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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Reconsidering “Choice”

I just read an interesting review of a new behavioral psychology book, “Addiction: A Disorder of Choice,” by Gene Heyman.  As the review states, the key theme of the book is “that the idea [of] addiction [as] a disease has been based on a limited view of voluntary behavior.”  As a remedy to this limited view, the author draws out the distinction between addiction and diseases such as Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis, the course of which cannot be altered by voluntary behavior.  In contrast, he argues that the success of treatment programs which provide reinforcement for sobriety demonstrates that a key element of addiction is choice- if it were not, incentives just wouldn’t work.   Of course, this suggests that the move toward viewing addiction as a disease rather than a choice is problematic in light of what we normally mean by “disease.”  But, what’s far more interesting to me is the implication that the “disease of choice” thesis has for our concept of “choice.”  This is the issue I will explore further.

The person snorting her first line of coke or dabbing a little bit of heroin does not want to become a hopeless crackwhore or junkie anymore than the person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s wants to lose her memory.   In this way addiction resembles a disease more than a choice.     Most rational people don’t want to destroy themselves, and most addicts start out as rational people who want to feel better.  Addiction is the sum of incremental choices made on an ever-sliding scale of rewards and negative consequences.  It feels good and doesn’t seem that bad the first time, it might seem worse the next time, but it feels even better, and so on and so forth until it is a serious, life-swallowing problem that you just can’t resist.  Except of course, you can resist it, and if and when you do resist it, the negative symptoms of addiction get better.  The same can’t be said of Alzheimer’s.

The possibility of resisting addictive behaviors is what makes addiction a “choice,” but no addict manages to resist indulging unless he has stronger incentives to refrain than to continue.  Of course, as anyone who has studied the philosophy of David Hume can tell you, this isn’t just the way choice works with addicts.  A choice is always determined by competing desires.  This is as true of the martyr debating whether a vow of silence is more important than a cry for help as it is for a junkie debating between one more hit and passing his court-appointed drug test.  We are all slaves to our desires, some of us just have crueler masters.

The fact that actions are determined by desires, and desires themselves are, on some basic level, unchosen, raises a serious question about ultimate moral responsibility.  I’m not going to offer an opinion on that question, but I mention it because this is clearly the issue that motivates the move toward viewing addiction as a disease rather than a choice.  If addiction is a choice and addicts do terrible things, then they are morally responsible for those terrible things.  If addiction is a disease, then addicts shouldn’t be blamed for the “symptoms” of their disease.   Intuitively, I think most of us want to carve out some sort of middle position in between these two extremes.  What’s troubling about addiction is not the content of the desire.   Wanting a line of coke is not like wanting to rape a child.  The problem is the overwhelming force of the desire:   Addicts privilege their fix over all other competing desires, including the desire to fulfill moral obligations to other people.  So, to preserve the intuition that addicts can be responsible for bad things but not be bad people, we are intentionally opaque in the use of terms like “disease”- which addiction really isn’t- and “choice” -which addiction really is, but which implies a level of freedom and self-determination that nobody really has.

I think Heynman is right to characterize addiction as a “choice,” but the word needs to be trimmed of its metaethical weight.  Addicts have a choice because their behavior is determined by one desire, and that behavior could be altered if competing desires become more powerful.   Treatment programs are designed to strengthen the motivational force of these competing desires by focusing the addict’s attention on all of the things that they can keep or get by staying sober and all of the things which they stand to lose if they don’t.  These programs also offer incentives that tip the balance of competing desires by making some desire-fulfillment much easier than other desire fulfillment.  All of this suggests that addiction- both the active problem, and the process of recovery- is not a singular, moral choice.   Choice is never-ending sequence of battles between competing desires.  The fact that treatment programs work by reinforcing certain desires and disincentivizing others should not suggest to us that addicts have much in the way of power or freedom to change on their own.  It simply means that, given the right support and opportunities, they can change. Of course, the same description of choice is equally applied to non-addicts as well.

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