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Dr. Christian Jessen is a medical doctor and one of the stars of the British television program, Embarassing Bodies. Well known for educating the public on medical conditions that might be "too embarassing to share with their doctors", the 36-year-old authority in sexual health has made headlines with a new documentary on an extremely controversial topic: the various treatments available for "curing" homosexuality. In a long-term same-sex relationship himself, Dr. Jessen went undercover to visit different therapists (mostly in the United States) offering to cure his "same-sex attraction disorder." The documentary titled: "Undercover Doctor: Cure Me I'm Gay" was broadcast on Channel Four in the United Kingdom on March 18.
The range of treatments presented by Jessen, many being touted by evangelical groups in the United States and the U.K. seem horrifying, especially since they are perfectly legal in the areas where they are being offered. In the aversion therapy session he attended, Dr. Jessen was required to look at various homoerotic pictures followed by his drinking ipecac syrup to make him physically ill. "I suddenly went from being how you usually see me on telly, which is as a fairly calm, in-control doctor not flustered by anything, to, I think, being an abused patient”, Jessen said during the show. “It’s not particularly nice being made to vomit, especially not being made to vomit like that. I was upset for all the people who had to go through this, sometimes enforced, sometimes voluntarily, because they were so miserable and life was so difficult.” While aversive therapy to treat same-sex sexual attraction were widely used by medical doctors until the 1970s, no actual evidence of its effectiveness has ever been produced. Despite this, clinics aimed at "curing" homoseuality still provide aversive treatment as Dr. Jessen showed in his documentary.
Also in the documentary, Dr. Jessen is shown visiting places in the Southern states (a.k.a., The Bible Belt) and attempting to meet with evangelical leaders telling him that homosexuality was the result of childhood trauma. Refusing to accept that anyone is "born gay", they advocate religious interventions, including exorcisms and pray-away-the-gay religious services. Although many of these leaders refused to meet with him on camera since he was openly gay, Dr. Jessen interviewed some of their younger followers instead. Two of these followers, aged sixteen and twenty, told him that being gay ‘happens when bad spirits are inside you. Demons.’ Visibly upset by this, Dr. Jessen terminated the interview.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, he voiced the frustration he felt over the anti-gay religious fervour he encountered. "‘I’d been doing reasonably well before then, keeping myself together and regarding all of this as just nonsense,’ Dr Jessen said. ‘Rather stupidly, I thought younger people must share different views and I hoped to see some open-mindedness. ‘It saddened me deeply that this wasn’t the case. They don’t come up with these ideas themselves, they are taught them, and that’s incredibly worrying. ‘They go to schools where creationism is taught over evolution, it’s unbelievable.’ As a test of the different gay cures, Jessen completed before- and after- sexual orientation test created at Cornell University. Using physiology measures such as pupil response and penile arousal to measure homosexual arousal, the idea was to determine whether the various cures made any difference in his homosexuality (they didn't).
While the documentary attracted a worldwide audience, it also generated its share of criticism as well. In a review publisbed in the Daily Telegraph, Neil Midgley argued that Dr. Jessen's lack of objectivity and his misrepresenting himself as a gay men who genuinely wanted to change made him a poor candidate for the gay conversion treatments being offered. He also criticized Jessen for failing to confront the people offering the various gay cures he described and for allowing the underlying assumption that homosexuality is a disease to go unchallenged. Jessen, in responding to his critics, openly acknowledged his lack of objectivity but pointed out the very real harm gay cures can cause. "I don't want to not be gay – I'm perfectly happy with how I am," he stated.
Though not as hard-hitting as the expose of gay-to-straight treatments presented by Stephen Fry in his two-part BBC documentary, Out There, Jessen's documentary represents a very real attempt at highlighting that the forced conversion that many gay men and women were forced to endure in previous decades is hardly a thing of the past. "I suspect that, with laws being brought in in countries like Russia and Uganda, they've just taken this massive step back into the dark ages", Jessen said in another interview. "These sorts of treatments will again start to rear their heads."
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