Response to Part 1 of Dr. Patrick M. Chapman’s Review of “Ex-Gays”, posted on Ex-Gay Watch, November, 2007, by Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse.

The greatest compliment that be paid to any work of scholarship is for it to receive serious consideration and generate discussion. Thus, we are pleased to see the review by Dr. Chapman of our book, Ex-gays?: A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation. Chapman raises important issues, but in the end, we must conclude that his review fails to establish the serious flaws he claims in our study.

Response to “Part 1: Introduction and Methods”

We applaud Chapman for correctly summarizing the main questions we examined in the study, for a reasonable brief summary of the study’s methodology, and particularly for granting us some credulity in saying that “They claim the ex-gay organization [Exodus] did not exert any control or power over their results and conclusions (p. 127), and there is currently no reason to believe otherwise.” Minor points of disagreement with his summary and commentary include the following:

  • Our interest was not triggered by “the conflicting views of science [versus the claims of our] conservative Christian acquaintances;” but rather by the conflict between a) the prevailing and hardening consensus of mental health opinion that change is utterly impossible, based on a very mixed scientific record, versus b) the actual scientific record and the anecdotal claims of people we know. Regarding the actual scientific record, note for instance the recent publication by a respected scholar of a report of some notable plasticity in “female same-sex sexuality” in a minority of women followed in a longitudinal study (Lisa Diamond, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(#2), 142-161. Diamond rightly concludes “the more we learn, the more we do not understand,” p. 142. She also, it must be said, would not regard her findings as providing support for change as understood in this study, but on the other hand, her results do challenge a simple “sexual orientation is utterly and always unchangeable” stance). And Chapman in his review gives weight to the anecdotes of people he knows, and his own story, so once again we raise the question why only certain anecdotes are privileged as worthy of consideration in this debate.
  • Chapman implicitly dismisses “behavior modification” as trivial, but we see insufficient justification to take this step. Some of our subjects experienced more than mere behavior modification, and even behavior modification can be very meaningful if it empowers a person to live in closer accord with her freely chosen core values.

The core of Chapman’s criticism of the study in Part 1 is that our study is somehow not truly prospective. We would agree that if our study is not prospective then it is disingenuous to claim that it is, and the scientific value of the study is considerably weakened. This charge, in other words, is truly significant. Let’s look carefully, then, at the basis for Chapman’s claims.

First, Chapman claims that “technically the study is not prospective because 41 individuals were involved in the Exodus program for one to three years prior to the study (p. 121).” The logic of this argument is not compelling. We are utterly explicit that some of the subjects (the 41 “Phase 2 subjects” in the change process with their current Exodus ministry for 1 to 3 years) had been in the change process longer than others (the 57 “Phase 1 subjects” in the change process for less than 1 year). We continue to maintain that the results for the Phase 2 subjects are worthy of inclusion and consideration, but we always report analyses of the Phase 1 population by itself for precisely the concern Chapman articulates: If the reader insists on a tighter understanding of “prospective,” then you can narrow the focus to the Phase 1 results. These results were not as positive as those for the population as a whole, but were still statistically significant and meaningful, with Phase 1 subjects represented in all six categories of outcomes. Again, for Chapman to focus on the 41 Phase 2 subjects and then pronounce the whole study as not prospective makes no more sense than declaring that the results of our study are irrelevant for men because there were 26 women in the study.

Chapman’s second concern is more interesting and merits serious discussion. He argues that our study is not prospective because “the claim that participants were at the start of their change process is misleading.” He then cites several pieces of data indicating that subjects had previously tried to use other methods to change their sexual orientation before starting their current Exodus involvement (including through involvement in other religious ministries and professional therapy), and then concludes “Suggesting the individuals in this study are ‘starting the change process’ is incorrect. Perhaps this was their first attempt with Exodus ministries but that is not the same as ‘starting the change process.’”

Chapman seems to be arguing for an extremely literalistic understanding of “starting the change process.” Our research question was the possibility of change through involvement in an Exodus ministry, and so we focused on persons between zero and 3 years into that change process. Chapman is arguing for a much more rigorous standard: that the only proper way to study change is to locate and study what we might call “change virgins,” people who had never attempted change at all. We would argue that such a standard is unreasonable for several reasons:

  • First, such a standard is rarely applied in the study of other intervention methods with other targets of intervention. We urge that our study be examined according to the standards applied to all psychological studies of change, and not by ad hoc standards with few parallels in the general literature. We compare our results in the book with the pattern of results for the STAR*D treatment study of chronic depression, but the very idea that you would screen out all subjects who had previously sought help to change their depressive patterns to get a sample of “change virgins” is not credible. If your goal is to study the effectiveness of a particular intervention method, why would you screen out of your study persons who had previously sought change by other means, especially when it is common in these ministries to work with people who have attempted to change before?
  • Second, to erect such a requirement for the validity of a study of change of sexual orientation would be to make such a study impossible to conduct. How would you find a pure sample of “change virgins” who had never attempted change? If people are distressed by their sexual orientation for religious, moral or other reasons, isn’t it likely that those person would try a variety of formal and informal means to change that orientation?
  • Most importantly, if our research question is that of the possibility of change through involvement in an Exodus ministry, why would prior or even concurrent involvement in other methods of change serve as a barrier to involvement in the study? If we are studying the effectiveness of anti-depressants in treatment of depression or of interpersonal therapy on marital relationships, what is the relevance of the subjects having previously received pastoral counseling for depression or having attended a marriage encounter weekend to enhance marital satisfaction?

So in the end, in response to Chapman’s criticism that “Perhaps this was their first attempt with Exodus ministries but that is not the same as ‘starting the change process,’” we would simply reply that by our saying that these subjects were “starting the change process,” we were implicitly and explicitly saying “starting the change process in this particular Exodus ministry.” Hence, we believe that this study meets reasonable standards as a prospective study of individuals seeking sexual orientation change through the Exodus change process. Chapman’s criticisms fail to establish the contrary.

Following the organization of the original series, Part 2 of the response will address a focus on the results, examining if change is possible (covered in the second part of Chapman’s critique).

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