Even unsuccessful 'conversion therapy' isn't harmful

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A leading psychology journal, Frontiers in Psychology has published a new study demonstrating that even when they don't have the desired effect, sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) do not cause harm.

The peer-reviewed paper by Paul Sullins compares US adults who have experienced some form of SOCE with those who haven't. It finds that the two groups were indistinguishable on measures of psychological and behavioural harm – even though the SOCE group had experienced higher lifetime and current minority stress.

The study throws further doubts on the conclusions of the research used by the UK government to justify its proposed ban on conversion therapy. The study concludes that "concerns to restrict or ban SOCE due to elevated harm are unfounded". 

Sullins, who is Research Associate Professor at the Catholic University of America, commented: "It would be a perverse policy indeed, for example, for heart surgery to be discouraged or even banned because those undergoing it experienced higher rates of cardiac dysfunction than the general population before the surgery."

The new study is not the first to counter claims that 'conversion therapy' or sexual orientation change efforts cause harm.

The UK government's research refers to a study (Blosnich and others, 2020) to suggest that SOCE is likely to cause harm: "Within these studies, exposure to sexual orientation change efforts is consistently linked to higher likelihood of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts compared with LGB people who have not had conversion therapy."

Yet a re-analysis, also by Paul Sullins, demonstrates that the data from the same study actually suggests that undergoing SOCE reduces suicide risk.

His study found that: "Experiencing SOCE therapy does not encourage higher suicidality, as they claim; rather, experiencing higher suicidality appears to encourage recourse to SOCE, which in turn strongly reduces suicidality, particularly initial suicide attempts. Restrictions on SOCE deprive sexual minorities of an important resource for reducing suicidality, putting them at substantially increased suicide risk."

In other words, people who feel greater anguish about unwanted same-sex attraction are those who seek out help for those feelings. This shouldn't be surprising. The help they receive – in general – reduces their suicidal feelings.

Perversely, this group's general suffering is being used by the UK government and others to ban the very help some of them benefitted from.

And Sullins' latest study adds to this by showing that even those who don't experience the change in feelings that they were hoping for are not harmed by SOCE.

The science supports ethical talking therapy

Sullins' research is one of the reasons Christian Concern supported an IFTCC conference back in November, called 'Is the Government Ban on "Conversion Therapy" Safe?'

The sessions and materials – freely available on the conference website – go into great detail to show that change is possible and that seeking change is not harmful.

For example, Paul Sullins himself explained some of his research:

It's important to understand that the research on SOCE quoted by the government covers many different types of counselling as well as motivations. Some of the studies refer to specific therapeutic approaches – in many cases they cover anything from genuinely discredited practices to Christian prayer. In these latter cases, 'conversion therapy' is in the eye of the beholder.

They also include studies on SOCE that are religiously motivated (whether Christian or not) and/or where the support itself is explicitly Christian.

It's no good for Christians to protect the kind of support a typical pastor might give to someone experiencing unwanted feelings, but side-line therapy as if it is some kind of quackery. The studies being cited by governments and anti-conversion therapy campaigners (unjustly) write prayer and Biblical counselling off just as much as more secular approaches. And they want both banned.

Nor is it appropriate for Christians to write off therapy as if it is automatically sub-Christian. For sure, some therapeutic approaches to any personality or mental health condition in some way oppose Christian teaching. And any Christian who ignores the promises of God and his work in their life when they try to deal with these kinds of difficulties is wasting their best tool!

Nevertheless, sometimes discoveries are made outside God's people that can give us wisdom or help us support one another better. Christians don't need to treat with deep suspicion everything called 'therapy'.

Government ban politically motivated

The government has repeatedly promised it would ban 'conversion therapy', which ministers across recent years have described as 'abhorrent'. The problem for them is, nothing abhorrent is actually going on, and nothing genuinely harmful is currently legal.

Researchers have essentially been asked by the government to find the evidence needed to support some kind of ban, or restrictions, on talking therapy. If they did a proper job, they'd conclude that there's simply no justification for a ban. But this would put the government in trouble, given its multiple promises of a ban.

To reverse the policy would require courage. The LGBT campaigners striving for a ban are cunning and have privileged access to media; any further delays to a law would lead to another round of publicity suggesting that the Conservative Party is homophobic and transphobic.

But if our leaders and our nation care about truth, we'll stop pursuing a conversion therapy ban that would harm the people it's meant to help.