by Peter Sprigg
March 10, 2017
I was shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden death, on March 9, of Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. His passing came after a brief illness and hospitalization.
Dr. Nicolosi was one of the most important leaders—historically, and right up until his death—of the “ex-gay therapy” movement (more on terminology in a moment).
Joseph Nicolosi was one of the founders of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which was later re-named the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity.
He was also the father of “reparative therapy” for men—a particular branch of the larger movement to provide assistance in seeking change to those who experience unwanted same-sex attractions.
There is a great deal of confusion about the terminology used regarding this subject. LGBT activists who are critics of “sexual orientation change efforts,” or “SOCE” have begun referring to such efforts as “conversion therapy”—even though virtually no practitioner of such therapy refers to it that way. Nevertheless, the media have followed in lock-step behind the activist critics in using that term.
“Sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE) is a broad and legitimate term that can encompass both therapy conducted by licensed therapists and counseling provided by religious or pastoral counselors who seek to help clients with the same goal—that of overcoming same-sex attractions and/or resisting the temptation to engage in homosexual conduct.
Among licensed therapists, the term “sexual reorientation therapy” is preferred—although recently, the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity has coined the term “Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy,” or “SAFE-T,” to better describe what actually happens in such efforts.
Regardless of the terminology, what distinguishes sexual reorientation therapy or SAFE-T is not a particular therapeutic technique, but rather the goal that the client is pursuing. A range of different psychological or therapeutic techniques can be used toward that goal.
For a period of time, after Dr. Nicolosi first came to prominence in the 1990’s, the term “reparative therapy” was widely used in the media to describe all SOCE. However, properly speaking, “reparative therapy” refers only to the particular technique in which Dr. Nicolosi specialized.
Even when the term “reparative therapy” is being correctly used to refer to a specific psychotherapy technique, it is easily misunderstood. Most assume that the premise of such therapy is that homosexuality itself is a form of “brokenness,” and the task of the therapist is to “repair” the homosexual person.
This is not, however, how Dr. Nicolosi used the term “reparative therapy.” I highly recommend his brief (about 2,000 words) essay, “What Is Reparative Therapy? Examining the Controversy,” which is available online.
In brief, Dr. Nicolosi’s working theory was that homosexuality itself is a “reparative” drive—an effort to “repair” some other, underlying trauma. In his own words:
… [H]omosexual behavior may be an unconscious attempt to “self-repair” feelings of masculine inferiority and … such feelings represent an attempt to meet normal, healthy, masculine emotional needs.
. . .
Reparative therapy views most same-sex attractions as reparations for childhood trauma. Such trauma may be explicit, such as sexual or emotional abuse, or implicit in the form of negative parental messages regarding one’s self and gender. Exploring, isolating and resolving these childhood emotional wounds will often result in reducing unwanted same-sex attractions.
Dr. Nicolosi was the author of several books, including a guide to “reparative therapy” for clinicians (Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality: A New Clinical Approach, Jason Aronson Inc., 1991), and an important work for a more general audience (A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, with his wife Linda Ames Nicolosi; InterVarsity Press, 2002).
The Joe Nicolosi I knew was compassionate toward his clients, persuasive and intellectually rigorous in his writing and speaking, and gregarious and entertaining in personal relationships. I will miss him personally, as will all who knew him and the movement he helped found.
However, he leaves behind a tremendous legacy in defense of the right of those with unwanted same-sex attractions to seek their own path in life.