Earlier this week, New Jersey became the second state to ban a controversial type of therapy that is designed to turn gay children straight.
The ban, signed by Gov. Chris Christie, specifically states that mental health professionals “shall not engage in sexual orientation change efforts with a person under 18 years of age.” California enacted a similar ban last year, after mental health professionals agreed that the therapy not only didn’t work, but could also inflict harm on young patients.
The New Jersey ban comes on the heels of a fraud lawsuit brought by four clients of a conversion therapy center in New Jersey. They claim that the center charged thousands of dollars for practices that allegedly included blaming parents for a child's sexuality and engaging “in violent role play exercises where they beat effigies of their mothers,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In his years of practice, Rob Dobrenski, a psychologist in New York City and author of Crazy: Notes On and Off the Couch, has never had anyone approach him to perform gay conversion therapy on a minor. If they had, he said, they’d be turned away.
The professional aversion to this type of therapy goes all the way back to Sigmund Freud. Freud was famously approached by parents curious over whether they could convert their gay children to heterosexuality. He, and many others, believed that homosexuality is not a mental illness and shouldn’t be “cured.”
“'Cured’ means that there is some sort of disorder. Homosexuality is not a disorder. It should be celebrated,” Dobrenski said. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is misguided by ignorance and/or hate.”
A new Pew survey shows that 41 percent of Americans believe homosexuality is something with people are born with, yet 35 percent still believe gays can change their sexual orientation.
Does the Law Limit What Can Be Discussed in Therapy?
Challengers of the conversion therapy bans, predominantly conservative-minded law organizations, claim that the bans are too broadly worded. Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, argues that it is a First Amendment issue for therapists and may prevent parents from seeking counseling if their son or daughter develops “unwanted same-sex attractions after being molested by the likes of Jerry Sandusky,” according to the New Republic.
Dobrenski said that he doesn’t believe any law prohibits discussing sexuality with minors.
“Depending on age, you may need to fill the parents in on the generalities of those conversations, but it's usually not a problem,” he said.
While there’s some concern regarding what psychiatrists can and cannot talk about with clients, Dobrenski said the state bans on conversion therapy are a step in the right direction.
“Any form of control can have its pitfalls, but this is not one of those situations,” he said. “Simply having a degree and a license doesn't give you the right to practice any form of ‘treatment’ you believe is in someone else's best interests.”
The History of Conversion Therapy
In 1952, the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classified homosexuality as a mental illness, and conversion therapy was regarded as a legitimate practice. Homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1987.
Conversion therapy has been used in strange and inhumane ways over the years, ranging from transplanting the testicles of a heterosexual into a gay man to drilling holes in a person’s skull.
Eventually, in the latter part of the 20th Century, major medical and psychological associations abandoned the use of the technique, saying that it is ineffective, puts patients at risk of further psychological harm, and violates the Hippocratic oath "first, do no harm."