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Can Conversion "Therapy" Change Sexual Orientation: The Data Says Probably Not

6 July 2022

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Conversion "therapy" (sometimes called reparative therapy) is the practice is attempting to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity. This article will mostly cover the research around conversion therapy that tries to change sexual orientation, also known as sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), and try to find out if they work and how they affect mental health. SOCE is often used on kids by unaccepting parents.

First of all, SOCE is widely condemned by major medical organizations. Medical organizations such as the American Medical Association, American Counseling Association, American Psychological Association, World Psychiatric Association, and American Psychiatric Association have all issued statements in opposition to SOCE. Many of these organizations state that there is no research showing SOCE works.

Now let's look at some of the research, a review of the literature by the APA in 2009 found that SOCE probably harmed mental health and likely did not work for the vast majority of people. It did find some limited data that showed it could reduce same sex attraction but not eliminate it in some rare cases though.

The review concludes that "the results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex sexual attractions or increase other sex attractions through SOCE." It also states that "there is no research demonstrating that providing SOCE to children or adolescents has an impact on adult sexual orientation." However, the review noted that research on SOCE was relatively sparse.

Another more recent review by Cornell University in 2016 echos a lot of these findings. It identifies 47 peer-reviewed studies that analyzed SOCE finding 13 studies that directly tried to answer the question about whether SOCE can change sexual orientation. It found that 12 out of those 13 studies reported that SOCE was ineffective and had links to many mental health problems such as depression, suicidality, and anxiety. The 1 study that said SOCE could work only found that it was effective in a minority of participants, the study's sample also completely self-identified as religious which often leads to biases such as a person being in denial or repressing their feelings.

In the end, the review said, "after reviewing the research, we concluded that there is no credible evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through therapeutic intervention. Most accounts of such change are akin to instances of “faith healing.” There is also powerful evidence that trying to change a person’s sexual orientation can be extremely harmful. Taken together, the overwhelming consensus among psychologists and psychiatrists who have studied conversion therapy or treated patients who are struggling with their sexual orientation is that therapeutic intervention cannot change sexual orientation, a position echoed by all major professional organizations in the field." Unfortunately, this review also notes that research on SOCE can be limited and often relies on self-reporting, however it also concludes that useful conclusion can still be drawn.

On top of this 2 other studies that studied side effects found that they were overwhelmingly negative. In one study the economic burden of LGBT+ conversion therapy in the US found that it was almost 10 billion dollars and also found a link to worse mental health. The second study found that SOCE increased suicide attempts in LGB youth by 88%.

In conclusion, SOCE is a widely discredited intervention that increases mental health problems and suicide rates while being ineffective at its job. Instead of defending conversion "therapy" more policymakers should be working to outlaw this abusive practice.