Opinion: can you consent to conversion therapy?

So-called conversion therapy has been subject to recent controversy, raising questions surrounding consent and freedom to religious expression. The government has been criticised for its proposed legislation which seeks to ban conversion therapy with the exemption of an adult’s consent. In 2018, the government made a promise to ban the ‘abhorrent practice’, and two years later new legislation is finally being proposed. However, many organisations and individuals are not content with the proposed legislation, claiming that the ban is in ‘name only’, and does not actually protect those most vulnerable.

Conversion therapy has been practiced for many years as an effort to “cure” or change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a widely discredited and condemned practice that is known to be associated with negative mental health effects. Conversion therapy encompasses many types of practices, such as hormone therapy, aversion therapy (including chemical aversion and electroshock aversion), “corrective” rape, hypnosis, exorcism, counselling, and prayer. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA) World use the term ‘sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression change efforts’ (SOGIECE) to highlight the range of motivations for conversion therapy and that conversion therapy does not work in changing one’s sexual or gender identity. 

Forms of conversion therapy that include physical and sexual violence are already illegal under current legislation. Following an LGBT survey in 2017, the government found that 5% of LGBT participants had been offered conversion therapy, and 2% had undergone it. As a result, the government’s proposed legislation is to ban any physical conversion therapy, and ban talking conversion therapy conducted on under 18s or adults who have not given consent. 

For many, this proposed legislation is not good enough. The law’s exemption for consent has been called a ‘legal loophole’. The reasoning for this exemption is to protect an individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression, and their freedom of conscience and religion. The Evangelical Alliance, which represents 3,500 evangelical churches, wrote in a letter to the government that ‘proposals to end conversion therapy risk criminalising everyday church activities’ and ‘we defend people’s freedom to choose how they respond to their sexual attraction’. In response, Boris Johnson reassured the Evangelical Alliance that church members will not be ‘criminalised for normal non-coercive activity’. 

The ILGA argue that, while the right to freedom of religion is an absolute right, ‘the right to manifest one’s religion or belief can be subject to restrictions’, suggesting that conversion therapy including those in religious contexts can be banned whilst still protecting one’s right to freedom of religion. 

Jayne Ozanne, a gay evangelical Christian, wrote that the government do not ‘want to offend a small minority of right-wing evangelicals within its party who want to be able to continue these barbaric practices of “praying the gay (and trans) away”’, and they need to ‘either protect people from harm or leave the door open to abuse’.

This raises an interesting question: can an individual consent to harm? In the well-known R v Brown case, the House of Lords judged that consent is not a defence to infliction of bodily harm in the context of sadomasochism, finding five homosexual men guilty for their sadomasochistic sexual acts that included bodily harm, despite none of the men complaining about the acts themselves. While this is a case of physical harm and not psychological, it still presents the ambiguity over how far one’s consent can go. 

It seems that, with reference to the R v Brown case, an individual could not consent to violent conversion therapy if it causes bodily harm. Yet it is still unclear whether an individual can consent to psychological harm. Unlike physical harm, psychological harm is more difficult to predict and to diagnose, and what causes one individual psychological harm may not cause another individual psychological harm. Physical harm however generally causes the same damage regardless of the individual. I would argue that an individual can consent to a practice that may lead to psychological harm, so long as they are aware of the risks in undertaking such procedure, just as an individual can consent to boxing with the acknowledgement that they may be physically harmed. Therefore, an individual can consent to taking conversion therapy, as long as they are fully informed about its risks of harm.

Yet this leads to another problem – what constitutes as consent? According to a report on conversion therapy led by Coventry University, some people reported that their choice to undergo conversion therapy was voluntary but their choice was ‘shaped by powerful influences in their social environment and under guidance from authority figures’. Similarly, the ILGA claim that the most common reasons for seeking conversion therapy ‘included fear, stress, and anxiety surrounding the illegitimacy’ of their sexual or gender identity within their religion or community. In 1972, American gay activist Charles Silverstein said ‘to suggest that a person comes voluntarily to change his sexual orientation is to ignore the powerful stress, oppression if you will, that has been telling him for years that he should change’. Can someone still consent if they are being heavily influenced? What counts as influence, and how far can influence go before it is coercive?

Supposedly, many who want a complete ban of conversion therapy – including for religious reasons – would argue that any individual seeking conversion therapy is necessarily under some kind of coercive influence as they believe their sexuality is wrong, and therefore cannot give consent due to their vulnerability. However, this would imply that any decision an individual makes that is influenced from external groups is non-consensual, which would apply to almost everything an individual does. We are social creatures and cannot be easily separated from our social context. 

I am not suggesting that an individual should feel ashamed of their sexuality and want to change it – quite the opposite. However, an individual should still be free to undergo talking conversion therapy if they freely consented to it. Everyone should have the freedom to express their sexual and gender identity, even if, regrettably, for some people that means undergoing conversion therapy.

We have come a long way in our tolerance and celebration of the variety of sexual and gender identities. For some individuals, such as those following a particular religion, their sexuality or gender identity may still be something that they want to alter, and they should be able to have the choice to undergo efforts to change their identity. The government’s proposed legislation of banning conversion therapy unless explicit consent is a welcome change.

Helpful resources for those affected by conversion therapy:

https://www.banconversiontherapy.com/support

http://www.lgbt.foundation/

https://switchboard.lgbt/

https://www.stonewall.org.uk/campaign-groups/conversion-therapy

Further reading:

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/help-fund-national-conversion-therapy-helpline

https://ilga.org/Conversion-therapy-global-research-ILGA-World

https://www.eauk.org/resources/what-we-offer/reports/biblical-and-pastoral-responses-to-homosexuality

https://www.itv.com/news/2021-03-16/evangelical-christians-urge-boris-johnson-not-to-ban-conversion-therapy

https://www.hrc.org/resources/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy

https://www.stonewall.org.uk/campaign-groups/conversion-therapy

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/29/conversion-therapy-to-be-restricted-but-not-banned-in-proposed-bill

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