasing.
Variations of conversion therapies were widespread in the ‘60s and ‘70s when general behavior modification models of psychotherapy were growing and leading to modern-day cognitive-behavior therapy, a technique that is extremely effective for a variety of psychological problems. When applied to sexual preference, however, conversion approaches were, at best, “behaviorism gone wild.” Plus, and most importantly, they didn’t work in changing one’s sexual preference. I repeat: conversion therapies did not work.
Why should they work? Try my classroom introspective thought experiment on yourself: Could you be tortured with pain into changing your sexual preference? I feel pretty confident that whereas torture could help me develop an intense aversion toward my tormentor, there’s no way torture would make me disgusted at the sight of an attractive women, and all tongue-hanging-out-gaga over the sight of an attractive guy. No way.
On the other hand, could mild conversion techniques help me curtail a bad habit (e.g., smoking, alcohol abuse, cursing, driving too fast, not using a seatbelt, etc.)? Probably so, but only if I was strongly motivated to change. But, like it or not, sexual preference moves us to a different arena (born that way) than bad habits (learned, not inborn), and conversion therapies do not produce change.
When used on minors (“Dr, Dr! Help! My 12-year old son says he likes boys more than girls! Change him, please!”), a good case can be made that we’re talking child abuse. As of 2018, fourteen states and D.C. have laws prohibiting therapists from trying to changing a minor’s sexual preference.
Here’s the coping lesson to take from this discussion. If you feel out of the mainstream when it comes to sexual attraction, and if that status causes you anxiety, identity problems, or other emotional difficulties, you would do best to confront your reactions to your natural inclinations. If you deny and try to change those inclinations through counseling, you may be heading down a blind alley that will cause you more problems in the long run. You might do better to go into counseling not to change, but to adjust your thinking about who you are to help you move toward acceptance of that reality. Also, remember that joining an appropriate support group can supplement counseling and be helpful in the acceptance process.
Major themes of this blog site are that you must deal with your problems within a context of acceptance of who you are, deal with those issues that are within your circle of control, and be motivated to develop personal empowerment. Conversion therapy is unlikely to help you with any of those processes.