Family Research Council

Why Science Doesn't Support Orientation-Change Bans

By Peter Sprigg Senior Fellow for Policy Studies


Peter Sprigg is Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at Family Research Council. This article appeared in First Things on September 4, 2013.


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently signed Assembly Bill 3371, which forbids licensed professional counselors in the state to "engage in sexual orientation change efforts with a person under 18 years of age."

Christie indicated that in signing the bill, he was accepting the professional expertise of the American Psychological Association. It is true that the APA has been highly critical of "sexual reorientation therapy" or "sexual orientation change efforts." It is unfortunate that both the legislature and the governor failed to recognize, however, that even professional organizations can fall prey to political pressure and ideological bias-as has certainly been the case with the APA on the issue of homosexuality.

Yet even despite the APA's longstanding sympathy for the programs of groups like the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD, the APA's actual statements on the subject of sexual reorientation therapy do a great deal to undermine the conclusion that the New Jersey legislature and Gov. Christie reached.

Christie's press release reductively declared that "people are born gay." Yet there is no firm scientific basis for this conclusion. The three studies in the early 1990's which were hailed by the media as providing evidence for a "gay gene" (or at least for an innate and biological cause for homosexuality) have long since beendiscredited by the failure of any other researchers to be able to replicate those early results.

In fact, the American Psychological Association itself has actually moved away from asserting certainty about the origins of homosexuality, declaring in their most recent statement on this question that: "There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. . . . Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles."

If even the American Psychological Association says "there is no consensus among scientists" about the origin of homosexuality, then it seems presumptuous of politicians to act as though there is in order to stifle conservative viewpoints on the issue. And if "nurture" plays any role in the development of homosexuality, then it cannot be said that "people are born gay." Indeed, researchers from Columbia and Yale found that evidence supports "the hypothesis that less gendered socialization in early childhood and preadolescence shapes subsequent same-sex romantic preferences."

Evidence that sexual orientation can be fluid rather than fixed is particularly strong with respect to young people--the very people whose freedom to seek change has been crushed by the New Jersey law. Ritch Savin-Williams, who is the nation's leading expert on homosexual teenagers, wrote in Current Directions in Psychological Science, "In the data set of the longitudinal Add Health study, of the Wave I boys who indicated that they had exclusive same-sex romantic attraction, only 11 percent reported exclusive same-sex attraction one year later; 48 percent reported only opposite-sex attraction, 35 percent reported no attraction to either sex, and six percent reported attraction to both sexes."

This means, according to Savin-Williams' cited source in the Journal of Biosocial Science, "the Wave I boys who indicated that they had exclusive same-sex romantic attraction" consisted of "69 boys [who] indicated that yes, they had ever had a romantic attraction to the same sex, and no, they had never had an attraction to the opposite sex."

Not only did those who were exclusively homosexual not all remain so, but only 11 percent did. Some measure of change in sexual orientation--which many homosexual activists say is impossible, and never happens to anyone--is not only possible, but it is the norm for adolescents with same-sex attractions, having been experienced by 89 percent of the respondents only one year later.

The two fundamental arguments against sexual reorientation therapy are simple: 1) such therapy does not work; and 2) such therapy is harmful. But the balance of evidence for these two claims--even in the American Psychological Association's own writings--is not as clear-cut as the advocates of AB 3371 seem to believe.

On the issue of whether sexual reorientation therapy can be effective, there is an abundance of evidence that it can. There are many psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and therapists who have reported success in treating clients for unwanted same-sex attractions. Much of this research and clinical experience has been reported in the peer-reviewed scholarly literature for decades. In addition, there are many people who have given personal testimony to changes in any or all of the measures of their sexual orientation. Even the APA acknowledged that "there are people who perceive that they have benefited from" SOCE.

The legislature declared in its findings that a 2009 APA task force "concluded that sexual orientation change efforts can pose critical health risks." Here, however, is an excerpt of what the APA task force actually said [emphasis added]: "We conclude that there is a dearth of scientifically sound research on the safety of SOCE. Early and recent research studies provide no clear evidence of the prevalence of harmful outcomes among people who have undergone efforts to change their sexual orientation or the frequency of the occurrence of harm becauseno study to date of adequate scientific rigor has been explicitly designed to do so. Thus, we cannot conclude how likely it is that harm will occur from SOCE. However, studies from both periods indicate that attempts to change sexual orientation may cause or exacerbate distress and poor mental health in someindividuals, including depression and suicidal thoughts."

Has it been scientifically proven that SOCE causes harm? One would be hard-pressed to conclude that, given the numerous qualifying statements above: "a dearth of scientifically sound research"; "no clear evidence"; "no study to date of adequate scientific rigor"; "we cannot conclude how likely it is." The statement that SOCE "may" cause distress (not "has caused," "will cause," or "often causes") is about as weak as it could possibly be-amounting to little more than speculation.

At another point, the APA task force said this: "Although the recent studies do not provide valid causal evidence of the efficacy of SOCE or of its harm, some recent studies document that there are people who perceive that they have been harmed through SOCE."

In other words, the same factor that causes people to question the efficacy of SOCE--a lack of "valid causal evidence"--also applies to the claims of harm resulting from such therapy. To say that "there are people who perceive that they have been harmed through SOCE" is essentially to say that the evidence of harm is largely anecdotal--and thus hardly sufficient to constitute scientific proof. Yet the legislature dismissed similar anecdotal evidence (as well as clinical and research evidence) of the effectiveness and benefits of SOCE.

It is disappointing that New Jersey officials were willing to invade the privacy of the counselor-client relationship on the basis of such flimsy evidence of (possible, occasional) harm. This takes freedom away not just from parents, but from therapists and from young people desiring help. A federal judge has already enjoined enforcement of a similar law in California, stating that "plaintiffs . . . are likely to prevail on the merits of their claim that [the law] violates their rights to freedom of speech under the First Amendment."

Bans on sexual orientation change efforts represent an assault upon both truth and freedom. The law just enacted in New Jersey represents a bad example for other state legislatures and governors.