May 032012

This man annoys me intensely. I follow his discussions with others on Twitter, I see the arrant nonsense he posts on his blog and it is glaringly obvious that Peter Saunders, who claims to be a Christian and a medic, renders a grave disservice to both Christianity and medicine. He equivocates like a jesuit (Do you object to being labelled ‘homophobic’ when you are actually just ‘homosceptic’?) and merrily ignores science when it doesn’t suit his agenda. He is, of course, a homophobe. This is very evident from his writings. In fact, for someone who claims to be a qualified doctor, straight and happily married for years, he’s remarkably obsessive about what other people do in the privacy of their bedroom. His latest hobby-horse is the long discredited and now repudiated “gay cure” therapy.

So, just to be clear about this, “gay cures”/”ex-gay therapy”/”conversion therapy” involve the following:

  • perpetuation of the myth that being LGBT is a mental illness;
  • normalising homophobia, including reinforcement of internalised homophobia.

There are different methods, depending on the organisation. Any combination may be used:

  • conversion therapy, some of which reads like the aversion therapy inflicted on the anti-hero of A Clockwork Orange;
  • psychoanalysis;
  • evangelisation;
  • torture, beatings and rape.

The results are always the same: the vast majority of the unfortunates undergoing these therapies come out broken, depressive, damaged, poorer and still gay. The tiny percentage that declare themselves cured are only kidding themselves for the most part. Practically every poster boy for the ex-gay movement (possibly all of them by now) has ended up admitting that it doesn’t change anything except make them feel guilty and dirty about their own natural behaviour. Of course it’s natural. If God hated LGBT folk he wouldn’t make something like 1 in 10 of us that way. It’s to “test our faith”? Well then I suppose he must also be testing the faith of all those animal species who display some form of homo- or transsexual behaviour.

I think it’s far more likely that if God exists, he’s testing the faith of homophobes. After all, there’s only one species that practises that particular form of antisocial behaviour.

Back to Peter Saunders. Three days into May and he’s already published two fact-free rants over an article in the Torygraph about the attempt by Anglican Mainstream and its bum-chum, Core Issues Trust, to place huge red adverts promoting a “gay cure” on huge red buses.  One would think that as a qualified (although no longer practising) doctor he would be aware of the science. One would also expect him to read up on the subject before making a complete idiot of himself. One would be wrong. When Petey-boy makes a leap of faith, he doesn’t use a safety-net.

Max Pemberton’s Telegraph article on ‘Gay cures’ is replete with unsupported assertions and misleading statements

screams the headline. I am so looking forward to reading Peter Saunders’s masterly, fact-filled blog post putting the matter straight – if you’ll pardon the expression – once and for all.

Max Pemberton is a doctor who writes for the Daily Telegraph (he has asked me not to display his photograph but you can view it here).

Much of what he writes is quite sensible and he has won a number of journalistic awards.

His latest offering however, ‘There’s no such thing as a “gay cure”’, is a shoddy piece of polemic, replete with unsupported assertions and misleading statements, which does him no credit.

I would like you all to remember that last sentence. Now then, I’m going to skip parts of the rant, because a lot of it is of little interest or not germane to the point he’s making. There will be no cherry-picking. Context will be preserved, probably in alcohol, since this level of ignorance in someone who’s supposed to have a University education would drive any thinking person to drink.

Pemberton is openly gay and has already written against the ban on gay people donating blood in the UK, in support of gay adoption and about the impact of homophobic bullying. But on this occasion he makes a foray into the issue of therapies for unwanted same sex attraction.

What does Max Pemberton’s being gay have to do with this? The posters were criticised by people from all walks of life and all sexual orientations.

The implication of Anglican Mainstream’s adverts was that some people can change their sexual orientation but their plan was blocked by the London mayor Boris Johnson after it had been signed off, approved and paid for.

Presumably they got their money back. In any case, as I understand it Boris Johnson had not previously approved the campaign.

Pemberton claims that the adverts are dangerous and motivated by prejudice, assertions I will return to later in another blog. But his primary objection to them is that they mislead people about the scientific facts.
Let’s allow him to explain it in his own words:

‘But amid all the furious debate about the adverts, one central fact was ignored. It’s not the prejudice I take issue with, but the quackery. The underlying suggestion was that it is possible to alter one’s sexual orientation. This moves the debate from the realms of theology and freedom of expression directly into the realm of psychology and scientific evidence. Here there is an extensive amount of empirical, objective research into the matter and it is refreshingly clear in this regard. Sexual orientation is an enduring, fundamental part of a person’s psychological make-up and is remarkably resistant to attempts to alter it. In fact, evidence suggests that attempts to change a person’s sexuality – or gay cure therapies” as they are sometimes known – are not just ineffective but dangerous.’

Pemberton gives no evidence whatsoever to support this view but simply makes an appeal to three authorities.

Peter dear, this was a newspaper op-ed, not a scientific paper. However reprehensible this may be, newspapers do not cite scientific studies with links to abstracts. If you doubt something published in a newspaper, you have to do your own research, although if you’ve got a halfway decent journalist like Max Pemberton they will make this easier for you by providing strong hints as to where to look:

The Royal College of Psychiatrists, we are told, has said that ‘there is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed’ and that ‘so-called treatments of homosexuality create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination flourish’. The UK Council for Psychotherapy ‘utterly condemn(s) professionals who practise “reparative therapy” as sexuality is not a symptom which needs treating or correcting’. And the British Medical Association ‘condemns groups who claim they can change individuals’ sexual orientation’.

Perhaps we should also add that, on top of all the studies showing being gay is not a mental illness (after all, if someone isn’t ill, why would you offer therapy of any kind?), homosexuality is not a crime in the U.K. There are a lot of studies, Peter, it’s not possible to link to every single one. However, maybe a further example of an official position condemning ex-gay therapy will help. Look, I’m even linking to it: American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality.

Again Pemberton advances no evidence whatsoever to explain why these bodies have taken these views.

It’s a newspaper article, you bozo. He has a limited amount of column space at his disposal. Do your own research, you’re a grown man and a medic.

Nor does he mention the fact that the dictum that sexual orientation is unchangeable is currently under attack from leading activists within the gay community itself.

What Peter Saunders means by “unchangeable” and what the rest of the world means by it in this context are two totally different things. Many people have same-sex crushes during childhood, yet grow up heterosexual. Others marry, found a family, then realise they’re gay. Maybe you’re predominantly heterosexual, but just occasionally you meet someone of the same sex that you wouldn’t say no to if the signs were right. Or perhaps you’ve always liked both boys and girls? What I’ll trying to get across here is that sexual orientation can be fluid according to many things, can even vary over a person’s lifetime. However, there’s no switch that hard-wires for “straight” or “gay” any more than there’s one that can switch the brain from male to female, or vice versa. If there was, I’d know and I’d be queuing up to have it flipped.

Former Tory MP Matthew Parris and ‘Outrage’ leader Peter Tatchell are two striking examples recently highlighted on this blog who argue that sexual orientation is both changeable, and in some people at least, in part a matter of personal choice.

In part, Peter, in part. I suspect those few who do experience a feeling of choice are among the genuinely bisexual, although they are often reluctant to declare themselves as such. I have met a couple of people who claimed it was a choice for them, but when questioned more closely they agreed that they did not choose to fall in love with their current partner. By the way, wasn’t that an appeal to authority there, something you just accused Max Pemberton of doing?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has stated,‘some people believe that sexual orientation is innate and fixed; however, sexual orientation develops across a person’s lifetime’. The APA also says that ‘for some the focus of sexual interest will shift at various points through the life span…’

Peter, if you’re going to link to a statement by the APA, link to it on their site, as I did. Not Wikipedia.

A report from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health similarly states, ‘For some people, sexual orientation is continuous and fixed throughout their lives. For others, sexual orientation may be fluid and change over time’.

Not sure what the CAMH is doing in here. Admittedly, LGBT people tend to have problems with depression and addiction (including tobacco and alcohol), but that is more likely due to the hostility and ignorance we encounter on a regular basis.

Now if sexual orientation, in some at least, is changeable even without therapy, might it not be reasonable to assume that it could also be changed with therapy?

No, it is not “reasonable to assume”. It would be reasonable to suppose, until such time as the hypothesis is tested and shown not to stand up to scrutiny, which is the case here.

And should not those who experience unwanted same sex attraction then have the right to explore whether they might receive professional help to see whether they might achieve a change in the strength and direction of their erotic feelings? Surely this is not an unreasonable question to ask.

No, I wouldn’t call it unreasonable, Peter dear. Stupid, ignorant, patronising, flying in the face of all the evidence, yes. The word “unreasonable” is by no means strong enough, you understand.

So is Pemberton justified in his bold assertions? And what does the evidence actually show?

A recent CMF Publication, ‘Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction: Issues of pastoral and counselling support’, by Glynn Harrison and Andrew Goddard and available on the CMF website, reviews the available evidence and is well worthy of study.

Peter Saunders runs the CMF and is therefore linking to himself as an authority. Credibility #FAIL. By the way, the study costs money, so he can whistle for me to read it, especially as the whole thing is quite clearly oriented towards ex-gay quackery. I beg your pardon, I meant enabling “those of us who choose not to embrace a gay identity or relationship, because of personal convictions of faith, (to) have freedom to seek help in ordering our sexual behaviour according to our beliefs“. I think they want free licence to further ruin the lives of those unfortunate enough to have been brought up in a religious family.

I’m going to summarise the next chunk, because he plays with words and cherry-picks like a homeopath. Yes, he cherry-picks from a pro ex-gay text. That gives you an idea of how poor his case is.

He notes that “there is currently no ‘high quality evidence’ in terms of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to prove that these methods work.”  Well, no, there wouldn’t be. The study also claims that the field is “‘under-researched”, which strikes me as highly unlikely after over 40 years. Furthermore, Saunders would have us believe that when anyone speaks of “unproven counselling and psychotherapy approaches” – we’re still talking about practices that have been going on for some forty years – the mantra “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” means they should still be taken seriously. 

‘In other words, the fact that there is no evidence of an effect is not evidence of no effect. .. We simply do not know whether they work or whether they do not work.’

I’ve just been passed a note. It says “Homeopaths. Burzynski. Fucking unicorns again“. I think it means: publish, or be damned. After 40 years, no evidence of an effect is indeed not evidence of no effect, but it makes the likelihood of an effect extremely small. Saunders does not mention this simple truth.

‘The available data suggest that some individuals report benefit in the form of increased heterosexual interest and/or marked reduction in same-sex interest after participating in one of these approaches.’

We’ll look at the available data later. Try not to drink coffee when we do.

So there is actually some evidence that SOCEs might work, just not high quality evidence.

If the evidence isn’t high quality, it means the research was badly flawed. Ergo, the results are not very reliable.

But neither is there high quality evidence to show that they don’t. So why does Pemberton not tell us that?

Because you don’t prove negatives, you idiot. And you don’t waste time and money on a therapy when you have no proof it works. Especially if you’re not really ill. Nobody wants to be LGBT. However, if there wasn’t so much intolerance and stupidity forcing us into undeserved roles as second- or third-class citizens who are regarded as broken, disgusting or downright evil, we’d be able to live with it.

Saunders then goes on to try to argue that ex-gay therapies cannot be proven to cause harm because nobody has done controlled experiments on the question:

Then what about his claim that SOCEs cause harm? Harrison and Goddard argue that:

‘The current evidence about harm is mixed: some surveys(3) report significant numbers whereas in others the prevalence of harm is absent or negligible(2).’

However they add that:

‘no high quality RCT’s have been carried out in this area. Thus, assertions that SOCE cause harm rely upon anecdotal data, small case series and potentially biased surveys. In the absence of controlled experiments, we do not know whether, regardless of a particular therapy approach, these “harmful” experiences would have occurred anyway. More research is needed into the possible harmful side effects of different approaches.’

So there is low quality evidence pointing both ways and no RCTs have yet been carried out.

If, like me, you are reading this with growing disbelief that a self-styled Christian could be advocating, even by implication, that RCTs should be carried out using a potentially damaging therapy for which no measurable benefit has been seen in over 40 years, then congratulations. You are a fully functioning human being with a brain and a deep sense of morality.

 (Pemberton) argues that SOCEs cause harm when there is actually no high quality evidence to support this claim and the available low quality evidence points in both directions.

Well he can’t have it both ways. He cannot apply one evidence test in one instance (because it suits his private convictions) but neglect to use the same test when it doesn’t.

This is to employ a double standard and it is both misleading and dishonest.

Yes Peter, it would be. However, you are ignoring some very important facts. Not established by RCT, but drawn from government statistics around the world.

  • Bullying destroys lives. Suicide attempts among teenagers who are victims of homophobic bullying are three, four times the number from other causes. Maybe more. By promoting ex-gay therapy which, I would remind you, includes torture and rape in some countries, you are blaming the victim and reinforcing the bullies.
  • Oh, by the way: 4 out of 5 homophobes are probably gay. That’s been established by two independent scientific studies, and is regularly proven by the impressive number of flaming homophobes who get caught with their mouths full in the men’s room. So encouraging ex-gay therapy is encouraging the destructive self-hatred of these people. Any psychological counselling should be for the homophobes, who are unable to accept themselves and others as they are.
  • Enough people have come through various types of ex-gay therapy over the years and said “it doesn’t work” for us to consider it a failure. You don’t need RCTs for that. The exact failure rate is unknown, but it’s certainly high. Let’s say it’s 63%, even if it’s certainly much higher: would you trust a doctor who had such a poor success rate?

I am so going to enjoy the last part. Fans of Peter Saunders’s favourite book might like to look up Matthew 7:3.

Pemberton says that we should not ‘make claims that are not supported by science’. I agree. But this is precisely what he has done. He has made a number of unsubstantiated statements which appear to be based more on ideology than evidence, and has appealed to authorities for support without putting forward the evidence or arguments which led them to these conclusions. He has then misrepresented the available evidence and applied a double standard in drawing conclusions.

This is at best lazy. But it is also misleading and possibly even deceitful.

As Pemberton himself warns, ‘Unlike questions of morality, in science, you can be proved wrong.’


Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”. We’ve already seen that Saunders has a very approximate idea of what constitutes science. Let’s compare the relative merits of the studies he references:


1.Spitzer, R. ‘Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? 200 Participants Reporting a Change from Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation’. Archives of Sexual Behavior 32, No. 5 (2003): 403-17.

Yes, that is the fundamentally flawed  study which was completely retracted by its author last month amid much rejoicing; a fact which Peter Saunders can hardly have missed if he was researching his post.

2.Jones, Stanton L., and Mark A. Yarhouse. Ex-Gays?: A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2007.

The study was funded by Exodus International, which has a vested interest in ex-gay therapy. Even so: an 85% failure rate? Hardly support for your position, Peter.

3.Shidlo, A, and M Schroeder. ‘Changing Sexual Orientation: A Consumers’ Report’. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 33 (2002)

A similar failure rate to the Exodus paper, with closer attention paid to the harm suffered by the “failures”. Well, they don’t have a financial interest in minimising it. Probably the best available. Peer-reviewed and all, and it does not support Saunders’s position.

You should maybe read this as well. From International Society of Psychiatric – Mental Health Nurses (pdf file). Note this passage:

Harmful sequelae of reparative therapy reported in the literature include anxiety, depression, avoidance of intimacy, sexual dysfunction, PTSD, loss of self-confidence and self-efficacy, shame/guilt, self-destructive behavior, and suicidality (Beckstead & Morrow, 2004; Ford, 2001; Haldeman, 2001, Shidlo & Schroeder, 2002; Tozer & Hayes, 2004; Yarhouse, 2002).

Once again, when you read the above PDF file (please do, it’s quite short) you notice that among the “corrective therapies” they include forced makeup classes for biological women and Manly Sports for bio-males. It’s great being transgender: according to the bigots you don’t even exist.

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Jay H

LGBT activist. I despise bigots, especially those who use their religion as an excuse for their hate-filled speech.
Jay H has written 32 posts on this blog.
  • Acleron

    Good take-down of Saunders. He and his supporters do have a function – they publicly demonstrate that despite their protestations, they are homophobes.