Social Justice

What is conversion therapy?

UK ministers have plans to ban conversion therapy – but only in some cases. Here's what you need to know about the widely-condemned and abusive practice.

conversion therapy

Around five per cent of people surveyed said they'd been pressured to seek conversion therapy. Image: dfactory/Flickr

The UK government has launched a six-week consultation for proposals to restrict so-called conversion therapy.

The term refers to widely condemned and abusive practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Westminster proposals would restrict conversion therapy rather than ban it outright, only making it illegal for under-18s and vulnerable adults who can’t consent. This has sparked anger among campaigners and MPs who say the government is leaving open loopholes that could be exploited.

Sometimes known as “gay cure therapy”, ministers first pledged to outlaw the practice in 2018 and drew criticism for taking three years to finally start work on the legislation. A petition to ban it was debated in parliament earlier this year and was signed by nearly 260,000 people.

Conversion therapy is “absolutely abhorrent”, Boris Johnson has said, adding that it has “no place in a civilised society”. It is a devolved issue, meaning Westminster’s ban would only apply in England and Wales, but Scotland and Northern Ireland’s administrations are both in favour of prohibiting it too.

There are already full or partial bans in place in other countries such as Germany, Mexico and Canada, and in roughly 20 US states where there are some exemptions for religious organisations.

Here’s what you need to know about conversion therapy in the UK.

What is conversion therapy?

“Conversion therapy” is an umbrella term for treatment or psychotherapy aimed at changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ+ people, under the false assumption that other orientations or gender identities are preferable. 

Treatments can involve shaming the person, traumatising them or causing them physical pain. It mostly takes the form of prayer or talking therapies, but can include violence, starvation “exorcisms” and “corrective” rape, the latter of which is already banned.

These practices treat being gay, bisexual or transgender as mental illnesses and are provenly very harmful.

Why are people against conversion therapy?

NHS doctors, psychotherapy industry bodies, LGBTQ+ campaigners, human rights lawyers and MPs are overwhelmingly in agreement that conversion therapy is unethical and often harmful, even when limited to talking therapy.

It “amplifies the shame and stigma so many LGBTQ+ young people already experience,” according to the Trevor Project.

Researchers in the US found that lesbian, gay and bisexual people who had been through conversion therapy were nearly twice as likely to contemplate and attempt suicide than their peers who had not experienced it.

The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims said it causes “severe physical and psychological suffering to its victims”.

How common is conversion therapy?

One in 20 LGBTQ+ people – five per cent – reported being pressured to use services aimed at changing their sexual orientation or gender identity when they were in a UK healthcare setting, according to Stonewall research. This was markedly more common for trans people, rising to 20 per cent.

Assessing exactly how frequently people are exposed to conversion therapy can be difficult as prejudice makes victims reluctant to speak openly about their experiences and the definition of conversion therapy is not clear-cut.

Government analysts surveyed 108,000 people in 2018, five per cent of whom said they had been offered the treatment while two per cent had experienced it.

Black and ethnic minority people are at double the risk of their white counterparts, the research showed.

More than half of those who said they had been offered or been through conversion therapy said it came from a religious organisation. Around 10 per cent of Christian people and 20 per cent of Muslim respondents were affected, compared to six per cent of those with no religion.

What is the government proposing?

Westminster officials drew up plans to make conversion therapy illegal for anyone younger than 18 and for vulnerable adults. Any so-called “treatment” involving sexual or physical violence is already illegal.

Judges could take it into account as an aggravating factor when sentencing people found guilty of violence. Authorities could also consider confiscating a person’s passport if there is a risk of them being taken abroad for conversion therapy.

But consenting adults should be allowed to undergo conversion therapy if they want to, the government said, instead placing emphasis on practices which are “coercive”. 

“The proposals will also ensure that regulated clinicians are protected and are able to continue to undertake their valuable work,” the consultation read. “The ban will not seek to restrain these medical professionals and individuals should be free to seek out professional help and guidance, it will however target practices which people have not willingly agreed to undertake.”

But some MPs and campaigners expressed concern over this potential “loophole”.

“I remain unconvinced that anyone can consent to such an abusive practice, and will look closely at the proposed ban to ensure that victims and survivors get the protections they need and deserve,” said Tory backbencher Alicia Kearns.

The consultation will close on December 10, after which equalities minister Liz Truss will be tasked with deciding on amendments to the law. The government pledged to have legislation passed and conversion therapy banned by May next year.

Plans for a new government-funded support service for victims of conversion therapy and those at risk of it will be launched in November, ministers said.

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