Unscientific focus on ‘conversion therapy’ detracts from the real problem of homophobia

Irrational opposition to homosexuality is nothing new in the UK – England and Scotland have an unfortunate tradition of homophobia in their histories of centuries past but thankfully modern society is making good progress towards eradicating these archaic attitudes, even going as far as celebrating LGBT History Month this February.

However, we do still face opposition from certain high-profile figures who continue to prioritise personal opinion over first-hand testimony of the LGBT community and scientific evidence. Ann Widdecombe has recently committed the same fallacy, endorsing conversion therapy despite the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ official stance that there is “no sound scientific evidence” that this type of therapy works and that the concept can “create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination flourish”.

Advocates such as Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Christian Concern are eager to deny any truth behind these statements, with both groups drawing attention to studies which they claim prove the successes of conversion therapy. In a letter to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy a number of signatories outlined their argument for allowing the treatment, referencing studies which were carried out by Byrd, Nicolosi, Shaeffer, Spitzer, Jones and Yarhouse as evidence of its efficacy. Providing a barrage of names and qualifications is an attempt to prevent the reader from asking questions by means of the argument from authority fallacy, a tactic which relies on one crucial assumption: that nobody will bother to investigate the citations.

Even a cursory exploration of these studies reveals large methodological flaws, including small sample sizes, self-selecting samples which are heavily subject to bias and of course bias from the experimenters themselves, conscious or otherwise. The best results these studies can claim is that someone is physically capable of having intercourse with someone of the opposite sex after treatment or, more commonly, that they have become celibate. However, these participants almost always still retain same-sex desires and some degree of confusion about their identity with regards to sexuality – at best they could be described as having become bisexual, but the number of people who claim to be entirely heterosexual and attracted to a range of people from the ‘correct’ sex is extremely small. Celibacy is also not a change of orientation but a change of lifestyle – same-sex attractions are still likely to be present, but the subject chooses not to act on them due to the treatment. It should be noted that the drop-out rate for candidates in these experiments were unusually high for what should be a clinical trial, with 50% of candidates either failing to report their results or no longer wishing to pursue the therapy on offer in the Yarhouse-Jones study.

The lack of any control groups of similar demographics or any use of double-blind trials which are commonly found in clinical studies is also revealing – if these therapies really were as effective as these advocates claim one would expect to see a notable difference when the ‘genuine’ techniques were applied by neutral psychotherapists compared to a fake placebo set of procedures. The reluctance to include any such experiments indicates intellectual dishonesty and an eagerness to prioritise personal ideology above fair, scientific exploration.

Despite the lack of notable success rates due to these therapies and their severe methodological flaws, Ann Widdecombe writes in her Daily Express column that she believes conversion therapy should be offered based on her experience of working for the Samaritans, recalling people who phoned in with concerns about their sexuality. While we’re talking about first-hand experiences of this subject, I’ll reveal my perspective: if someone had offered me the chance to become heterosexual in the recent past I would have eagerly accepted.

It’s been over a year since I fully accepted my bisexuality and the idea that it may vary involuntarily as it has done in the past. In this time I’ve had many chances to reflect on what caused my desire to force a change in my sexuality and I’ve established a definite motive: it wasn’t the desire to be exclusively attracted to men, it was the desire to comply with my abusers and escape intense humiliation.

This feeling of compliance and fear is a common theme among stories of people who, like me, have wished to become heterosexual at some point in their lives. The thoughts of self-loathing are caused by pressure from outside influences who attempt to rationalise their personal feelings of revulsion rather than accept that there is no definitive ‘correct’ path to follow. The argument that people should feel distress because they secretly know their attractions are ‘wrong’ or ‘sinful’ is no more plausible than the idea that people should naturally feel ashamed of having brown hair or favouring the colour red. Sexuality is only subject to this assumption because our culture has been shaped by centuries of homophobia and heteronormative beliefs – if hair colour or colour preference were essential to human reproduction and religious ideology then we could have been arguing about entirely different issues today, yet we see no hint of the lack of empathy or logical bypasses displayed on either issue as we do on gay rights.

Rather than debating conversion therapy’s – at best – extremely dubious credentials, advocates of the procedure would be better to invest their energy in investigating why their prospective patients are driven to such distress and self-hatred in the first place, occasionally to the point of considering self-harm and suicide. The truth they uncover may be unpalatable: we are not recovering from being lesbian, gay or bi, we are recovering from the venom which these groups promote to bridge logical shortcomings in their own worldview. A sustained refusal to acknowledge data and evidence does not erase the truth of a situation, regardless of the implications it may carry.