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In his book People to Be Loved, Preston Sprinkle presents two-and-a-half options for gay people. Today we’ll be talking about one of those options. Well, half of one, anyway. And we’ll be debunking it hopefully well enough for even die-hard fundagelicals to understand why people outside their bubble condemn it so unequivocally.

Yes, today we’re taking on reparative therapy: that form of junk science that tries–and fails–to turn gay people straight.

Periodically, you may find yourself becoming annoyed or enraged. Please apply this Kitten Therapy Photo as needed to the affected area. (Credit: Charles Barilleaux, CC license.)
Periodically, you may find yourself becoming annoyed or enraged as you read this post. Please apply this Kitten Therapy Photo as often as needed. (Credit: Charles Barilleaux, CC license.)

The Options As They Lay.

After spending considerable time outlining exactly why he thinks the Bible condemns same-sex relationships, Preston Sprinkle presents “people to be loved” with three ways to proceed. Obviously, a relationship with someone of the same sex is off-limits. That makes his tribe Jesus mad. But after showering gay people with his “scandalous grace” and loving them into submission, the author fully expects that his human fix-it projects will desire to change to better fit in with what he Jesus wants of them. He doesn’t expect to make any demands; he thinks that peer pressure Jesus will take care of everything.

(But if they did decide to join his tribe but refused to change to suit him Jesus, then as sad as it would make him, he would have to throw them out of his fellowship. His “scandalous grace” does not extend to condoning sin or, for that matter, refraining from judging and condemning people that he “loves.”)

Here are his Jesus’ options in order of what appears to be his Jesus’ preference:

1. Live totally celibate and hope to goodness’ sake it works out.

2. Marry an opposite-sex person and hope to goodness’ sake it works out.

2.5. Pray away the gay and then go with either 1 or 2, and hope to goodness’ sake it works out.

I’m really not kidding. All that “scandalous grace” he spouts in this book, and all it boils down to exactly and precisely what his tribe has been pushing, increasingly unsuccessfully, on LGBTQ people since before I was born.

Well, I’m sure scandalized.

Preston Sprinkle vs. the World.

Praying super-hard-lots to lose one’s “same-sex attraction” (SSA) is presented in the book numerous times as a perfectly valid course of action. To his credit, Dr. Sprinkle does mention that this tactic fails numerous times throughout the book–to the point where it sounds like it fails more often than it succeeds.

Still, he insists that reparative therapy can be totally effective in removing a person’s “SSA” and opening the door to attraction to the opposite sex–or at least helping that person to live in the properly celibate way that he Jesus demands.

Dr. Sprinkle is trying to present himself as an enlightened, compassionate bigot-for-Jesus. But I’m not sure he understands that reparative therapy has been totally, completely debunked and that its techniques are widely recognized as not only hugely harmful but even life-threatening to vulnerable people. There is, simply put, not one single reputable and credible group of therapists or scientists out there who view this kind of therapy as anything but a violation of a client’s dignity, worth, and human rights.

Oh but since when did fundagelicals care about reality and scientific consensus? Or human decency? Or compassion?

A considerable number of people in Dr. Sprinkle’s tribe still insist up and down that “Jesus” has cured them of “same-sex attraction” and hold that such “cures” are even possible. If he were to assert the truth, that reparative therapy is a ridiculous, dangerous, and utterly worthless idea, then he would have to deal with those people. And if he dared to side with scientific consensus by saying that orientation doesn’t really change, then he’d face the wrath of a tribe that genuinely believes that “Jesus” can change anything about a person (except for missing limbs, of course).

Preston Sprinkle writes that many of those reparative-therapy techniques “are now viewed as silly, if not barbaric” (p. 158). That’s true. They are.

But he uses a curious kind of distancing language here.

He writes: “Most people now have a negative view of ‘reparative therapy'” and “many people consider reparative therapy to be unethical and destructive.” “Some people say that more harm than good will result” from trying to change one’s orientation. (Emphases here are mine.)

This therapy actually is silly, if not barbaric.

It’s not just a “view.” It’s reality.

He doesn’t flat-out say that reparative therapy is all of those and worse, and I wonder if that reluctance stems from knowing how many people in his tribe either claim to have been “helped” by it, or who push it as an option.

Instead, he tries to stick to the party line while still trying to sound as loving and nice as possible. He rejects the worst of the worst forms of reparative therapy, but tries his best to make its less-extreme forms sound reputable and credible to people who don’t know better.

This Therapy Is an Ex-Parrot.

Right-wing Christian bigots genuinely think that Jesus, under the right circumstances, can change a person’s sexual orientation, and that they have the right and the obligation to make such a demand for change. They think that this demand is an expression of their love (and a necessary show of their disapproval). They believe (without justification) that the vehicle for this change is reparative therapy.

Reparative therapy has a long and storied history. As far back as the 1800s, the first psychiatrists were trying to “cure” gay people. Homosexuality in general was considered a mental illness. By the 1970s, though, that idea had changed. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of illnesses–and other groups followed suit. At this point, I do not know of a single reputable professional organization that supports reparative therapy of any kind or considers homosexuality a defect or illness.

In fact, I don’t know of any organization that even thinks that sexual orientation is a choice or even something that a person can change. Preston Sprinkle tries his darnedest to make the nature and extent of it sound like a huge debate, but this–like Creationists’ insistence that there’s some big debate about evolution–is a total lie. There is no debate. Nobody reputable wonders about this stuff, despite Dr. Sprinkle’s attempt to make it sound like a toss-up. Only right-wing Christian groups still wonder, and nobody takes them seriously.

(Wouldn’t it be lovely if fundagelicals got out of the science-denial business entirely and concentrated on doing the boring-ass stuff Jesus actually told them to do?)

Still, he presents this undignified human-rights violation as an option to desperate, confused gay people. He expresses disapproval of how “LGBT people mock fundamentalist Christians who think they can ‘pray the gay away.'” He mourns that the voices of people who claim to have been helped by this sort of therapy “are often muzzled and mocked by the tidal wave of opposition both inside and outside the church.”

But for all his coffee dates and all his insistence on listening to the people his tribe is so busily hassling and marginalizing, he still embraces this debunked pseudo-therapy, with a few caveats: the victim must be of age, be enthusiastic, be willing to accept that maybe probably almost certainly nothing will change, and, as we’ll see in a moment here, seek that therapy from someone he’d regard as qualified to give it. If those conditions are met, then why sure, Jesus might actually lend a hand in changing someone’s orientation! Anything is possible! Maybe. Possibly. If Jesus is in a good mood and gets a lot of likes on his Facebook page.

And Dr. Sprinkle thinks he has proof of that occasional, carefully-defined, when-the-stars-align success.

This Totally $100% Happened.

One of the more shocking assertions in this book comes from yet another of those totally r/ThatHappened anecdotes of his where you’re never sure if it really went down that way. In this one, a pal of his “is part of this snuffed out minority” of people whose voices are “muzzled and mocked” by the meaniepie secular world that doesn’t accept reparative therapy as valid or ethical. This pal is a “licensed psychologist with a PhD and works for a secular practice that helps gay men change their orientation” (p. 159).

This psychologist pal of his claims that half of his clients aren’t Christian and that his practice isn’t specifically Christian-oriented. He claims a completely phenomenal success rate, too: half of his clients totally change orientation, a quarter “experience a significant degree of change,” and the rest don’t see much change at all. (He doesn’t mention how many of each group are Christian.)

Preston Sprinkle says he “laughed out loud in Starbucks” when his friend shared these statistics with him, but no, his friend insisted that it was totally true and that the reason that groups like Exodus International fail to “help” their clients is because they don’t take the correct approach to changing orientation–which he, of course, does–and aren’t qualified enough–which he, of course, is.

And Dr. Sprinkle, who through this whole book has insisted that he absolutely won’t make a move on the topic of “same-sex attraction” without knowing 100% for sure utterly and completely what the facts are, accepts this anecdote at face value without critically evaluating it. He offers this anecdote with almost no reservations. Yes, almost: he eventually does say he didn’t get any proof of the anecdote, which makes his recommendation of the practice look even worse.

He makes this friend sound like a valiant crusader for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, rather than what he really sounds like: a sickeningly irresponsible quack.

So I offer the following information, which may be of use to bigots-for-Jesus who are confused about why reparative therapy is so criticized.

Why Reparative Therapy is Horseshit.

First, this pseudo-therapy is very dangerous and risky. I know fundagelicals think anecdotes are evidence, but they’re not. There is however plenty of real evidence to suggest very strongly that those who try reparative therapy run a serious risk of emerging from the experience way worse than where they started. NPR has some downright heartbreaking stories of people who’ve tried this pseudo-therapy–sometimes for many years–and came out of the experience totally traumatized.

Second, this pseudo-therapy does not work. It’s not only hugely risky, but the people who put themselves through this often-humiliating and degrading experience only rarely see any change in their orientation. Even Dr. Sprinkle’s therapist friend only claimed that half of his clients succeeded in a significant way. That means that half of his clients failed–and they all came out of it facing greater risks of suicide, drug abuse, and engaging in the kind of risky sex that leads to STDs.

That should be way too many risks and too high a failure rate for any reputable, compassionate therapist to consider inflicting on anyone!

You Don't Say?If I went to my doctor and said I wanted him to give me a therapy that had that kind of risk and that kind of failure rate, he’d laugh in my face. Hell, he recently actually refused to let me undergo a therapy that had a very minimal risk of burdening one of my organs because he didn’t think the chance of success would be great enough to justify even that low risk. I can’t imagine what he’d say about a course of treatment that carried way greater risks for way less of a chance of success!

For Dr. Sprinkle to go on to blithely dismiss the risks and harm done by this therapy is downright grotesque and cruel, but he goes there by saying as an afterthought that “potential harm is always a possibility” (p. 160). Oh, is it? Wow, really? You don’t say?

I’d like to remind everyone that he is positioning himself as the kinder, gentler bigot-for-Jesus.

This Doesn’t Sound Very Secular.

Dr. Sprinkle goes to great lengths to make clear that his friend, while a Christian like himself, works at a clinic that is not specifically Christian, and that he has no “theological investment for needing these men to change” (p. 159). He does this to try to legitimize reparative therapy, to give it that veneer of scientific validity, and to make it seem like why gosh, even secular people do it sometimes so it must transcend fundagelicalism.

And these claims do not pass my smell test. Here’s why.

First, any decent secular clinic would throw this therapist out the door on his ear if they found out he was putting such a vulnerable population through such dangerous risks for so little a return. Again, no reputable secular body of therapists or scientists supports the idea of reparative therapy–or even suggests that orientation changes are possible or even advisable. Only right-wing Christian groups do that. Reputable therapists don’t even offer referrals for this kind of pseudo-therapy without very serious reservations because it’s ineffective and dangerous. I simply do not believe this claim that this clinic is secular. It might not be throwing Jesus around every third word or have walls covered in crosses, but if they do reparative therapy, they are by nature religious because nobody else does it but religious people. (It sounds much more like this clinic is non-denominational rather than secular. The sort of people who buy into the need for reparative therapy would likely avoid an overly-secular clinic anyway.)

Second, only right-wing Christians actually care about changing anyone’s orientation in the first place. If this friend of his didn’t have any real theological reason to risk reparative therapy, then he wouldn’t risk it. It’s that simple. There are no other reasons to risk it except for theological reasons. A secular therapist wouldn’t see orientation as a problem. Reputable therapists don’t put people through serious risks, especially over something that isn’t actually a problem. So I don’t believe that he’s that disinterested in orientation change.

Third, Preston Sprinkle never names what subject the PhD was in, nor what the license is. And that’s a very serious oversight, in my opinion. We know that Christians sometimes fling around titles and educational achievements that are totally unrelated to the matter at hand–such as when Creationists tout their “experts” who don’t have any formal training at all in biology. (And here I’ll just note that Dr. Sprinkle himself appears to have no formal training or education in psychology or counseling; his own PhD is in “New Testament.” In fact he’s coy about exactly what his educational background is, and in his book he mentions that he’s far from an expert in pastoral counseling. Yet here we are.)

Licenses are also not made equally. If this psychologist was really that confident of his methods and success rate, why didn’t Dr. Sprinkle publish his name, his exact qualifications, and the name of his oh-so-secular clinic? This kind of success, if real, would definitely be a whole new ball of wax! So why not name names? The author is not worried about the Gay Illuminati when it comes to any of the other names and sources in the book. But this guy, his clinic, and his statistics just parade past us anonymously. Without knowing who this “professional voice” is who has so impressed Dr. Sprinkle, we do not have enough information to properly evaluate this voice’s preposterous claim. I can’t help but think that these omissions are intentional.

All in all, without corroboration of some kind and a lot more information, I just can’t buy this whole “no no it is too totally secular and it totally does too work because my friend totally said!” argument he’s trotting out. That might be enough for fundagelicals, but not for me.

The Few Successes Are Not What Christians Claim They Are.

I don’t doubt that some people have managed some success in making some changes to their behavior. Humans are a remarkably varied lot. From what I’ve seen, most of these “success stories” are actually bisexual people who are simply looking exclusively to the opposite sex now rather than to both/all sexes. But genuine change from gay to straight? I don’t see any reason to think it’s possible. Indeed, some of the people who have been loudest about having successfully made that change have later turned out to have been deceptive, desperate, or overly-optimistic. As that link reveals, some of the earlier proponents of reparative therapy no longer even try to change a client’s orientation.

(One of those ex-proponents is an evangelical therapist named Mark Yarhouse, by the way. Preston Sprinkle mentions specifically in the book that Dr. Yarhouse says that “change is possible, although radical change is rare. But we have to first define what we mean by change” (p. 160). However, in that last link (to the NYT) it says that Dr. Yarhouse doesn’t think anymore that orientation changes are possible and no longer offers such therapy; interestingly, the APA actually approves of the solution he now advocates for very religious gay people. The book makes it sound like he still buys into reparative therapy, however. Isn’t that odd?)

I think that deep down, Preston Sprinkle knows that real, permanent change to orientation is vanishingly rare. After outlining the “good news” about reparative therapy, he negates all of it by saying that well, it doesn’t matter anyway if one fails or succeeds at changing orientation because someone can take one of the two life routes he Jesus demands regardless.

If he thinks that this declaration makes it okay to suggest dangerous, risky pseudoscience to vulnerable readers, then he’s wrong. It makes his suggestion even worse. If it really didn’t matter if someone were gay or straight, then one would think he’d suggest the course of action that would do the least damage and incur the lowest and fewest risks. But he suggests the very worst, least effective, and most dangerous option anyway and then offers up a totally non-credible anecdote that backfires spectacularly with anybody who knows even the least amount about the subject.

And then, having relayed this disastrous suggestion, he tries to shame any doubters by making the proponents of reparative therapy sound like champions of free speech rather than quacks and its opponents sound like mean ole doubters trying to stifle a perfectly valid form of therapy that just conflicts with their beliefs!

He may sound and act all nice at first, but he’s just as bad as his more venomous brethren. And he isn’t going to fool anybody outside his bubble no matter how many coffee dates he tricks them into.

We’ll take up next time with his other two options–and we’ve also got a brief look coming up at a startling new development in Christian Patriarchy. See you next week, friends!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...