Handcuffs, Baby Powder & Duct Tape: The Most Jaw-Dropping "Conversion Therapy" Practices

Getty Images

Jersey City, New Jersey — The damning testimony of three defendants in a landmark case that could determine the legal future of so-called "conversion therapy" for gay men and women appears to be sealing the practice's fate. Although the defendants have characterized their work from the witness stand as "helping those struggling with homosexuality," who they asserted are "just heterosexuals with problems in the area of psychological development," the trio admit to employing bizarre, ethically questionable methods, including stripping nude with clients at weekend retreats, duct-taping men together and telling clients that the "gay deathstyle" would lead to high rates of "bowel disease."

The defendants are unapologetic about the practices. "I'm just like any other coach — I'm not going to just back away," testified Alan Downing, an unlicensed counselor and self-described "life coach" for Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (formerly Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), or JONAH, when asked about pressuring his clients into stripping in front of a full-length mirror in his office as he stood nearby. "I want to help other men overcome whatever it is that's holding them back."

In the case, Ferguson v. JONAH, four former patients of the ex-gay conversion therapy provider contend that JONAH violated New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act by claiming its services could "cure" their homosexuality. Downing, along with JONAH co-founders Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Silodor Berk, stands accused by the former clients of encouraging them to beat their parents in effigy, stockpiling shirtless photographs lifted from their Facebook accounts and promising them that JONAH's "Psycho-Educational Model for Healing Homosexuality" would eradicate their same-sex attractions.

Unlicensed counselor Alan Downing and his wife.Source: Alex Remnick/AP
Unlicensed counselor Alan Downing and his wife.  Alex Remnick/AP

The defendants are all unlicensed amateurs: In a methodical, point-by-point examination that one observer compared to "Chinese water torture," plaintiffs' attorney Lina Bensman questioned Goldberg about his lack of professional qualifications.

"You don't have a PhD in psychology, right? ... Actually, you don't have a PhD in anything, do you? ... And you have no scientific background whatsoever, right?" Goldberg answered each of these questions with a small "no."(Although Goldberg once held certifications from the American Psychotherapy Association, those certifications were revoked because he lied about previous felony convictions on his application.)

In fact, as Berk and Downing both later testified, none of the three defendants have any advanced training in psychology, psychiatry, counseling, medicine or any other discipline related to the practice of mental health (although Downing, who has a bachelor's degree in musical theater, testily noted that he was three-quarters of the way through a master's in counseling that he began in 2005). Berk, who ran JONAH's online listserv, admitted to having no formal training or education in "psychology, biology, neurology or genetics," but that didn't prevent her from writing about the purported science of homosexuality to JONAH clients.

"The more SSA [same-sex attraction] activity you have experienced," Berk wrote in an e-mail shown to the jury on Thursday, "the more neural pathways and habits you have built up that have to be overcome."

The plaintiffs' attorney was skeptical. "Can you explain what a neural pathway is?" he asked Berk.

"No," she answered. "I can't."

Defendant Arthur Goldberg takes the witness stand.Source: Alex Remnick/AP
Defendant Arthur Goldberg takes the witness stand.  Alex Remnick/AP

How does the therapy "work," then? Lots of nudity, for one. Downing's clients are frequently asked to disrobe, "when appropriate," to overcome body shame, which he theorizes is a contributing factor of same-sex attraction. When explaining why he told Benjamin Unger, one of the plaintiffs in the case, to stare at his father's genitals in locker rooms as a way of combating his same-sex attraction, Downing explained that "[Unger] would destigmatize the male body by seeing naked men in nonsexual settings."

One of Downing's more controversial practices involves telling his clients to strip in front of a full-length mirror — and in front of Downing — while repeating critical adjectives about themselves until they are standing fully naked in front of the "life coach." According to Chaim Levin, another one of the plaintiffs suing JONAH, the exercise concluded with Downing instructing him to touch his own penis. Downing was vague on the truthfulness of that allegation in his testimony: "I don't recall if I did or not."

Downing made clear that the stripping isn't an order. "I do not tell someone they should take off their clothes," he testified. "It's an invitation." The life coach stated that although he doesn't "belong to any particular [professional] association ... I try to adhere to those ethical guidelines." The American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Counseling Association all prohibit licensed mental health professionals from employing nudity in therapy sessions with clients.

Defenders of the unlicensed "life coach" say that there is merit in the practice. "I know Alan Downing, who did that exercise, very well," Chris Doyle, director of the International Healing Foundation, a group that "works with individuals, families and groups to educate on sexual orientation," told Mic. "He's a very ethical man." 

According to Doyle and Charles LiMandri, Downing's attorney at trial, the nude aspects of the therapy are actually rooted in the practices of "gay-affirming" organizations. "The technique that Alan was using was actually adapted from very gay-affirming circles," said Doyle. "It's kind of ironic — the gay activists are saying it's okay in gay-affirming circles to use nudity to help heal body shame, but if the client's goal is to rid themselves of unwanted same-sex attraction using those same kinds of exercises, it's not okay."

The "gay-affirming" organizations cited by Doyle and LiMandri include the Mankind Project, which has been accused of cult activity, and Body Electric, which hosts experiential weekends that feature group sexual contact and where "erections are welcome" — interesting organizations on which to model therapeutic exercises that purportedly help men lessen same-sex attractions.

Elaine Silodor Berk, co-founder and self-described "power behind the throne" at JONAH.Source: Alex Remnick/AP
Elaine Silodor Berk, co-founder and self-described "power behind the throne" at JONAH.  Alex Remnick/AP

"Experiential weekends" went even further: During opening statements, both legal teams made references to so-called "experiential weekends" employed by JONAH and its partners: Plaintiffs' attorney David Dinielli cryptically mentioned activities employing "oranges, handcuffs, baby powder and duct tape," practices that even the defense's attorney called "bizarre."

Evidence shown during Downing and Goldberg's testimony shed even more light on the weekend retreats. During "Journey Into Manhood," a 48-hour experiential weekend for those relatively new to the world of ex-gay therapy, participants engage in exercises ranging from being duct-taped together to being blindfolded as Downing and other counselors shouted homophobic vulgarities at each them. According to documents shown in trial, the weekend, which is thematically organized around the fairy tale of Jack and the beanstalk, calls for a "GUTS Kit" of conversion therapy tools including duct tape, rope, oranges, baby powder, handcuffs and a cringeworthy recording of Shaina Noll's "How Could Anyone (Ever Tell You You Are Anything Less Than Beautiful)."

According to Downing, the practices are harmless. "[The duct tape] is a metaphor ... the idea of the tape is to create some level of resistance. We try to create an external metaphor to take the story outside of the man's mind." 

From the original complaint.Source: Southern Policy Law Center
From the original complaint.  Southern Policy Law Center

The controversial, borderline abusive nature of some Journey Into Manhood exercises may explain why the organizers of the weekend place such a primacy on secrecy. "Graduates" of the weekends are instructed not to talk about the details of their experience with outsiders (a Fight Club reference by a plaintiffs' attorney during direct examination went over Downing's head).

"Journey Beyond," a weekend described by Downing as "several steps beyond" Journey Into Manhood, goes even further. Over the course of three and a half days, clients and counselors alike spend much of the weekend engaging in similar exercises completely nude, including an exercise where they "break free, symbolically" from bedsheets meant to represent their mothers' wombs. Although Downing was quick to point out in his testimony that he is excused from being in nude exercises with clients during Journey Into Manhood, "Journey Beyond is a bit of an exception."

Plaintiff Michael Ferguson stands in a courtroom in Jersey City, New Jersey.Source: Alex Remnick/AP
Plaintiff Michael Ferguson stands in a courtroom in Jersey City, New Jersey.  Alex Remnick/AP

Meanwhile, homosexuality is considered a "deathstyle": According to Berk, who was reprimanded on several occasions by the presiding judge for presenting herself as an expert witness during her testimony, "the statistics prove that, compared to heterosexuality, [being gay] is a very dangerous lifestyle."

Being gay, Berk wrote to members of the JONAH listserv, is a one-way track to promiscuity, disease and death. "Forty percent of gay men have 500 or more partners in their lives," she wrote, "and there is fully three times the amount of psychiatric disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, bowel disease, sexually transmitted diseases, etc. A normal group — No!" Although the statistics and syndromes that Berk frequently cited have been largely discredited for decades, that didn't keep her from declaring homosexuality a "deathstyle" on the stand.

"Gay activists are pushing [coming out younger and younger] as a recruiting tool because they understand the power of early sexual experiences," Berk said, reading from an e-mail she had sent one of JONAH's clients. "To tell pre-adolescents and adolescents that if they feel [same-sex attraction], it means they're born gay and should 'be true to themselves' and live a gay life is not only a lie, but very dangerous and harmful to the youngster."

The arguments have only strengthened the plaintiffs' case. "No one becomes straight by recalling childhood trauma; no one becomes straight by being held by older men," said Dinielli in his opening remarks. "There will be no expert witness who will take the stand and defend what the defendants do."