The Right to Counseling for Unwanted Same-Sex Attractions

Can homosexuals change? Is trying to change sexual orientation harmful? Should counselors work with clients with unwanted same-sex attractions, helping them live out their sexuality in a biblical way? There’s been a lot of debate in recent years in the mental health professions, the media and various state legislatures about these questions.

In the past, such help and change was widely considered both desirable and possible. More recently, however, an increasing number of mental health practitioners now believe that a homosexual orientation is an intrinsic part of a person's identity that cannot – and should not – be changed. The mental health professions haven’t really discovered anything new about human sexuality or homosexuality; they are just more ideologically and politically driven.

So it’s in this context – in contrast to a more objective scientific or even scriptural context – that some clinicians hold that any and all therapy practices that have as their goal sexual orientation change are harmful and should be declared professionally unethical.[1]

Growing Concerns

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1998 issued a position statement "rebuking" practices that are broadly referred to as "reparative therapy" or "conversion therapy" for homosexuality.  More recently, these practices have been labeled "sexual orientation change efforts" (SOCE). In 2000, the APA affirmed this opposition to psychiatric treatment of reparative or conversion therapy.[2]

The organization’s concern was with mental health professionals who work to help people with unwanted-same-sex attractions. Often, the practitioners of SOCE and their clients are motivated by their Christian faith, which teaches that God designed sexual expression to be only between a married husband and wife. These counselors and clients view homosexual behavior as morally wrong and harmful to individuals and society. While the 1998 APA statement said that there are risks to such therapies, the organization offered no evidence to support this claim. Their 2000 statement mentioned anecdotal evidence for harms, but there is a great deal of evidence that also shows that people have been helped by SOCE.

The American Psychological Association had passed a similar resolution in 1997. Here, the group claimed that the ethics and outcomes of treatment for unwanted homosexuality was still under debate.[3] At the same time, the 1997 resolution recognized and supported the client's right to self-determination and autonomy. In other words, clients could determine the direction and desired outcomes of their counseling process. The resolution also called for psychologists to "respect the rights of others to hold values, attitudes and opinions that differ from their own." This would include religious beliefs upholding the biblical view that God's created intent for sexual expression is limited to a monogamous, covenantal marriage relationship between one man and one woman.

In 2007, the American Psychological Association set up a task force, composed exclusively of gay-identified activists and apologists, to study the issue. No practitioners of SOCE or experts on change from homosexuality were included in the task force. The group also threw out myriad accounts and reports of change from homosexuality and of help from SOCE, while at the same time using anecdotal statements of harm. Despite this stacked deck, the task force could not conclude in its 2009 report that SOCE was ineffective or inherently harmful. Nor did the group call for a ban on SOCE. They simply said more research was needed and cautioned therapists about their work.

Both groups claim to be scientifically driven, yet the APA states that homosexuality is a “normal variant of human sexuality.” And the American Psychological Association says that homosexuality is a “normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation.” But these views are really beyond the power of science to decide, entering into the worlds of philosophy, ethics and religion. Science can only tell us what is, not what is moral, good or ethical. Science also can’t describe for us God’s views about human sexuality.

Significantly, both groups seem to dismiss the fact that many individuals who experience same-sex attractions or engage in homosexual activity are dissatisfied with the situation and seek professional help to align their thoughts and behaviors with their convictions and faith. Many who experience homosexual temptations and impulses are responding to the Gospel message that unwanted same-sex attractions can be overcome. And as they seek pastoral and professional psychological counseling, they find that change and transformation are, indeed, possible. 

In addition to the efforts to shut down SOCE in professional therapeutic organizations, the California legislature passed a bill in 2012, banning SOCE for minors, and a similar bill was passed in New Jersey in 2013. Both bills have been challenged and are currently being litigated in the courts. Homosexual activist groups and their allies in over a dozen other states have unsuccessfully pushed similar legislation. Some groups have also targeted individual therapists with ethics complaints and possible lawsuits, giving great cause for concern—not only for the counseling profession, but for numerous ministries, churches and faith communities.

Focus on the Family’s Beliefs and Values

Focus on the Family is dedicated to defending the honor, dignity and value of the two sexes as created in God's image – intentionally male and female – each bringing unique and complementary qualities to sexuality and relationships. We believe sexuality is a glorious gift from God – meant to be offered back to Him either in marriage for procreation, union and mutual delight or in celibacy for undivided devotion to Christ.[4] Homosexual behavior violates God's intentional design for gender and sexuality.

We work to approach this issue with love, truth, courage and humility. We know that sin has affected all of us in our sexuality and relationships. While we do not believe an individual typically "chooses" his or her same sex-attractions, we do believe that those who struggle with unwanted same-sex sexual temptation can choose to steward their lives in a way that aligns with God’s intentions for human sexuality. This is a reasonable goal for individuals working with a mental health professional.

We affirm the Scriptural teaching that homosexual strugglers can and do change their sexual behavior and identity (1 Cor. 6:9-11 ESV). In the process, some also find their attractions changing, too.  So individuals should have the availability of professional therapy options for unwanted homosexual attractions and behavior.

Focus doesn't endorse or promote any one particular religious, psychiatric or psychological approach as the "one and only" way to go about changing same-sex attractions and behaviors. Interestingly, the literature on change from homosexuality shows that a wide variety of approaches have been effective in helping people.[5] God is very creative in bringing healing and transformation to us and uses a variety of means to do so. Just as there are many paths that may lead a person to experience same-sex attractions, there are likewise multiple ways out. Individuals and their helping professionals are called to discern and pursue the most appropriate approach that best enables them to steward their sexuality in alignment with their chosen values.

Talking Points About SOCE

* Both the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations call for practitioners to respect the religious and spiritual values of their clients and assert that clients have the right to autonomy and self-determination.[6] At the same time, however, both groups view the traditional biblical understanding of homosexuality with disdain and actively promote a sexual ethic opposing biblical orthodoxy, with The American Psychological Association listing only biblically unorthodox, revisionist groups in its resources.[7] Both groups should follow their ethical guidelines and respect client autonomy, self-determination and religious freedom.

* State bans on SOCE and the resolution by the American Psychological Association call into question parental rights to raise children according to their own standards – including those who encourage their children to follow a traditional biblical sexual ethic.

* There are no scientific studies that demonstrate that adolescents have been harmed through SOCE.

* The psychological literature confirms that permanent change away from a homosexual orientation is possible:

* In 2007, Drs. Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse published a study confirming that long-term change away from homosexual orientation can occur through religious mediation. At the end of three years, 67 percent of men and women who had undergone group discussions, individual counseling, journaling, Scripture reading and prayer either reported a change towards heterosexual orientation or were successfully continuing work towards that goal.[8]

* In 2001, Dr. Robert Spitzer published a report showing that a majority of gay men and lesbians who sought “re-orientation” therapy were able to achieve fulfilling heterosexual relationships.[9]

* While acknowledging that change in sexual orientation is both difficult to define and to measure, a bibliographic review of the literature from the past 100 years or more notes the wide variety of treatments that have claimed success.[10]

* There is no valid or replicable research demonstrating the inevitability of homosexual behavior based on biological or genetic circumstances. Studies on twins show that homosexuality is not genetic.[11]

* Not only does research confirm that real change is possible, but numerous testimonies declare the truth of God’s healing and redemptive power – both with and without the assistance of those in the psychiatric and psychological professions. The Apostle Paul noted the reality of change for some members of the early church in Corinth, and men and women continue to find freedom from homosexuality today.

* While the process of changing one’s sexual identity is often a long and difficult journey, it is nevertheless possible for highly motivated individuals.

In contrast to the claims of both APAs, competent religiously mediated counseling for unwanted same-sex attraction is not inherently harmful.[12]

* In America, individuals are blessed with religious freedom and the right to steward their sexuality as they see fit. If people choose to follow their faith, it is their right to choose.

* The American Psychiatric Association’s “rebuke” in 1998 of “reparative therapy” and the resolution adopted by the American Psychological Association are not – nor have they ever been – official ethical bans on therapeutic approaches to bring behavior, attractions, and identity in line with a person’s values. Individuals continue to have a right to choose counseling and therapy to help align their thoughts and behavior with their convictions and faith.

* Sexually abused children often question their sexual attractions and identity. Bans on SOCE for minors would deny them the help and healing they need.[13]

References for Further Study

Homosexuality and the Scientific Evidence

National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH)

Pure Intimacy

Restored Hope Network



[1] For a good overview of the research on homosexuality, see: Stanton L. Jones (January, 2012), “Sexual Orientation and Reason: On the Implications of False Beliefs about Homosexuality,” digitally published at www.christianethics.org; or, see: Dr. Neil and Briar Whitehead, My Genes Made Me Do It! Homosexuality and the Scientific Evidence, www.mygenes.co.nz 

[2] Therapies Focused on Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation (Reparative or Conversion Therapies) POSITION STATEMENT, May 2000.

[3] Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation, Adopted by the APA Council of Representatives on August 14, 1997.

[4] Focus on the Family’s Foundational Values, http://www.focusonthefamily.com/about_us/guiding-principles.aspx

[5] See, for example, James E. Phelan, SOCE bibliography by

[6] Resource Document on Religious/Spiritual Commitments and Psychiatric Practice, December 2006; American Psychological Association, “Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality." Washington, DC, 2008.

[7] Appendix B - Religious and Denominational LGBT Advocacy and Affinity Organizations

[8] Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse, Ex Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation, InterVarsity Press, 2007.

[9] Robert L. Spitzer, “Can some gay men and lesbians change their sexual orientation? 200 participants reporting a change from homosexual to heterosexual orientation,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, Oct. 2003, vol. 32, no. 5, pp. 403-417.

[10] Phelan, J.E. (2014). Successful Outcomes of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts: An Annotated Bibliography. Charleston, SC: Practical Application Publications.

[11] Dr. Neil Whitehead, “Identical Twin Studies Demonstrate Homosexuality is Not Genetic,” http://www.narth.com/#!gay---born-that-way/cm6x

[12] Stanton L. Jones (January, 2012), "Sexual Orientation and Reason: On the Implications of False Beliefs about Homosexuality,” digitally published at www.christianethics.org and Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse, op. cit.

[13] Jeff Johnston, “Childhood Sexual Abuse and Male Homosexuality”, 17 June 2010.