thatmormonboy recently uploaded a video to YouTube and asserted 12 points about the LDS Church in order to build bridges between gays and Mormons (see the Church’s website www.mormonsandgays.org for more detailed info on what the LDS Church teaches). I want to comment on many of the points thatmormonboy made, starting with the last point. And the reason I want to comment is because the points he makes are more nuanced than he presents, and much of the miscommunication relates to the nuanced points he doesn’t address: Church doctrine assumes one position and members of the Church can assume other positions.
The purpose of my commentary on the subject is to add my unique perspective as a former member of the LDS Church, gay man, and behavior analyst. My comments shouldn’t be considered exhaustive, but I want to put info out there. Specifically, I want to provide a few additional references on the topic that are often overlooked, discuss clinical limitations that are often misunderstood, and offer a few questions we should be asking to help guide our current understanding and communication on the topic.
So, let’s take a look at the last point thatmormonboy made about gays and Mormons. Here we go.
#12 “…the Mormon Church used to torture gay people like Nazi experimenters by electrocuting them and trying to reorient them as heterosexuals. (This a completely wild exaggeration of what happened).”
As thatmormonboy said, this is a completely wild exaggeration of what happened. I’m not sure why he started with the wildest of exaggerations, but it makes for a decent transition to the history of ethical conduct in research:
- Horrifying research was conducted in the 40s by the Nazi German regime
- Horrifying research was also conducted here in the US, e.g., the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, between 1932 and 1972
- Research like this led to the Doctor’s Trial post WWII
- In response, the National Research Act was enacted and signed into law on July 12, 1974
- The National Research Act gave rise to institutional review boards (IRB) “to assure, both in advance and by periodic review, that appropriate steps are taken to protect the rights and welfare of humans participating as subjects in a research study”
- The APA published its first code of ethics in 1953
So, much of the research on aversion therapies was happening around the time ethical treatment of human subjects was a major concern worldwide and a developing area, which leads to the next point thatmormonboy made:
“The medical community believed homosexuality was a mental disorder. BYU allowed the practice [of aversion therapy] for a short time and abandoned the practice decades before the APA did.”
Some clarification is in order. The APA came out with an official statement in 2006 that aversion therapy is not to be used to treat homosexuality. This is not the time the practice of aversion therapy slowed. Using Google Scholar, I searched “aversion therapy electroshock homosexuality” by year from 1974 to 1980. Around 1978, publications shifted from implementation of electroshock aversion therapy to discussing ethical implications of the therapy, and by 1980 there are no publications on the use of the therapy to treat homosexuality and only a few publications about the use of the therapy to treat pedophilia. So, I think it’s safe to assume the use of electroshock aversion therapy to treat homosexuality was generally considered unethical by 1980. Like thatmormonboy mentioned, aversion therapy was practiced on gay individuals because homosexuality was considered a disorder in the DSM. It was reclassified as “sexual orientation disturbance” in 1974 and completely removed from the DSM in 1987.
So, what did BYU do regarding aversion therapy and homosexuality? Max Ford McBride, under the direction of Dr. Eugene Thorne, completed his dissertation at BYU in 1976 and studied the effect of electroshock aversion therapy on male arousal to different stimuli (e.g., nude images of men women). A copy of his dissertation is available here. This is the only “publication” I’m aware of. Additional information about the procedures are discussed here in an interview with Dr. Thorne.
The major points I’d like to drive home about this research are:
- The research was conducted at a time when ethical considerations were important
- McBride cited other, less aversive methods investigated to examine the same variables
- Rather than use less aversive methods, he decided to use shock
Less aversive methods McBride cited included:
- Systematic desensitization
- “to diminish fear or anxiety associated with heterosexual behavior”
- “The patient was asked…to masturbate using homosexual fantasies, as orgasm approached he was presented with heterosexual stimuli”
- Social retraining
- “These procedures teach new social skills…to those individuals who are unable to function effectively in heterosexual situations… Their emphasis was to teach assertive behavior.”
- “…the subject was deprived of liquids for 18 hours, sodium chloride and an oral diuretic was also given. When the subject exhibited appropriate heterosexual responses he was reinforced with a lime drink. Intake of liquid was contingent on heterosexual fantasies and/or progressively greater increases in penile circumference.”
- “…a female slide was superimposed on a sexually attractive male slide with a fraction of the light intensity of the male picture… If a satisfactory erectile response occurred the light intensity of each slide was altered, the female slide becoming increasingly brighter until the female slide alone was projected.”
To summarize, these studies, including McBride’s, were extremely limited, and the limitations can be summarized with the following:
(1) increases in penile circumference were limited to stimuli presented in the studies,
(2) no follow ups were conducted to determine the extent to which penile responses generalized to novel stimuli (e.g., actual female genitalia),
(3) maintenance of the effect over extended periods of time was not demonstrated,
(4) penile circumference is not a measure of sexual preference or sexual orientation,
(5) and no subjects reported a change in sexual orientation.
And one important thing to point out about McBride’s study that is almost always overlooked: the primary question he examined was whether the type of stimuli — slides depicting nude/clothed men or women — resulted in different therapeutic outcomes. And guess what he found out?
“Our data did not support the popular notion that the male homosexual is more positively attracted to nude stimuli as opposed to clothed. The present study’s results indicate that homosexual attraction to members of the same sex is more general and not restricted to male nudity.” (And then he went on to mention that they did get better therapeutic results when nude stimuli were used).
So… All this research and effort later, he made an important discovery: gay men aren’t just attracted to naked men, they’re also attracted to clothed men. It seems like a silly discovery now, but I guess it was revolutionary in 1976.
But let’s get back to the parenthetic statement above: part of the reason he conducted his research was to back up the use of nude stimuli. Think about the context. BYU clinicians showing… porn… to BYU students…? And that’s what the study was really about. Finding data to support the use of nude images in aversion therapy:
“Because the therapist will have a scientific rational for utilizing nude stimuli it will help solve the moral and ethical question regrind the use of potentially ‘offensive’ material. Such considerations should be particularly important at religious and privately endowed institutions where the use of nude VCS has been challenged on the grounds that it is offensive and not therapeutically warranted.”
So, a few questions I’d like to raise:
- Given less aversive procedures like fading were cited (and used and found to have similar results as shock) and given the experimental question, why even use shock? (And this question is really only important to those who assert BYU owes an apology for the use of shock). Why was using nude v. clothed images a moral and ethical issue but the use of shock v. fading wasn’t?
- Given the experimental question and results obtained, why do we focus the discussion on efforts to change sexual orientation and whether orientation can change?
- When it comes to current research (on any topic), are we justified to expose people to pain or discomfort in an effort to justify the actions (e.g., using nude male images) of an institution?
- If the study was conducted to justify the use of nude images in aversion therapy, is it possible that aversion therapy was being used outside of this one study? Was Dr. Thorne the only one doing this type of work at BYU?