What Is Conversion Therapy?
Sexual orientation is a salient facet of human identity. Our attractions toward the “opposite” or same sex provide exciting opportunities to connect with others on an intimate level. However, identifying as non-heterosexual can be stigmatized in society.
According to some religious scriptures, previous sodomy laws, and perpetuation of homophobic ideals, homosexual relationships are unnatural and even criminal. They believe homosexual sexual orientation—physical and romantic attraction to individuals of the same sex—is a conscious choice. Though some may consider their sexual orientation a choice, a large majority of human beings find their sexual inclination to be inborn and innate, something that cannot be changed despite conditioning.1
Conversion therapy – also known as sexual reorientation, reparative therapy, or “praying the gay away”– is any attempt intended to convert non-heterosexuals to a heterosexual lifestyle. Therapies and procedures vary in methods and are all considered to be highly controversial topics. Conversion therapy techniques are based on the assumption that all non-heterosexual behaviors are choices and can therefore be changed.
Since the time of physician Sigmund Freud, therapists have attempted to change the sexual orientation of people. In the 1950s and 60s, therapists tormented their patients by forcing them to masturbate to opposite-sex images. When viewing same-sex images, doctors would electrically shock patients or inject them with drugs to induce vomiting2.
In extreme cases, doctors would perform a lobotomy – or the removal of a portion of the frontal lobe in the brain – to eliminate the root cause of homosexuality. Castration (removal of the genitals) was seen as the the ultimate cure to male homosexuality. These techniques were designed to associate homosexuality with disgust and discomfort.
The collection of procedures were made famous by the classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the television mini-series American Horror story: Asylum. After very high failure rates and the declassification of homosexuality as mental illness, conversion therapies lost credibility and changed the direction of their procedures.
Today, therapists attempt to limit the urges of homosexuality, rather than eliminate them. Consequently, therapists claim to have higher success rates. There are number of techniques that may be employed in conversion therapy, including hypnosis, aversion therapy, and group therapy.3
Hypnosis is a trance-like state in which the hypnotee has heightened focus and concentration. Aversion therapy is defined as mildly painful techniques, such as holding your breath until you become uncomfortable. Lastly, group therapies are informal discussions about how lives have been affected by non-heterosexual lifestyles and formal lectures on dealing effectively with non-heterosexual lifestyles.
Additionally, some therapists attempt to limit homosexuality by masculinizing/feminizing their patients. For instance, many therapists try to turn gay men in to hobbies like hunting for game, fixing cars, and/or other sports deemed “masculine.” Patients have the option of attending single therapy sessions or month-long courses. Some rehabilitations use guilt (threat of eternal domination), predominantly religious guilt, to persuade patients to live heterosexual lifestyles4.
Effectiveness of Conversion Therapies
There has been no proven evidence that efforts to change sexual orientation are effective. The American Psychiatric Association explicitly states, “There is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of reparative therapy as a treatment to change one's sexual orientation.”5
Alternatively, the attempt to change one’s sexual orientation can cause serious mental health problems, such as depression and thoughts of suicide. The Southern Poverty Law Center has stated that “people who have undergone conversion therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicidal ideation.”6 Accordingly, every major American health organization and the United Nation’s human rights charter has discredited conversion therapies.
The Legality of Conversion Therapies
Subsequently, many legal battles have been waged to prohibit the continuation of these programs. Attendees of these “therapy” sessions are often coerced to participate by family members. A study regarding family rejection towards sexual orientation found that higher levels of intolerance for sexual orientation within a family meant adolescents were 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, and 3.4 times more likely to have engaged in unprotected sex than adolescents with ample social support from relatives.7
In response, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed a bill into law that makes it illegal to subject anyone under the age of 18 to these therapeutic remedies. Other states, including New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts are following suit.8 Unfortunately for some, two conservative groups have filed lawsuits against the California bill claiming, “the California ban amounted to an unconstitutional violation
of parental rights, privacy and freedom of speech.”9 Experts predict the court to drag out the case for the coming years.
Today, there are almost 70 therapists that practice conversion therapy in the United States. Although the southeastern states have the least amount of LGBTQ inclusive institutions, these therapists are not confined to the South. Many are located all over the country, p including six in California and twelve in New England.10
The notion of reparative therapy is particularly problematic. The term “reparative” implies that something is broken or in need of fixing. In reality, virtually every form of consensual sexual expression is healthy and normal. There is nothing inherently wrong or unnatural with identifying as queer. The term “therapy” is ironic, considering most individuals subjected to this type of socialization report higher levels of stress and anxiety after being counselled.
The phrase “reparative therapy” is based on the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder, a conception long since dismantled by the medical world. Prejudiced and inaccurate beliefs like this continue to devalue the beautiful expression of love that can exist within gay relationships.
1. Baldwin, Janice and Baldwin, John. Topics in Sexuality: Advanced Studies McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2012.
2. Shapiro, Lila. “Straight Talk: How Mathew Shurka And His Conversion Therapist Renounced The 'Gay Cure.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 25 June 2013. Web. 15 Jan. 2014
3. Christiansen, Tricia. “What Is Conversion Therapy?” Conjecture Corporation. WiseGeek.com, 08 January 2014. Web. 15 Jan. 2014
4. Cobb, Patrick. “Tests and procedure”. Mayo Clinic. Mayoclinic.com, 20 November 2012. Web. 15 Jan.
5. Shapiro, Lila. “Straight Talk: How Mathew Shurka And His Conversion Therapist Renounced The 'Gay Cure”. The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 25 June 2013. Web. 15 Jan. 2014
6. Southern Poverty Law center. (2014). Conversion Therapy. http://www.splcenter.org/conversion-therapy
7. Human Rights Campaign. (2011). The Lies and Danger of Raparative Therapy. http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy.
8. Human Rights Campaign. (2011). The Lies and Danger of Raparative Therapy. http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy.
9. The Huffington Post. (2012). Jerry Brown, California Governeor, Signs SB 1172, Bill Banning Gay Conversion Therapy
10. Southern Poverty Law center. (2014). Conversion Therapy. http://www.splcenter.org/conversion-therapy
Last updated January 16, 2014