Ex-gay therapists have a silly new name for the same old shame they peddle

It’s all shame no matter what therapists call it.

CREDIT: flickr/Will Choi
CREDIT: flickr/Will Choi

The country’s leading ex-gay professional organization has a new plan for rebranding the harmful, ineffective “treatment” they offer. Not only do they hope the treatment will sound more appealing under the new name, they also hope it will skirt the increasing number of state and local laws protecting minors from being subjected to it.

Attempts to de-gay people have gone by numerous names over the years: ex-gay therapy, conversion therapy, reparative therapy, reorientation therapy, sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), “pray the gay away,” and even “the homo no mo’ half-way house.” But the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (ATSCI, the network of ex-gay therapists formerly known as NARTH) has a new name they want clinicians to use: “Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy” (SAFE-T).

Former ATSCI president Christopher Rosik explains in a new memo that the organization invented the language of SAFE-T to distance itself from ex-gay therapy’s horrible reputation. They no longer want to imply, for example, that people can actually change from an exclusive same-sex orientation to an exclusive opposite-sex orientation, which they admit is “statistically rare” — still perhaps a generous description. In fact, they want to avoid any reference to “orientation” whatsoever, because their new thinking relies on the belief that orientation is not “an actual entity.” And they don’t want people to think that ex-gay therapy is outside the range of normal therapeutic practices, even though all major medical organizations have condemned it.

“By stressing therapeutic exploration, the new term accurately conveys that the therapist is not being coercive but merely assisting individuals in a client-centered examination of their sexual attractions,” Rosik writes. “The Board also appreciated the fact that the acronym SAFE-T immediately challenges portrayals of the professional therapy utilized by Alliance clinicians as harmful.”

There are two clear problems with this approach. First, it in no way addresses the fact that the therapy ATSCI members offer is still shames same-sex attractions. Second, it is incredibly unlikely that anybody actually experiencing fluidity in their sexual orientation would have a reason to pursue such therapy.


To make its new case, ATSCI relies on the research of Lisa Diamond, who has studied sexual fluidity. She has found that some people — almost exclusively women — experience some degree of change or inconsistency regarding who they are sexually attracted to over time. There are a wide range of experiences that might fall under this umbrella, such as women who are more drawn to men at one point in their life and more drawn to another women at another. Some people also identify as bi with a certain preference at a certain point, experience unexpected shifts from one set of attractions to another, or just feel that the category that best describes their set of attractions has changed. Diamond’s research could even apply to a woman who is exclusively lesbian except for one man, or vice versa.

Because of these fluid identities, Diamond has challenged the conception that sexual orientation is “immutable.” She doesn’t argue that it can be manipulated, but she notes that concrete labels aren’t always effective at capturing a person’s experience of their attractions. Though her research has been used to prop up the anti-LGBT report challenging “born this way” rhetoric, Diamond still advocates for a world in which all people have the fundamental freedom to pursue the relationships that are meaningful to them without having to fit into neat gay/bi/lesbian boxes.

Diamond notes in her research that “change appears less common among individuals with exclusive attractions than those with bisexual attractions.” Exclusively “gay” or “straight” orientations “are fundamentally more stable than bisexual patterns of attraction.”

So if people who only experience same-sex attractions aren’t likely to experience sexual fluidity — especially if they’re men — then what exactly is ATSCI selling?


The overwhelming number of people who pursue ex-gay therapy do so because they believe their “unwanted same-sex attractions (SSA)” contradict either their own religious beliefs or the beliefs and convictions of their family and community. ATSCI has long said that anybody who experiences this conflict should have a chance to resolve it in favor of honoring those anti-gay beliefs, even though attempts to suppress sexual orientation have been found to be both ineffective and also harmful. Even being exposed to the belief that homosexuality is sinful or wrong has been shown to cause mental harm in people who experience same-sex attraction.

That’s why five states and Washington, D.C. have banned conversion therapy for minors. No law has yet banned the treatment outright, so all adults can still pursue the treatment for themselves. The laws only protect children from having the harmful therapy forced upon them. ASTCI seems to hope that the SAFE-T rebranding means they won’t be subjected to these laws, because they’re no longer claiming they can change a person’s orientation — except that they are.

Anti-LGBT groups have defended ex-gay therapy and helped ATSCI unsuccessfully challenge laws restricting it on the basis of “client autonomy” and “religious liberty.” Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council (which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated anti-LGBT hate group) defended the new SAFE-T rhetoric because ASTCI is “committed to helping clients with unwanted SSA achieve their goals.” Responding to another critic of the rebranding, Sprigg advocated on behalf of “reducing homosexual attractions or behavior” as an acceptable goal and desirable outcome.

But even Rosik concedes that there is a massive flaw behind the new SAFE-T branding. “The only counterarguments to SAFE-T on fluidity grounds might be that therapy-assisted fluidity has not been proven to occur and such efforts could be harmful,” he admits in the memo. Diamond has found no means of inducing fluidity in her research; she has only observed and documented women who experienced it. And people who are bi or experiencing some degree of fluidity — even if their same-sex attractions are “unwanted” — might be less likely to seek ASTCI’s brand of therapy, because they would still have some attractions that don’t contradict their values. Incidentally, many of the people who claim to be ex-gay success stories — and who have built their livelihood around profiting off the treatment — have openly admitted that they experienced some degree of different-sex attraction before undergoing any therapy.

So SAFE-T is still something that targets people with exclusive same-sex attractions, and those people aren’t likely to experience fluidity. All ASCTI has actually done is attempt to lower the bar for what clients should expect, as the organization has done several times before. They are no longer promising an end to exclusive same-sex attractions, nor the ability to gain exclusive opposite-sex attractions, but they’re still promising a shift in orientation that they have zero evidence that they can deliver. It’s still an outcome that capitalizes on shame and seeks to nurture it.

An abusive shame-based “therapy” by any other name smells as rotten.