When Bad Science Kills
A new documentary questions the scientific merits of conversion therapy.
Posted Jun 09, 2011
Tonight at 10:00 EST on "AC360," CNN will be televising the last episode in a three part series that examines an experimental therapy that was designed in the early 70s to make feminine boys more masculine (click here to see the trailer). I've been watching this series with a mixture of fascination and disgust.
The story follows the story of Kirk Murphy, who in 2003 at the age of 38 took his life after struggling his entire life to come to terms with his sexual orientation. His sister, who was interviewed by Anderson Cooper for the series, says she use to spend a lot of time thinking why her older brother would kill himself, but after learning more about his childhood, she concluded, "What I now think is I don't know how he made it that long."
Cooper and his staff investigate Kirk's tragic death and the events preceding it. According to Cooper, who interviewed Kirk's mother, older brother, and younger sister, Kirk was a happy child until the age of 5 when he started to exhibit feminine mannerisms and characteristics. His parents became concerned and took him to UCLA's Gender Identity Clinic, where he was seen by George Rekers, then a first year psychology graduate student. Kirk, who would later be known by the experimental pseudonym "Kraig," was seen for about a year in an intensive, behaviorally-based treatment designed specifically for "childhood cross-gender identity."
As part of the treatment, Kirk was subjected to inhumane treatment that most ethics boards today would question. According to an often cited case study (which can be viewed by clicking here), Kirk's behavior was scrutinized like that of a lab rat. He was placed by himself in a room with a one-way mirror and instructed to choose between two set of toys--those considered "masculine" and those considered "feminine." His mother, who later joined the experiment, was then invited into the room and instructed to ignore her son whenever he gravitated toward feminine toys but to shower him with attention if he played with more masculine toys.
This form of positive reinforcement, as it is known in classical conditioning terms, was not restricted to the lab. At home, Kirk was subjected to a token system, whereby, he was rewarded poker chips for "positive" and "negative" behavior. According to the case study, blue chips were given for masculine behavior, which could later be traded in for such rewards as candy. Red chips, however, were given for behavior deemed feminine and would result in "physical punishment by spanking from the father." (Rekers, et. al., p. 180). According to Kirk's sister, Maris, such spankings included "lots of belt incidents." Afterwards, she says she would go to Kirk's room and "lay down and hug him and we would just lay there, and the thing that I remember is that he never even showed anger. He was just numb."
Kirk's family believes that Rekers and his fellow collaborators destroyed Kirk's life, which led to his eventual suicide decades later. Rekers disagrees and maintains that all he was trying to do was to help this little boy grow-up to be "normal." He points to the research he has subsequently produced, arguing the rationale for his treatment was to help parents who were distressed about their children's gender non-conforming behavior. Rekers has gone on to co-author other papers and books, including his most recent volume Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attraction (2009). In it, he concludes his work with Kirk was a success. Closer examination of the historical record suggests otherwise.
For those interested in learning more about this story and the dubious science behind conversion therapy, check out CNN's AC360 and the final episode of "The Sissy Boy Experiment."
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.