The Guardian is not well known for challenging popular LGBT views about sexuality. But on Sunday, the newspaper covered a new study showing that 7% of UK people changed sexual identity over just a six-year period.
The research, published by Demography, shows a comparable number of people moving into heterosexual identities as away from them.
Some 8.6% of those who had identified as gay or lesbian identified as heterosexual just six years later. People who had identified as bisexual were unsurprisingly the most fluid, with 44% moving to a heterosexual identity.
This was offset by small percentages of those who previously labelled themselves as heterosexual
The 'born gay, always gay' myth is dead. This has been well known to social scientists for years, but for the Guardian to be taking note, and covering the results honestly is a significant moment. And it has enormous implications for the proposed 'conversion therapy' ban.
What causes sexual fluidity?
If sexuality changes, what causes it? No one really believes that things 'just happen'. We believe in cause and effect. If something has changed, we want to know why.
Asking the question 'why' is essential to understanding the world we live in and the people who live in it.
For this 7% of the population who changed sexual identification, what happened over the course of 6 years?
All sorts of theories could be put forward:
- Maybe their attractions or behaviours didn't change; only the label they put on them. This could be behind some of the movement into and out of the 'bisexual' category, but is unlikely to explain the change of some between opposite labels.
- Perhaps there was an epigenetic cause – something environmental could have changed the way their (unchanged) genes were expressed, leading to different feelings and actions.
- The social part of our lives can shape us tremendously. Could some of this movement be related to the relationships these people formed with others influencing their sexual identity?
- Some may have had talking therapy or counselling and found their sexual identity shift as a result. This sometimes happens intentionally, with a client seeking a particular change, but can also happen as a secondary effect – sometimes people better understanding how to relate to themselves will experience this kind of change.
- Religious experiences can also re-shape people's desires. Many Christians like Matthew Grech testify to radical change away from same-sex behaviours or attractions on becoming a Christian – or at a later point through prayer ministry.
These different theories, and perhaps others, will be more or less persuasive to different people.
But we all ought to agree that something caused these changes. And if something caused that change, why shouldn't someone be free to seek it?
Talking therapies aren't harmful
A 'conversion therapy' ban – or as it may end up being called, a 'conversion practices' ban, would attempt to stop this. Extremely misleading claims are made to support a ban, claiming that any attempt to shape your sexuality is impossible, harmful and unethical.
As we've seen, it's clearly not impossible. Science shows that talking therapies aimed at a change in sexual identity are not harmful. Even if they don't lead to the desired result, the results are typically positive for the client's mental health.
The studies most frequently used to make claims that this kind of therapy is harmful contain all kinds of admissions, such as:
"Both proponent and opponent participants described positive experiences with conversion therapy, which was an unexpected finding ..." (Beckstead and Morrow, 2004)
"The majority of respondents that reported being suicidal stated that it was the prospect of being gay ... that led them to thoughts of suicide, rather than the struggle of trying not to be gay ..."
"... Most of the posters to the ex-ex-gay boards [i.e. those who once considered themselves ex-gay but no longer do] report currently being in overall good psychological health. The most common statements ... were that they valued their journey through the process" (Weiss et al. (2010)).
And despite the serious problems with bias in Shidlo and Schroeder (2002), which was originally advertised using the headline 'Homophobic Therapies: Documenting the Damage', 61% of participants reported their intervention as being helpful to some degree.
This is all hugely unsurprising, since there is nothing controversial going on in such therapeutic and counselling settings. Reintegrative Therapy is typically labelled 'conversion therapy' by those who want a ban but consists of mainstream, evidence-based treatments used by any number of therapists and counsellors.
As for the claim that it's simply unethical to seek this kind of change: by what standard?
Discriminatory bans based on ideology, not evidence
Change in sexual identity clearly happens over time. So, if someone wants to change, why must the law intervene to stop them?
Why does someone in academia, in Whitehall or on a board of psychologists get to decide how ordinary people are allowed to seek change for themselves?
If a particular approach is robustly shown to be harmful, that's one thing. But the proposed bills (and the de facto professional bans) are vastly different – they target any attempt to see change, based wholly on the client's motivation.
And let's be clear: this legislation will only be used to target ex-gay and ex-trans people. Anyone wanting to explore and embrace their LGBT identity will not be affected. It is a must-stay-gay and must-stay-trans bill.
A 'conversion therapy' ban would be unjust, disproportionate and discriminatory and should be opposed by all who value freedom.
Paul Huxley is Communications Manager at Christian Concern.