President Obama made news this week when he made a statement, posted on the whitehouse.gov website, calling for the end of conversion therapies aimed at gay and trans* youth. Numerous news sites reported that, in making the statement, he had been moved by the December suicide of a 17-year old trans* youth named Leelah Alcorn, who had been subjected to conversion efforts by religious therapists. A petition to ban conversion therapy, begun in her honor, has already received over 120,000 signatures.
Those are some of the bare facts, but as is usually the case, by the time someone high up like the president gets around to an issue, it’s already been building steam for a while. States such as California and New Jersey, as well as Washington DC have already banned conversion therapy aimed at youth, and I believe this is just the beginning of further state legislation. In making these decisions, the courts have pointed to the complete lack of empirical, scientific evidence for the efficacy of these so-called therapies as well as the catastrophic potential harm that they can cause.
In my mind, therapies such as conversion therapy and it’s close cousin, reparative therapy are nothing more than formalized ways of exploiting shame, under the cloak of professionalism and authority. They reach out to potential clients (victims?) by appealing to their pain points of shame that is based around their sexuality and then proceed to intensify the shame by trying to eradicate the sexual thoughts, fantasies or behaviors. So what you have here is an individual who is already scarred by shame, and then retraumatized over and over by reinforcement of the shame. Folks, there’s only one way to reduce shame, and that’s by deshaming, rather than heaping on more scoops of shame.
In many ways, much of our society and social order is built around the reinforcement of shame. This is one of the themes I address in my upcoming book. For example, consumerism is completely built around elements of shame– the feeling that something about us is lacking or inadequate and can only be complete by purchasing some product that will make us whole. Sexuality is particularly vulnerable to shame-making because it is such an indelible aspect of our identity. If you can shame sexuality, well then you’ve hit the mother-load of shame. Someone who is sexually shamed has had their internal sense of self compromised and so are much more likely to be vulnerable to being controlled, manipulated or coerced in some way, shape or fashion.
It’s no wonder then that, as psychotherapy is as much a reflection of social mores and attitudes as it is of hard science, the profession can also be utilized for social repression and shaming. As I’ve argued in other areas of this blog, this is not limited just to conversion therapies per se. For example, as I’ve written here, even though sexual compulsivity is a real symptom that I help my clients to overcome every week, certain elements of “sex addiction treatment” have also taken on aspects of an industry aimed at exploiting personal shame. It is often the case in these clinics that a sexually compulsive individual is lumped in with someone who has same-sex attraction, a person with a variety of kinks that his wife doesn’t like, and a person who is caught watching porn and they are all labeled as “sex addicts.” The sex addiction community often talks about the role of shame, but I wonder if the shame in this case is not purely societally and iatrogenically caused. In other words, if someone comes to a doctor and that clinician tells the person that his or her sexual desires are pathological, is it any wonder then that they struggle with shame? In this case, what comes first, the sexual desire or the shame? It’s like the chicken and the egg question.
In addition, there are thousands of therapists all over the country who have not been trained in the sex addiction model and do not advertise as such, but who nonetheless pathologize non-normative sexualities and attempt to remove them through eradication techniques. Many of them claim that they are sex-positive, but what they mean is that they are positive about “healthy sexuality,” which is narrowly defined by their own subjective biases. For more on this type of therapist bias, you can check out this article on eradication techniques and this one about “deviant” fantasies. I don’t see how any of this is less harmful than the conversion therapies being discussed in regards to banning.
With all that said, here’s my prediction. Conversion therapy of any kind, whether of gay or trans* individuals, regardless of age, will become illegal in this country in most states, and eventually all states. Sex addiction treatment will have to evolve to something else, specifically the treatment of sexually compulsive people, not of non-normative (kinky, gay, bi) or nonmonogamous (poly, open) individuals. But if that happens, the sex addiction industry will be much less profitable, so there will definitely be pushback, but they will not be able to escape social trends if they want to remain viable. Treatment providers who currently pathologize non-normative sexualities under any other therapeutic modality, besides sex addiction, such as psychoanalysis, CBT, or any other theoretic model will either have to evolve or at the very least will be much more secretive of their biases with colleagues and clients.
In the end, social progress marches forward and those that stand opposed will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Like other repressive and foolish ideas that came before, such as hysteria, nymphomania and lobotomies, conversion therapy will too find itself in the dustbin of history.