“Consensual Conversion Therapy”


Recently I gave a talk to a group of people about conversion therapy, based on my beliefs after having lived through six years of it, and then I read an excerpt from my book, The Inheritance of Shame, at the end of which a 60’s-something looking man in the audience, a psychiatrist, asked me a question about what he termed “consensual conversion therapy.” He said a colleague of his, another psychiatrist, had treated a male adult with “same-sex attractions,” who he said had asked for “conversion therapy” because he did not want to live as a gay man—he wanted “a conventional heterosexual life.” The psychiatrist in the audience said that his colleague and this patient “embarked on the conversion therapy by mutual consent, and by all accounts the therapy was a big success,” so he wanted to hear my thoughts—what did I think of the idea of “consensual conversion therapy”?

For a moment, after this psychiatrist’s question, I just stared at him, horrified, speechless. He was sitting near the back of the crowded room of about 40 adults, all of whom were looking at me, waiting for my response. 

Considering I’d just finished talking for about 60 minutes, and my views on the practice of conversion therapy were about as clear as I could have made possible, I almost didn’t know how to respond.

A moment later I started by saying, “As I said in my talk”—and then I repeated my position, which is that I believe so-called conversion therapies turn a person’s desire to belong into a desire to change one’s sexuality; the locus of attention, therefore, no longer remains on the hatred or intolerance, the ignorance, but on the person whose sexuality is now under direct attack. Killing, I repeated (since I’d said it moments earlier in my talk) turns out to be as easy as “therapy.” The fact that this man had “asked” for the “therapy,” as far as I was concerned, does not make it any less abusive, or unethical for the doctor to have agreed to it and done whatever he did to try and “change” this man’s sexuality; in fact, people engage, seemingly “voluntarily,” in abusive relationships all the time, but that doesn’t make them any less abusive.

I’m not sure this psychiatrist in the audience really heard me, or maybe he didn’t like my response, because he repeated his question. 

“This patient,” he said—“he wanted conversion therapy; the therapy was consensual; it was a success.”

I honestly didn’t know how better to state my position, but repeated another point from my talk—that I believed these “therapies” confused the “map” of someone’s sexual identity for their “territory” of desire—and anyone, if they wanted it bad enough, could change their life map; but that would never change their inner territory, their essence. “A map is not the territory it represents,” I said, repeating the famous lines that I’d said minutes earlier. What sort of “success” could come from any of that?

By the look on this doctor’s face in the audience I am convinced he did not really like, or appreciate, or “get,” what I was saying, but the question, as far as I was concerned, was answered, and so we moved on.

Conversion therapy induces cognitive dissonance, since the person undergoing treatment will undoubtedly end up in a state of mental and emotional incongruence—living according to the map of heterosexuality, while simultaneously experiencing same-sex attractions; and if there is one common trait with nearly anyone who has ever discussed their years in these treatments, whether or not they “asked for it,” it is that they leave treatment dissociated, depersonalized, and deeply depressed, if not outright suicidal. 

If someone asks for conversion therapy, the “helping professional” should absolutely decline—in the same way that they would hopefully decline if the patient asked if they could engage in a “consensual sexual relationship.” Then the “helping professional” should tell the person seeking “help” that instead of conversion therapy, perhaps they should address their feelings of internalized homophobia.