Wrestling with reversal

Religious men struggle with their same-sex tendencies by attempting a controversial therapy. Critics argue that it is no more than cruel repression of a natural desire.

(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
By the time he was 13 years old, Avi Cohen (an assumed name) knew he was gay. He had always preferred playing with girls, and once he hit puberty it was obvious that he was attracted to boys. By 15, he had a “very active sex life” with other boys.
For Cohen, however, the issue of homosexuality was far from a simple matter. As a student in an Orthodox yeshiva high school in São Paulo, Brazil, he knew that the Torah frowned on gay sex. Furthermore, as the eldest of three children in an observant home, he knew he was expected to follow a clearly defined, traditional life path: He was expected to remain a virgin until he got married, preferably in his early 20s to an Orthodox girl, to be followed by children.
Looking back on that time, Cohen, now 32, says his strong desire to make love to other men didn’t feel right intellectually. He knew he had to reconcile the conflict between his religious beliefs and his inner self, between the social mores he had grown up with and the side of his personality that said, “Just be gay and be happy about who you are!” “I always knew I wanted to marry a woman,” Cohen says.
“But how? I felt no attraction to women, either physically or emotionally. I could have remained celibate, but that’s not what God wants from us, either. I felt totally stuck.”
Towards the end of high school and continuing into a gap year at a Jerusalem post-high school yeshiva, Cohen made the decision to cease all sexual activity, and to concentrate on traditional religious responses to dealing with personal problems – prayer, Torah study, introspection.
“I passed off my lack of attraction to women by ‘frumming out’ big time,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “I studied in the yeshiva study hall as much as I possibly could, spent a lot of time praying, and didn’t talk to girls, ostensibly because I was too religious for that. But that’s not why I stayed away from girls. I stayed away because I had no romantic interest in them, and I couldn’t bear the thought of people pushing me to get married.”
But Cohen’s self-imposed celibacy did little to reverse his desire for men, or his lack of sexual interest in women.
Frustrated, and worried about his future, he went online looking to connect with other gay Orthodox Jews. Instead,he found Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing (JONAH), an Orthodox group claiming that “everyone has the capacity to change” and offering support “for those struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions to journey out of homosexuality.”
JONAH referred him to a private therapist, who guided Cohen through an emotional journey into his memories of childhood, his relationship with his parents, and especially into the messages he had internalized about his own masculinity.
During his four years in therapy, Cohen learned to identify the triggers of his samesex attraction, to create healthy, nonsexual relationships with other men, and to get his own needs met. “Actually, I learned to meet my own needs,” he says – in a nonsexual way.
Two years into therapy, Cohen began to take notice of women. He says the attraction was different than his desire for men.
Whereas he describes his attraction for men as “pure lust, as if they were a piece of meat,” his desire for women stemmed from a change in his attitude towards them.
Sitting in a Jerusalem apartment with his wife and year-old daughter, he says the therapeutic process he underwent involved “changing a paradigm” and creating healthy relationships towards both men and women.
“Once I changed my attitude towards men – I learned that I had sexualized my feelings of insecurity and nonacceptance amongst other boys when I was a child,” he says. “I also had some issues with my parents that I had to work through.
“But once I realized that I was just as masculine as other guys, my lust for them went down. That also helped me to create healthy relationships with women – which allowed me the inner freedom to connect with them. When I met Shira, my wife, we became good friends quickly, and that deep relationship led to my sexual attraction to her. We’ve been married for four years and are expecting our third child, and I am truly thankful.”
There is no more controversial area of the mental health profession than sexual orientation conversion effort (SOCE), also known as reparative, reversal or gay-tostraight therapy. Supporters of SOCE say that in many or all instances, same-sex attraction is the result of emotional trauma suffered in childhood – absent or aloof parents, bullying and more. They argue that intense psychotherapy can help individuals reduce their sexual attraction for members of the same gender, and eventually lead “normal” lives as heterosexuals.
On the other hand, the vast majority of mental health professionals, and nearly every gay rights group, reject out of hand the notion that homosexuality can be reversed. They point to the fact that homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, in 1973, indicating a revolution in the psychological treatment offered to gay people who sought therapy. Prior to that date, individuals who sought treatment for their same-sex attraction – or who were forced into therapy to try to reverse it – were treated as if homosexuality were a sexual deviant disorder.
That changed once the DSM dropped it.
Overnight, mental health professionals began counseling gays to accept that homosexuality is not a flaw, and that homosexuality is not an obstacle to a meaningful or moral life.
As one Jerusalem therapist told this reporter, “There is not one case of a successful reversal of one’s sexual orientation. Homosexuality is not diagnosable nor treatable because it’s not a mental illness. The end.”
Most supporters of SOCE agree that homosexuality is not a disease, and every pro-SOCE individual interviewed for this article said they do not pass judgment on people who embrace their gay identities. But they argue strongly that the overwhelming rejection of reparative therapy among mental health professionals is evidence that the field is governed today by political correctness, rather than a commitment to science. They say there is clear evidence that some people have successfully reduced or eliminated their same-sex attraction and have gone on to lead fulfilling heterosexual lives; but gay rights groups and their political supporters will not even consider the issue.
“For my doctoral dissertation, I looked at the psychological and religious characteristics of dissatisfied same-sex-attracted men who pursue sexual reorientation interventions,” says Dr. Elan Y. Karten, an ultra-Orthodox clinical psychologist in Jerusalem who has written extensively on the topic. “I studied 117 adult men who had participated in some form of conversion intervention at least six months prior to participation in the study.
The mean age was 39.7; participants were recruited by private psychotherapists (41 percent), secular (38.5%) and religious (20.5%) organizations. Results indicated that overall there were significant reduction in homosexual feelings and behavior and an increase in heterosexual feelings and behavior.
“But I couldn’t get my research published.
The American Psychological Association (APA) wouldn’t touch it, and neither would any respectable journal because to do so would lead to censure and even ostracization by one’s peers in the psychological community. The APA disparages reparative therapy with their cry of ‘no scientific evidence proving the effectiveness of therapy,’ but I point my finger back at them.
Do they even want to know about it? Would they even publish hard data if it bit them in the face? “Ultimately the Journal of Men’s Studies published my article in 2010, but even so, it’s hard to trust the mainstream research,” Karten tells The Report.
Other mental health professionals say the drive to sideline SOCE research and evidence is built into the fabric of the university curricula that are training upand- coming psychologists, social workers, family therapists and more. Aviva Pinchasi (an assumed name), informs The Report that when she was a social work student at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiller Schoolof Social Work in the 2000s, she tried to recount her experience as a student at an ultra-Orthodox Beis Yaakov seminary in Gateshead, England. “I saw many cases in which there were relationship and dependency issues, not sexual issues,” Pinchasi notes. “Once the women resolved these issues, many or most of them went on to enjoy healthy marriages and satisfying heterosexual sex lives.
“But when I tried to bring this point up for discussion, I was shouted down, in complete contrast to the norms of both academic debate and the social work discipline. It was the only time I ever saw someone forcibly silenced,” she relates.
Furthermore, even when data on the topic does become available, the topic is so politically charged that it is difficult to make sense of the issues. A case in point is Dr. Robert L. Spitzer’s landmark study, “Can some gay men and lesbians change their sexual orientation?”, presented at the 2001 annual APA meeting and subsequently published in the October 2003 edition of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, a respected professional journal.
Spitzer, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Colombia University who was a driving force behind the 1973 delisting of homosexuality as a mental illness, tracked 200 individuals of both genders (143 males, 57 females) who reported significant reduction in same-sex attraction and an increase in heterosexual attraction as a result of psychotherapy.
According to the Wikipedia article on Spitzer’s study, 66% of the men and 44% of the women achieved “good heterosexual functioning… Contrary to conventional wisdom, some highly motivated individuals, using a variety of change efforts, can make substantial change in multiple indicators of sexual orientation… Some people can and do change,” Spitzer wrote.
But Spitzer recanted in mid-2012 and issued an apology for “making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some ‘highly motivated’ individuals.”
Or did he? Pro-SOCE groups continue to cite Spitzer’s study, saying he was subjected to intense political pressure as soon as he released the original study. They also say there is no scientific basis to retract the study.
“Nothing about the study changed,” Shlomo Zalman Jessel, a JONAH-approved therapist, tells The Report. “At best, we could say that he was uncomfortable with the way his research was used. He was concerned that people were being pressured into therapy, and that there was a potential harm. But that’s a moral or philosophical qualm; it doesn’t in any way discredit his findings.”
Because they view homosexuality as an immutable building block of an individual, opponents of SOCE say the therapy is ineffective at best, and extremely harmful at worst. As proof, they point to repeated scandals amongst “ex-gay” individuals who have broken down after years of heterosexual life, only to re-emerge from the proverbial closet saying they can no longer suppress their sexual orientation.
They also point to religious ministries such as Exodus International, an evangelical Christian group that promoted reversal therapy for more than 30 years before closing its doors last June. At that time, group leader Alan Chambers offered a tearful apology to homosexuals who had been hurt by the group’s anti-gay message.
“Look, gay-to-straight is the oldest story in the book. But eventually, it all breaks down,” says Wayne Besen, the director of Truth Wins Out, an organization that says it works to “demolish the very foundation of anti-gay prejudice” by “attack[ing] the underpinnings of homophobia by debunking harmful lies and discrediting hateful myths.” According to Besen “[Exodus International founder] John Paulk repeated this myth over and over until I photographed him in a gay bar.”
Speaking to The Report by phone from his office in Vermont, Besen dismisses reparative therapy as little more than an attempt by homophobes to try to get gays to hate who they are and to think they are nothing more than sinful.
“There is no therapy involved here at all,” he says. “It is nothing more than a war against gay people, an attempt by homophobes to try to destroy us, get us to hate who we are, to think we are nothing more than sinful. They attack, demonize and dehumanize LGBT people. They hurt gays, without fixing anything. It’s not even junk science. It is the adaptation of medical terminology in the employ of hatred.”
Besen is not alone in his analysis, and his message is gaining steam around the United States. In 2013, the governors of California and New Jersey signed bills outlawing SOCE therapy for minors; lawmakers in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are pushing for similar legislation. In addition, several veterans of reparative therapy counseling filed a civil law suit last year in New Jersey against the JONAH organization, arguing that the group’s claim to be able to reverse homosexuality amounts to consumer fraud.
JONAH codirector Arthur Goldberg refused to comment on the specific allegations about therapy. But he confirmed to The Report via email that his organization did not “certify” therapists, and that many of the therapists within JONAH’s network were individuals with “some form” of professional training who had personally dealt with same-sex attraction and had a successful outcome in their own lives.
Ultimately, the efficacy of Sexual Orientation Conversion Efforts remains squarely in doubt. Sitting in a Jerusalem cafe, 35-year-old Daniel Mizrachi (an assumed name) says he continues to struggle with same-sex attraction, despite nearly 15 years of therapy in a variety of settings. All but one of the six men interviewed for this story reported similar struggles, albeit to a lesser degree than Mizrachi.
Reparative therapists like Shlomo Zalman Jessel caution that expectations of 100 percent change are unreasonable. He compares it to depression: Treatment for that condition is not considered to have failed if the patient has a relapse, or if the patient continues to struggle with depression. The key, in that case, is to help the patient develop tools to combat the depression in order to be able to live a healthy, functioning life.
It is that goal – a heterosexual family in an Orthodox community – that keeps Mizrachi going.
“It is a difficult process, but one I believe I can win,” he says. “I’ve been attracted to guys my whole life, but living a gay lifestyle is simply not an option for me. For better or worse, I believe in the Torah’s view of normative human relations – a husband and wife, raising a family. Were I to give in to my homosexual desires, I would be cheating myself out of being the best person I can be.
“They say that reparative therapy makes people suicidal, but for me the opposite is true: If I thought my attraction to men was set and couldn’t be changed, that would make me suicidal,” Mizrachi concludes.