People mean different things by "Conversion Therapy"

therapy Nov 11, 2019

"Conversion Therapy" does not have an official definition. You won't find any therapists in the State of Utah or elsewhere who claim to offer "conversion therapy". When the words are used, confusion and misunderstanding typically ensues. In order to avoid misunderstandings, most many people opposed to laws that claim to ban "conversion therapy" avoid using the term. So what do people really mean when they use the term?

There is no specific therapy or set of therapies that go by the name "conversion therapy". It is an umbrella term first used by LGBT activists to disparage any therapy with the goal of changing sexual orientation or gender identity, or of reducing any feelings or behaviors related to those experiences. When those activists talk about "conversion therapy" they associate it with stories of abusive and shaming practices. At the same time, they attempt to pass laws that ban much more than that, even though no ethical therapists who help change, reduce, or eliminate behaviors and feelings associated with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria actually use shaming or abusive practices. There is a deliberate effort in many cases to confused and obfuscate.

A recent clarification from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding the Church's position on the proposed regulation to govern therapy for same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria used the words "conversion therapy" and stated they were against said therapy. As a result, I have seen a lot of news outlets struggle to accurately report the Church's position on Utah's proposed ban.

As a result, I believe some clarification about how different people use the words will be useful to people.

Recent popular movies and news reports often focus on aversive techniques, so it appears that the popular understanding of "conversion therapy" is therapeutic practices that attempt to change LGBTQ-related feelings and behaviors using abusive or shaming techniques. You won't find any ethical therapists offering such techniques.

Equality Utah's Definition

When Equality Utah uses the words "conversion therapy", they define it as:

"the practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity"

https://www.equalityutah.org/stillhappening/

When they use the words 'conversion therapy', they appear to mean any therapy that attempts to modify anything related to sexual orientation or gender identity. Take, for example, their proposed definition in HB399 that failed in the Utah State Legislature:

"'Conversion therapy' means any practice or treatment that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a patient or client, including mental health therapy that seeks to change, eliminate, or reduce behaviors, expressions, attractions, or feelings related to a patient or client's sexual orientation or gender identity."

https://le.utah.gov/~2019/bills/hbillint/HB0399S01.pdf

The Church's Definition

While I cannot speak for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I will attempt to parse their recent statements.

The Church appears to be using a very nuanced meaning for the term. To the Church it appears to mean any technique focused specifically on same-sex attraction with the expectation that change in core feelings is guaranteed to happen or must occur, whether or not the techniques are abusive or shaming. However, they are clear that therapy for related behaviors does not constitute the type of "conversion therapy" they oppose, nor does therapy aimed at modifying feelings that assist in desired behavior goals.

In addition, it appears clear that as long as the therapy is not abusive or shaming and is in line with the client's stated goals, the Church does not have a problem with it.

See the following statements made by the Church and their Family Services division:

"In other words, the individual has the right to determine desired outcomes, and therapists and counselors should respect his or her wishes.

"For someone who experiences same-sex attraction or identifies as gay, counseling may help the person approach his or her sexuality in healthier, more fulfilling ways. However, counseling and therapy are not needed by everyone.

While shifts in sexuality can and do occur for some people, it is unethical to focus professional treatment on an assumption that a change in sexual orientation will or must occur. Again, the individual has the right to define the desired outcome."

(https://mormonandgay.churchofjesuschrist.org/articles/seeking-professional-help?lang=eng)
"Sexuality is an important part of being human and is also a source of passions that need to be bridled. Despite these intense feelings, there are Latter-day Saints who faithfully adhere to the Lord’s moral law over many years."

https://mormonandgay.churchofjesuschrist.org/articles/self-mastery-and-sexual-expression?lang=eng
"Family Services has a longstanding and express policy against using therapies that seek to ‘repair,’ ‘convert,’ or ‘change’ sexual orientation, such as from homosexual to heterosexual. Research demonstrates that electric shock, aversion and other analogous therapies are [ineffective] and harmful to youth who experience same-sex attraction. Those, including youth, who seek therapies that constitute sexual orientation change efforts will not receive them from Family Services counselors."

https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/statement-proposed-rule-sexual-orientation-gender-identity-change
"Regardless of a person' s sexual orientation, some behaviors related to or associated with sexual orientation can be destructive and psychologically unhealthy. It is often appropriate and ethical to provide reasonable therapies to assist a client in modifying behaviors and expressions that the client has identified as inconsistent with the client's own self-determined goals and self- defined well-being. See, e.g., APA Code of Ethics, Principle E: Respect for People's Rights and Dignity (emphasizing importance of client "self-determination"). Three of many possible examples illustrate the point:

...

"A 16-year-old boy with same-sex attractions openly identifies as gay and is also deeply religious. His faith teaches him that it is God's will that sexual relations occur only within a traditional male-female marriage. He is uncertain how he will ultimately reconcile his sexual orientation with his religious beliefs. His stated goal is to delay making a decision about same-sex intimacy until he is an adult and graduated from high school. He seeks counseling during his high school years to help him reduce the intensity ofhis sexual desires by prioritizing other aspects ofhis identity, including his religious identity, so that he can abstain from sex at least until he is an adult and has completed high school."

https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/multimedia/file/Proposed-Amendments-to-the-Psychologist-Licensing-Act-Rule-and-to-the-Mental-Health-Professional-Practice-Act-Rule.pdf
"If DOPL is not convinced to leave the issue of conversion therapy to the Legislature, it should amend the Proposed Rule to clarify that each ofthe following practices does not fall within the definition of sexual orientation or gender identity "change efforts":

- Therapies that assist a client in achieving the client's self-determined goal to modify or cease behaviors or expressions that the client determines are inconsistent with the client's values, or that are objectively dysfunctional or destructive .
...
- Therapies that account for the client's capacity for sexual fluidity."

https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/multimedia/file/Proposed-Amendments-to-the-Psychologist-Licensing-Act-Rule-and-to-the-Mental-Health-Professional-Practice-Act-Rule.pdf

Before taking a stand on any rule, regulation or law regarding therapy for people experiencing same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria, please take the time to understand all the nuances of therapy and the potential seen and unseen consequences of any rule or law restricting what is discussed in therapy.