Junk Science, Hypocrites, and Rentboys

I want to say something about the story of George Rekers, the Southern Baptist Minister and co-founder of the Family Research Council who was recently caught in the company of a male escort.  Stories about religious leaders who preach a standard of sexual purity which they themselves fail to practice abound.   But even in the world of Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard, the hypocrisy of George Rekers is a special case.   His hypocrisy is not merely farcical and outrageous, it is also a lesson about the dangers of junk science.  This is because for the past 25 years Rekers has been a figurehead of the conversion therapy movement which holds not only that homosexuality is caused by environmental influences (rather than genetic) but also that it can be cured.

I am not going to rant about how infuriating it is that the same guy who was called as an expert witness to defend bans on gay adoption in Arkansas and Florida was recently perusing Rentboy.com in search of a 20 year-old with an eight-inch penis.  It may very well be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexual sex is wrong and that a homosexual lifestyle is harmful, and at the same time he can’t resist the urge to dial up a rent-boy on occasion.  It may also be the case that Rekers genuinely believes that homosexuality is caused by environmental factors such as family dynamics and early sexual experiences, which would mean some parents are responsible for raising their children to be homosexuals.  Of course, I think both of these positions are absurd*, but I can grant that Rekers might believe all of this stuff and still, at the same time, like to get his rocks off with young men.  If it it were only that Rekers were a weak Jimmy-Swaggart-type, preaching the virtues of one lifestyle while secretly indulging his dark side, I could be satisfied with a sigh of disgust and the vindication of knowing that his hypocrisy is now a public spectacle.

The problem is that Rekers is also a liar, and not just a liar about his own personal life.  Rekers is a liar because he is an officer and figurehead of NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality a group which purports to offer “effective psychological care” for “individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction.”  To be fair, the group does not promise full homosexual-to-heterosexual conversion to every person seeking treatment, but it does promise that there are “positive alternatives to homosexuality,” either in the form of abstinence or in conversion, and it publishes numerous quasi-scientific articles arguing that homosexuality is a choice influenced by experience, while minimizing or entirely ignoring the overwhelming body of contrary data published and peer-reviewed by the American Psychological Association and other mainstream medical science authorities.

It may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is wrong, it may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is caused by bad parenting, and it may be the case that George Rekers thinks that homosexuality can be “cured” either through conversion therapy or the abstinence support offered by NARTH and its partner agencies.  But I just don’t see how it can be all three.  That is, I don’t see how it can be the case that George Rekers believes it’s bad to be gay, and believes he knows how to “fix” being gay (he has, in fact, profited by telling other people how to “fix” being gay), and yet he still chooses to hire male escorts for sexual romps.  I am certain that a psychologist could map a convoluted web of competing and contradictory desires and beliefs to describe how Rekers probably justified all of this to himself, but the explanation from the outside couldn’t be more simple or more clear:  Conversion therapy to “fix” homosexuality just doesn’t work.  Rekers’ organization can’t “fix” gay in other people.  They couldn’t even “fix” it in him.

Groups like NARTH and the Family Research Council and a whole host of other religiously-bent, political lobbying machines insult our intelligence by offering up dogma and ideology and calling it “science.”  When confronted with research that does not fit their political conclusions, they ignore it or condemn it as a part of a liberal, secular conspiracy.   It is a sad fact of contemporary American life that these groups maintain disproportionate political power by mimicking the language of non-partisan scientific authorities, and pretending to have legitimate scholarly intentions.  In the wake of this scandal, these groups have already begun to distance themselves from Rekers, and we should not let them.  However they may want to portray Rekers’ indiscretion as an isolated incident, it is a case-study in why the conversion therapy/ex-gay movement has failed.  We shouldn’t let them forget it.

*To be clear, I do not think it is absurd to acknowledge that sexual orientation may be the result of both environmental and genetic factors.  In fact, I think the bulk of the data strongly suggests this.  But the mere fact that environmental factors play a role in sexual orientation does not imply that parenting is the most significant (or even a significant) factor in sexual orientation, nor that later-life therapy can significantly alter a person’s orientation.  And, I feel compelled to add, even if it were the case that homosexuality was a choice, this in no way implies that a homosexual lifestyle is immoral nor that homosexual sex is wrong.

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8 Responses to “Junk Science, Hypocrites, and Rentboys”

  1. Bojangles Chess. Says:

    I’m trying to understand, what is the link between Reker’s hypocricy and the junk science of NARTH?

  2. Liza Says:

    The link is that Reker holds himself up as a scientific authority about homosexuality as a mental illness. He holds a PhD in human developmental psychology and he uses that as a testament of his authority. He published books such as “Shaping Your Child’s Sexual Identity” that argue that a homosexual identity is harmful and that good parenting prevents it. And he has used his own “research” when being called as an expert witness to testify about the harm of homosexual parenting in adoption cases in two states. That’s all in addition to his working as an officer and grant recipient for pseudo-scientific “research” groups like NARTH which explicitly endorse the view that homosexuality is a disease to be cured. So, the link between Reker’s behavior and the junk science is that he can’t possibly be genuine in believing this stuff, it hasn’t even worked for him personally. He is lying to people about “curing” homosexuality. He’s pushing bad science, and he must know that.

    • Bojangles Chess. Says:

      It’s not implicit that his sexual identity affects his scientific method. Just because he was closeted doesn’t mean he has to be aware of problems in his research. Couldn’t he be gay but at the same time believe in his theories?

      • Liza Says:

        He could be gay and at the same time believe it’s bad to be gay. He could be gay and at the same time believe we have a choice about being gay. He could be gay and at the same time believe that he can “fix” being gay either through conversion or teaching a regimen of abstinence that “recovering gays” are capable of maintaining. My contention is that he can’t do all three at the same time. I don’t think that he genuinely believes that being a practicing homosexual is really bad, that it really is possible to “fix” being gay, and he knows how to do it, and, at the same time, he willfully chooses to solicit male prostitutes. If he thought it was bad but he was helpless, I could see him doing it. If he thought it wasn’t really bad to have homosexual sex, but he could still “fix” people who don’t want to be gay, then I see no contradiction. The problem is that he clearly advocated a position that said “homosexuality really is bad” and “homosexuality really can be fixed” because those two premises strongly imply that we have a moral obligation to refrain from homosexual behavior. I suppose you could say that he could believe something is really wrong and that he really had a choice in doing it but still willfully do it, but I don’t think you could say it without radically redefining the way we normally use the term “wrong”. Normally, when a person believes something is “wrong,” they think that the wrongness of the action gives them a good reason to refrain from doing it. In fact, most people only believe that it’s acceptable to do something wrong if it cannot be helped, if it prevents them from doing something more wrong, or if it isn’t “really” wrong, which is another way of saying that they don’t believe it’s wrong. It’s just weird to say that Rekers genuinely thought it was wrong for him to have sex with men, AND that he was capable of stopping himself (and others) from active homosexual behavior, AND he just had sex with the rentboy anyway.

        • pk Says:

          to the extent that his “fix” implies that it a) works for 100% of the “afflicted” 2) that it works 100% of the time (i.e. no relapses). Also, it seems to rely heavily (if not require) that humans are rational beings- so here is one psychologist who isnt surprised if he held all three beliefs to be true….

  3. Dan Says:

    The thing I found interesting about this scandal, is that even though my admittedly cartoonish understanding of psychology tells me that people who lash out about other people’s sexual orientation are probably people who have problems facing their own sexual issues…I never really believe it. Deep down, I never really accept that the guy preaching against homosexuals probably has issues with his own sexuality. The claim seems more like a rhetorical trick (I know you are but what I am) than a real observation about human nature. But then something like this happens and I am reminded that, yeah, given that what the anti-homosexuals offer in justification of their position makes no sense, their real motives probably do stem from some deep seated rejection of their own nature. And so to relate this to Bojangles Chase’s comment, this is how understand the link between the junk science of NARTH and Reker’s hypocrisy: The dude claims he holds his views because the data supports it. Hell no. Dude holds his views because he can’t own up to own homosexuality.

    • Liza Says:

      Well said, Dan. And, let’s not forget that Rekers’ position affects more than his own reputation. Families with gay children suffer a great deal because parents believe Rekers and people like him when they say that bad parenting causes their children to be gay.

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