What’s involved in banning gay conversion therapy?

The government have proposed legislation to “gay conversion therapy.”  MPs have been quick to announce their support for the ban arguing that the practice is outdated and cruel. But what exactly is involved in such a ban.

So what is Conversion Therapy? A range of things seem to be covered under the label certainly based on articles I’ve read and interviews I’ve watched. It seems to include a whole range of possibilities including:

        exorcisms to cast out demons

        attempts at aversion therapy where a person learns to associate a particular stimulus with discomfort. 

– Use of electro-shock as therapy,

– Attempts to change hormone balance

        Asking someone to pray for you, so that you will no longer experience certain desires

        Catholic Confession

        Counselling that considers the possibility that sexuality may be affected by past trauma and experiences.

It’s worth saying at this stage that Christian organisations such as Living Out are opposed to Conversion Therapy for the reasons set out in this article.

I am in general agreement with the points raised. However, I want to suggest that we need to think through exactly what is meant by banning this type of offering, what are the motives behind a ban and what might be some of the consequences of it? As is often the case, a simply slogan hides a number of more nuanced and complex issues. It is usually helpful to separate them out. So, here goes:

1.      If something is offered as a claimed therapy which a. Cannot medically achieve what it claims and b. Is harmful to the client then do Governments have the right to ban them? The answer to that depends on your view of other “libertarian” issues e.g. dangerous sports, drug use etc. Libertarians will tend to argue that providing someone is freely consenting, then it is none of the business of the State what they do.  If I want to ride a motorbike without a crash helmet, snort a load of cocaine and then check into a bit of conversion therapy, then that’s my choice. You may warn me that all those things are dangerous and I’m going to end up in a mess but that’s my call to make, it is after all, my body, my choice.  Advocates of banning/criminalising certain activities do so for two reasons. First of all, that often people who are vulnerable to certain harmful activities are not in fact making free choices. They may feel compelled by pressure within their community to do something and also arguably they consent on the basis of a deception. If these therapies don’t work and in fact are harmful then those providing them are hardly likely to say that on the publicity material. Secondly, the argument s that if something is harmful, then there is a cost to the rest of society which has to be picked up later. The person finds themselves in hospital because of what happened and the NHS picks up the tab.  Of course absolute bans are not the only option, for example alcohol and tobacco consumption are regulated through age and location restrictions, advertising bans and requirements for warning labels.

2.      Is it possible and permissible for someone to change their sexual orientation? It is fascinating that our society says that gender change is possible and that people should not only be free to seek this but that our education and health services should be geared up to positively facilitate it. However,  the idea that someone could change their sexual orientation is ruled out of court. This is important because there is a significant difference between banning particular types of therapy because the practices are harmful and attempting to ban the whole concept in principle. The government will need to be very clear on what it is seeking to do here. Arguably, if there are so called therapeutic practices that are harmful, then they are harmful in whatever context (whether its to change my sexual orientation or to help me give up smoking). Regulation of those practices should be considered regardless of what particular condition they are attempting to change.

3.      It seems to me that the real argument at the heart of this is that conversion therapy arises out of a belief that homosexuality is wrong. It is clear that people like Vicky Beeching and Steve Chalke have this specifically in their sights. The aim is not simply to eradicate a harmful practice but to eradicate the thinking behind it. The argument is that the only reason why someone would want to change their sexual orientation is because  they have been brought up in a religious culture where they’ve learnt to believe that their current orientation is sinful. Therefore the problem is not the existence of the therapy but the root beliefs behind it. In other words, there has been an ongoing strategy through the abolition of section 28 in schools, the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the publication of books, TV interviews, Gay Pride events and use of social media and lots of personal conversations to change the minds of those who believe homosexual practice to be a sin by creating a culture where such beliefs are not tolerated (in other words, a large scale form of conversion therapy). 

It is important to recognise that it is really point 3 at stake and from that perspective, it doesn’t matter if I’m doing some questionable, unproven pseudo-psychology with you or just happen to pray with you, the problem isn’t what I do but why I do it.  At that level, I think people like Steve Chalke and Vicky Beeching have stumbled on an important truth. All that really matters is whether or not homosexual practice is a sin or not. Everything we decide to do follows from that. 

It is however important for the government to think through carefully about how they approach this question.  I’ve certainly heard about some practices that sound harmful, there are some that I think are simply naïve and theologically I have little time for.  If certain practices need regulating then look carefully at them (though I’m interested to know if they are planning to ban exorcisms generally for example).  Be aware as well that just because you may not agree with a certain practice that this means it needs to be banned.  Be careful as well not to create a society where you think you are acting to protect the rights and liberties of some but in fact you are are removing freedom gernally..