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Jonathan Foiles LCSW
Jonathan Foiles LCSW
Sexual Orientation

Conversion 'Therapy' Isn't Therapy At All

Efforts to change sexual orientation are deeply harmful and should be banned.

It reads like something out of "A Clockwork Orange" or "Abu Ghraib". As a middle schooler, Sam Brinton was bound to a table and had ice, heat, and electricity applied to his body while he was forced to watch explicit television clips. He was told that his community had rejected him, that he was alone, that he was an abomination who would inevitably contract a fatal disease. This stomach-churning abuse was perpetrated by a counselor seeking to rid Sam of his bisexuality as detailed in his New York Times op-ed last week.

Source: Wokandapix/Pixabay

Conversion therapy has long been discounted in professional circles. Nearly every major association of mental health professionals have released a statement condemning the practice. Yet it persists. According to new data released by The Williams Institute, approximately 698,000 LGBTQ adults have undergone conversion therapy, over half of them during adolescence. The Williams Institute further estimates that 20,000 LGBTQ youth will receive conversion therapy from a licensed professional.

Conversion therapy remains legal in 41 states. Efforts to ban it in other states continue but move slowly. It is a misnomer to refer to efforts to change one’s sexual orientation as ‘therapy.’ Such efforts fail to be therapeutic in several key respects.

It is not client-centered.

In the very first day of counseling graduate programs, prospective students are told that it is the client, not the therapist, who is in the driver’s seat of the treatment. Such a conviction is a fundamental facet of the work, and conversion therapy violates it at every corner. The goal of therapy is determined not by the client but by the therapist and possibly their parents.

The outcome is pre-determined.

Part of the difficulty (and the thrill) of being a therapist is not knowing where the work will take you and your client. Clients often begin treatment with set goals in mind, but in the process of therapy new struggles are uncovered, new gains are achieved. Conversion therapy has a pre-determined outcome and thus forfeits this essential feature of the therapeutic process.

It doesn’t work.

Therapy must be evidence-based and empirically verified in order to be a best practice. Conversion therapy is neither. Meta-analyses of studies on the treatment have found that it simply doesn’t work, and qualitative reports have detailed the suffering and pain it leaves behind. Evidence-based practice is ethical practice.

Practices that are not guided by the client, have outcomes which are imposed upon the client, and don’t work are not therapy but torture. Our society rightly gives great autonomy to healthcare practitioners, but at times such practices are seen to be so dangerous and prone to misuse that they must be outlawed. It is time that conversion therapy be relegated to the dustbin of history and banned in every state to protect those who are seeking our help, not our abuse.

About the Author
Jonathan Foiles LCSW

Jonathan Foiles, LCSW, is a therapist who works at a community mental health clinic in Chicago.

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