How (Not) To Ban Conversion Therapy
Imagine for a moment a pastoral scenario: a young person shares with you that they are experiencing attraction to people of the same sex. They’ve come to you as a youth leader and as part of the conversation you explain your belief that faithfulness to Jesus in this situation would be to recognise the reality of the attractions but not to act on them. You explain that the options available to them if they want to faithfully follow of Jesus are to enter into an opposite-sex marriage or to live as someone who is single or celibate – the same options available to all followers of Jesus. At the end of the conversation, you offer to pray for the young person, and your prayer includes asking that God would help them to steward their sexuality in line with biblical teaching.
There would certainly be better and worse ways that we could have that conversation, but I’d guess that most of us would see it as fairly unproblematic and as standard Christian pastoral care. It’s the sort of pastoral care that I received, first as a teenager and then as an adult, care that was hugely helpful to me as I worked through how to reconcile my experience of same-sex attraction and my desire to faithfully follow Jesus.
Many of us would see this scenario as unremarkable. And yet, within a year, that exact scenario could make you liable to conviction for a criminal offense here in the UK. I’m not joking, and I’m not overexaggerating. This scenario is taken from the recently released Cooper Report, a document in which some of those campaigning for a very broad ban on ‘conversion therapy’ (or in the report’s language ‘conversion practices’) outline the form they believe the ban should take.
The Cooper Report is the latest release in the debate about how the government should fulfil its pledge to ban conversion therapy. The report describes itself as ‘Recommendations on Legislating Effectively for a Ban on Conversion Practices’. It’s one of the most detailed and sustained explanations to date of what campaigners are wanting. Reading through the report, there are a few encouraging points, but the report also reveals the many problems with what is being proposed.
It’s worth stating upfront, as I’ve written previously, that Christians should be in full support of legislation that seeks to protect people from things that are coercive, abusive, and harmful. Sadly, some of what the report defines as conversion practices, including some practices perpetrated by Christians, fall into this category. We should support a targeted ban on such practices, a ban that can truly play a part in protecting people. The fundamental aim behind this report – to protect LGBTQ+ people – is one we should share in full.
There are a few suggestions made in the report that are encouraging and seem sensible.
The report suggests that the ban should ‘be limited by the requirement that any act be “directed against another person or group of persons”’ (p.3). This is specified as being necessary to ensure that people aren’t guilty of performing criminal practices against themselves. This means people like me could pray for ourselves to have the strength to resist same-sex sexual temptations without worrying that we are breaking the law. The report also notes that this would go some way to protecting freedom of religious and cultural expression as it would be legal to hold certain views on sexuality and gender and even to express them (for example in a preach), so long as they are not specifically directed at an individual or group (e.g. case study 1 on p.A2).
The report also states that ‘Prosecutions are an essential part of the tool kit to ban conversion practices, but they should be the option of last resort and/or reserved for the most serious cases’ (p.10). This seems sensible.
Sadly, despite these few positives, the report reveals the many problems in the sort of ban campaigners want to see enshrined in law. Here are just a few of those problems.
Evidence of harm
The harm done by conversion practices is central to the argument of the report: the harm done by such practices requires their immediate criminalisation and justifies necessary limits on freedom of religion, belief, and expression.
However, the report fails to cite much evidence of this harm. There are only two references offered to support the claim of widespread harm from conversion practices.
One reference is in a summary of an article recently published in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. The paper referenced does claim that conversion practices cause harm, but it contains no direct evidence of this harm and is primarily a paper arguing that proof of harm is not necessary to render conversion therapy practices as worthy of state intervention. It isn’t a great support for the claim of harm.
The second reference is to the ‘Conversion Therapy and Gender Identity Survey 2020’. As I have shown elsewhere, this research has several significant weaknesses which render it unable to offer us any reliable sense of whether harm is caused by various practices deemed to be conversion therapy.
We all agree that we want to reduce harm, but The Cooper Report makes repeated, sweeping statements about the harm caused by a wide variety of practices without actually offering any reliable evidence to support this claim.
I also fear that the approach taken by the report is itself harmful. For example, when offering the illustration of a practice that seeks to suppress sexual orientation – the illustration of the young person talking to a youth leader with which this article opened – the report adds that the young person ‘leaves and later that evening tries to commit suicide as she believes that she will never know the joy of intimacy or love’ (p.A1). This is a classic example of how suicide is irresponsibly weaponised in this and related debates. A young person who hears this story is being told that if someone shares with them life advice that they may not like or may find hard to hear that could lead them to suicide. Given that we know young people are particularly susceptible to suicide contagion and that the causes of suicide are always complex and multifaceted, this is an irresponsible use of a (fictional) suicide story. In this way, this example goes against Samaritan guidelines.
We do need to identify practices that are harmful, and we do need to protect everyone from any such practices, but claims of harm need to be based on good evidence and must be handled in responsible ways.
The purpose of prayer
The report is very clear that a ban must include prayer. The authors claim that prayer can be very harmful, potentially resulting in ‘deep shame, low self-esteem, and internalised self-hatred leading to profound mental health problems’ (p.7). Unfortunately, the report offers no evidence to support this claim.
What is most problematic, however, is the insistence that the ban must cover prayer that has a ‘predetermined purpose’ (p.8). The vast majority of prayer has a predetermined purpose, and the teaching of Jesus would seem to suggest that it should (e.g. Matt. 6:7-8). What would prayer without a predetermined purpose look like?
The report clarifies that the ban would still allow ‘any prayer that seeks to help an individual come to a point of peace and acceptance about their sexual orientation or gender identity, that is which does not have a predetermined purpose’ (p.8) But seeking to help an individual come to a point of peace and acceptance sounds quite like a predetermined purpose. It seems regulating prayer is not as simple as is claimed.
Confusions over transgender
One of the many complicated elements of the conversion therapy debate is the way that practices related to gender identity are being equated with those related to sexuality. This is both inaccurate and unhelpful (as Preston Sprinkle has recently explained).
The Cooper Report reveals many problems with the proposed ban and its impact on those who identify as transgender. The authors raise and offer a solution to concerns that a ban would stop affirmative care for trans people (since some, understandably, have noted that transition looks quite like a form of conversion), arguing that affirmative health care wouldn’t be caught by the ban because ‘it is founded on the position that no gender identity, expression or experience is any more valid, “natural” or “normal” than any other’ (p.1 n.1). But they also define affirmative care as that ‘which seeks to help people come to a consensual, comfortable, and self-accepting place with their gender identity’ (p.1 n.1). This perspective surely expresses a view that one gender identity is more valid, natural, or normal than another – the gender identity that one feels themself to be inside is more valid, natural, and normal than, for example, a gender identity that may be dictated by their physical anatomy. It seems arguable that affirmative care, as the report defines it, would actually be covered by the ban for which the report is calling.
One very legitimate concern has been raised about the proposed ban but is not explored in the report (although it is subtly rejected in the case studies). This is the worry that the ban might stop professionals from being able to offer teenagers experiencing gender dysphoria the opportunity to explore potential roots of their dysphoria (such as mental health, trauma, internalised homophobia) which, if addressed, could help them to lessen the distress they are experiencing without having to embark on invasive and life-altering medical procedures at a relatively young age. There is increasing evidence from referrals to GIDS and the growing number of young detransitioners that this approach could be wise in many cases.
The report makes no mention of detransitioners but does talk about an interesting parallel: ‘There is now a vast library of testimonies from members of faith communities who have denounced conversion practices following their participation in them. These are individuals who actively sought out and “consented” to these practices who have since provided evidence of the severe, long-term, negative psychological impact such practices have on people regardless of their desire to suppress, “cure” or change their own identity at the time.’ A footnote notes a collection of 11 testimonies. (So a relatively small library.)
An almost identical statement could be made about detransitioners: ‘There is an ever growing number of stories (easily accessible online, many linked to here) of people who now denounce the transition practices they participated in having once actively sought them out and consented to them but who now report severe, long-term, negative physical (and sometimes psychological) impact from them regardless of their desire to change their identity at the time.’ If we must listen to and learn from the stories of those who have undergone forms of conversion therapy and now regret them, we must likewise listen to and learn from those who underwent transition and now regret it. The ban proposed in this report would make that hard, if not illegal.
Freedom to explore
The report is very clear that the ban ‘must not inadvertently impact the ability of individuals to safely explore their sexual orientation or gender identity’ (p.4). I agree that that is important. I myself have benefited from the freedom to safely explore the reality of my sexual orientation. But the ban being proposed in the report would actually make it more difficult for many of us to explore our sexuality or gender.
The claim is made that free exploration means exploring ‘without a predetermined purpose’ (p.A1). This of course is impossible. We all have a predetermined purpose to exploring our sexuality and gender. We all want to find the best way to respond to our experience of sexuality and gender so that we can live in the way that is best for us. That’s a common ground – or ‘predetermined purpose’ – for us all.
As a Christian who believes that the Bible reveals God’s good plan for my sexuality, I believe that the best way for me to respond to my experience of same-sex attraction is to steward it into celibate singleness. In the process of exploring my sexuality I have been greatly helped by others who have taught me what the Bible says and who have helped me as I seek to live out that teaching. This ban would make that illegal. This ban would make it almost impossible for someone like me to freely explore my sexuality.
And the report itself is very clear that there is a predetermined purpose to the exploration they want to see safeguarded. The practices to be allowed are those that ‘allow people to explore, better understand and/or affirm their gender identity or sexual orientation’ (p.A3). Practices to be allowed are those that fit the secular, affirming perspective on sexuality and gender. Other viewpoints can be held, they can even be expressed (if not directed at a specific person or group), but they can’t be put into practice.
And this is what it all comes down to really. There are awful, abusive, harmful practices being conducted in an attempt to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These seem to be rare and are almost all already covered by existing legislation. We should be ensuring that such legislation is put into practice, along with good safeguarding and other measures to protect those who are victims of these terrible practices.
But that isn’t really what this report is arguing for. This report is trying to get as close as possible to making it illegal to have a different view on sexuality and gender as it can while still claiming to fit within the parameters set by human rights.
The recommendations in The Cooper Report would not be a good way of legislating effectively for a ban on conversion practices. We need a targeted ban that protects people from abusive, coercive, and genuinely harmful practices while protecting the right that we should all have to hold and express different beliefs on these key topics and to access the care and support we need to respond to our sexuality and gender in line with the beliefs that are most important to us. If we really care about the wellbeing of all LGBTQ+ people, this is the ban for which we must work.