Paul Dirks

The Empirical Case against “Conversion-Therapy” Bans

A compassionate approach to trauma requires that individuals ought to be able to access therapy, in order to explore the relationship of these adverse experiences to their sexuality.

Currently a bill to ban “conversion therapy” is being considered in the Canadian Senate (Bill C-8), as well as in multiple states in the US. Unfortunately, in most cases there is tremendous ambiguity about which practices and services are being prohibited, which obfuscates a multitude of problems: the endangerment of previously established legal rights for individuals to choose health treatments, the removal of the professional autonomy of doctors in providing treatment according to their expertise, the question of whether “sexual orientation” includes pedophilia, and the controversy surrounding medical transition for gender identity.
This last concern relates to the irony that helping children become comfortable with their natal sex would be banned in favor of experimental drug treatments and surgeries that lead to sterilization and have not been shown to alleviate psychological distress long-term. More ironic yet, and tragically so, is the fact that the studies indicate that, for the majority of children for whom their gender dysphoria remits, roughly half are same-sex-attracted. This fact leads to the stunning conclusion that a ban on conversion therapy for transgender youth assures the worst kind of conversion therapy for same-sex-attracted youth—a kind of gay eugenics. Sadly, few politicians have read the primary research, and the prevailing narrative in the mass media is that it is social “justice” to ban conversion therapy.
Although it is the disastrous consequences of a conversion therapy ban for gender identity that have generated the most concern, there is also an important argument to be made against bans from the standpoint of compassionate counseling for those who have faced childhood trauma. Research over the last decade has solidified the finding that sexual minorities are far more likely to have faced adverse experiences during childhood. This is not a completely new finding, as researchers have known for some time that gay men, in particular, are far more likely than heterosexual men to have been sexually assaulted as children or adolescents. Two theories have been put forward to explain this finding. It has been suggested, firstly, that proto-homosexual children may be particularly vulnerable to predators because of their gender non-conformity. This non-conformity may mark children as outsiders among their peers or family members, and may be noticed by abusers who would take advantage of it. The second theory, one that is held by a minority of therapists and researchers, is that sexual abuse may at times be a confusing or causal mechanism in same-sex attraction, behavior, or identity. Richard Gartner writes that an abused boy,
may fear that he somehow invited the abuse and therefore is “really” interested in men. Or he may wonder why he was chosen by a man as a sexual target, and whether having been chosen means he is “truly homosexual.” Whether he is aroused or not during the abuse, he may fearfully assume he is “really” gay.
As the literature has expanded past the particular category of childhood sexual abuse, however, it has become a well-replicated finding that almost all categories of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are elevated for sexual minorities, and in particular for those who identify as bisexual. For instance, in one of the largest studies to date, the researchers found that a wide range of ACEs, from parental divorce to physical abuse, were elevated for both bisexuals and homosexuals when compared to heterosexuals.
What is particularly relevant for considering bans on treatments of sexual minorities, however, is that some of these adverse childhood experiences cannot be associated with the prevailing minority-stress theory. The minority-stress theory posits that sexual minorities face both overt victimization as well as more subtle structural stigma in society, and that these experiences are responsible for the elevated rates of mental disorder, substance abuse, and physical illness found in this population.
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