5 Feb, 13 | by Iain Brassington
Spoiler alert: Almost certainly not. But hear me out for a bit.
The Christian Medical Fellowship blog had an article posted yesterday about what it praised as a balanced documentary concerning “sexual orientation change efforts” – gay conversion therapy to you and me – on Radio 4 on Sunday. Actually, it wasn’t a documentary – it was a short article on Sunday, the station’s religious-affairs-quota-filling hour (go to about 30:50 here), and it’s no more a documentary than is the sports bulletin - and the balance is “BBC balance”, which means giving equal airtime to the fireman and the fire. But anyway, that’s not what struck me.
Neither am I particularly bothered for the sake of this post about whether or not psychotherapy can make any difference to sexual orientation. I’ll simply allow, for the sake of the argument, that it can at the very least make a difference to sexual behaviour, and maybe to orientation tout court.
What struck me was a couple of things that Peter Saunders says on his CMF blog post about the use of such “therapies”. One of the striking things was this:
Di Hodgson, chair of the Diversity, Equalities and Social Responsibility Committee of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), questioned the very principles underlying the therapy:
“I think there is very conflicting evidence. But in some ways, to me, that’s really not the right question to ask, if I may say, because whether or not something works doesn’t mean that it is ethical or in the public interest or the right thing to do for someone. So we have taken a view in a way which is regardless of the scientific findings. We still believe that it is unethical to seek to agree or to work towards changing someone’s sexual orientation through psychotherapy.”
I thought this was quite an extraordinary admission by someone speaking on behalf of an organisation that seeks to de-register therapists who practise ‘change therapy’ on the pretext that it does not work.
Hmmm. Yeah, but no. It’s not remarkable at all. Hodgson’s personal agnosticism about the effectiveness of the therapies and the UKCP’s position that they are ineffective don’t have to be the same, because Hodgson and the UKCP aren’t the same entity. There’s no reason to suppose that she should be bound by the opinions of the body she represents, or vice versa. And, anyway, the difference is small. She (negatively) doesn’t think they work; the UKCP (positively) thinks they don’t.
But there’s more substantial stuff to be said. I don’t know if Saunders has seen Iron Sky, which is a gleefully silly film set in 2018 about an invasion of Earth by Nazis who’ve been hiding on the moon since 1945. One of the plot points involves a drug that has the ability to turn black people into white people. Let’s imagine that this drug actually exists, and is undergoing trials to determine how effective it is. There’s currently conflicting evidence about whether or not it actually does turn black white, and whether or not it poses any other dangers.
It still seems to me that there would be a couple of reasons for professional bodies to deregister people prescribing the drug. The first is that there might be worries about the propriety of prescribing drugs that are currently scientifically controversial, which may not work, and which may cause harm in their own right. The second is that… um…
Oh, yeah. Being black isn’t pathological, and using the drug would be either positively racist, or – at best – pandering to racism. There doesn’t seem to me to be anything self-evidently improper about a medical professional body de-registering people on the grounds that there are certain practices with which professionals ought not to be associated. I think that sometimes professional bodies can be a bit ban-happy, with a tendency to over-regulate for the sake of professional appearance (I’ve heard people taking seriously the idea that “professionalism” means having to self-impose restrictions about what to put on your facebook page…) – but this wouldn’t be one of those times.
The analogy should be obvious. Since being gay isn’t pathological, the idea that there could be legitimate therapy for it looks to be a bit of a non-starter – on which point, have a look at this.
Except… well, let’s be generous, and consider whether there’s possibly a couple of counterarguments here. One has to do with the idea that people might require psychotherapy not because they’re gay per se, but because homosexuals do still face problems of acceptance and stigma that the straight population doesn’t, and this might well screw them up. The other is that a person might be struggling to reconcile their natural inclinations and their values - and that this, too, could be a cause for therapy.
Obviously, the first counterargument isn’t actually a defence of gay conversion therapy. If you’re messed up mentally because your family or society at large won’t accept your sexuality, then it’s really not you that needs to change. In just the same way, if you’re a member of an ethnic minority and you’ve got psychological issues as a result of your racist neighbour’s behaviour, the solution isn’t to try to be a bit less black. And, anyway: in the Bible reading that it recommends for this coming December*, the CMF itself says that
[i]n the New Testament adultery and fornication** and homosexuality are all equally condemned, and we should be crystal clear in our Christian witness to this
- which suggests to me an underlying belief by at least some people working with the CMF’s imprimatur that being gay is the problem. Endorsing gay conversion “therapy” on this basis would amount to insisting that gay people need help to so that they don’t feel so bad when people like the CMF have a go at them for being gay. It’s not quite victim-blaming, but it’s not far off.
Wait, though: what some people say on the CMF website isn’t necessarily the same as the CMF’s position. True – but the objection to Di Hodgson’s quotation on the radio was that there was an inconsistency between what she said there and what the UKCP says. Why should a different standard be applied here? You can’t have it always up.
And so on to the second counterargument, via the other thing that struck me about Saunders’ post:
I concluded by arguing for a more even-handed approach:
“People already can have ‘gay affirmative therapy’ which affirms their feelings and helps them to harmonise their lifestyle choices with those feelings. So we think there should be a level playing field and that people who would like to harmonise their lifestyle choices with their values should be able to have professional help for that as well.”
Once again, yeah, but no. Affirmative therapies don’t have to be pro homosexuality (in the sense of encouraging people to try it out, or keep it up***); affirmation can take the form of reassuring people that it’s really no big deal if they are gay – that they shouldn’t have to get screwed up about it – and offering advice about how to deal with any problems it generates. (In the same sort of way, the feminist “consciousness-raising” events of a generation or so ago weren’t trying to persuade people to be women. ‘Cos, y’know, that’d be daft.) What’s on offer from the gay conversion crowd isn’t really the yin to “affirmative therapy”‘s yang. A genuinely level playing field would be one in which a person who – for some reason – decided that he ought to be gay despite his basic heterosexuality was offered help to bring his lifestyle into line with his belief in the rightness of being a massive queen. Somehow, I don’t think that that’s what Saunders has in mind. And that belies his claim to be even handed.
That speaks to the second counterargument that I mooted a minute ago. I don’t have all that much of a problem with the idea that we could use medical technology to do all kinds of weird and wonderful non-curative stuff to people’s bodies for the sake of helping them realise their vision of the best life; and, in principle, that that might translate to psychotherapy. If a gay person genuinely wants to be less gay – allowing, for the sake of the argument, that this is a genuine desire rather than simply a product of social hostility - and if there’s a psychotherapy that offers this – remember, I’m allowing for the sake of the argument that there could be, even though in real life that’s not at all a given - then fine. If we can make a person’s life better by helping to ameliorate the discord between their inclinations and their values, we should. But that won’t tell us whether it’s the inclination or the value that ought to change; and pari passu, we should also be happy with the idea of a psychotherapy directed at making a straight person a bit less straight if they decide that being gay is desirable.
I’m all for being even-handed. To that extent, I agree with Saunders completely.
* Admirable preparation, if nothing else.
** Does anyone really still use language like this?