Thanks to the unscientific, unregulated underworld of ex-gay therapy, frauds and hacks of all stripes are getting away with any kind of therapy they can think up.
The “ex-gay” movement, which purports to save religious men and women from their unwanted same-sex attractions, will resort to any method to scam its unfortunate adherents.
Earlier this month, Truth Wins Out, an organization run by ex-gay-group watchdog Wayne Besen,* released an exclusive video of two men describing how ex-gay life coach Alan Downing had encouraged them in separate counseling sessions to stand before a mirror, undress and touch themselves.
A significantly older life coach, who also admits to being attracted to men, making 20-something men strip naked in his office? In the unscientific, unregulated underworld of ex-gay therapy, frauds and hacks of all stripes are getting away with any kind of “therapy” they can think up.
Make no mistake: every major, reputable professional psychological and medical association has stated that not only is there no evidence supporting the possibility of changing somebody’s sexual orientation, but that such programs harm those involved; depression and suicide are all-too-common in the ex-gay world.
Below are some of the strangest and most disturbing techniques ex-gay leaders use in their failed attempts to turn their victims — who are tragically struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexuality — straight.
1. Rubber-band therapy
Like all human beings, ex-gays face temptation at every turn. Unlike the rest of us, however, ex-gays are sadly forced to fight their natural attractions. One way to do that, as suggested by ex-gay therapy? Snapping a rubber band on your wrist.
Here’s how Exodus International, the largest ex-gay umbrella group, explains it: “Every time you catch yourself watching someone erotically or engaging in fantasy, snap the band. This will cause a moderate stinging pain, which serves as a shocking reminder of what you are doing. This should help you interrupt the spell.”
Like a smoker trying to quit smoking, my ex-gay therapist told me to snap this rubber band every time I saw a guy that I was attracted to,” Brian Nesbitt says in a Truth Wins Out video. “It was embarrassing, it was humiliating, and it didn’t work.”
2. Healing touch therapy
The central idea behind ex-gay therapies is a twisted, neo-Freudian theory that homosexual desire is caused when a child doesn’t properly identify with a same-sex parent. As the child develops and enters puberty, he or she sexualizes the need for daddy’s or mommy’s affection.
As discredited ex-gay psychologist Joseph Nicolosi infamously tells concerned Christian fathers, “If you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.” So, how do you restore that father-son bond? By having another man hold him, of course.
Healing touch therapy was something I experienced when I went undercover at Journey into Manhood, a 48-hour ex-gay retreat in Arizona:
Three staff members take a seat in the middle of the room. They demonstrate three different “healing touch” techniques.
First: Side-by-side, where two men sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the same direction, their legs outstretched in front of them. The man giving the Healing Touch puts one arm around the receiver.
Second: The Cohen Hold, named after “certified sexual re-orientation coach” and Healing Touch pioneer Richard Cohen. For this position, the receiver sits between the legs of the giver, their chests perpendicular, the receiver’s head resting on the giver’s shoulder. The giver encircles his arms around the receiver.
Third: The Motorcycle. The receiver again sits between the legs of the giver; this time, the receiver leans his back up against the chest of the giver. Again, the giver wraps his arms around the receiver.
One retreat attendee told me that in one cabin, the guys threw their mattresses into the middle of the room and held an all night healing touch session.
3. Beat your mom to death — with a tennis racket
Before becoming a certified reorientation coach (whatever that is) Richard Cohen was involved in a church where women removed their tops so the rest of the congregation — including the other adults — could breastfeed. Unlike most ex-gay therapists, Cohen did earn a counseling degree, but he was kicked out of American Counseling Association in 2002 for inappropriate relations with a client.
So when you’re not busy getting platonically held by another man, Cohen thinks it’s a good idea to resolve your mother issues — by beating her to death in effigy. Cohen demonstrated the technique in 2006. Standing in front of a pillow, Cohen grasped a tennis racket with both hands, and swung it down hard, screaming: “Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Why did you do that to me?”
Cohen bases the technique in Bioenergetics, a pseudoscience claiming that memories can be stored in muscles; the way to work out those memories is to work out your muscles.
When I asked medical debunker Harriet Hall, MD, about bioenergetics, she replied, “There is no known mechanism for storing memories in muscle tissue, and no evidence that any such thing can occur. The whole field is a bunch of nonsense.”
4. Get face-to-face and crotch-to-crotch
Cohen has peddled his nonsense on mainstream cable outlets. But it was after his disastrous 2007 “Daily Show” appearance, when Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, sent a letter to a parents group explaining why Exodus was distancing itself from Cohen.
Cohen, it turns out, has plenty of other techniques besides his cuddling touch and forehanding Mom to death. At the Exodus Annual Freedom Conference in 2000, Cohen taught a workshop on healing touch therapy attended by Alan Chambers:
During that class, which I attended, he asked for a volunteer to demonstrate on. His volunteer was a seasoned Exodus leader. This leader was instructed by Mr. Cohen to lay on the floor and spread his legs wide open. Dr. Cohen then laid down on top of this other man face to face and embraced him.
Mr. Cohen made the comment, “This might cause some stimulation. However, what goes up must come down, I always say.” He made other vulgar comments of this nature.
Chambers’ letter revealed that this would be Cohen’s first — and last — invitation to an Exodus conference.
5. Subliminal messages
Subliminal message tapes were a big deal in the 1970s and ’80s. They were thought to be able to influence a person’s behavior by sending imperceptible, yet powerful messages. So when a young Wayne Besen came out to his Jewish parents, they thought they could cure his same-sex attractions with the cassette “Gay and Unhappy: Subliminal Assistance.” Besen played a portion of the tape in 2007:
Having sex with a woman is wonderful for you. Having sex with a woman is an act of being alive. Your penis can become erect when you want it to, and stay erect for as long as you would like it to.
Believe it not, the tape didn’t work as expected; Besen is out and proud and a major player in the gay and lesbian rights movement.
6. Shock therapy and … torture
Last year, the Kansas State Collegian printed the tragic story of “Thomas Swanson,” who recounted how his father tried to “beat the gay out of him” before handing his son over to a conversion therapist. During therapy sessions, the counselor told Swanson he already had AIDS and was going to die. But after several sessions, the counselor moved to aversion therapy methods:
After he was seated, each of his hands was strapped to the arm of the chair and softball-size ice blocks were placed in each palm. Then photos of men touching appeared on the screen. At times a heterosexual couple was shown, and the ice was removed. The ice was left on his palms, causing freezing pain, as many photos of homosexual men were shown.
But the ice therapy didn’t eliminate the same-sex attractions. So, his counselor upped the intensity:
Swanson was again strapped to the chair by his hands. Again photos were shown, but this time, there was a level of intimacy that had lacked in the previous sessions.
The men were embracing or perhaps kissing on the cheek and Swanson received intense amounts of heat transferred through gel pads applied to his hands.
“Now it was the burn sensation,” Swanson said. “I still had, for a few years, a huge pink mark across my hand because it would literally burn your skin.”
Of course, the ice and heat didn’t work. The next step was electricity:
“Very very thin needles were inserted into my fingers, on all 10 fingers, still strapped down, and then the rest of my body was strapped down because they knew what was going to happen,” Swanson said.
As the man turned on the electricity, the pain was so horrible, Swanson still cannot understand why his mother sat in the lobby and did not race to rescue him as he screamed…..
“Electricity was excruciating,” Swanson said with a look of intensity. “I have no way of describing to people how hard I screamed; it was excruciating pain. The pain was horrible, I would lose bowel control, consciousness, mental capacity, so many things with the electricity.”
Swanson’s story is not unique. Several gay men raised in the Mormon Church have shared their stories of undergoing electroshock therapy.
For more than 30 years, the ex-gay movement has gotten away with its bizarre and harmful therapy techniques. It’s long past time for these unlicensed, unprofessional quacks to be held accountable for the harm they have caused.