California recently passed a law banning sexual orientation change efforts for men and women under 18 by psychiatrists and psychologists.  Mental health providers are no longer allowed to give therapy which tries to “change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.”

According to the legislator behind the new law, State Senator Ted Lieu, “children were being psychologically abused by reparative therapists who would try to change the child’s sexual orientation. An entire house of medicine has rejected gay conversion therapy. Not only does it not work but it is harmful. Patients who go through this have gone through guilt and shame, and some have committed suicide.”

These are strong claims. Conjugality asked Dr Philip Sutton whether so-called reparative therapy was being abused in this way. Dr Sutton is a licensed psychologist, therapist and counselor based in Indiana and Michigan. He is also Editor of the Journal of Human Sexuality, a peer-reviewed scholarly publication of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Here is his email response.

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Yes, Narth as an organization and any genuinely ethical mental health professional would agree that harsh and abusive therapy is unprofessional and unethical. Therapy must be freely sought and the fruit of a client’s – including a minor’s – self-determination. A licensed mental health professional must always abide by the ethics of “first, do no harm” — and then do as much good as possible.

Now, it may be that if parents brought a minor child for therapy, the therapist could establish a goal and treatment plan that was mutually acceptable (ie, to which both the client and therapist could agree) which might deviate significantly from what his/her parents wanted the child to change.

As for anecdotal stories of “abusive therapy”, while I would not deny that they must exist, any therapists with whom I ever have had contact concerning past, present or future treatment of a minor whose parents find the minor’s reported same-sex attraction unwanted would serve the legitimate needs of the minor first.

Parental concerns do matter, but in such a case, helping the parents to genuinely love their child – even should he or she remain SSA life-long — would be Job Number 1.

Notorious reports of harm from therapy to minors are few. Also, they are typically made by adults whose experiences in therapy happened many years ago. Aside from the inexact nature of all human remembering, the human tendency to revise (perhaps unintentionally and unconsciously, but nonetheless actively) and to edit one’s memories to suit one’s current mood, needs, etc. is well-documented. The “recovered memories” brouhaha is a case in point.

The LGB activists’ claims of the “harmfulness” of SOCE (APA’s short-hand for “sexual orientation change efforts”) is rooted essentially in the  study of Shidlo and Schroeder which publicly advertised in “gay media” a request for research participation: “Help us Document the Harm”.

Essentially, in its LGB Task Force Report, the APA discredited all research that failed to meet the strict standards of a “true experiment”. Then it asserted that the remaining research was inadequate to decide whether SOCE was beneficial or harmful. Then it cited the anecdotal and self-reported harms of “harm” – but not of benefits – as a basis for warning people against SOCE.

Another issue is blaming things that happened years ago for what one is thinking and feeling now. All of the experiences, choices, factors, etc., since what happened there and then certainly influence one’s “remembered” experience affects what one does and how one feels, thinks and acts here and now. In many cases, I think that Shakespeare had it right: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

One important point is that any and every approach to medical and mental health care for any and every problem, no matter how well-tested and proven to be in general safe and effective, will not be helpful to some people and will yield unwanted side-effects for some, whether otherwise helpful or not.

The practice of medical and mental health is an art, ideally based on science. But each encounter between a medical or mental health professional and his or her patient or client is a human encounter, and in the end, each patient or client is a unique human being. The science of health care deals with the general, the art with the particular, ie, the personal. No one size can or will ever fit – or not fit – all.