Therapy in the Wild, Wild West
July 24th, 2006
By now this is all very old news. In the online world, anything more than a few weeks old is ancient history, but I experienced a sort of deja vu this weekend as I re-read Richard Cohen’s 2000 book, Coming Out Straight. Interesting reading, I know. Let’s just say it’s what I do on my afternoons off.
You may remember ex-gay activist Richard Cohen, president of PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays), who was featured on CNN’s Paula Zahn Now on May 23rd demonstrating his unusual methods for “curing” homosexuality. He advocates some very unorthodox therapeutic exercises — many of them drawn from pop-psychology fads of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
One technique involves the client beating a pillow with a tennis racquet while screaming at his parents. Remember when that was all the rage? Beating a pillow while screaming about how angry you are at your parents presumably allows you to work through your feelings about your remembered “abuse” which, according to Cohen, you weren’t allowed to express as a child. There’s a lot of recycled “adult children” talk sprinkled throughout his theories, and they’re all described in his book from six years ago. Not much has changed here.
But his most controversial therapy involves “holding” or “touch” therapy, where he takes a male client onto his lap, holds him gently, and repeats affirming words to him. Cohen claims that this recreates the father-son bond in the “adult child,” which, according to the distant father/domineering mother theory which he favors, is supposed to be the key missing component in the lives of gay men. He went on to demonstrate this technique on-camera with a client identified as “Rob.”
This raised quite a few eyebrows among professional therapists. Among those shocked by this display was Dr. Warren Throckmorton, a professor at Grove City College in northwestern Pennsylvania, who himself is very active in the ex-gay movement:
When my wife watched the clip (I taped it), she said she couldn’t get past the “ick factor” to even evaluate what was said. We discussed which was the ickiest, the tennis racket slamming the pillow while screaming at mom; or the client-cuddle technique where Richard holds his client like a baby in a kind of nursing position. We couldn’t decide.
Dr. Throckmorton had worked closely with PFOX in their attempts to force the Montgomery County (Md.) school system to revise its sex-education programs to include information about ex-gays. This “information” from PFOX includes, for example, a reading list for teachers and students which promoted the idea that gays are diseased and need to be “healed” — a position that is incompatible with modern psychology.
I don’t know to what extend Dr. Throckmorton was bothered by these actions. But he has clearly decided that the sight of a colleague who is a well-known figure in the ex-gay movement embarrassing himself on national television would be the last straw:
Since viewing the “Paula Zahn Now” segment, Throckmorton has notified PFOX that, although he supports its mission and its belief that people are not born homosexual, he will not represent the group as long as Cohen remains its board president.
So why do I bring all of this up now? Well, I was reminded of it as I was reading Cohen’s book. And there it was, exactly what I was looking for: the same detailed descriptions of his “holding therapy” in pages 207 through 211 that he demonstrated on CNN. This book isn’t exactly obscure. It comes with a glowing foreword written by that other famous non-therapist therapist, Laura Schlessinger.
Cohen’s enthusiastic endorsement of this holding technique is found throughout his book (along with pillow-beating, or “bioenergetics” as it is termed). This nationally-televised demonstration may be shocking, but it’s not new. It’s been a part of Cohen’s practice for several years, and no one can accuse him of hiding it.
And there’s another thing that’s no longer hidden: Cohen’s permanent expulsion from the American Counseling Association in May 2002 — although he’s doing his best to hide that. You certainly won’t find any mention of it in PFOX’s website.
While we disagree strongly in many points, I’ve come to respect some of Dr. Throckmorton’s recent actions. He’s one of the few ex-gay proponents to recognize that biological factors can play a role — in possible combination with environmental and developmental factors — in the sexual orientation of many gays and lesbians. This position, more or less, is generally in agreement with those held by most serious researchers, although Dr. Throckmorton places more emphasis on environmental factors. But at least it’s a start. More specifically, he recently criticized Joseph Nicolosi’s “reparative” theory of homosexuality (which is essentially the “distant-father” half of the weak-father/strong-mother theory), declaring “I am not a reparative therapist.” Nicolosi (with the late Charles Socarides) is often looked to as a father of the ex-gay movement, and this theory is the operative theory among almost all of the most prominent ministries. (Ironically, it is this “reparative” drive that Richard Cohen’s techniques are supposed to “heal.”)
And despite his enthusiastic participation in Exodus conferences and other ex-gay activities, he has offered draft guidelines for the practice of what he calls ‘sexual identity therapy” which seeks to establish an ethical framework by emphasizing the actual needs and aspirations of the client, and not the political, religious or moral ideals of the therapist. For example, the draft states, “Therapists should be open to the possibility that embracing same-sex attractions may place other vital aspects of identity at risk. It is also important for therapists to take a neutral stance toward the client’s worldview.” There are areas in these guidelines which can stand improvement, but this effort is certainly a welcome departure from NARTH’s draft guidelines which simply regurgitate the customary anti-gay rhetoric.
Besides, I have to believe that anyone who grew up just a few blocks away from me — a fellow River Rat from Portsmouth, Ohio — can’t be all bad.
But like any specialty in which standard practices, ethical guidelines, certification, and official oversight are all absent. and especially where the distinction between religious ministry and clinical practice is often obliterated, the field of sexual reorientation therapy can resemble the wild west, complete with charlatans and snake-oil salesmen. When one makes it his life work to enter into this kind of work, one must be very careful when choosing those with whom one associates and makes common cause.
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Richard Cohen Is “Disappeared”
Fallout From Richard Cohen’s “The Daily Show” Appearance
Therapy In the Wild, Wild West