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 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.
Wikipedia describes a more recent approach called “reparative therapy”, developed by 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?
You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.
You can find more on social issues on the Social Justice & Equality page.