Two case studies in sexual repression

On Saturday, Evergreen International held its annual conference at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. Evergreen is a non-profit organization that ‘helps’ LGBT Mormon youth “diminish same-sex attractions and overcome homosexual behavior.” Each year, a general authority of the LDS Church gives the keynote address at the conference.

Elder Bruce C. Hafen spoke at Evergreen last year. His address was widely regarded as a step backward for the LDS Church on homosexuality. You can read his address here. This year, Bishop Keith B. McMullin delivered the keynote address. Details from The Salt Lake Tribune:

An LDS general authority on Saturday comforted Mormons who are attracted to people of the same sex but want to live by the church’s chastity rules, which bar sexual acts outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

“Each of us has problems,” said Bishop Keith B. McMullin, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Together, we shall overcome them.”

On Saturday, McMullin said people with same-sex attraction should not call themselves “gay” or “lesbian.” He offered advice to LDS ecclesiastical leaders in the audience of about 200 people.

“If someone seeking your help says to you, ‘I am a homosexual,’ or, ‘I am lesbian,’ or, ‘I am gay,’ correct this miscasting,” McMullin said. “Heavenly Father does not speak of his children this way and neither should we. It is simply not true. To speak this way seeds a doubt and deceit about who we really are.”

He said every individual is a “son or daughter” of God. Jesus Christ, McMullin said, has the power to lift the “burden” of every “man and woman, boy and girl.”

Evergreen still maintains, contrary to the scientific evidence, that many homosexuals are able to change their orientation. John Paulk, who also spoke at this Evergreen conference, is supposedly evidence of this. He left homosexuality in 1987, and in 1992, he married a former lesbian. The two of them have made a career out of promoting their “ex-gay” success stories. I bet, though, that Paulk neglected to tell the Evergreen audience that he was caught flirting with men at a D.C. gay bar in 2000.

I know several people who attended Evergreen in the past as gay Mormons. Most reported that their experiences there were negative. “All I got out of it was a perpetuation of the depression and unhealthy attitude I had.” one friend told me.

The American Psychological Association has expressed serious concerns about so-called reparative or conversion therapies. “The reality is that homosexuality is not an illness,” the APA states on their website. “It does not require treatment and is not changeable.”

In other sexual repression-related news, a Utah State University (woo!) research team of psychologists found that obsessive religious guilt over viewing porn is counter-productive.

Struggling with urges to view leads to more viewing and more psychological problems. In other words, the normal ways we know to reduce things in our lives (avoid or deliberately change what you do not want) has the exact opposite effect than what was intended.We have seen that pattern before in areas such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Here is the recipe. Take an urge or an odd thought; mix thoroughly with negative emotions, sensations, or images; then fold in a heaping helping of suppression and avoidance (pushing out of mind; engaging in ritualistic undoing). Voila. Obsessive stew.

Every time you check to see if your suppression worked – well, it didn’t. You just thought of it. Again. More negative emotions. More attempts to control. More checking to see if it went away. More struggling.

Obsessive stew.

This psychological phenomenon may help explain why Utahns consume the most online porn in the nation*.

For those who think their porn viewing is unhealthy, the USU researchers recommend “acceptance and commitment therapy” (ACT), which encourages acceptance and mindful awareness of a problem instead of fixation on controlling the problem.

Finally, the first controlled study ever done on how to address problematic Internet pornography viewing has been published. It appears in the September 2010 issue of the well-respected clinical research journal Behavior Therapy. Twohig and co-author Jess Crosby applied eight sessions of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to problematic viewing. As participants learned to accept the urge, to watch it rise and fall mindfully, to embrace themselves in a kinder and less judgmental way, and to pivot toward valued actions, something remarkable happened. Viewing became far less frequent, but what was remarkable was how that happened. People softened. Religious obsessions went down but positive commitments went up. Obsessive thinking was relieved and with it worry that unbidden thoughts alone cause harm. People became more accepting of their emotions and less entangled with their thoughts. And they were more able to act in accord with their values as a positive goal, carrying difficult thoughts and feelings with them in a more compassionate way.

I don’t think pornography is the social evil some make it out to be. Despite (and perhaps because of) greater exposure to pornography in recent decades, sexual violence in America has declined, and gender equality increased. But pornography is doubtless a problem for many individuals and couples. I’m proud that my alma mater has taken the lead in employing a secular approach to unhealthy porn habits—one that doesn’t inculcate guilt and self-loathing.

*The study I hyperlinked to, which suggests that red states consume the most online porn, is not without its limitations. We don’t know, for example, whether it’s the conservatives or beleaguered liberals in these red states who are viewing porn. Another possible confounding factor is that people in blue states don’t have to go online for porn because they have easier access to other sexual outlets—strip joints, adult stores, etc.

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Jon Adams

I have my bachelors in sociology and political science, having recently graduated from Utah State University. I co-founded SHAFT, but have also been active in the College Democrats and the Religious Studies Club. I was born in Utah to a loving LDS family. I left Mormonism in high school after discovering some disconcerting facts about its history. Like many ex-Mormons, I am now an agnostic atheist. I am amenable to being wrong, however. So should you disagree with me about religion (or anything, really), please challenge me. I welcome and enjoy a respectful debate. I love life, and am thankful for those things and people that make life worth loving: my family, my friends, my dogs, German rock, etc. Contact: [email protected]

15 thoughts on “Two case studies in sexual repression”

  1. Great post. Do you have a link to the research by USU scientists? I followed the link to the psychology magazine but I would love to see something from an academic journal to post on my facebook page.

    Yes, I am a school nerd.

  2. Jon,

    Where is the study on the red states vs. blue states? The only one I am aware of cast Utah as the worst, but neglected to note that it only sampled two zip codes:

    – A southern Utah town
    – A zip code in the center of the U of U

    Suffice it to say, I have a hard time believing those were selected at random.

    1. No, this is a different study, Tyler. How the study measured online porn activity is by anonymized credit-card receipts from major adult entertainment sites. So that is another limitation on this study: It only analyzes porn that people paid for.

  3. Three last thoughts/questions… I briefly checked the Hafen link.

    Is it your belief that homosexuality is 100% biological? Is that what you call the scientific consensus? It seems to me that a combination of factors lead to it, biology included.

    I’m a little skeptical of your anecdotal claim that people who visit Evergreen have a bad experience, as I suspect you have only dealt with a subset of the populace… those who didn’t change. I worked above their offices when I was at Sutherland and their chief psychologist claimed most of the people he consulted were able to make the change. Thoughts?

    Finally, how do you deal with the broken families and sexual abuse that result from use of pornography?

    1. No, it is not my belief that homosexuality is 100% biological. For that matter, I don’t think heterosexuality is 100% biological. So I don’t think people are born gay so much as they are born with a strong disposition to be gay. On that point, then, I actually agree with Hafen.

      First, as for my anecdote about people who visit Evergreen having a bad experience…well, it was just that—an anecdote. I didn’t mean to (and I don’t think I did) portray that anecdote as anything more than an informal survey of my friends. That said, I do think a lot of people have bad experiences with conversion and reparative therapies in general. That is largely why the mainstream medical and scientific community, most notably the APA, warn that such therapies are potentially harmful.

      As for what Evergreen’s chief psychologist said: First, obviously he has a vested interest in telling people that his work is effective; otherwise he’s wasting his and his patients’ time. But more to the point: It depends on how one defines the “change” he claims people are successfully making. I doubt he would claim that he actually saw people make the transition from homosexuality to heterosexuality. That would be a very suspect change. Instead, perhaps he meant that the people he counseled were able to abstain from homosexual activity. That certainly is achievable.

      Even Evergreen seems to have backed off from the claim that they can totally change one’s orientation. Their mission statement is somewhat less ambitious—to “diminish same-sex attractions and overcome homosexual behavior.”

      As for diminishing one’s same-sex attractions, that too is possible. But I submit that those who report having had such attractions diminished were bisexual, not homosexual. Moreover, sometimes diminishing same-sex attractions comes at the cost of someone’s sexuality. Some who underwent shock therapy for homosexuality at BYU and eslewhere came out of the experience as more asexual than anything else, because they learned to associate sex with pain and guilt. It’s one thing to diminish same-sex attractions, and another thing to reorient those attractions toward the opposite-sex.

    2. Oops. I forgot to address your last question about porn, broken families, and sexual abuse: I’ll leave that to the psychologists and psychiatrists. Not religious leaders, mind you, but clinically trained professionals.

    3. Thanks Jon. I appreciate it. Sounds like we agree on the causes.

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on pornography, but that is more a proxy disagreement as to what the church is…

      Happy writing. Good post.

    4. @Tyler

      Usage of porn doesn’t cause those things. Unhealthy and unrealistic expectations about sex and sexuality, and being in repressed, sex-negative relationships does.

      In fact, several studies have shown that there is no causal relationship between porn and any sort of violence or abuse in the vast majority of men, and also that both men and women who use porn as part of their sex lives report increased satisfaction in their relationships. The problem isn’t the porn, it’s the church’s daemonisation of sexuality and the way it programmes women especially o be disgusted by their husband’s completely normal sex habits, and have totally unrealistic and impossible ideas about “purity”. Masturbation and porn are both normal habits that only become harmful or addictive when they’re laced with guilt and shame.

  4. Another great post.

    A few thoughts, if same sex tendencies are similar to a predisposition to alcoholism, the closest analogy to the church’s stance I can think of, it seems to me unfounded to talk about being “cured.” There are certainly ways to diminish labito and to an extent sexual preference, but an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic. Whether or not they are drinking. In this sense, I see little distinction between terms “same sex preference” and “gay” they are both strong inclinations towards an action, and really, neither IMO can be “cured.”

    Many Mormons, distinguish between the labels as, gay is a lifestyle that accepts and embraces same sex feelings, while same sex feelings is something more inherent, an impulse of the natural man that needs to be controlled. In AA meetings successful individuals are those who embrace their problems, its more than just I have an inclination towards alcohol. It feels like a gay person would have similar problems being “cured.” Which is likely shown by the DC gay bar incident, he had a remission of sorts? I like this view because it looks past the “born that way/environmental” issue. Gay people are gay, the question is not how this happened, but what viable options are there for happy lifestyles.

    So I guess the question in my mind is how successful can a gay Mormon be in managing these feelings? My personal feel is that there is not much hope. Anecdotal, and research evidence suggests that sexual repression is much different from repressing other impulses such as alcoholism. Depression and suicide, feelings of extreme guilt and remorse, coupled with the sexual drive, probably one of the strongest human drives, generally leads to bad results. Those friends I have seen were the happiest when they accepted who they were. Intimacy, more than just sex, is necessary for a happy life, not something that really can be given up. Other Mormons may argue with me here, but most of those are weakly founded spiritual arguments, and even weaker claims based on loose empirical evidence.

    Out of all the gay people I know, I have yet to meet one who was successful in establishing a healthy “straight” lifestyle. Not to say that they didn’t try. Many of them Mormon, struggled for years before giving up. Its just a rough subject with not much unbiased support out there. I think the best place to start is through love and understanding.

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