Sick Again: When the Editor in Chief of Psychology Today Reveals His Support for So-Called Conversion Therapies to Turn Gays Straight, What Does That Say about the State of American Psychology? (News Commentary)

By Signorile, Michelangelo | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), December 10, 2002 | Go to article overview

Sick Again: When the Editor in Chief of Psychology Today Reveals His Support for So-Called Conversion Therapies to Turn Gays Straight, What Does That Say about the State of American Psychology? (News Commentary)


Signorile, Michelangelo, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Noted lesbian psychotherapist and author Betty Berzon, Ph.D., was momentarily jarred when she opened a copy of the November-December issue of Psychology Today. There among the ads for menopause treatments and books on how to overcome depression was an ad for a book rifled A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, cowritten by longtime "conversion therapy" promoter Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D., who views homosexuality as a "condition" that can be treated.

The American Psychiatric Association not only stopped listing homosexuality as a disorder in 1973 but stated in 1990 that supposed therapies to control or change sexual orientation "do more harm than good." But Nicolosi, a psychologist rather than a psychiatrist, is president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a group that gay activists have long charged is an arm of the antigay religions right, using dubious science to disguise its moralism. Indeed, some of NARTH's past leaders have been involved in political attempts to criminalize homosexuality.

"They have tried for years to legitimize themselves within the American Psychological Association," says Doug Haldeman, Ph.D., who is part of the American Psychological Association's Division 44, a professional society dedicated to the psychological study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues. "But they are more than ever regarded as being on the fringes."

Berzon decided to call Robert Epstein, Ph.D., the highly visible editor in chief of Psychology Today, to inquire about the magazine's standards regarding advertising (although that is typically the domain of the publisher rather than the editor in chief), which led to a conversation about his views on conversion therapy. What followed over the next few days was a flurry of E-mails, many posted on gay and lesbian Internet bulletin boards, in which Berzon presented her account of their telephone conversation, Epstein responded with a conflicting version, and other notables chimed in.

What Epstein and Berzon do agree on about their heated conversation, however, is this: Epstein defended conversion therapy as a legitimate means to help people who are unhappy being homosexual. And to many mental health professionals, such as Berzon and Haldeman, that defense is highly troubling, particularly coming from the editor of such a well-known mainstream publication.

The current stature of Psychology Today rests largely on its impressive past. During the 1970s, when therapy gurus like Dr. Joyce Brothers became household names, Psychology Today was at the vanguard of America's emerging pop psychology culture, peaking with a monthly circulation of 1.2 million. Like any publication riding a trend, however, the magazine faced a downturn. After a rough patch in the '80s, when it almost went bankrupt, the publication today is a comparatively slim bimonthly (circulation: 325,000) that mostly coasts on its former reputation.

Epstein, a research psychologist and author of 11 books, has brought some renewed attention to Psychology Today since becoming its editor three years ago. He's a seemingly shrewd promoter who has used the magazine to advance his own career as well. Thumbing through the issue with the Nicolosi book ad, one quickly realizes this is Epstein's magazine: There's his editor's letter discussing his latest experiences; his interview with cover girl Laura Bush, the "therapist in chief"; his Q&A with renowned author M. Scott Peck; his Ask Dr. E. column, in which readers send in their questions; and the large portion of the letters page devoted to one of Epstein's previous editorials that, he explains, "continues to generate considerable interests"

That was from June, when the 49-year-old unattached father of four launched an "experiment," asking women who had an interest in falling in love with him (and in coauthoring a book about the experience) to write in; he claims that two people can "learn to love each other. …

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