A new documentary was recently released on Netflix called Pray Away (watch a trailer for it below).
Pray Away delves into the controversial practice known as “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy.”
(As a point of clarification, although the media often conflates these two terms, they aren’t the same thing. “Conversion therapy” is a derogatory name developed to describe any effort to change one’s sexual orientation through therapy, prayer, or other practices. “Reparative therapy” is a specific type of therapy developed by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. It views most homosexual desires as being born from a need to “repair” a deficit in one’s gender identity. This deficit is often linked to different circumstances in one’s life such as sexual abuse or poor relationships with one’s parents, particularly your same-sex parent from whom you typically receive your gender identity.)
Whether you are coming at this from an outsider or insider perspective, the documentary is an emotionally compelling narrative.
It shifts between two groups of people: the “ex-gays” and the “ex-ex-gays”—in other words, those who had LGBTQ lifestyles, identities, or desires but no longer do (ex-gays) and those who have since reverted back to embracing those same things which they had once abandoned (ex-ex-gays). The ex-ex-gays highlighted in the documentary were all, at one time, key spokespeople for the ex-gay movement, including some top members of the Christian ex-gay ministry Exodus International. By weaving together these stories, it tells the history of the ex-gay movement, starting from when Exodus International was founded in 1976 to the present.
The documentary’s primary goal is to demonstrate the harms of conversion therapy or any effort to change sexual orientation, concluding that LGBTQ people just need to accept themselves for who they are and be accepted by others. The underlying assumption put forth says that the ex-ex-gays have wised up and recognized the harms of conversion therapy and accepted who they are, and the ex-gays of today will probably figure out the same thing later down the road. So long as we don’t accept gay, trans, or queer people for who they truly are, this cycle of hurt and pain caused by conversion therapy will continue.
The cinematography helps drive these points home too. It cleverly uses drab, dark colors; gray environments; and sad, somber music to set the tone, drawing the viewer into a melancholy and sympathetic state of mind. One discussion on Youtube with Jeffrey McCall (the main ex-gay spokesperson) noticed how they made him look very sad and unhappy throughout the documentary. Suffice it to say that there’s an agenda behind the film.
Perhaps most surprising to me is that it hardly gets into the science surrounding sexual orientation change efforts or sexual fluidity. I suspect this is because it would probably undermine the narrative of the film. The truth about such things is far more complicated (see below).
An interesting motif in the film is the focus on hands. You will see many shots of people’s hands—hands of doctors and nurses with AIDS patients, the laying on of hands in prayer, the lifting up of hands in worship, and the holding of hands in romance. Our hands communicate intimacy, whether in our relationship with God or with one another.
There is so much to address in this film that I can (and will) go on for quite a while. Let me address what I think are the 3 key issues:
1. Can Sexual Orientation Change?
Despite the prevailing cultural narrative that people are “born” gay, straight, or bisexual, and that sexual orientation is unchanging, the scientific evidence from the last 20 years has shown otherwise. Dr. Lisa Diamond from the University of Utah (Go Utes!) is one of the foremost experts and a pioneer in the developing field of sexual fluidity, which documents how people’s sexual behaviors, identities, and attractions can change over time. In these 2 videos below, she describes how this has been documented in her own work and a lot of research that has come out since then.
Of course, Dr. Diamond and others in this field do not promote using therapy as a means of trying to force these desires to change but are very open about the fact that people’s behaviors, identities, and desires can change over time. In addition, they recognize that people do tend to have a predisposition in their attractions one way or the other (an “orientation,” if you will), but that such predispositions aren’t determinative of your behaviors, identities, or sexual desires. In other words, as the American Psychological Association (APA) has noted,
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.
Long story short, the scientific community doesn’t have a consensus on what causes a person to develop same-sex or opposite-sex desires. If you are interested in greater detail, you can read “Theories and Etiologies of Sexual Orientation” in the APA’s Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology.
2. Does reparative therapy work?
The answer to this question largely depends on how you define what “works” or what is “success.” How are you measuring a successful outcome from the therapy? When someone ceases homosexual behavior? When they no longer identify as gay? When their same-sex desires decrease? When their opposite-sex desires increase? When there’s a complete 180-degree shift from exclusively homosexual to exclusively heterosexual desires? Whether they are attracted to one person of the opposite sex or experience a generalized attraction for the opposite sex? Depending on where you draw the line, you can get widely different results.
For most of the 20th century, homosexuality was regarded as a pathology, but in 1973, the APA removed homosexuality as a diagnosis from the 2nd edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). It has since regarded homosexuality and same-sex desires as a “normal” variation and expression of human sexuality. Reparative therapists, on the other hand, have continued to hold to the belief that homosexuality is a pathology.
Studies done by reparative therapists themselves have generally shown success in changing orientation in about 1/3 of their patients. Again, how you define “change” and “successful” will make these numbers fluctuate pretty broadly. The APA and other organizations like it will usually admit that people can change their behavior or identity but will express heavy skepticism about efforts made to change one’s overall pattern of sexual attractions. Regardless, they regard any sexual orientation change efforts (SOCEs) such as these to be ineffective and harmful. Reparative therapists will often criticize studies cited by mainstream psychology as biased or flawed on methodological grounds. Mainstream psychology will criticize the research of reparative therapists as being methodologically flawed, unscientific, and promoting discrimination. It cannot be denied that there are deep political and philosophical divides that frame these contrasting worldviews.
Jones and Yarhouse Study
One particularly important longitudinal study was performed by Stan Jones and Mark Yarhouse (both of whom are Christian psychologists that I have respect for) about the effectiveness of “religiously mediated” SOCEs in which they studied 98 people over a period of 6-7 years who were going through a Christian ministry (like Exodus) to change their sexual orientation. Their success rates were mixed due to complications in the methodology and the ability to find participants in a timely manner. Success was defined in two ways:
- “Success: Conversion – Participants who reported change to be successful by experiencing substantial reductions in homosexual attraction and substantial conversion to heterosexual attraction and functioning.
- Success: Chastity – Participants who reported change to be successful and who reported homosexual attraction to be present only incidentally or in a way that does not seem to bring about distress, allowing them to live contentedly without overt sexual activity.”
Their most optimistic estimates found that 53% of participants attained a successful outcome (30% chastity + 23% conversion). Their most pessimistic estimates reduce the success rate to 20% (11% chastity + 9% conversion of attractions).
They also measured whether going through these programs resulted in greater psychological distress and found that, on average, it did not appear to be harmful.
My Experience with Reparative Therapy
I don’t think I have blogged extensively about my own experience with reparative therapy but now seems like an appropriate time.
In case you didn’t know, I myself have experienced same-sex desires since I was a young teenager. Since then, I had grown up familiar with Exodus and the ideas around reparative therapy. Thus, during 2017-2018 while attending seminary, I finally felt ready and sought out a reparative therapist in hopes of eliminating same-sex desires and developing opposite-sex desires. I decided to seek out Dr. Joseph Nicolosi (the preeminent reparative therapist) and went to his office in Southern California. I ended up seeing a different therapist in his office that he was training. Although I did get to meet him a few times, Dr. Nicolosi unfortunately passed away in 2017 a few months after I started therapy. I continued until the late spring of 2018.
Overall, I would describe my experience as a good and enjoyable experience. Most of my time was spent in talk therapy discussing past wounds and hurts, particularly traumatic experiences from childhood as they related to my family. We also engaged in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a technique that helps alleviate distress from past trauma. I found the environment to be a safe place where I could share openly about experiences from my past and what I was going through today.
Eventually, though, I found myself growing somewhat frustrated with the therapy. After having done a lot of good initial work, my therapist and I seemed to settle into a similar pattern every session of talking about my same-sex desires and trying to relate them in some way to past trauma. At the time, it felt like I had worked through what I could with regard to childhood trauma, and the way my therapist always asked me to relate my same-sex desires to some past trauma began to feel artificial. After about 15 months of therapy, I decided to take a step back and reevaluate. I haven’t returned since then.
In addition to frustrations with the therapy, the Lord was working on my own heart as I began to read a lot of different books on sexuality and develop a deeper and more secure relationship with him. In time, I concluded that my overall patterns of temptation and attractions didn’t need to change in order for me to 1) be in a right relationship with God or 2) to pursue a fulfilling Christian life pleasing to God. This also played in my decision not to go back to reparative therapy.
Looking back, it’s difficult to evaluate how successful the therapy was for me. It was certainly successful from a therapeutic point of view in giving me a space to talk through some difficult subjects and work through past trauma. However, from a “reparative” point of view, the long-term effects have done little to change the overall pattern of my sexual attractions. There were short periods of time during therapy where I thought it might have been eliminating my same-sex desires. After one of these periods lasted about a month, I even told a friend that I thought I was making progress, only to be disappointed that they returned shortly after. Another complicating factor during this time was that I was going through some fantastic spiritual formation classes in seminary. Thus, it is difficult to know whether the progress I felt like I was making was due to the therapy or due to the emotional and spiritual gains from my classes and growth in my relationship with God. It was likely a combination of both. However, I think the gains from the spiritual formation will end up playing a more significant role in the long-term, even though I made real gains in therapy too.
Thus, for me, reparative therapy was a positive, although “unsuccessful” experience. Perhaps it could have worked had I stuck it out longer, but I just seemed to hit a wall in my progress after a while and didn’t have the desire to keep going. It’s not something I would “recommend” for or against. I would just caution anyone seeking reparative therapy against setting your expectations too high. I think much of the harm that people claim comes from reparative therapy can be traced back to this in some way.
In my opinion, reparative therapy, while successful at times (again depending on definitions), certainly isn’t a cure-all as secular research, Christian research, and my own experience seem to indicate. Its theories on what causes same-sex attractions might be true for some (and even strongly resonate with my own life), but I don’t think it provides the full explanation. The formation of one’s sexuality is an extremely complex process. While I don’t believe that reparative therapy is intrinsically harmful, like any other therapy, it certainly has the potential to be if not used properly or if the patient goes into it with unreasonable expectations.
3. Theology and Sexual Orientation Change
As a Christian, I believe that everyone (regardless of sexual attractions) is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27, 9:6) and is loved deeply by him (John 3:16, Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:9-10). I also affirm the doctrine of original sin and that the effects of sin on the world have left us in a state of guilt and corruption (Romans 5:12-21, 8:20-23; Ephesians 2:1-3). Almost without exception, this corruption manifests itself through our sexuality. Everyone has disordered sexual desires. Homosexuality is but one of these manifestations. Regardless of how our disordered sexuality emerges, everyone needs to come to Jesus Christ to receive forgiveness for these things (Acts 4:12).
I recognize homosexuality as sinful, intrinsically disordered, and contrary to what God intended for gender and sexuality (Genesis 2:23-25, Matthew 19:4-6, Romans 1:24-27). This includes not only homosexual actions but homosexual desires and any identities formed on the basis of these things (Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 2:20, 5:24; Ephesians 4:17-24; Colossians 3:1-10).
I also firmly believe in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:1-17, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8). Because I have been saved to the uttermost and given a new identity in Christ, the sanctification of the Spirit extends to the uttermost parts of my being, including my behaviors and desires.
However, God makes no promises in regards to the amount of progress and sanctification that one will experience in this earthly life. We will constantly struggle with weaknesses and temptations (Luke 17:1; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In other words, no matter what I do, I may still experience temptation and brokenness with regard to same-sex attractions or any other manifestation of my sin nature.
Yet, what we are promised is that in our eternal life with Christ, sin will be done away with and the effects of sin will be no more (1 Corinthians 15:50-58, Revelation 21:3-5). The struggles that I have now will not last forever. That is what I put my hope in. While I do expect growth in holiness in all aspects of my being, including sexual desires (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:10-14, 1 Peter 1:13-19), to put my hope in any particular result in this earthly life is contrary to Scripture and only distracts from the eternal weight of glory that awaits me in Christ’s everlasting kingdom. As Paul says,
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Marriage, and by implication sex and sexual desire, is a part of the things that are “seen” and “transient” (Matthew 22:20, Mark 12:24-25, Luke 20:34-36) and will have their ultimate fulfillment in the marriage supper of the Lamb (Ephesians 5:22-33, Revelation 19:6-9). What awaits us is far superior: perfect unity, perfect love, and pleasures forevermore in God’s presence (Psalm 16:11).
The Problems of the Ex-Gay Movement
If I had to boil down the biggest flaw of Exodus and the Ex-Gay movement in general, it would be this: misplaced hope. Proverbs 13:12 reminds us that “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” So much of the hurt and heartache surrounding sexual orientation conversion therapies and theologies are traceable to making promises of changed sexual desires from homosexual to heterosexual. This is the script I’ve often heard:
“If you only do this therapy,
if you only pray enough,
if you only have enough faith,
if you only put in the hard work necessary,
if you only heal the brokenness of your past,
if you only develop healthy same-sex friendships with other heterosexuals,
if you only find one person of the opposite sex you can be attracted to—
then you too can be heterosexual like everyone else;
you too can be in right relationship to God;
you too can finally feel like you fit in;
you too can have a spouse;
you too can have children;
you too can feel happy;
you too can be fulfilled both physically and emotionally;
you too can have everything you’ve ever wanted and everything that everyone else tells you that you should want.”
It brings tears to my eyes having to write all that out. These same promises have been held out to me by various individuals, and I’ve had to learn the hard way that it isn’t quite that simple. What’s most insidious is what can be implied after that:
“If it doesn’t work, then it’s your fault.
you didn’t pray hard enough;
you didn’t love God enough;
you didn’t follow the program closely enough.
Therefore, you are the guilty one;
you are responsible for your own suffering.”
Rarely will anyone actually say that out loud but it’s what your inner voice tells you every day these sinful desires persist while you are trying so hard to get rid of them. This is when depression and even thoughts of suicide start to enter into the picture. It’s difficult enough to live a chaste life with any sexual desires. And then, on top of living chastely, I’m making so much extra effort to change my sexual desires. Even after all this, if it’s impossible to feel the right feelings or be the right kind of person, and this is what God expects of me, then why keep going? Why not just give in to my desires or give up altogether? Sadly, this all too often happens.
Of course, this is why I reject this hopeless narrative and have found far greater hope in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which I explained above. God just wants us to love him, love others, and leave the results of our sanctification to him.
The other fundamental flaw of the Exodus/ex-gay movement is that it made too much of sexual desire. It has eaten the fruit of our culture and Freudian psychology that says everything about you is reducible to sexuality, that sexuality is the most important thing in your life, and that sex is the greatest fulfillment you can experience. But like I mentioned above, marriage, sex, and sexual desire are destined to pass away. Orientation is not ontology (a phrase I would like to coin), meaning that who you desire sexually is not fundamental to who you are as a person, even though it is a significant part of our experience.
Exodus could have done so much good (and for some, I think it did!), but by putting its focus on changing sexual attractions, it often lost sight of the true founder and perfector of our faith: Jesus Christ. This is what the current ex-gay movement Freedom March has been doing to their credit. They are focused far more on testifying to the transformative power of Jesus Christ to free them from sinful lifestyles, identities, and ideologies that hold us captive rather than placing the emphasis on changing sexual desires. Stories like Jeffrey McCall’s are powerful witnesses to the truth that the love we find in Christ and his Church surpasses any love that we can find through sex or in the LGBTQ community.
Pray Away is an interesting documentary and rightly points out some of the faults and harms of Exodus and other ex-gay ministries. Unfortunately, it paints with broad brushstrokes and makes it seem like there are only two sides to this debate: either fully embrace or fully reject conversion therapy. The truth is far more nuanced. In addition, I don’t think it fairly or accurately represents the science around sexual orientation change or reparative therapy. Surprisingly, it hardly gets into it at all! Most importantly, though, it sadly lands on an affirming LGBTQ position that can only lead to spiritual death (no surprise given that it was funded by Netflix). I pray that people can discover the truth of the gospel and how it actually applies to sexual orientation. It isn’t always easy or simple, but it is only in Jesus Christ and obedience to his will that we can find the true life we are all searching for.
 Joseph Nicolosi, Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality: A New Clinical Approach (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), 70.
 “Answers to Your Questions for a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality.” American Psychological Association. Accessed August 13, 2021. https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbtq/orientation.
 Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, “A Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously Mediated Sexual Orientation Change” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 37, no.5 (October 2011): 413, accessed August 12, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2011.607052.