Position: Sexual Orientation Change Efforts
Journey South Africa exists to help people find hope and live life through experiencing Jesus in their relationships, sexuality and identity. We carry out our mission by partnering with churches to offer safe places for spiritual care and experiential discipleship. Our staff, volunteers and partners work together to see people living healthy, hope-filled lives in their relationships, families and communities.
Journey South Africa is a Christian discipleship organization, and does not provide psychotherapy or counselling. Instead our aim has been to provide a place of Christian discipleship, in the context of community, in which program participants can, with love and honesty, address relational and sexual issues which they identify as places of struggle in their lives – including, but not limited to: problems with anger, low self-esteem, marital problems/divorce, dysfunction within family of origin, sexual addictions (including addiction to pornography), consequences of trauma and grief associated with abuse, sexual orientation or identity. Only about 5% of those who come to Journey South Africa name sexual orientation or sexual identity issues as their reason for coming. However, given the high profile of this issue in our society, the following paragraphs outline Journey South Africa's approach on this important topic.
Of those who choose to enroll in the Journey Discipleship Course (JDC), some do so because they experience a dissonance between their same-sex attraction and their religious beliefs regarding sexual ethics – these participants tend to be seeking congruence between the two. JDC presents an opportunity for them to address this dissonance in a place of trust and safety and in the overall context of Christian discipleship.
These participants, as noted in the American Psychological Association’s 2009 report Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation ii, tend to be people who “choose to live their lives in accordance with personal or religious values (e.g., telic congruence).”iii For these people, finding telic congruence is achieved not by denying or “changing” their sexual orientation, but by accepting who they are (including their sexual attractions) and nonetheless living in accordance with their deeply-held beliefs. Journey South Africa takes a “client-centered approach” and believes that these are decisions for each program participant to make for themselves.iv
Generally, JDC participants share Journey South Africa's Christian faith and orthodox Christian understanding of sexual ethics, including God's plan for sexual relations between a man and a woman within marriage, and intentionally choose to participate in this Christian discipleship program. These participants are asked to sign the Journey South Africa Statement of Faith and Beliefs, acknowledging that they have read and understood it, and that the program is based on this statement of faith. Journey South Africa also makes it clear that we do not promise, or even make it our goal, to change participants’ sexual orientation.v
The heart of JDC is one of Christian discipleship whereby participants come to see their primary identity as being disciples of Jesus, children of God (who loves them unconditionally, again, regardless of sexual orientation or behaviour), and members of the church. For many, the result is that they become less desperate for God to ‘take away’ their sexual ‘issues’ (be they with pornography, sexual orientation dissonance, or anything else).
For many JDC graduates, their sexual or relational issues may remain, in one sense, ‘unchanged,’ but will have moved from being a dominant feature of their lives. Participants may gain a deeper appreciation of their Christian identity, whereby they experience reduced shame over their unwanted sexual feelings and greater acceptance in Christ (regardless of whether those sexual feelings persist or not). Many will have experienced safe relationships in which to become known and to provide and receive mutual support. They will have accepted and integrated previously unwanted sexual attractions into a deeper identity built around Christ.vi
Among those who participate in JDC due to felt dissonance around same-sex attraction/orientation, a majority experience a reduction in the strength or power of same-sex attraction/orientation and increased hope, strength, desire, and ability to live in accordance with their personal beliefs regarding sexual ethics, but this is very much an indirect result of the Journey South Africa program, and neither its primary aim nor a litmus test for its success. A successful program is one where all participants leave knowing the love of God more deeply than before, understanding their place in God’s family, and being empowered to take the next step of faith towards a flourishing life in whichever way God is leading them.
i. In recent years, there has been an increase in writing by both the mental health community and the news media regarding Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (“SOCE”) by various psychologists and non-profit organizations, particularly in the United States. SOCE, sometimes referred to as “reparation therapy” or “conversion therapy”, is not well defined in the academic literature, but generally involves psychotherapy or individual or group counselling in which the stated objective is to change the sexual attraction/orientation of a patient/client/participant from same-sex attracted/oriented, to opposite-sex attracted/oriented.↩
ii. In its 2009 report Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation, the American Psychological Association reviewed the peer-reviewed literature on SOCE and concluded that “efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm.” The task force recommended that “the appropriate application of affirmative therapeutic interventions for those who seek SOCE involves therapist acceptance, support, and understanding of clients and the facilitation of clients’ active coping, social support, and identity exploration and development, without imposing a specific sexual orientation identity outcome” while also noting that “some individuals choose to live their lives in accordance with personal or religious values (e.g., telic congruence)” instead of in accordance with their felt sexual attractions (termed “organismic congruence”) (APA Report, pp. v, 2, 18).↩
iii. The APA Report repeatedly cites the Sexual Identity Therapy Framework (“SIT Framework,” referenced as “Throckmorton & Yarhouse, 2006”) as an articulation of a telic congruence approach. The SIT Framework seeks to achieve “sexual identity outcomes that respect client personal values, religious beliefs and sexual attractions,” culminating in “sexual identity synthesis” which “preserve[s] client autonomy and professional commitments to diversity” (SIT Framework, p. 2). The APA Report cites the SIT Framework as “respectful of sexual orientation” (APA Report, p. 18) and reflective of their recommendation that those working with people experiencing same-sex attraction provide support which “increases a client’s abilities to cope, understand, acknowledge, explore, and integrate sexual orientation concerns into a self-chosen life in which the client determines the ultimate manner in which he or she does or does not express sexual orientation” (APA Report, p. 69). The best research currently available indicates:
1. Sexual attraction/orientation is a product of the complex interplay between both genetic/biological (‘nature’) and experiential/psychosocial (‘nurture’) factors unique to each individual;
2. therefore, sexual attraction/orientation is a physiological experience beyond our ability to control, and we cannot simply choose to have or not have certain sexual feelings, such as same-sex attraction; and
3.SOCE therapy results in lasting ‘change’ to clients’ sexual attractions/orientation in only about 15% of cases.↩
v. The APA report and the SIT Framework are consistent with the position which Journey South Africa has taken since its incorporation in 1996: it is not our aim to change sexual orientation of program participants. While Journey South Africa and its leaders hold an orthodox Christian understanding of sexual ethics (including God's plan for sexual relations exclusively between one man and one woman within marriage), we are here to serve all people. Our introductory ‘Journey 101’ course is open to anyone regardless of religious belief, religious affiliation, beliefs regarding sexual ethics, and participation (or non-participation) in an intimate sexual relationship outside of marriage.↩
vi. In the words of the APA Report, citing the SIT framework, “What appears to shift and evolve in some individuals’ lives is sexual orientation identity, not sexual orientation” (APA Report, p. 54).↩