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Conversion Therapy Is Ineffective and Harmful, According to Literally Everyone Who Matters

The World Psychiatric Association has come out against conversion therapy—a long discredited and widely condemned practice that won't go away.
(Photo: Katie Brady/Flickr)

(Photo: Katie Brady/Flickr)

On Wednesday, the World Psychiatric Association came out against the practice of "conversion therapy," the oft-maligned process in which a therapist or counselor tries to change a patient's sexual orientation. "There is no sound scientific evidence that innate sexual orientation can be changed," the WPA—the largest psychiatric organization in the world, with over 200,000 members from 118 countries—said in a statement.

Conversion therapy has been long discredited and widely condemned. Though the medical establishment does have a history of pathologizing less common sexual orientations, homosexuality hasn't appeared in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since the 1970s.

Today, the APA promotes the fact that "same-sex sexual attractions, behavior, and orientations per se are normal and positive variants of human sexuality." An APA task force assessing therapeutic interventions for sexual orientations found that conversion therapy is ineffective, and is endorsed almost exclusively by religious organizations and therapists. Religious white males are the most likely demographic to seek out conversion therapy, giving rise to the popularity of the phrase "pray the gay away." But the tide is turning against conversion therapy hold outs: Four states—California, New Jersey, Oregon, and Illinois—and Washington, D.C., have outlawed the "treatment" for minors.

For starters, sexual orientation is not a disorder that can be treated; it's an innate characteristic influenced by biological and environmental factors and immutable to prayer. The non-evidence based remedies practiced under the auspices of this therapy can be as horrific as they are ineffective, as Jared Keller reported for Pacific Standard last year. "In past decades, the actual 'therapy' often included electroshock therapy; more recently, conversion therapy has involved the use of oranges as testicles, and verbally abusing patients with homophobic language," Keller wrote. "In [one] case, the defendants allegedly had a client 'beat a pillow, meant to represent his mother, with a tennis racket,' according to the Courier-Post."

Conversion therapy not only reinforces gender stereotypes and perpetuates the stigma surrounding homosexuality, but can actually harm the people it purports to help. LGBT adolescents in general tend to be more at risk for depression and substance abuse than their peers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the root cause of these psychological stressors is not their sexual orientation. "These psychological issues are likely related to if not caused by negative social attitudes or rejection," a SAMHSA report states. In fact, LGBT youth who experience rejection for their sexual orientation or gender non-conforming behavior are at a higher risk of depression, substance abuse, sexually risky behaviors, and suicide than their LGBT peers who experience acceptance, according to the Family Acceptance Project.

So who is still practicing conversion therapy, despite the widespread denunciation of the practice? Ignorant therapists, Tom Jacobs reported for Pacific Standard last year:

A survey of 762 marriage and family therapists found that "those who believe in the ethics and/or practice conversion therapy report statistically higher levels of negative beliefs of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, and lower levels of clinical competence working with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients."

Hopefully, they'll finally get the message.