Saturday, May 22, 2010

Caution: Experts at work (continued)

By now everyone has heard the story of George Rekers -- the co-founder of the Christian conservative Family Research Council and proponent of “curing” homosexuality, who was recently discovered to have hired a male prostitute from a website called Rentboy.com to be his “traveling companion” and to give him nude massages. (Rekers denies that he is gay or that he did anything inappropriate in hiring the man.) Rekers’s story may be old news, but I just today read the following detail:

In 1974, Rekers, a leading thinker in the so-called ex-gay movement, was presented with a 4-year-old “effeminate boy” named Kraig, whose parents had enrolled him in the program. Rekers put Kraig in a “play-observation room” with his mother, who was equipped with a listening device. When the boy played with girly toys, the doctors instructed her to avert her eyes from the child.

According to a 2001 account in Brain, Child Magazine, “On one such occasion, his distress was such that he began to scream, but his mother just looked away. His anxiety increased, and he did whatever he could to get her to respond to him . . . . Kraig became so hysterical, and his mother so uncomfortable, that one of the clinicians had to enter and take Kraig, screaming, from the room.”

Rekers’s research team continued the experiment in the family’s home. Kraig received red chips for feminine behavior and blue chips for masculine behavior.

. . .

The blue chips could be cashed in for candy or television time. The red chips earned him a “swat” or spanking from his father. Researchers periodically entered the family’s home to ensure proper implementation of the reward-punishment system.

After two years, the boy supposedly manned up. Over the decades, Rekers, who ran countless similar experiments, held Kraig up as “the poster boy for behavioral treatment of boyhood effeminacy.”

At age 18, shamed by his childhood diagnosis and treatment, Rekers’s poster boy attempted suicide, according to Gender Shock, a book by journalist Phyllis Burke.


I won’t equate Rekers’s quackery with programs like PBIS, but they obviously share some assumptions about how adults should intervene in the lives of children, and about how to understand human behavior. Stories like the one above certainly make you wonder about the long-term consequences of trying to change a child’s behavior without paying any attention to the underlying reasons for that behavior.

Rekers, by the way, has a Ph.D. in human developmental psychology from UCLA, is on the faculty of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine -- where he chaired the psychology faculty for almost twenty years -- and is the author of over a hundred academic publications, including footnote-filled studies in peer-reviewed journals advancing his theories about using behavioral techniques to “cure” homosexuality. The man’s obviously an expert. Has your brain shut down yet?


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