Originally published in The Conversation on Thursday 6 December 2012.
A law banning therapists in California from attempting to change the sexual orientation of same-sex attracted youths was tested in the courts this week. At issue were the rights to professional free speech, and the protection of minors from unproven and unethical treatment.
Californian governor, Democrat Jerry Brown, signed the bill into law in September. California was the first state in the United States to pass such a law.
On Monday, Federal District Court Judge William B. Shubb temporarily exempted three therapists from the law. Then, on Tuesday, Judge Kimberly Mueller refused an appeal to block the law. It’s currently due to come into effect on 1 January 2013.
Gay “conversion therapy” is practised around the world, including by numerous groups around Australia. The largest global “ex-gay” organisation, Exodus International, lists nine affiliated organisations operating in Australia. Living Waters International also runs several groups around Australia that offer healing for “sexual brokenness”, a category in which they include homosexuality. Courage, a Vatican-sponsored Roman Catholic organisation, operates in six Australian cities. And Jewish and Muslim groups are also known to offer conversion therapy.
While there’s currently no published scholarly research on the ex-gay movement in Australia, treatments offered here appear to conform to those offered around the Western world.
History of conversion therapy
In the early 20th century, attempts to alter a person’s sexual orientation tended to be based on Freudian understandings of sexuality. In this model, homosexuality was viewed as the product of arrested sexual development. Freud himself thought homosexuality was “nothing to be ashamed of” and was not an illness. Others, however, have used his theories to attempt to repair deviations from “normal” sexual development through talking cures.
In the 1950s and 1960s, new therapies developed in clinical psychology began to be used. These were based on the principle that neurological disorders would respond to behaviour modification, such as aversion therapy.
In these therapies, patients would be exposed to homosexual erotic stimuli and then given electric shocks or chemicals that would induce vomiting. It was thought these traumatic experiences would become associated with homosexual eroticism. The patient would then develop an aversion to homosexual stimulation. Aversion therapy was administered in mainstream health facilities and was often court-ordered, an alternative to imprisonment in an era when gay sex was illegal.
In the last three decades of the 20th century, homosexual sex was decriminalised in most Western jurisdictions. It also ceased to be considered an illness by all major professional mental health bodies. This is when the modern ex-gay movement was born.
Ex-gay therapies utilise a blend of popular self-help techniques (based on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous) and a spiritual methods such as prayer, confession, bible reading, and a personal relationship with God. They sometimes also include exorcisms.
By any other means
Despite almost 100 years of experimentation with different methods to change a person’s sexual orientation, there’s no peer-reviewed research demonstrating that “conversion” is possible. The most that the various therapies achieved was a reduction in homosexual desire. And this did not equate to an increase in heterosexual desire.
Many ex-gay groups around the world are coming to terms with this fact. The president of Exodus international recently renounced that group’s long-held position that homosexuality can be “cured”. Courage has long focused on helping Catholics live chaste lives, rather than attempting to change their sexual desires.
Other groups, such as Liberty Christian Ministries, associated with the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, accept that changing homosexuality may be impossible by natural means. Nevertheless, their belief in divine intervention means they continue to state that change may be possible through supernatural means.
So while ex-gay groups attempt to demonstrate the scientific grounds for their methods, evidence-based opposition to the ex-gay movement will not be successful. Ex-gay methods are ultimately not grounded in science, but in spiritual sources of change not amenable to verification through scholarly methods.
This explains why pro-conversion groups in the United States were this week protesting the Californian ban not on health grounds, but on their right to freedom of speech.
Timothy Jones is an DECRA Research Fellow at La Trobe University.