Why Banning Conversion Therapy May Do More Harm Than Good

Therapies promising to "cure" homosexuality are potentially harmful, but so are laws to ban them

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

On September 29, Jerry Brown signed into law a bill banning therapy that purportedly “cures” gays for minors in the state of California. Brown had previously Tweeted that these practices, known as conversion therapy, “have no basis in science of medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.” Almost immediately after being signed into law, a Christian legal group called the Pacific Justice Institute sued the state, saying that the ban was a violation of free speech and private relationships between youth, families and their therapists. Is the law a helpful effort to protect minors or a nanny-state intrusion into a private and intimate issue?

(MORE: The Boy Scouts of America Has It Backwards)

Both, possibly. First, it should be clearly stated that the empirical research supporting the efficacy of this form of therapy is weak, at best.  A 2009 task force report   by the American Psychological Association concluded that efforts to therapeutically change sexual orientation do not work, and carry significant risk of harm.  Consenting homosexual behavior is no more harmful than consenting heterosexual behavior, but instilling or reinforcing in patients the view that their sexual orientation is wrong can do psychological damage. Outside of religious conservatives, few defenders of conversion therapy can be found.

Whether government banning of such procedures is the most appropriate response is worth debating, however. There are a number of therapies out there which have been empirically demonstrated to range from useless to outright harmful. Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University, discussed this in a 2007 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Among the therapies he looked at were questionable ones such as facilitated communication, “rebirthing” therapies, and “recovered memory” therapy. But they also included relatively popular approaches such as “Scare Straight” for kids who are at risk for delinquency, boot camps kids who are anti-social, and DARE anti-drug programs. If we are going to start down the road of banning therapies, should we not ban these all, if the research evidence continues to bear out Dr. Lilienfeld’s concerns?  Why do we ban gay conversion therapy but leave DARE programs intact?

Perhaps it’s because gay conversion therapy seems so blatantly hateful, whereas at least DARE and these other approaches are well-meaning if misguided. But the real problem here is that the field of psychology is still too fluid and unreliable to form the basis of policy decisions and laws. The empirical science tends to be “squishy” because rampant methodological flexibility issues make it possible to publish anything as if true.

(MORE: Can We Trust Psychological Research?)

Banning a particular treatment also creates a slippery slope, which is perhaps why its so rare. In one notable exception, rebirthing therapy has been outlawed in Colorado and North Carolina following several fatal accidents during treatment. But even the deplorable lobotomy has never been legally banned in the United States. Then there are some therapies, such as electro-convulsive shock therapy, which develop bad reputations but then have ultimately been proven useful and effective in some situations.

Granted, gay conversion therapy seems to be a lemon unlikely to be redeeemed. But banning it may simply drive it underground, where it won’t even be subject to state regulation or limited to therapists who are licensed. With gay conversion therapy, the treatment may be worse than the ‘problem,’ but the same could be said for government efforts to intervene.

82 comments
warrior4just
warrior4just

IF there is no significant proof that therapy works, remember there is no single proof that homosexuality is innate, with this hypocrisy and double standards, one have no choice but to conlude , that promoting homosexuality is a government plan

friday_freakin_jones
friday_freakin_jones

So are you saying that being LGBT is equivalent to being a delinquent, anti-social, or on drugs?  Because those are actual problems.  Being LGBT isn't an actual problem, it's an inherent aspect of the individual like left-handedness.

BobSF_94117
BobSF_94117

"Psychic surgery" is also illegal, if performed by someone who is or claims to be a doctor.  Yet any moron who wants to subject him- or herself to a quack in a storefront is free to do so as entertainment or unprofessional counselling or under the guise of a religious ceremony.  Are we worried enough about driving "psychic surgery" underground that that way that we should allow physicians to perform it?

 Hand-wringing about the consequences of breaking the link between professional psychology/psychiatry and the scam of "reparative therapy" is ridiculous. 

fsinsf
fsinsf

Personally I am relieved conversion is banned in California and that other states are looking to do the same.  The ban is to protect minors.  Adults can access the therapy legally.  But I think the focus is misguided in this issue.  It is the parents, not the child who has the issue and who refuse to accept their child.  It is the parents who need therapy in order to reach the point where they can accept and love their gay child.

Buddy9876
Buddy9876

The "making it illegal will drive it underground" argument has some merit. Thing is, making beating your wife illegal drove it underground at the time as well; that doesn't mean that making wife beating legal now would make it any safer.

A moral society has a responsibility to protect the innocent in any way it can. Soon, hopefully, other dangerous child "psychology" practices will be outlawed as well.

Susmd
Susmd

My son was sexually abused by a man. My son is only 6yo. He has the right to be treated not to be a victim again and again and again. The abuse has two sides, it is devastating for the innocence of a child, but there is pleasure involved too. My son is and had always being a very masculine boy who has crushes on cute girls. However, he is showing signs of attraction to adult male who looks like his abuser.  Doesn't he have the rigth to understand the linkage between this attraction and the abuse and know this from his early years? Doesn't he have the right to openly discuss this with a therapist?  He does talk about it to me, but I get so overwhelmed, I do not know what to do or what to say to him.

 

Anyone who goes to www.survivor.org will read countless men who were sexually abused as children and have unwanted sexual attraction to other men. They do not know if they are gay or not. They are victims. They were little kids that got their innocence strong. Sexual abuse is a strong, very strong experience for kids. They make sexual associations and desires with the abuser. These adults now are so disturbed. It is so sad, I can't bear to read their confessions and imagine that my boy might  grow up to be so confused and disturbed. I want to help my child to be a happy, healthy man. He has the rigth to go to a therapist as a child and discuss openly all his feelings and sexual thoughts that are a result of the abuse. Why are people trying to take this alway from him? If this bill is not amended for children who are victim of sexual abuse, I have no option but to move out of California.

 

Read for example this confession of this man. Sexually abused as child, happily married now, but is having intrusive sexual thoughts about his early abuse. I don't what my child to have to deal with this when he grows up:

http://www.malesurvivor.org/bo...

 

Can anybody help us???

 

skullhammer
skullhammer

So, let me get this straight.  The gist of the article is, "everyone except right-wing whack jobs knows that this is complete and utter quackery, but, uh, maybe it isn't..."  Did I nail it? 

Amabo Kcarab
Amabo Kcarab

 The way you spell, you must have sat next to Obama when he flunked ESL.. The class had no Teleprompters.

Amabo Kcarab
Amabo Kcarab

 The way you spell, you must have sat next to Obama when he flunked ESL because the class had no Teleprompters.

jayman419
jayman419

I disagree. Rebirthing, recovered memory therapy, 'Scared Straight' ... These are (perhaps dubious) solutions to purely psychological problems. They may be ineffective, or their effectiveness may be difficult to prove empirically, but the treatments are trying to change the mind, not the body.

Trying to convert a gay individual through therapy would be like using psychology to become taller, or change your hair or eye color.

As for DARE ... that's a whole nudder matter. It's basically a drug training course. This is a pipe, this is pot. This is how you use it. This is a needle, this is heroin, this is how you use it. Don't use it, though. Cause drugs are bad. Have you seen the meth pipe yet? After like seven decades, the war on (some) drugs must be working exactly as intended.

Douche_Baggin
Douche_Baggin

I want conversion therapy, but in the opposite direction: straight----->gay.

John Simon
John Simon

This guy is a Texas mook.  Maybe he should just move his stock options out of conversion therapy.

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

There are therapies that work and quack procedures that don't.  But the bottom line here is that a alleged mental health therapy is being used to "fix" a physical property of the patient.  Conversion therapy to cure 'gayness' is directly equivalent to behavioral therapy being used to cure being a blond, or having blue eyes, or being Black.

If one turns it on its head and a therapy was developed by religious hypocrites to cure "straightness", there would be a hue and cry out there to stop it because sexual orientation is a physical property of the individual.  It's not a mental defect.

Much of the issue is, of course, religion.  It infests our society on every level creating one that is obsessed with sex, but not allowed to express it except in private, and even then it's not always allowed in the manner two consenting adults agree upon.  Our laws regarding some people in society are built around  the mythological notion that all relationships recognized by by civil law must be "between a man and a woman" (despite the fact civil law recognizes only the legalities of the "contract" they've taken and has no care for the genders or numbers of the individuals involved in the contract).

Finally, we have some of these mythologies torturing individuals  by attempting to change their physical natures to conform to some mythological-based ideal in such a way that it actually harms them. 

Religions can get people to believe anything.  It doesn't mean it's true.  Conversion doesn't make a gay person straight.  It makes a gay person crazy.  Like trying to change a straight person gay, they may THINK they're gay, but inside, they know they're not.  Combine this with the fact that human sexuality isn't either/or.  It's a sliding scale encompassing degrees and variability that can change depending on the person.  Bi-curious, transsexual, transgender, bisexual - the gamut of human sexuality runs the spectrum between gay and straight. 

The reason religions want "man and woman" heralds back to the time when the religions were being founded.  If one controls a person's sex life, they control a person.  Gay sex (or ANY OTHER KIND)  doesn't fit into their predefined methods of control.  They can't change their mythology without proving to everyone it's all made up anyhow, so they try to suppress what is part of the human experience for many people.  Also, by forcing followers into a "man and woman" only relationship, these religions ensure that anyone born by that arrangement is indoctrinated into the religion from birth.  This guarantees a steady flow of new slaves into the myth.

Hippocrates doesn't have an oath for mental heath, but first do no harm seems to be the best way to deal with mental health issues.

Of course, it's better to be sure the issue is mental in the first place before attempting to treat someone.  Their mythology says it is.  Science says otherwise.

 So, yes, ban the thing.  The slippery slope mentality being used in the above argument isn't something that's likely to happen because while the efficacy of the other therapies is certainly questionable, they generally do little to no harm to the patient and there aren't a lot of people out there trying to force them on others.

Guest
Guest

Because child abuse is illegal, and these "gay therapies" are nothing more than child abuse.

smjhunt
smjhunt

First the author says  empirical research supporting the efficacy of this form of therapy is weak, at best and then provides evidence that suggests it's non-existent, not simply weak.  Did they leave out something that would make it deserve the label weak instead of non-existent?

After this he seems to have two arguments: the slippery slope of banning unscientific therapies and the idea that it will go underground. On the slippery slope argument I think as with any law, you need to weigh the costs and benefits.  For things that are useless but harmless I think probably the cost of enforcing a ban probably doesn't make sense but as the author states, there is evidence that such therapy is harmful so I think the benefit of banning it probably outweighs the cost.

As far as it going "underground"  Banning it will certainly not cause people who are unlicensed to stop practicing  it but people like therapists whose livelihood depends on their license are not likely to do so.  Drug addicts may not care whether the person they buy their drugs from is legit and consequently drug dealing survives well after going underground but I'm thinking that parents who would take their kids to someone would be a lot less likely to use someone who is unlicensed.   Additionally, banning it will mean the practitioners can not advertise or appear in media which should reduce the temptation for parents to try it.

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

any conversion theory is based on religious beliefs ... therefore destined to fail, as those beliefs are clearly all false... banning them will not stop religious fanatic sex scared people from applying such theories to their victims.

I tend to agree, a law banning such practices is likely going to make more damage than  not .. but  perhaps what should be done is require a degree accredited by recognized national Universities and a federal board of psychologists  to practice any kind of psychological therapy. That will limit the religious based intervention to the fringe of the society where anyway it is hard to protect people from abuser and anyway would be of very limited occurrence. 

ShehanR
ShehanR

So are there nay form of therapy that is not harmful? Any kind of behavioral modification can have it's negative side effects. Therapists mush weigh, according to the nature of the patient.

ShehanR
ShehanR

Then why not we ban reparative/conversion therapies for pedophiles , necrophiliacs,  sadists, masochists and individuals stigmatized as having sexual perversions and paraphilias. They also did not choose to be so. They also have very strong sexual feelings. They also do stuff within their bedrooms. Where are the equal rights for them? Who stands for them? Ironically and hypocritically gays do not want to identify with them. 

xzaebos
xzaebos

"Gay" therapy is trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist. Homosexuality is, by no means, a disorder. So any attempt to 'treat' or counsel a homosexual teen is going to fail. It is fool hearty and ignorant. While we shouldn't be throwing laws around, I'm not going to be quick to want this law repealed.

baxters
baxters

What needs to be banned all over the US is the torturous, expensive and worthless "therapy"  of injecting children with the same chemicals used to sterilize sex offenders due to the quack theory that it cures  autism. Also ban chelation therapy unless a competent doctor can actually prove that the patient even has elevated levels of lead or mercury in their blood. Society needs to move past torturing and starving (through ridiculously restricted unscientific diets) people with autism. Making it illegal for parents or pastors to counsel gay teens according to their religious beliefs should not be priority #1 compared to other agregious  "therapies".  What's next? Arresting everyone who isn't pro gay?

Talendria
Talendria

I agree with you that conversion therapy sounds terrifying, and I agree that banning it in professional establishments could result in parents taking their minor children to an unlicensed quack, which is probably much more terrifying.  It seems like all gay teens and their families would benefit from therapy as long as it was conducted by a sensitive, neutral therapist and didn't have the specific goal of "converting" anyone.

As a controlling person myself, I understand the urge to legislate human behavior, but it sounds like Governor Brown is doing the same thing he's prohibiting others from doing--namely, using his authority to eradicate something he sees as wrong.  If it doesn't work on gay teens, why would it work on their parents?  We need to start educating people instead of slapping them in the face with legislation.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Should the state license ignorance? That is the real issue at question here.

Esoba
Esoba

As always Dr. Ferguson you are a voice of reason against emotional knee-jerk reactions.  I am a fellow researcher and have followed your articles since you and Dr. Anderson went back and forth about the merits of violent media consumption on violent behavior.  I must agree with you.  Although I personally view the "therapy" as repulsive, you are correct that it is a slippery slope best left untested.