What Is Conversion Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on December 03, 2021
3 min read

Conversion therapy is any emotional or physical therapy used to “cure” or “repair” a person’s attraction to the same sex, or their gender identity and expression. Providers claim these therapies can make someone heterosexual or “straight.” But there’s no evidence to support this.

Medical and mental health experts have rejected conversion therapy practices as dangerous and discriminatory for decades. It not only doesn’t work, but could also lead to:

In extreme cases, the practices may be violent or torturous. Conversion therapy is sometimes called “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay therapy.”

It can range from psychotherapy (talk therapy) to medical and faith-based methods that can be emotional or physical.

Psychotherapy. Talk therapy is the most widely used. But providers might also try behavioral, interpersonal, or cognitive therapies. Some teach stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors or use hypnosis to try to change thought patterns for same-sex attraction. Another commonly used method is called “aversion therapy.” In this practice, people are exposed to painful or uncomfortable sensations like electric shocks and nausea- or paralysis-causing drugs. This is done in hopes of forming a negative association with the person’s attractions or identity to “correct” it.

Medical. This includes medicine, hormone, or steroid therapies. In extreme cases, gender-affirming surgeries are done to “neutralize” sexual orientation. especially among transgender people.

Faith-based. In some religious practices, homosexuality and other forms of gender expression and identity are sometimes viewed as “evil.” Conversion therapy is sometimes performed by clergy or other spiritual advisers. It may include using anti-gay slurs and prayers. In severe cases, it could also include beating, shackling, food deprivation, and even exorcism.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed “gender identity disorder” from its diagnostic manual. The APA now refers to conversion therapy techniques as “sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE)” or “gender identity change efforts (GICE).” It’s coined the terms to differentiate from evidence-based forms of therapy. But providers, usually unlicensed, can often disguise the terms they use to avoid being found.

These terms include:

  • Sexual attraction fluidity exploration in therapy (SAFE-T)
  • Eliminating, reducing, or decreasing frequency or intensity of unwanted same-sex attraction (SSA)
  • Reparative therapy
  • Sexual reorientation efforts
  • Ex-gay ministry
  • Promoting healthy sexuality
  • Addressing sexual addictions and disorders
  • Sexuality counseling
  • Encouraging relational and sexual wholeness
  • Healing sexual brokenness

Conversion therapy techniques can lead to feeling “less than” or “damaged,” impacting self-esteem. This can take a significant toll on your emotional and physical health. A number of medical and mental health organizations have issued public statements rejecting the use of conversion therapy because of this.

And many providers who claim to be qualified to provide conversion therapy are often not licensed mental health practitioners or medical experts.

One study found that LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning) people who are rejected or discriminated against are:

  • 8 times more likely to report having attempted suicide
  • Almost 6 times more likely to report high levels of depression
  • More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs
  • 3 times more likely to be at high risk of HIV and other STDs

According to research, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. have received some form of conversion therapy at some point in their lives. About 350,000 of them received it as teenagers. But several states recognize conversion therapy as inhumane, ineffective, harmful, and discriminatory.

So far, 19 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico have banned or limited the use of conversion therapy, especially for youths under 18.

The states are:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia

Several cities and counties have also passed regulations against using conversion therapy at the local level.

Globally, around 13 countries have some ban or regulations against licensed mental health experts practicing conversion therapy, including Brazil, Norway, Argentina, and Germany.