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A Whole New Lack of Desire

Timothy Kincaid

May 31st, 2007

I’ve noticed an unusual phase cropping up in ex-gay language lately. It generally is phrased as I have no desire for a same-sex relationship or I have no desire to be involved in homosexuality.

At first it seems that the author is saying that they are heterosexual. But look closer. What is really being said here? Well, to understand that you have to have knowledge of how ex-gays use language and to look for what is not being said.

Ex-gay ministries, especially those who use language for anti-gay media purposes, like to take words and give them a new meaning –- often one that is precisely the opposite from what one might assume the word to mean.

Take for example the word “change.” A casual reader may thing that the slogan “change can happen” means that one can go from a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation. But in an ex-gay lexicon it means something quite different. To an ex-gay “change” is not a shift in sexual attraction or desire or romantic interest but instead is a change in identity. When an ex-gay says, “change can happen,” they mean that they can now call themselves something other than gay –- though nothing you or I might consider to be “change” has happened at all.

One of the ways that those who question the claims of ex-gay spokesmen have challenged their assertions is to talk in terms of less nebulous things than change. They speak about attractions and desire and explain that if one is attracted sexually, emotionally, and romantically to the same sex, then no intrinsic “change” has occurred.

Which brings me back to the new phrase. I suspect its primary purpose is to try and redefine the word “desire” so as to allow them to continue to make claims that sound like one thing to the public — but mean something quite else.

Take, for example the recent comment on the blogsite of Randy Thomas, Exodus International’s Vice President. This comment is useful because not only does he set up the phrase, but he compares it to a quite different notion.

And yes, I am much more sexually and romantically attracted to women today and have zero desire to be romantically or sexually involved with a man.

Here we have it –- zero desire to be involved. But the contrast is there showing what is missing –- a lack of sexual and romantic attraction to a man. 

Randy isn’t saying “I’m not sexually and romantically attracted to men.” And frankly, I suspect that is because Randy is indeed sexually and romantically attracted to men and he’d prefer not to outright lie. He’d far rather use deceptive language.

Instead Randy changes the subject to be about whether he wants to act on that attraction, to have a relationship. But by putting those two separate concepts into the same sentence Randy can sound (without quite saying it) that his sexual attractions are only to women.

I do believe that Randy doesn’t want to be “involved” with a man. But I believe that was the case on the very first day he got involved with Exodus. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have tried so hard for the past 15 years to rid himself of his attractions. This is all just a smoke screen to make it sound like he’s no longer same-sex attracted.

So the next time you see I have no desire for a relationship or I have no desire for that lifestyle, you can call them on their deception. Just ask the simple question, “Do you still experience sexual attraction to persons of the same sex?”

Which, of course, now means they’ll have to come up for a new definition for “attraction.”

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disputed mutability
May 31st, 2007 | LINK

Well, yes and no. :-)

Personally, I profess attraction change (in addition to other kinds of change), and by attraction change I mean change in what arouses me, what turns me on. It has not been a complete change, to be sure. But that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Everyone has the capacity to be attracted to people other than the person they are with–why should it matter that for me, that includes people of both sexes rather than just one sex? The change I have experienced is more than enough to allow me to fully enjoy my husband and our marriage, something I simply could not have done before. As I say on my blog, people may think that what happened to me was trivial objectively speaking, but hopefully they can understand why it would be personally significant to me.

So to make blanket declarations about what all exgays do or don’t mean by “change” seems a little misguided to me. They don’t hand out a rulebook to all of us, you know. ;-) Even within Exodus leadership, if you study their materials carefully, you will notice that there is considerable variation in their vocabulary and ideas. (One small example: in Exodus’ recent book, Thomas uses the label “exgay” freely, while the other contributors openly condemn it as another false identity.) Exodus and the exgay movement are simply not monolithic in these respects. They are possibly not even coherent, but that’s another issue altogether. :-)

I know some exgays (both semi-public and private) who when they say they changed, they mean attraction change, just as I do. Usually partial-but-personally-significant, like mine, but occasionally complete. (Obviously I have no idea whether these people are telling the truth, I am only talking about what they use their words to say, true or not.) And for most of us change has been a multifaceted thing. I have in my life experienced a change in behavior and identity and “desire” (in the way that Thomas is using it) and attraction. To admit to one of these kinds of change, for me, is not a denial of the others. So I’m a little confused when critics of the exgay movement say “when they say change, they only mean behavior” or “they only mean identity” when for most exgays I have spoken to, the change they experienced has been a complex thing affecting many aspects of their lives.

Thus far we disagree.

On another level, I agree with you. What I gather from Thomas’ choice of words (again, whether or not this is true, I cannot know) is that he is claiming a partial attraction change. He does seem to be straightforwardly professing a change in his attractions and feelings for women.

But, as you rightly point out, his rather delicate wording about his attitudes toward men seems to be trying to avoid admitting something–namely, that he is still at least somewhat attracted to men. That leapt right out at me when I first read his post, and I drew the same conclusion you did.

I’ve been noticing this a lot in other exgay testimonies. People are no longer flatly denying continued attraction to the same sex, but they aren’t openly admitting it either. It seems bizarre to me–do they really think people can’t read between the lines?

And why are they so ashamed of some continuing attraction to the same sex? Why is it a big deal? If Thomas really has developed or discovered attractions for women, who cares whether he still has attraction to men?

Joe Allen Doty
May 31st, 2007 | LINK

If the person is a man, I would ask the question this way: “Do you still experience lower body internal physiological sexual attractions toward persons of the same sex, even when you are not even thinking about them although they are in close vicinity to you?”

If the answer is “yes,” then no change has happened at all. Andy Comiskey, who was with Desert Streams Ministry when I read an article by him in Charisma Magazine wrote that he told a gay man who was attending the church he did, “After having been married more than 20 years and having grown children, I still occasionally experience sexual attractions toward men.”

I found it odd that was published in that Charismatic/Pentecostal magazine since the publisher and editors are anti-gay. And what he wrote and said does not prove he is actually an “ex-gay.”

Timothy Kincaid
May 31st, 2007 | LINK

DM,

as you rightly point out, I did paint with a pretty broad brush. I should have been more clear that my comments about “ex-gays say…” really were directed to the public leaders who engage in political and media campaigns.

You, on the other hand, are much more honest and don’t engage in semantics games intended to deceive.

I’ll try to be less all-inclusive in future posts.

As for the reason that there is such a need to hide continued same-sex attractions, I think the answer is three-fold.

First, even though Exodus loudly proclaims that same-sex attractions are not sin, I think that deep down inside the leaders still believe that it is either a sin or a flaw or an indication of failure, lack of faith, or immaturity. Their goal is not to find opposite-sex attraction but to rid theirselves of same-sex attraction. And any admission that they still are sexually attracted to the same sex is an admission of failure, an indication of lingering sin/fault/flaw, or a suggestion that God’s healing is incomplete and not completely effective.

Second, Exodus (like all organizations in existance) wants participants. And Randy and Alan know that their draw is not a partial change in some attractions. No one wants frustration and for most that is what “you will be attracted to the same sex on some level for the rest of your life” sounds like.

Their potential clients want to be RID of their same-sex attractions. And they want to know that it CAN be done and they want to see it in their leaders.

Three, polls repeatedly show that if a person believes that sexuality is fixed, they support equal treatment for gay people. If they think that homosexuality is chosen, they oppose gay rights. And for most people “fixed” means that the same-sex attractions don’t go away – regardless of opposite sex attractions. It’s a basic “I get it” kind of thing. And sadly, Alan and Randy care far more about political machinations than they do about the truth so they are perfectly willing to say whatever will deceive the media or the public into believing that they no longer are same-sex attracted.

Or so I think.

John
May 31st, 2007 | LINK

Timothy,

I think that you neglected another reason for the reluctance by these political ex-gays to acknowledge that they are still attracted to the same sex: bisexuality.

Alan and Randy in particular seem to talk about their progressive loss of “desire” for men, and then their attraction to women. POOF! (no pun intended) They become heterosexual. They don’t even describe an asexual period. The just describe a nebulous time (12 years ago…16 years ago, etc)

DM describes attractions to both sexes at this point, but I think that creating bisexuals or going through a “bisexual phase” would not sell very well. In fact, heterosexuals and homosexuals both seem more biased against bisexuals than each other. It would be very interesting to hear Alan and Randy try to respond to persistent questions about bisexuality or bisexual phases in their experience.

Not that it should matter, but I am not bisexual. I just think this is one of the many conundrums that the political ex-gays face.

Jim Burroway
May 31st, 2007 | LINK

DM raisis a point though that merits further disussion. If I understand her correctly, she says her sexual attractions changed to a “personally-significant” degree. When I read “personally-significant,” a light went off in my dim head.

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to place arbitrary definitions on what constitutes a “successful” “change.” (I put both words in independent quotations because we’re talking about two independent definitions of words that are ultimately smashed together.) I think one point that DM raises is that if her change rises to a “personally-significant” degree — that’s the only standard that matters.

Which makes sense to me. When it comes to such a personal matter as sexuality, that’s probably the only standard that matters in the end — as long as the person is sufficiently self-aware that he or she is certain that he or she is not indulging in wish-fulfillment. That’s a pitfall we’re all prone to, regardless of our goals.

I hasten to add that DM seems, to me at least, to be sufficiently — even impressively — self-aware. But it’s my experience that this is a rare commodity. Maybe I’m projecting my own foibles too much on everyone else, but I wonder how many people have the maturity to separate their wishes from their actual experiences.

But even if we all could gain that level of maturity, I think that Timothy’s criticisms of the ex-gay leaders coyness in describing change still stands. Their coyness invites exactly the sort of doubt that Timothy expresses. When a slick brochure promises something, whoever’s reading it ought to be able to understand what he/she is reading with the assumption that we’re all sharing the same English language. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

It’s taken me a couple of years of reading and listening before I’ve been able to arrive at what they’re talking about. But since we all happen to speak one of the world’s most pervasive languages — a language which also has one of the most expansive vocabularies compared to many others — there is no reason whatsoever for us to be having this problem.

Timothy Kincaid
May 31st, 2007 | LINK

I think perhaps… and I’m thinking aloud here… that we all experience “change” and even personally-satisfying change on a regular basis.

I look back on myself in college and marvel. My thoughts, perspectives, outlook, habits, friends, daily life were all so very different than today. I’m not the same person. I don’t even recognize that person.

And I have, over my life, made decisions that resulted in drastic change for the better. Comparing myself to those time periods I can hardly believe that was me.

Considering the change that many in ex-gay ministries have made in their lives, it is hardly any wonder that this word resonates. They have different friends, surroundings, life patterns, habits, activities. And, most importantly, they’ve gone from feeling unworthy or unsaved to feeling “justified in the sight of God”. And that is a HUGE difference, a wild and dramatic change.

But it isn’t a change in sexual orientation. And I object to the political and evangelical crusades that pretend that it is.

disputed mutability
May 31st, 2007 | LINK

Jim,

I do think Timothy is 100% absolutely right about the coyness problem. It drives me crazy! I mean, seriously. If you’re gonna lie, then lie like you got a pair, dammit! Don’t pussyfoot around with these half-truths and cutesy jokes and please-read-between-the-lines-so-I-don’t-have-to- say-it-out-loud kind of statements. And DON’T tell different stories to different audiences and expect it to fly. GRRRRRRRRR.

Integrity. Integrity. Integrity.

One of the points I wanted to make (which may have fallen through the cracks, or you guys may just think I’m full of it, I dunno :-) ) is that I really don’t think there’s a uniform definition of change (or of anything else) being used even among the big shot spokesmen. I think there’s a great deal of fluidity (or, if you want to be less charitable, inconsistency) in how they use their terms. So I would be very hesitant to say “When exgays say ‘change,’ they mean a change in identity.” That seems to me to be simply false as a general rule, even among the leaders.

Jim Burroway
June 1st, 2007 | LINK

DM

I think you’re right. It takes a whole lot of listening to figure out what change is supposed to mean for a particular speaker. “Change” changes from person to person.

When I attended Love Won Out, I wondered if there wasn’t an advantage to be gained by having so many different definitions of change. It’s what I was trying to get at in Part 4 of my Love Won Out series. The word “change” ended up becoming a sort of a Rhorschach test for the audience.

This really bothered me tremendously because it seemed like an extremely cruel way to treat the parents and family members who attended. So many of them were desperate to have their “little boy” or “little girl” back — to so many of them, their dreams for their children had died and it was almost as if their children themselves were dead. The grief was quite visible at times, and very funereal. I thought it was very cruel to allow them to leave with, I believe, unrealistic expectations of what “change” would mean.

The only person who was really candid was Alan Chambers. But his workshop was only attended by about a tenth of the overall conference attendees. I discussed it briefly towards the end of this week’s podcast with Daniel Gonzales.

Timothy Kincaid
June 1st, 2007 | LINK

OK OK

I officially stand corrected :-)

I did characterize far too much. Perhaps it would have been better to have said:

To an ex-gay “change” is not a shift in sexual attraction or desire or romantic interest but instead is a change of another sort – perhaps a change in identity, a change in religious affinity, a change in perspective opening up to the possibility of a heterosexual eventuality, a transient or even pemanant partial change in sexual awareness of the other sex, or perhaps some other change entirely.

some better?

Jim Burroway
June 1st, 2007 | LINK

There now. You see how simple that was? It only took 43 words to describe something that most people would describe in fewer than a dozen. I like the last part: “perhaps some other change entirely.” ;-)

Dan
June 1st, 2007 | LINK

I think it might also be reasonable to posit differences between men and women in the total amount of sexual orientation change that might be achievable.

Heterosexual and homosexual men have radically different sexual reactions to male and female sexual stimuli, while heterosexual and homosexual women have very considerable overlap in their sexual responses. (See href=”http://www.psych.northwestern.edu/psych/people/faculty/bailey/chiversetal.pdf )

Moreover, male sexual orientation seems to have a bimodal distribution, while that doesn’t seem to be the case for females. See:
http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01578.x and Page 11 of http://www.psych.northwestern.edu/psych/people/faculty/bailey/Publications/Bailey%20et%20al.%20twins,2000.pdf

Further, sex researchers tend to speak of greater “fluidity” in female sexuality, and, speaking anecdotally based on my own (extensive) reading, there seems to be a relatively decent crop of female ex-gay testimonies that seem credible, while I never seen a single one from a male that I felt I could trust. The closest I’ve seen are a couple of claims of “person-specific” sexual desire–they say they’re sexually attracted to their wives but no one else of the opposite sex, and they admit that their sexual attractions otherwise are exclusively to members of the same sex.

Anyway, just a thought.

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