Conversion Therapy: Controversial Modality in the Crosshairs

Illustration of hearts in grassConversion therapy, occasionally referred to as aversion therapy or reparative or restorative therapy, is the process of attempting to alter the sexual orientation of nonheterosexual people. Popular in some conservative religious sects, it has been summarily rejected by dozens of professional organizations as abusive, ineffective, and dangerous. The American Psychiatric Association, for example, explicitly advises against the treatment and removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.

Nevertheless, some desperate people still turn to this modality to try to alter their orientations and fit in better to the life of their religious communities. Equally alarming is the possibility of therapists practicing conversion therapy without explicitly telling the people they’re serving; this type of situation recently led to an ethics complaint against a therapist in Oregon, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It plans to file similar complaints in other states as part of a national campaign to stop therapists from practicing conversion therapy.

Does It Work?

While many professional organizations note that conversion therapy is unlikely to be effective, occasional reports of its effectiveness can serve to embolden its practitioners. So what’s behind this? While there have been numerous theories offered about same-sex attraction, the truth is that researchers don’t know why some people are gay and some aren’t. It’s a bit like asking why someone likes chocolate versus vanilla. There is a complex array of genetic, environmental, personal, and life-history factors that affect sexuality. Perhaps most importantly, there is little evidence that homosexuality is a condition, personality, or brain state; homosexuality, like all sexuality, describes behavior, and behavior can be changed—even if it should not be. For some people, a strong religious incentive or social disapprobation may be enough to convert them to heterosexuality or asexuality. For most people, though, it is impossible to change such a fundamental aspect of their existence. In the overwhelming majority of cases, people either do not become heterosexual or they live an asexual existence.

Psychiatric Problems

People who have undergone conversion therapy—whether or not they now consider themselves “cured”—have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems than the general population. There are three possible explanations for this. First, the methods used in conversion therapy may serve to tear down self-esteem and coping skills. Second, when people must overcome such a fundamental part of their personality as sexuality, a major source of pleasure in life can be removed. Third, conversion therapy teaches gay people that who they are is unacceptable, which can lead to an assortment of self-loathing behaviors.

Relationship Problems

Children may be involuntarily enrolled into conversion therapy programs. This can strain their relationships with their parents and make it extremely difficult for them to later have normal adult relationships. For adults enrolled in conversion therapy programs, current homosexual relationships will, almost by definition, suffer. And if these people enter into heterosexual relationships, then these relationships may be rife with problems, including abuse, lack of sexual relations, and lack of emotional intimacy.

Program Abuses

Some conversion therapy programs may themselves be dangerous. Unscrupulous practitioners may use pain and electric shock to deter homosexual feelings. In other cases, homosexual people are berated for their orientation, told they are going to hell, or led to believe that God does not love them. Children are especially susceptible to abuse in these programs because they are frequently enrolled involuntarily. Moreover, teenagers’ social, intellectual, and sexual development may be stunted as a result of their enrollment in these programs. The stigma of having attended conversion therapy may also “out” gay teens against their will and result in bullying from classmates and peers.


  1. Robinson, B.A. (2006, June 4). Reparative therapy: Statements by professional associations and their leaders. Retrieved from
  2. Herek, Gregory M. (2012, May 18). Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation. Retrieved from
  3. The Lies and Dangers of Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity. Human Rights Campaign. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ellen Truschel, LMFT, Certified Imago Therapist, therapist in Fresno, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Simone f

    Simone f

    June 8th, 2012 at 2:34 PM

    This is terrible!
    I had no idea that anyone reputable would ever even attempt something like this.
    To me this goes against everything that healthy therapy should be about.
    I thought that theray should be about helping you try to find, not deny, your true self.

  • george


    June 8th, 2012 at 5:19 PM

    The only way that I would even consider this approach to be okay would be if the person undergoing the therapy is the one who seeks it out and actively and willingly tries to change. But this person has to want to change for himself and not fir his church or his family or for society. In order for it to work then it has to be a change that he wants to make for himself. Even then I am still not sure that I agree with it because I believe that people are “born this way” (thanks Lady Gaga). but if someone is not comfortable with his sexuality and instead of trying to make peace with this they opt for a change instead, then who am I to judge that? I can only hope that the therapy that they receive is encouraging and not something that forces conformity upon them and that it is something that feels supportive instead of only something that is breaking him down.

  • Alex


    June 9th, 2012 at 5:28 AM

    I don’t see the problem with this like others seem to. If someone wants to try to change this part of themselves, then shouldn’t they have access to a form of therapy that could help them to make this a possibility?

    Maybe they don’t like who they are because they are gay, or think that they are gay. Then let them have a way to try to make a change. It may or may not be successful, but at least they have something that they can try.

  • Ginny


    June 10th, 2012 at 5:47 AM

    Alex- I think that you are missing the point here.
    The point is not that therpay is about trying to amke someone into something that they want to be, but rather should be about helping them find the true self that they already are.’

    Would you want someone telling you that how you feel or the person that you love is wrong, and if you just allowed them to sit and talk for a while then you would see the error of your ways too?

    That is how this so called conversion therapy is handled. They spend a great deal of time telling you how wrong you are and bad you are for feeling the things that you feel, and wear you down until you choose to conform to the ideals that someone else has set for you.

    Does that really sound right? Is that really what you think that a loving and caring group of friends should do?

  • Sonia L

    Sonia L

    June 11th, 2012 at 4:31 AM

    I don’t necessarily think that it should be outlawed as I am sure that there is someone out there who has experienced conversion therapy and who will say that it was the one thing that helped them to change. Fine. But that doesn’t mean that this is the right path for everyone. There are plenty of gay people who are perfectly fine with who they are and who love the lives that they have been given. There will still be some people who choose it, and that’s fine, but I don’t think that it should ever be forced on someone.

  • rocki


    June 11th, 2012 at 5:17 PM

    I had somebody try this with me once.

    It only took me few minutes to realize he’s a cook and I got the heck out of there.

  • Frank


    June 16th, 2012 at 12:31 PM

    There are instances that conversion therapy is required, even if possibilities of success are slim.

    Take my case: I am a 45 yo male, divorced, who is only attracted to males aged between 19 and 25. I feel no attraction to older males, and a very mild attraction to females. As time passes and young guys that at one point attracted my attention aged, my attraction to them just vanish. As a result of my sexual preference, I am not able to have an emotional life

    It happens that solving this problem runs deep into using the now-a-days loathed conversion therapy… yes a change is required to solve my case, and I want to have the opportunity to do it, even if chances are slim. Am I missing something here?

  • Arie Mirmanas

    Arie Mirmanas

    March 1st, 2014 at 7:21 PM

    Hello… It truly amazes me to see how many negative and innacurate accounts of reparative therapy of homosexuality are out there… I’ve chosen this path, willingly, not out of “self-hatred” or “homophobia” or internalized homophobia, that is just bull… Perhaps some insane religious extremist groups and old inhumane psychiatric asylums did horrendous things to alter sexual orientation, which damaged more the already suffering individual, but myself I never seen nowadays such a thing, it is horrendous and cruel and will retraumatize the already traumatized person.

    Reparative Therapy for SSA (Same-sex Attraction) is definitely possible to alter for many people, and definitely is not through electroshocks, shame, guilt feelings, prayer, pain, forced, sex with the opposite sex, porno watching and so on; SSA is believed by reparative therapists, at least for some people, to stem from trauma, or PTSD, could be from sexual and/or emotional abuse (studies show that about 40 to 85% of men who are attracted to men were sexually abused as children; Also, although so far there is not one single study showing any genetic component per sei, the genetic component that homosexual men may have can be character, such as perhaps, being more creative or sensitive; Many report as well that the overwhelming/controlling mother and the emotionally absent father can be determinant in sexual orientation. I am constantly appalled of how people give over and over incorrect information about this therapy which for many, including myself, been so helpful.

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