I am the first in line to support the freedom to choose any treatment you wish for what ails you. In a free society, everyone should have that right. The only question is whether that right trumps the harm such treatment may cause.
That is what the dispute between the Agudah and Governor Chris Christie seems to be all about. The State of New Jersey has banned conversion therapy (sometimes called reparative therapy). It was signed into law a few weeks ago by Governor Chris Christie.
Conversion therapy is designed to turn people with same sex attractions into people with opposite sex attractions.
The Agudah has expressed righteous indignation about this law – saying that it denies people the right to seek the treatment they choose. There are people who desire to be changed that way, and are now being denied the opportunity to seek such change… calling it “a trampling of personal rights, including religious and free speech rights.”
“efforts to change sexual orientation can pose critical health risks, including, but not limited to, depression, substance abuse, social withdrawal, decreased self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.”
Agudah believes that people can change their sexual orientation. Since the male homosexual act is biblically forbidden, it is in the best interest of a homosexual to change it. For Agudah conversion therapy is therefore seen as a must. Taking that option away from them is tantamount to taking away their ability to change and thus condemns them to a life sinful sexual desires – and the likelihood of acting on them. Conversion therapy advocates claim major successes at conversion. How can Agudah be silent when this highly successful option is made illegal?
I don’t blame them for having this approach. But I question the success rate claims made by conversion therapy advocates upon which Agudah no doubt relies…
Their claim of success is questionable at best. And in some cases this therapy has been shown to be very harmful. There is also no question about the high expense and the degrading way their therapy works.
What may be successful is their treatment of people who are confused about their sexuality but are in fact heterosexual. How does one get confused about his sexuality? Consider the following scenario. A Yeshiva high school is entirely male. Students – especially those who dorm – have no hope or any expectation of interaction with females. Although the vast majority of Yeshiva students never have any sexual encounters with either a male or a female – on rare occasion some do.Of those, some interaction is with females. But in some cases males may experiment sexually with each other. That may confuse them about who they are naturally attracted to.
My guess is that in most cases these people are not homosexual. They do not need conversion therapy at all. They probably just need conventional psychotherapy to help understand their true sexual orientation. I’m sure that conversion therapy works with them since they are not really homosexual to begin with. That is of course seen as a successful conversion and touted by these treatment centers.
But truly homosexual people will not have a high success rate (if any) at converting to heterosexuality. My guess is that it never happens. All claims of success by these programs are with people who are naturally heterosexual but confused.
That seems to be what expert opinion says. Conversion therapy has been discredited and condemned by the American Psychiatric Association as a pseudo science. Anecdotal testimony in Jerusalem Post by Chaim Levin who went through it illustrates how humiliating and even harmful it can be.
I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture. Is there a ‘gay gene’ that determines one’s sexual orientation at birth? I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that once someone discovers what they are attracted to, it apparently does not change with even the best of therapies. Trying to change it can sometimes bring tragedy.
It’s kind of like buying snake oil. The people who sell it promise you all kinds of healing and have many anecdotes to tell you about how effective it is. One might ask, what’s the harm? Snake oil can’t hurt you. Besides – there is something called the placebo effect. Which means that believing something will help actually does make it helpful in some cases. But not every snake oil is harmless. And it will certainly hurt you at least in the pocket book.
What’s worse is that this expensive and discredited therapy is not merely harmless. Sometimes real damage is done. It is one thing to have the freedom to choose. It is another to legalize therapies that can hurt you.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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