One of Joe Biden’s campaign promises was a national ban on LGBT “conversion therapy”. He described this as “deeply harmful, highly unscientific, and often lead[ing] to trauma”. He even promised to back the passage of a Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act. This aims to ban “treatment designed to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or otherwise change behaviors, thoughts, or expressions related to gender or sexual attraction”.

Currently sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) provided by licensed therapists have been legally prohibited for minors in 20 states in the United States. There are moves to extend the scope of these laws to include adult clients and non-licences religious counselling.

Elsewhere bans are spreading. Some jurisdictions in Australian forbid it. The European Parliament has passed a resolution condemning it. Malta, Ecuador, Brazil, Taiwan and Albania and Germany have effectively banned it.  

The legislative energy invested in these initiatives is puzzling. In the past coercive and abusive programs to “cure” people of homosexual urges did exist. But nearly all of these disappeared long ago. What’s the point of banning them today?

Furthermore, what proof is there that all SOCE– to use a more neutral term – provided by professionals doesn’t work, is harmful, or involuntary?

A recent article in the open-source journal F1000Research tackles this incendiary question.

The authors, Paul Sullins, Christopher H. Rosik and Paul Santero, a sociologist and two psychologists, are modest in their conclusions, but insist that some men have been helped by therapy. Contrary to what gay activists (and President Biden) say, it is impossible to assert that all SOCE is harmful, unscientific, and traumatic.

In particular, the study rebuts an often-cited claim by the American Psychological Association that “To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective.”

Any research about this topic must begin with some caveats. Nearly all the academic literature – pro or con — is based on small samples and convenience studies. This means, firstly, that the percentages cannot be extrapolated to the population as a whole. Secondly, the subjects of the research are to some extent self-selected. The studies to which President Biden has referred probably involved clusters of men who had bad experiences.

Thirdly, this is all about men, not women. Dr Sullins told MercatorNet: “All SOCE research, including our study, involves men only. No one disputes that lesbian sexuality is more fluid and can change. No women (that I’m aware of) have alleged harm from SOCE, only men. Thus laws that apply bans to ‘sexual orientation’ change for all homosexual persons based only on alleged findings for men improperly go beyond even the LGBT-affirming research findings, and (there are lesbians who will tell you) are sexist to boot.”

It’s hard to deny the lived experience of men who feel traumatised – but how about those who had good experiences?

They do exist. This paper, “Efficacy and risk of sexual orientation change efforts: a retrospective analysis of 125 exposed men”, studies their reactions. It reaches “a middle position between the opposing extremes that therapy-assisted change in sexual orientation is never possible or that such change is readily or widely accessible to sexual minority persons.”

On the one hand, this research finds that sexual orientation is – supported by an increasing number of studies – not genetic, fluid, and susceptible to change under religious influence.

On the other, it confirms other evidence that “sexual orientation is not usually or easily changeable”. About 14 percent of the men in the sample no longer felt same-sex attracted at all after SOCE and 23 percent no longer engaged in same-sex behaviour. But the most common change was to bisexuality, not heterosexuality.

Perhaps the results become more understandable if we apply an idea borrowed from critical race theory – intersectionality. Sexual minorities are not uniform; some members are bitterly anti-religious; others are deeply religious. Some are single; some are married. Some have ineradicable attractions for the same sex; others are more fluid. There are intersections of these conditions which can be helped by professional therapists if they want change.

Marriage seems to help. “Heterosexually married sexual minority men reported engaging in more same-sex behavior prior to SOCE and less same-sex behavior subsequent to SOCE than their unmarried counterparts,” the authors report. “This may suggest that maintaining and strengthening their heterosexual marriage was a significant motivating factor in our participants’ decision to pursue SOCE.”

Religious practice seems to help. All of the 125 men in this sample were religiously active, with 88 percent of them attending a service once a week—about four times the national average, while only about nine percent of LBG-identified people do. About half were Mormons – who were obviously vastly over-represented. “Still, we do not have a complete picture of what characteristics may be associated with reported change via SOCE,” the authors write, “so it cannot be assumed that most highly religious and motivated men who seek SOCE will perceive an experience of change.”

The media often highlights men who complain that they have suffered from PTSD after “conversion therapy”. This may be their lived experience – although the abuse often took place decades ago—but the authors found that most of the men in their sample experienced “enhanced well-being”. Only five percent had negative experiences.

LGBT activists are sure to question the conclusions of this study. Not unreasonably, they will point to an article based on the same data which was published in 2018 in the Linacre Quarterly, the official journal of the US Catholic Medical Association. Last year it was retracted – the academic equivalent to being run over by a Mack truck.

However, this was not due to substantial flaws, but to the journal’s own failure to conduct a pre-publication statistical review, which would have identified some weaknesses in the analysis. The article in F1000Research represents a complete revision of the material.

What explains the bitter divide between researchers who find that SOCE is “inherently degrading and discriminatory”, to use the words of the United Nations’ independent expert on “conversion therapy” and those who find that it can be and often is beneficial?

“The current state of SOCE research may be compared to two groups who study marital counseling, one of which investigates consumers who have maintained their marriage and the other who examines persons who have since divorced,” the authors write. “Neither group is likely to possess the whole truth about the relative benefits and risks of the treatment in focus.” They conclude that:

“The polarization within organized psychology over SOCE appears to have led to insular research that treats one subgroup of sexual minorities as representative of the whole population, with detrimental consequences for accurately comprehending the complexities of sexual orientation change among these individuals.”

This ought to be one of many studies of who can benefit from sexual orientation change efforts. Banning therapy for unwanted sexual feelings is an unjustifiable limitation of democratic freedoms.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet