The UK government has announced proposals to ban so-called “conversion therapy” – attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity under the guise of support. It has opened a small public consultation seeking views on its plan.
But there is a discount in the offers that is worth noting. Conversion therapy will still be allowed in cases involving “consenting” adults. This is a complex subject that needs to be considered. Could a waiver at this point undermine the stated purpose of “ending” such practices?
I was the lead author of a study commissioned by the government to help inform his approach. My team and I were tasked with reviewing existing international evidence, and we also interviewed people who had undergone conversion therapy in the UK. Many are surprised that it still occurs in the UK, but the government’s national LGBT survey in 2017 found that 7% of respondents had either experienced it or were offered it.
We found no strong evidence that conversion therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Not only is there no good evidence that it “works”, there is also increasing evidence that exposure to conversion attempts is associated with poorer mental health such as depression and suicidal ideation.
Many of the people we spoke to felt that conversion therapy reinforced the idea that there was something wrong with them. They left with feelings of self-loathing, which worsened their mental health. As one gay man explained:
I was suicidal and self harming at one point and then I made a conscious decision to do nothing more with conversion therapy, because what I was seeing was suicide, self-harm in people around me. And there was depression, and not seeing any change.
We talked to several people who felt they had benefited from conversion therapy. This was largely due to having the opportunity to talk about their feelings and meet like-minded people who are struggling with similar feelings. Of course, such benefits are not unique to conversion therapy and can be derived from approaches that provide support without the premise that LGBT is a deficit, disorder, or addiction.
What counts as ‘coercion’?
The UK government has proposed the introduction of a new criminal offence, banning coercive forms of conversion therapy and all forms of “talking conversion therapy” for vulnerable adults under the age of 18.
A more controversial issue in the proposals, however, is the plan not to ban conversion therapy in cases where people over 18 freely consent to it.
The Bain Conversion Therapy Legal Forum – a cross-party group of politicians, academics, lawyers and campaigners – argues that because of the social pressures involved in these cases and the imbalance of power, “consent” is not truly exercised independently or autonomously. May go. The group recently published its own proposals and argued that there should be no exemption for the ban at all.
We found examples of open coercion in our research. One woman told us that her parents had locked her in a room for several days until she agreed to her attempts to convert. And a transgender woman living in her church-provided housing was offered “counseling” and then threatened with eviction if she didn’t comply.
However, most told us that they had undergone conversion therapy “voluntarily” but in the face of powerful social pressures. The people we interviewed were generally more likely to be rejected by their families or entire communities if they didn’t change. They also often followed the guidance of those in positions of faith and authority. As one lesbian woman said:
I thought I was making a personal choice to do these things, but when I look back I realize I was really in a vulnerable position… I listened to the people who lashed out at me authority who reassured me that this was the option. need to make.
The government is emphasizing that “the requirements shall be strong and stringent”, specifying that consent must be voluntary (“not influenced by others”) and informed. Most of the people we spoke to felt that they had not been given accurate information free of bias, had not been informed of the risks of a conversion attempt, or had been offered an alternative.
Of course, this is a tricky issue that must take into account freedom of religion and belief. The government’s approach does not seek to replace everyday religious practices and it is clear that religious instruction and private prayer will not constitute conversion therapy. But we found that conversion attempts often take place in religious settings and the distinction between “talking therapy” and religious “pastoral care” is often blurred. Religious groups providing non-professional forms of counseling can be almost identical to conversion therapy offered by “professionals”. Some even described the traumatic experiences of prayer as a form of exorcism.
Government proposals are detailed and deserve serious consideration, but the line at which powerful social influence becomes coercive is a question worth pondering for anyone planning to respond to the consultation.