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What Is… Conversion “Therapy”

Conversion "therapy": an abusive practice that tries to turn gay people straight

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is conversion “therapy”.

I’ve forgotten the details, but recently I heard/read something that mentioned conversion therapy, so I decided to look a little closer at this pseudo-therapy that aims to force people’s sexuality to fit with heteronormative expectations. It is sometimes referred to as trying to “pray the gay away”. I expected to be rather disgusted by what I would find, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Early practices

Early strategies used in conversation therapy were outlandish and often cruel. According to Wikipedia, one endocrinologist transplanted testicles from straight men into gay men. Electric shocks were sometimes applied to people’s genitals, and other strategies included ice-pick lobotomies (by a neurologist with no surgical training), chemical castration, masturbatory reconditioning, and administering nausea-induced drugs at the same time as showing homosexual images.

From 1968 to 19977, researchers Masters and Johnson conducted trials of sex therapy, with subjects engaging in sex acts in a lab in order to basically fuck the gay away.

Reparative therapy

Wikipedia describes a more recent approach called “reparative therapy”, developed in the 1990s by psychologists Elizabeth Moberly and Joseph Nicolosi, which views homosexuality as “a person’s rational and unconscious attempt to ‘self-repair’ feelings of inferiority”. So-called “ex-gay ministries” have also arisen promoting the effectiveness of conversion therapy.

Wikipedia states that, between 1939 and 1969, “conversion therapy received approval from most of the psychiatric establishment in the United States”. It became increasingly challenged after the Stonewall Bar riot to protest a police raid in 1969. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) removed homosexuality as a diagnosis in 1973; it had been classified as a mental disorder since 1952.

In 1992, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) was formed and began publishing material claiming that conversion therapy was effective. One of the cofounders was Joseph Nicolosi, who developed reparative therapy. This group was not supported by any mainstream mental health or medical organizations, but some fundamentalist Christian and other religious groups have partnered with them. A group of Christian right organizations funded a $600,000 advertising campaign in 1998 promoting conversion therapy.

Current legal status of conversion therapy

Wikipedia provides the legal status of conversation therapy in various nations. I was surprised to learn that it’s only banned in one Australian state, two Canadian provinces, and 14 American States. The UK government announced just last month that it would begin putting together a bill to ban it. The Malaysian government officially endorses it; and in 2016 and 2017, Israel voted down a proposed ban on conversion therapy for minors.

It disturbs me the outlandish practices that have been a part of mainstream treatment over the last century when it comes to the treatment of any group that is considered aberrant, whether that’s mentally ill, LGBTQ, racial minorities, etc. As much as I might be inclined to shuffle something like conversion therapy into the same crazy bin as L. Ron Hubbard’s made-up religion/psychotherapy Scientology, it’s something that was once accepted by major psychological and medical organizations. There are countries that still allow it, or even, in the case of Malaysia, embrace it.

What is wrong with humanity that people are so blind, so willfully judgmental?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

24 thoughts on “What Is… Conversion “Therapy””

  1. Holy Shit! This is barbaric!
    Why can’t people just come to terms with other people living the lives that they want to live? As long as they are happy, let it be. This was so horrific to read, just the concept of the whole trying to change someone’s sexual preference is inconceivable to me. So horribly harsh. 🙁

  2. So important to spread the word about this horrible technique. I won’t even call it therapy because it gives therapy a bad name. They used to give electro shock to gender non confirming people too.

  3. It is baffling and downright disgusting that loving someone was ever seen as a psychological illness just because it happened to be of someone of the same sex. This world needs more love, why would we ever turn that down?

    Your Story Matters.

  4. I also heard about this before and never knew exactly what it was. Thank you for explaning it so clearly. This is so horrible. Love is love and it isn’t an illness ❤️ I heard about the electro shocks and that’s just so sad.

  5. There are many ways in which society tries to change misfits but these days it’s ok to be a misfit as long as you don’t damage the running of society around you. The problem is so called damage to society depends on who is doing the measuring. Thank goodness minority rights are beginning to be recognised at least in western democracies.

  6. There are no licensed medical health professionals doing this. Torture and coercion are already illegal. What you all want is no one to be able to pursue their own choices if they DON’T want to act on or identify with what you consider an immutable sexual orientation. Don’t conflate the two.

      1. What I’m saying is, if “conversion therapy” is coercion and torture, who ISN’T against it? VP Pence isn’t for that. People who pretend otherwise are being disingenous and obtuse.

        But people are including inside “conversion therapy” the right a person has to seek therapy THEY WANT to talk about unwanted sexual desires? Then why not? Why conflate those two VERY different topics?

  7. Absolutely appalling that a couple years later and conversation therapy banning hasn’t hastened much here in the states. Thank you for putting this together to educate others on just how cruel, and down right crazy, this type of therapy is.

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