Nicolosi and the ‘cure’ for gay people…


There was an interview/discussion on the radio 4 Today Programme this morning featuring the controversial American psychologist Joseph Nicolosi. You can listen again here.

This man appears to have a lot of exposure in the US- and I started a bit of internet searching to see what I could find out about him. Here is a bit of a trawl through some of the main organisations and players in this issue;

He is one of the brains behind NARTH- the National Association for research and therapy of  homosexuality. Check out the many stories on the site by people who appear to have been ‘cured’ of their sexuality.

Conservative religious groups like focus on the family have embraced this viewpoint wholeheartedly. Check out their ‘Love won out’ conference.

The American Psychological Association condemned the findings, and released this primer entitled ‘Just the facts’.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists are quoted as saying this by the BBC here.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) said there was no evidence that the treatment worked, and that it was likely to cause considerable distress.

An RCP spokesman said: “There is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.

“Furthermore, so-called treatments of homosexuality create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”

The Royal College said the American Psychiatric Association had concluded there was no scientific evidence that homosexuality was a disorder and removed it from its diagnostic glossary of mental disorders in 1973.

The World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases followed suit in 1992.

So what is Nicolosi actually saying?

As far as I can see, his theory is based on a rather unsophisticated simplistic view of the acquisition of gender, shaped through parenting style and in particular, interaction with male authority figures. Then there is a lot of quasi-scientific language used to wrap it all up in. Here are some quotes (from here);

  • There is no such thing as a homosexual. … That’s the first thing we teach our clients when they come in. You’re not a homosexual. You’re a heterosexual with a homosexual problem. And your homosexual problem has to do with early things… things that happened to you in your childhood. Emotional traumas, hurts, childhood wounds that have set you up for homosexual activity.
  • In the relationship between the mother and the son, over-emotionally involved, strong personality, dominant personality. The father is quiet, withdrawn, non-verbal, non-expressive, and/or hostile. The son is temperamentally sensitive, shy, introverted, artistic, imaginative. … That child with that temperament in a particular family dynamic will set him up gender deficit, and that gender deficit becomes compensated through homosexual activity.
  • We advise fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.
  • If he reaches out to the father who is not interested, he will experience what we call a narcissistic hurt. … And so he surrenders his masculine strivings. He says basically to his father, “If you’re not interested in me, I’m not interested in you.” … And that narcissistic injury produces an adult, a homosexually-oriented adult, who is cautious, fearful, easily hurt, easily slighted, easily offended, self-protective – that is what we call the shame posture. If men get to see me they’re not going to like me. There’s something inferior about me.
  • Homosexuality is not about sex, it’s about your sense of self. If you change your sense of self, your homosexuality will become a non-issue. Homosexuality is a masculine inferiority. It’s a striving to connect.
  • So the faith is a very important dimension to bring in because it gives not only direction, but because it gives the interior resources. It gives that inner power to pursue the direction. So our Christianity isn’t just telling us what to do, but it’s giving us the power to do it. And I have found that whatever the person’s religious convictions are at the beginning of therapy, it usually deepens naturally in the course of therapy.

By way of contrast- I came across this series of clips from a Gay activist who had been invited to attend the ‘Love won out’ conference. They seemed to be very graceful…

There is no surprise that Nicolosi’s message has been greeted with such enthusiasm by Conservative Christians. It ticks all the right boxes. In fact, it seems to fit rather too well, and we have to ask which came first-the ‘science’ or the ideology?

So, what do I think? I am going to make some general statements, then tell a story.

If Nicolosi is right, then homosexuality is indeed a result of dysfunctional experiences in early life. I am afraid this is rather too simplistic for me. Why do people who have the same experience in childhood (Positive or negative) develop such different sexuality? Most human characteristics develop through the interaction between both nurture AND nature. This means that causality is almost always impossible to be categorical about, even where dysfunction (which is often a social value judgment) is agreed upon- for example where people are mentally ill.

Science that begins with a narrow ideological/theological perspective is likely to be extremely problematic. Morality is not usually very scientific. But then science is never value free either- there are always interests that will introduce bias. I think we have a duty to be as honest as we can be about these however.

It is clear that there are many stories of people who claim to have been ‘cured’ by therapy of their homosexuality. I have no doubt this is true for some- as the variety of human experience is wide and wonderful. I would expect some to people to remain straight (a small group though) most to revert, and many to be damaged and disillusioned.

Gay=dysfunction? This is almost certain to perpetuate prejudice against one group of people. Perhaps this is acceptable, if your reading of the Bible allows you to draw hard lines on this issue. I think we are called to love first however- and to stand with the oppressed, not to pile stones as projectiles.

Statements that equate homosexuality with sexual molestation in childhood are simply not supported by evidence.

Blaming parents? An easy hit. Psycho-dynamic therapists have done similar things for lots of issues. There was this dreadful phrase ‘schizophrenogenic mothers’ who were supposedly the cause of schizophrenia…

Now- the story.

I used to work in a northern English town as a mental health therapist running clinics in GP surgeries. GP’s would refer people to me for assessment after which we might agree a referral elsewhere, or a short run of therapy from myself.

In this context I met lots of wonderful people- most carrying wounds. Some had had very difficult and abusive backgrounds. Many had experienced depression and anxiety. Others were living with grief. Others had secrets that were eating away at them.

I met one man whose story stayed with me. He lived with his wife of 45 years. They had three children, all long grown up and gone. He was desperately unhappy.

Soon after marriage his secret was out. He had been having homosexual affairs.

With all his might he wished that these overwhelming sexual urges that he had experienced as long as he could remember would just go away. And it being the 1960’s, and homosexuality was still illegal, and classified as a mental illness, he sought treatment.

A hospital in Manchester offered behavioural modification through the application of aversion therapy. This involved being exposed to erotic images and at the first signs of sexual arousal, he was subjected to electric shocks.

Over a considerable period of time he yo-yo’ed through life, in out of his family, gay then straight, a member of his society, then a pariah.

Now here he was. Estranged from his children, still caught up with the same confusion and pain. His wife an alcoholic. Life almost over.

Wanting and waiting to die.

Whatever your theory of sexuality- whatever moral stance you adopt- this man life has been blighted by societies response to his sexuality.

So Lord help us. Let us learn the position of love. And have no agendas that we subject others to.

And for my money- Nicolosi, go home.

6 thoughts on “Nicolosi and the ‘cure’ for gay people…

  1. Pingback: There was this gay man and a fundamentalist Christian on a plane… « this fragile tent

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  4. Don’t demonize Dr. Nicolosi’s work by comparing it to the medieval nature of aversion therapy. His technique involves mentoring and developing a one-on-one father figure type relationship with the client. I suggest you read one of his books. For a straight man, he has a shockingly intuitive understanding of the homosexual psyche and the childhood dynamics that lead up to it.

    He isn’t encouraging homophobia, instead trying to save homosexuals from the emotional-psychological hell that they go through. Neither is he implying that all gays should go through therapy.

    It doesn’t matter whether his theory sounds simplistic to you or not, it’s the bloody truth. Truth doesn’t mold itself according to the fancy of an intellectual psychologist’s complicated mind.

      • Thank you, that is kind.

        Nicolosi or conversion therapy psychologists aren’t trying to incite prejudice against gays or reject them as human beings. Nicolosi’s own son is gay and he is aware of the trauma that gay men experience. But that’s exactly why he wants to help them, because he knows that the gay lifestyle isn’t healthy. In an active gay lifestyle promiscuity and lack of emotional satisfaction, not to mention AIDS risk and suicide proclivity, are typical.

        You sound Catholic. You should listen to Nicolosi’s radio shows at Catholic Answers Live – he is Catholic too, he talks more freely there and maybe you’ll get a better feel of his disposition as a therapist and a human being.

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