WHEATON, IL -- Many professional voices proclaim that it is impossible to change homosexual orientation, and that the attempt to change is commonly and inherently harmful. Psychologists Stanton L. Jones (Wheaton College, IL) and Mark A. Yarhouse (Regent University) have just published in the respected, peer-reviewed Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy the final results of their longitudinal study of individuals seeking sexual orientation change through involvement in a variety of Christian ministries affiliated with Exodus International. The results show change to be possible for some, and the attempt not harmful on average. These results stand in tension with the supposed professional consensus; more information is available at www.exgaystudy.org.
In prior studies, in the words of the American Psychological Association, "treatment outcome is not followed and reported over time as would be the standard to test the validity of any mental health intervention." This study assessed evolving sexual attractions and psychological distress levels of 98 individuals seeking sexual orientation change beginning early in the change process, and then followed them with five additional assessments over a total span of 6 to 7 years. The researchers used standardized, respected measures of sexual orientation and of emotional distress to test the study's hypotheses.
Of the original 98 subjects, 61 were successfully categorized for general outcome at the last assessment. 53% were categorized as successful outcomes; specifically, 23% reported success in the form of successful "conversion" to heterosexual orientation and functioning, while an additional 30% reported stable behavioral chastity with substantive dis-identification with homosexual orientation. At the 6 year mark, 20% reported fully embracing gay identity. Modest but statistically significant changes were reported on average for decreases in homosexual orientation. The measure of psychological distress did not, on average, reflect increases in psychological distress associated with the attempt to change.
These results do not prove that categorical change in sexual orientation is possible for everyone or anyone, but rather that meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some. The results do not prove that no one is harmed by the attempt to change, but rather that the attempt does not appear to be harmful on average or inherently harmful. The authors urge caution in projecting success rates from these findings, as they are likely overly optimistic estimates of anticipated success. Further, it was clear that "conversion" to heterosexual adaptation was a complex phenomenon.
Jones and Yarhouse argue that implications of their findings include respect for the integrity and autonomy of persons seeking to change unwanted sexual attractions for moral, religious, or other reasons, just as we respect those who for similar reasons desire to affirm and embrace their sexual orientation. Full information should be offered to consumers about the options and their potential risks. The results also suggest that it would be premature for professional mental health organizations to invalidate efforts to change sexual orientation and unwanted same-sex erotic attractions.