Carys Moseley, Christian Concern’s policy researcher, comments on the new ‘conversion therapy’ support website and helpline.
Last week, the Conversion Therapy Support Service website for the UK was published. The website links to the Conversion Therapy Victims’ Helpline. Both resources are run by Galop, the LGBT anti-hate crime charity, which gets government funding for these projects. The wording of the website gives serious cause for concern. The fact that Galop gets government funding for this raises questions as to whether the government has widened its ban on ‘conversion therapy/practices’.
Wider definition than that of the government
The first concern about this website is that its definition of ‘conversion therapy’ is wider than the definition given in the autumn 2021 consultation for England and Wales.
“So-called ‘conversion therapy’ includes all practices that have the pre-determined intention to change, ‘cure’, or suppress a person’s sexual or romantic orientation and/or gender identity.”
The inclusion of the term ‘romantic’ echoes the latest wording of the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy, which is the policy already banning ‘conversion therapy’ in professional mental health settings.
The support website also says that ‘conversion practices’ is a more accurate term, and this deliberately widens the scope of the term beyond ‘therapy’ to whatever conversation, prayer or counselling may be offered.
Anybody, anywhere could be targeted
Significantly, just about anybody could be deemed to be perpetrating ‘conversion therapy/practices’, according to this website.
“This may be committed by family members, community members or groups, religious leaders or organisations, health workers, counsellors/therapists, or other practitioners within the ‘well-being sector’. So-called ‘conversion therapy’ can also be referred to as ‘conversion practices’, because these practices often don’t look like ‘therapy’. Conversion practices can include physical, psychological, medical, psychiatric, spiritual, religious or cultural interventions, among others.”
It is assumed that this could happen anywhere, thus making Christian activity in all settings include people’s homes and churches potential targets.
“This abuse can be perpetrated by anyone, in any setting or any community. It might happen in someone’s own home, someone else’s home, or in a community, religious, or therapeutic space. Conversion practices are not necessarily tied to religion or to specific cultures, but in some cases, they can be.”
Consent not deemed possible
The single biggest problem with the website wording is the complete denial of consent on the part of the client as a defense against accusations of ‘conversion therapy/practices’:
“In some cases of so-called ’conversion therapy’, a person can be made to believe they have asked for or consented to what is happening to them. They may even be told that the only way to live a happy and fulfilled life is to change their sexual or romantic orientation and/or gender identity. However, we can’t choose who we are and we can’t consent to abuse.”
This co-opts the language of the feminist ‘We Can’t Consent to This’ campaign, which aimed to prevent men getting away with murdering women in sado-masochistic relationships. I’ll return below to the reason for this absurd comparison.
The denial of consent is also partly based on the assumption that people’s sense of self is based on sexuality and gender identity:
“Your sexual or romantic orientation and/or gender identity are ultimately your sense of yourself.”
In reality, this is a belief that will not be shared by all members of the population, and as such this website is wrong to assume that everybody will share it.
This denial of consent even for adults goes against what the government grudgingly conceded in the consultation for England and Wales in 2021. There the government stated:
“We do not intend to ban adults from seeking such counselling freely, but consent requirements will be robust and stringent.”
Denial of consent traceable to the Ozanne Foundation
The denial of consent is not surprising and is clearly based on the Cooper Report published by the Ozanne Foundation in October 2021. On 4 November 2021 Government Equalities Office civil servants told the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) that the government had implemented many of the ‘suggestions’ of the Cooper Report. This was in a meeting preparing for the POST briefing note on ‘conversion therapy’ for Parliamentarians. We found this out due to a Freedom of Information Request to POST.
The Cooper Report references the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Laskey et al v. United Kingdom in 1997. This was a case where the judge ruled against a number of men involved in homosexual sado-masochist behaviour captured on tape. That tape had been seized by the Obscene Publications Squad of the Metropolitan Police. This led to the men being convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. They disagreed, saying that they had engaged in consensual behaviour in private and did not need any medical attention, and as such that their rights under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights had been violated. The Cooper Report made this comment on the case:
“Prosecution for consensual sado-masochist acts was a necessary invasion of privacy to protect health.” [Cooper Report, Section VII, fn. 38]
As the main body of the Cooper Report text makes clear, the intention here is to weaponise Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, against torture, and to use that against churches, therapists and counsellors on the absurd basis that ‘conversion therapy’ is a form of torture. Remember we are talking about conversations or prayer. This is nothing like torture.
Claims of harm not backed up by scientific evidence
The website makes dramatic, major, yet unsubstantiated claims of lifelong harm from ‘conversion practices’, including the following:
“Mental: Increased psychological distress, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, self-harm risks, damaged well-being/self-esteem, increased risk of suicide, dysphoria, feelings of guilt or shame regarding the experience(s), fear of mental health support
Physical: Difficulty sleeping, eating disorders, injuries from sexual or physical violence and/or assault, mobility problems, or medical problems connected to the abuse
Social: Challenges with intimacy, feeling lost about who to talk to, or fear of communicating what has happened to you, feeling like you must hide your identity, avoiding spaces or events that support your sexual or romantic orientation and/or gender identity
Economic: Having your education delayed or disrupted, losing access to transport, homelessness, loss of employment or obstruction of employment opportunities
Community: Isolation from the community which supports your sexual or romantic orientation and/or gender identity, effects from isolation from your community (whether that be your family, culture, or religion).”
The evidence base provided by Galop for these massive claims turns out to be rather slender. They are: the story of Carolyn, a male-to-female transgender shared with the Ban Conversion Therapy campaign, GALOP’s own report on LGBT people’s experience of abuse by family members, seven very brief stories told to Stonewall in 2021, and Stonewall’s gender identity survey from 2020, which has already been debunked.
GALOP’s own research not up to scratch
The testimonies of only eight people and no peer-reviewed scientific publications are being used to justify a wide-ranging de facto ‘conversion therapy’ ban here. Let’s take Galop’s own research, which is not peer-reviewed but based on a YouGov survey conducted earlier this year. It found that 5% of LGBT people in the UK had experienced family members who had “Taken any action that sought to change, ‘cure’ or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
However no further details were given of what this meant, nor was there a demographic breakdown of this population as would normally be expected from survey data tables. We are not told whether these people were children or adults, married or single, or what exactly ‘sought to change’ means.
Link to national network of safe spaces
Finally, the support website tells users that they can access UK Says No More, a national network of safe spaces for victims of domestic abuse. They can call the Conversion Therapy Victims’ Helpline from these safe spaces.
“If you want to contact a support service for help, but are worried about someone in your life finding out, here are a few steps you can take to ensure the privacy of your help-seeking journey:
You could use a friend’s phone, or a publicly accessible phone to call a support service or helpline. Retailers like Boots, Morrisons, Superdrug and Well Pharmacy have discreet spaces with telephones from which you can call support services for free. You can find your nearest safe space through Say No More – Safe Spaces.”
This means that major retailers have been dragged into the policy on banning ‘conversion therapy’, without this ever having been set out in the government consultation.
‘Conversion therapy/practices’ assumed to be domestic abuse
All this has been allowed to happen because the government has already written a ‘conversion therapy/practices’ ban into its domestic abuse policy for England and Wales. This is exactly what the Cabinet document leaked to ITV News in May this year promised would happen. The Expert Panel report for the Scottish Government published recently recommended a similar focus on extending domestic abuse law to cover ‘conversion practices’.
The Galop-operated, government-funded Conversion Therapy Support Service website and helpline are UK-wide. The differences over how far domestic abuse law and policy should apply are less important than the overall denial of consent. In fact, we do not even know where the UK government currently stands on the issue of consent for adults. It has yet to publish the results of the consultation along with its own response. In the meantime, Galop casts its net so wide that innocent people could well be caught.
We presume that the government signed off on this website and therefore approves the wording used. This means that the government has already gone beyond what the consultation said both in terms of the definition of ‘conversion therapy’ and in saying that there can be no consent. It has done so before responding to the consultation. These developments are very alarming as to the direction of travel on outlawing ‘conversion therapy’. It now appears that the government is intent on criminalising certain types of consensual conversations.