A guest post by Andrew Lilico.
Peter has noted that the Counsellors and Psychotherapists (Regulation) Bill contains two specific prohibitions on “gay to straight conversion therapies”. First, the Bill mandates that a new code of ethics for registered counsellors, therapists and psychotherapists include a “prohibition on gay to straight conversion therapy”. Second, whereas other violations of the code might include temporary or permanent removal from the register or other lesser disciplinary actions, a “breach of that section of the code relating to prohibition of gay to straight conversion therapy shall result in permanent removal from the register.”
Such a bill raises a number of issues. I wish to highlight just two.
First, the bill in its current form prohibits any and every “gay to straight conversion therapy”, including any such “therapy” that might be developed in the future. Peter takes an interest in the question of whether the best scientific research suggests that current therapies are or are not effective in changing sexual orientation and whether they have any undesirable side-effects. I shall leave that to him. Another related issue is what would count as “conversion” here — would training someone in the control and directing of sexual impulses so as to facilitate heterosexual rather than homosexual sexual activity, but without purporting to take homosexual sexual impulses away, constitute a “conversion therapy” or not? Again, although that is a very interesting and important question, I shall leave discussion of it for another time.
Instead, I shall assume, for the purposes of our discussion here, that we know what a “gay to straight conversion therapy” would entail and that no such therapy works at present. Does that mean all such “therapies” should be banned?
If a form of therapy has been demonstrated scientifically not to work, could we not ban the non-working variants of the therapy on the straightforward grounds that those particular therapies don’t work without ruling out the possibility that some future therapy might work? For example, through much of history there have been all kinds of treatments for the common cold. For much of history, almost all of them have been quack medicines. So suppose someone passed a bill saying “‘Cold cure therapies’ are banned.” Wouldn’t that seem rather odd? The fact that no such “therapy” had worked up to now wouldn’t mean no such therapy could be imagined, does it?
“But could any ‘gay to straight conversion therapy’ ever work, even in principle?” I hear someone ask. I don’t see why not. We know that people can be brainwashed in all kinds of ways. For example, my grandfather was one of many New Zealanders captured by the Germans during the Second World War, but liberated by the Soviets. He was not immediately released but, instead, taken to Soviet territory to be “re-educated”, whereafter (like many other returning soliders in similar circumstances) he was a communist for many years. Zen Buddhist monks train themselves to eschew all kinds of appetites. I would expect it to be possible to brainwash someone into believing he was a poached egg, if you really tried hard enough.
Just because we don’t believe that a “poached egg therapy” would be a good idea, doesn’t mean we should believe it couldn’t work. Similarly, whether or not we thought it desirable for those of a homosexual sexual orientation to be “converted” to a heterosexual sexual orientation (whatever that might mean — and I repeat that that is not straightforward as a concept) is largely irrelevant to the question of whether we think such a “conversion” could be possible or whether any “therapy” to achieve such a conversion might work. Like “poached egg therapy”, just because we believed a “gay to straight conversion therapy” worked it wouldn’t follow that we thought it a good idea.
That would seem to be the nub of the issue — not whether “gay to straight conversion” is possible, but whether it is sufficiently undesirable that we ban it.
But once we see that, such a ban can be seen as rather odd and authoritarian, bringing us to my second point. Presumably we would ban even a working “poached egg believing therapy” because we thought it undesirable for folk to believe themselves poached eggs. But why would we ban a working “gay to straight conversion therapy”? Presumably not because we thought it undesirable for folk to be straight? Why, then? Is it because we thought it undesirable for folk to change their sexuality?
Let’s assume that sexuality were genetic and morally neutral, like eye colour. Would we ban an operation that worked that allowed people to change their eye colour from blue to brown? I assume not — if it’s just as good for eyes to be blue as brown then it’s surely ethically harmless if folk change their eye colour. Maybe out there there would be some deluded individual that thought blue eyes wicked, and so changed them to brown for that reason. Would the fact we thought such an individual deluded really be a good enough reason to ban the operation? Similarly, just because some individuals that would seek out a working gay-to-straight conversion therapy would do so because they thoughts being gay wicked, would that really be a good enough reason to ban what one assumes is thought otherwise an ethically harmless conversion – like an eye colour change?
Suppose there were a working “straight to gay conversion therapy”. As this bill stands, it would be banned to have a working gay-to-straight conversion therapy, but not to have a working straight-to-gay conversion therapy. Suppose some man had a very close gay male friend, and decided he wanted to express his affection for his friend sexually but lacked the relevant appetites to make the most of that experience. Should such a man be banned from taking up a working “straight to gay conversion therapy”? I presume not. Why, then, should a man that had a close female friend, whom he decided he wanted to marry and have children with, not be able to take advantage of a “gay to straight conversion therapy” if a working version of such a therapy were available?
Whether we like it or not and whether we think they ought to or not, some people would like to change their sexual orientation. Perhaps it is the case at present that we have no technology to permit anyone to change their sexual orientation. In which case, we could ban any purported such therapies on the grounds that they didn’t work. But why should we outlaw any and every “gay to straight conversion therapy” that might be developed in the future, even if it worked?
Thoughts? Andrew is going to be reading this thread so will happily engage with comments.