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Government to ban conversion therapy

A government consultation calling for a ban on so-called conversion therapy closed earlier this month.

Conversion therapy is the pseudoscientific practice of attempting to change an individual's sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual or their gender identity from transgender to cisgender using psychological, physical, or spiritual interventions.

While there is no reliable evidence that sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed, health professionals warn that conversion therapy practices are ineffective and potentially harmful.

Sarb Bajwa, Chief Executive of the British Psychological Society, said: “The Society has long called for swift action to outlaw conversion therapy practice because it is unethical, potentially harmful, and not supported by evidence.”

The consultation outlined that the government will introduce a legislative ban on the practice of so-called conversion therapy. This consultation sought views on proposals on how the practices, which particularly affect LGBT people, could be banned in England and Wales.

It highlighted several proposals including:

  • A ban on conversion therapy by introducing a new criminal offence alongside sentence uplifts for existing offences.
  • A package of support for victims, restricting promotion of conversion therapies, removing profit streams, and strengthening the case for disqualification from holding a senior role in a charity.
  • Introducing Conversion Therapy Protection Orders to protect potential victims from undergoing the practice including overseas.
  • Exploring further measures to prevent the promotion and advertisement of conversion therapy.

The government is currently reviewing the responses to the consultation and The Equality Hub will prepare draft legislation by spring 2022, which will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.

The BPS outlined its response clarifying the need for an urgent ban on conversion therapy, the psychological evidence behind our position and areas of concern where the Society think the proposed package of measures is lacking.

The Society strongly agrees that the government should intervene to end conversion therapy in principle and cited a growing body of evidence that conversion therapy may be harmful (Jowett and others, 2021).

“A systematic review undertaken by a task force of the American Psychological Association highlighted serious methodological concerns regarding the designs of Sexual Orientation Change Effort (SOCE) studies, and concluded that enduring change to an individual’s sexual orientation is uncommon, and identified evidence to indicate that individuals experienced harm (Glassgold et al., 2009),” said the BPS response.

It highlighted that the National LGBT Survey found transgender people were more likely to report having undergone or been offered conversion therapy and that one large study found that transgender people who had undergone conversion therapy were more likely to experience harmful outcomes than transgender people who had seen a professional about their gender identity but had not undergone conversion therapy (Turban, 2020).

“The central role of a psychologist, counsellor and therapist is to relieve suffering and to promote wellbeing. Therefore, practising conversion therapy is not in line with the basic tenet of providing care in an ethical manner,” said the BPS response.

The Society highlights that the legislation should not interfere with psychological and medical professionals who are trained and competent in working with trans and gender questioning youth from engaging in identity exploration or performing clinical assessment of suitability for medical intervention.

To assure professionals that providing ethical forms of therapy will not be affected by a ban, we think a clear distinction needs to be made between conversion therapy and normal ethical practice. It may be helpful to highlight key characteristics of conversion therapy such as identified by Jowett and others (2021) and by the American Psychological Association (2009, 2021):

  • The dissemination of inaccurate, stereotypic, or unscientific information about sexual orientation or gender identity (e.g. that being LGBT is unhealthy or disordered) and/or misinformation about treatment outcomes;
  • Having overly directive approaches with pre-determined preferred outcomes (e.g. that the client identifying as cisgender and heterosexual is a desirable outcome);
  • Use unsound or unproven interventions with the intention to change or modify a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity

Sarb Bajwa, Chief Executive of the BPS: “We have worked closely with our partners on the Memorandum of Understanding on conversion therapy, the BPS Sexualities Section, Practice Board, Diversity Taskforce and our wider membership to produce our response and we are grateful to everybody for their input and expertise on this issue.

“Our response raises a number of concerns and we currently don’t believe the proposals go far enough towards a full ban of conversion therapy. We have serious reservations about their effectiveness to protect many of those who undergo conversion therapy from all of its associated harms.

“We will continue to work closely with our members and partners to continue to engage with this process as it moves forward to ensure a full and proper ban is achieved.”

The charity Stonewall has been running a campaign calling for an end to conversion therapy and warns that it is still legal for LGBTQIA+ people in the UK to be subjected to conversion therapy until the legislation is introduced.

“This harmful practice, which seeks to suppress, “cure” or change a person’s people's sexual orientation and/or gender identity, is taking place right now,” said a statement from the charity.

“We know that 7% of LGBTQIA+ people have been offered or undergone conversion therapy. People are targeted in medical, psychiatric, psychological, religious and cultural settings. These are places everyone should feel safe,” the charity added.

Find out more about Stonewall’s campaign here

Read the BPS Response to the government’s consultation here

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