The APA Resolution on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation

A Comment by Gregory M. Herek, Ph.D.

Attempts to use psychological interventions to change sexual orientation are based on the discredited claim that homosexuality is a disease, a notion that represents an attempt to use the language of science to promote antigay prejudice. That view is completely inconsistent with the bulk of scientific research and with the official policies of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Psychiatric Association.

It is highly doubtful that the so-called "conversion therapies" and "reparative therapies" are actually able to change a person's sexual orientation. Claims about their success are based on scattered anecdotal reports, not on rigorous scientific studies that have been subjected to review by other scientists.

Some individuals with a strong motivation to become heterosexual – often based on intense religious beliefs – claim to have changed their sexual orientation as a result of these therapies. Even if their claims about changing are accepted, however, there is no evidence that such change was brought about by the therapy. The change – if it occurred – may well have happened without therapy. And for every story about someone whose sexual orientation was supposedly converted to heterosexuality, there are many other reports of people who tried unsuccessfully to change and who endured a great deal of psychological pain and suffering in the process.

Even if reparative therapies were able to change the sexual orientation of a small minority of people, however, we would have to question their ethical basis. These treatments are simply an extension of society's prejudices against gay men and lesbians.

Typically, the people who seek a therapist's help to become heterosexual are reacting to society's intense antigay hostility. Often, they have been pressured to change by their family or their religious group.

Therapists have an ethical duty to resist such coercion. Instead of reinforcing the stigma attached to homosexuality, therapists should help gay people to understand their sexual orientation, integrate it into their identity and relationships, and learn how to lead a happy life.

The APA resolution is extraordinary mainly because of the serious ethical questions that it raises about attempts to change sexual orientation. It points out that these attempts at behavior modification are based on the erroneous premise that homosexuality is a mental disorder.

It also highlights the fact that many people who are the targets of reparative therapy are not able to give informed consent to the procedure. This is especially true for adolescents who are being coerced into treatment by their parents or other adults.

The resolution also reminds us that psychologists are ethically required to respect people's right to self-determination, to respect values different from their own, and to refrain from discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

This resolution lays out a series of arguments that can be used in the future to challenge the ethics of individual attempts to change sexual orientation. It is an important action by APA to reaffirm its commitment to eradicating the stigma that has historically been associated with homosexuality.

  APA Resolution Press Release
  Text of the APA Resolution
  Comment by Gregory M. Herek, Ph.D.
  Facts About Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation
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