04/04/2013 07:23 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Debunking Reparative Therapy: Why It Matters

This morning I learned that apparently, I'm not worth my salt. This from David Pickup, spokesperson for the National Association for Research and Therapy for Homosexuality, who espouses "reparative therapy" as a way to turn gay people straight. Pickup explained that, "Any therapist worth his salt knows that homosexual feelings commonly occur in victims as a result of abuse." He went on to say that he knows this because it happened to him.

I'm sorry that happened to Pickup -- no child should have to experience sexual abuse, ever. But no adult mental health professional should make outlandish statements that just aren't true, and not even logical. I think it's safe to say that most people who were sexually abused as children turn out to be... heterosexual! Could this be the cause of their heterosexuality? And shall we charge them lots of money in therapy to figure this out?

Most psychologists have worked hard to establish credibility as social scientists. We study research methods, analyze data, and learn to differentiate between opinions and empirical evidence. So it's a personal affront when someone so casually announces their private "knowledge" based on... what?

Wikipedia summarizes data on childhood sexual abuse, concluding that 15-25 percent of women and 5-15 percent of men in North America have experienced sexual abuse as children. If homosexuality is "caused" by sexual abuse, there would be a lot more of us in the world.

Confusing causation and correlation is a simple-minded error. If you only looked at raw numbers, you'd find a clear correlation between height and reading scores, and could announce: Taller people read better! Then you'd realize that these numbers include babies and toddlers who are very short and haven't learned to read yet. Oops... I'm not familiar with current information about the sexual abuse histories of gay men, and wouldn't be surprised if there is in fact a higher incidence, but then I wonder why would that be? Could it be that gay boys are targeted by predatory adults because they're more vulnerable? More likely to think they "invited" this molestation? More afraid to tell their parents?

This was certainly the case with a very sweet man I once knew. As a teenager he suspected he was gay but didn't want to act on that. He spent most of his time after school and on weekends with a good female friend and her family -- including her father, who was interested and affectionate and then molested him on a family camping trip. His first explanation was that the father acted out because he detected his sexual orientation, I'd say the father detected a vulnerable boy to exploit with impunity.

When I hear outrageous comments like Pickup's it's depressing because I suspect a lot of people agree with him. At least he says it out loud, so we can all learn and challenge and do some work to protect our clients -- and the public -- from the damaging effects of misinformation.

Several years ago a heterosexual couple came to see me. They were well educated and attractive, with three small children. And they were both tormented, because he had realized he was gay -- and he didn't want to be. They had heard of "reparative therapy," and wanted to know if I could help him change so they could stay married and raise their children together. I felt very sad for both of them, and for their children. And I briefly wished that I could direct them to some therapy that would solve their problem by making him straight. But I couldn't do that in good conscience. The best I could do was tell them what I know about research on sexual orientation, talk about choices to express or not express sexuality, and how to protect their children as much as possible.

It was a really painful session. He looked sad and guilty, she looked angry, and I felt inadequate to give them what they wanted. I can only hope each of them eventually found the support they needed. I doubt they had trouble finding someone who would agree to try to change him... after all, there's a great financial incentive to engage people in impossible pursuits that take a long time and cost a lot of money. Then when it doesn't work, you can always blame the client and move on.

Soon after that I had a very positive reminder of therapist integrity. A woman told me her experience growing up in small, religiously conservative town. In high school she fell in love with her best friend, and had a brief sexual relationship. Then her friend pulled away in panic and dropped her. She became suicidally depressed and her parents checked her into a psychiatric hospital. The treatment approach was all group therapy, all day long, and she could never find the courage to say she thought she was lesbian. Then she went home, got depressed again, and went back into the hospital. This time she got to talk to a therapist individually, and finally confessed her secret.

Her therapist's response was perfect. She told her that some people are gay, and it's hard because a lot of the world doesn't understand because they don't know any better. She told her the most important thing to do was finish high school so she could go to college in a large city where she'd find more people like herself. That's what she did, and that's what pulled her out of her suicidal depression and into a life with a loving partner and friends who respect the fine woman she's become. That's the impact of an informed, compassionate therapist who probably saved her life.

So I have to thank David Pickup for his insulting comments, because it reminds me of how much I respect most of us who try to help people live with their truth, and with integrity.