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Maya Forstater is co-founder of Sex Matters.

Why is talking therapy being conflated with torture?

“Conversion therapy” is a term used for barbaric acts of abuse, such as electric shocks, starvation, chemical castration and corrective rape, intended to change or supress a person’s sexual orientation,. The UN Independent Expert on the topic has called for a global ban, citing “beatings, rape, electrocution, forced medication, isolation and confinement, forced nudity, verbal offense and humiliation.”

“Gay conversion is torture; the UK must ban it” say campaigners, and the Government has responded with a proposal to legislate and a rushed, six week consultation. But is there any evidence that these acts of violence are taking place in the UK?

Is there any evidence of physical acts of conversion therapy in the UK?

Police reports say no. Sex Matters has seen the responses to Freedom of Information requests for details of arrest or detention for electrocution or ‘corrective rape’ in the last five years from 24 police forces. All reported that there had been no such arrests or detention in that period.

Responses from Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, Humberside Police, Leicestershire Constabulary, Metropolitan Police Service, Northumbria Police, Staffordshire Police, Bedfordshire Police, Derbyshire Constabulary, Suffolk Constabulary, Cheshire Constabulary, City of London Police, Cleveland Police, Dorset Police, Hertfordshire Constabulary, Norfolk Constabulary, North Yorkshire Police, Northamptonshire Police, South Yorkshire Police, Warwickshire Police, Gwent Police, North Wales Police,  British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police and Port of Dover Police all stated this was not a crime they had seen.*

Press coverage says no. Nor have we been able to find any recent accounts of physical abuse in the name of conversion, undertaken in the UK, in the press.

International reports say no. There are no reports of abusive practices from the UK in the UN Independent Expert’s report. Research by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) does not cite any cases in the UK.

Campaigners rely on old case studies. The website of the campaign to ban conversion therapy features one heart wrenching tale: “Carolyn’s story”, about aversion therapy “in a dark room and strapped to a wooden chair. Doctors gave me painful electric shocks while images of women were projected on the wall in the front of me.”

Another story that was reported in the media concerned “​​Chris” (not his real name). Chris spoke of similarly painful and distressing sessions.

But what happened to Carolyn and Chris took place 50 years ago.

What’s more, were the same attempted today, it would already be illegal. As the consultation document states: “no act of physical violence done in the name of conversion therapy is legal in this country”.

Bracketing therapy with torture serves to scare off discussion

The Government’s proposal includes making conversion an “aggravator” to existing crimes; offering an uplift on sentencing. However it is not clear why there is an urgent need to legislate to create a deterrent for a practice which appears to have long since died out.

The reason is one of salesmanship. The promoters of the ban have packaged torture together with talking therapy, and used condemnation of abhorrent gay conversion therapy to promote a much wider ban – that also takes in the treatment of children with gender dysphoria.

It is clever marketing. Everyone agrees that the kind of thing that Carolyn and Chris went through is barbaric and should be banned. Few will pay enough attention to notice it is already illegal.

In July 2020, in response to the petition to ban conversion therapy, the House of Commons petitions committee set up a survey to collect evidence about people’s experiences and tweeted “How does #conversiontherapy affect the #LGBT community? Should it be made illegal?”

It was an ordinary democratic act of collecting evidence and views  on a complex and little-understood topic. But it was met with a pile-on of outraged posts accusing the petitions committee of “encouraging debate about whether torturing LGBT+ children should be allowed”.

The committee retreated, issued a statement of apology and deleted the tweet, saying: “We apologise. Our intention was to provide a platform for people to share their opinion with the Petitions Committee, and inform its case to the Government. Clearly we misjudged this.”

A recent review of international published research, commissioned by the Government from Coventry University, confirmed there is no evidence on the prevalence or nature of conversion practices in the UK, and that there are no robust studies showing evidence of harm related to “gender identity conversion”.

The scare tactics aren’t working any more

In 2021, we’ve seen this manufactured offence-taking once too often.

With the Kathleen Stock affair shining a light on bullying in universities, the BBC standing up to Stonewall, and public bodies leaving its Diversity Champions programme, the environment feels different.

Organisations are starting to realise they can stand firm and do their jobs, even in the face of name-calling and hyperbolic accusations.  When we are warned off talking about something, we should pay particular attention to that something.

The thing we are being warned off talking about here is that, at the heart of the proposal to ban conversion therapy, is a plan to criminalise delivering talking therapies to under-18 year olds “with the intention of changing them from being transgender”.

This will mean that if children claim to be transgender, therapists who try to explore  possible alternative diagnoses or causes for their distress could be accused of attempting conversion and face criminal investigation.

Future young people such as Keira Bell – who at 15 was sure she was a boy, and was given puberty-blockers, testosterone and a double mastectomy before the age of 21 – will have even less chance of avoiding permanent damage to their bodies in the name of “affirmation” of their gender identities.

More gender non-conforming children will be rushed onto Lupron (previously given to sex offenders as chemical castration), and then onto cross-sex hormones (as given to Alan Turing as “treatment” for homosexuality). And parents, teachers, therapists, social workers who try to make space and time for them to grow up and accept their bodies will be threatened with prison and professional ruin.

The ban against the spectre of outdated “conversion therapy” threatens to advance a savage modern form of conversion by which unhappy children are told that they can literally change sex – with the result that they are medicalised, sterilised and left with impaired sexual function before they have a chance to find out whether they are gay.

It may be that the Government can legislate carefully and avoid this outcome. But that won’t happen if every time anyone so much as mentions complexity,  or asks for evidence of the hyperbolic claims made in support of the proposed ban, they are accused of defending torture.

*Freedom of Information Requests were submitted to 50 police forces in Febuary 2021 asking this question: Gay ‘conversion therapy’ is an attempt to use medical, psychological and social methods to ‘convert’ someone away from their innate sexual orientation against their will. This has included the use of barbaric aversive treatments like electroshocks or even ‘corrective’ rape. Please provide me with the number of people a) detained by your force and b) arrested in each of the calendar years from 2010 up to and including 2020 for using 1) electroshocks or corrective rape on a victim because they were/are gay. Twenty-four police forces provided information, all in the negative.