Two years ago, in a testimony to the state of New Jersey, Benjamin Unger recounted how he was made to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket. The action was part of a “treatment” meant to curb his attraction to men. According to Unger, a religious organization tasked with turning him straight told him that his close connection to his mother was the cause of his sexual orientation. He stopped speaking to her entirely.
So-called “conversion therapy,” the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation (almost always from gay or bisexual to straight), has a history of damaging, scientifically unfounded approaches. In The Inheritance of Shame, Peter Gajdics describes being pinned down by two other men as his psychiatrist screams at him, mocking him for having sex with other men. Other first-person accounts—of men in the U.S., and more recently, of men in China as well as women in Ecuador—recount similarly violent, coercive experiences.
In the U.S., state governments are beginning to outlaw conversion therapy in growing numbers. California became the first to do so in 2012. Eight other states have banned it in some form since. In 2017 alone, Nevada, New Mexico, and Connecticut have signed their own bans into law. And two weeks ago, a long-anticipated bill passed the Rhode Island Senate.
“We’ve gone from kind of a trickle to what seems to be more of a stream,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel at the Southern Poverty Law Center. SPLC filed the suit against JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, the conversion-therapy group involved with Unger’s treatment. The widely covered case was the first consumer-fraud case heard against the use of conversion therapy in the U.S.
A number of professional organizations have spoken out on the lack of evidence for the practice’s efficacy, as well as the deep psychological toll it has taken on those subjected to it. In his attempts to alter his clients’ orientation, Alan Downing—a JONAH-affiliated “life coach”—had two people re-enact experiences of childhood sexual abuse. During a session that reportedly cost $100, he made another client fully undress in front of a mirror. After sessions with Downing, Unger fell into a deep depression, and began praying that he would die in his sleep. Chaim Levin, another plaintiff in the JONAH case, attempted to kill himself.
While one can imagine a clear moral argument against this practice, the ruling in the JONAH case stemmed from the simple fact that it does not work. Research supports this point. Read more via the Atlantic