Monday, April 30, 2018

Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE) And The Bills That Ban Them

California is in the news because of AB 2943, a bill which bans the business of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE). The state's argument is that the claim to be able to change sexual orientation constitutes fraud. This bill is not limited to the professionals who offer it; anyone who advertises and offers SOCE in exchange for money is guilty of fraud.

There are lots of questions worth asking about this move to outlaw SOCE itself rather than simply prohibiting licensed professionals from offering it. Will conferences that promote this or bookstores that sell related materials now also be engaging in fraudulent business practices?

I'm sure we will find all this out in the lawsuits that are sure to follow. Meanwhile, this bill got me interested SOCE and legal battles surrounding it. I offer the following points as a reflection of my attempts to think clearly about this. If I am missing something, feel free to offer your clarification in the comments section.

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1. SOCE are a psychological approach created to help clients who want to change something about their orientation, desires or actions.  Reparative Therapy in particular is based on the controversial premise that "homoerotic urges are a subconscious attempt by the homosexual person to repair unmet psychological needs." The counseling seeks to help the client in their repair of those unmet psychological needs.

For all the talk about how SOCE or RT in particular are religious, note this a psychological approach, not a religious one, even if the desired result is in line with traditional religious claims concerning human sexuality. Some have even argued SOCE is a predominantly secular approach. The American Counseling Association opposes reparative therapy because they say it is not evidence-based; for what it's worth, the link I just posted over the ACA links to other psychological-based approaches that they say have apparently helped clients achieve this goal. The logical conclusion would be that ACA does not oppose working with clients who express a desire to change; they oppose SOCE as a method.

2. Reparative Therapy appears to have both thoughtful practitioners and quacks.  The thoughtful practitioners adhere to fairly standard counseling practice. Ultimately, the process must be cooperative, not coercive, and it must be client-driven. When all of this is in place, they report that clients often move successfully (though not always fully) toward the change they desire.  I read several article from SOCE practitioners who are really angry at the way so many poorly trained people have ruined what they see as a helpful therapy tool.

3. SOCE is controversial in Christians circles. Christian counselors have different opinions; my understanding is that SOCE has been losing favor for a while now. The Christians counselors with whom I have talked do not use SOCE methods not because they are opposed to helping people change who are inclined to change, but because they don't support the method in particular.

Indeed, many Christians who have rejected a former homosexual lifestyle do not advocate for SOCE methods  for at least two reasons. First, they think it promises more than it can deliver as a psychological method, thus setting up clients for disillusionment and despair. Second, they claim that the change they experienced happened at a spiritual level, not a psychological one (google interviews with Rosaria Butterfield and see what she has to say about reparative therapy).

The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity - formerly the very controversial NARTH - has taken an anti-SOCE stance for reasons that may be of interest:

"During its May 27th, 2016, meeting, the board of the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (ATCSI) voted unanimously to endorse new terminology that more accurately and effectively represents the work of Alliance therapists who see clients with unwanted same-sex attractions. The board has come to believe that terms such as reorientation therapy, conversion therapy, and even sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) are no longer scientifically or politically tenable... These terms (especially SOCE) do not differentiate between professional conducted psychotherapy and religious or other forms of counseling practice."

Instead, they promote Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy (SAFE-T). It's worth quoting at length:

  • Alliance therapists practice from a variety of mainstream approaches and models. What unites us is our adherence to scientifically confirmed practices and supporting the autonomy and the self-determination of our clients.
  • A SAFE therapist is open to assisting individuals – who voluntarily come to them requesting their assistance in a client centered examination of their sexual attractions.
  • When assisting a client a SAFE therapist does not imply that categorical change in attractions is the therapeutic goal or create unrealistic expectations for their clients.
  • A SAFE therapist does recognize that sexual attraction fluidity can occur for some clients in response to relational and environmental contexts – the same factors all therapists routinely address in all their work.
  • SAFE therapists are committed to assisting their clients in achieving a meaningful, satisfying life that is congruent with their personal values and goals. 
  • SAFE therapy is not a particular treatment model. A SAFE therapist might say, for example, “I practice a cognitive form of SAFE-T” or “I practice SAFE-T from an interpersonal perspective”.
 Check out the their Statement on Sexual Orientation Change. I'm hard pressed to find anything controversial about this statement. Also, check out their FAQ page. You might not agree with all of their premises about human sexuality, but I think you will find the explanation of what they offer to clients to be helpful.

The reality is that there are plenty of people who desire to change sexual orientation, desires and actions and have found a means to that change - rarely perfectly, but certainly sufficiently.  Read "National Task Force for Therapy Equality: Report to the Federal Trade Commission" beginning on page 28 - "F. Living Things Change and So Can Same-Sex Attraction: Change is Well Documented in Adolescents and Adults without Intervention."  There are proven opportunities for change for those who desire it.

UPDATE: Since I first published this,"eight former gays and lesbians who are residents of California have released a video resisting pending state legislation banning therapy for individuals with unwanted same-sex attraction, arguing their state government considers them frauds."

I am concerned that AB 2943, which claims to be working for the good of the people, is going to hinder that good by scaring away any efforts to help clients achieve their goals in this area. Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that SOCE is genuinely a bad idea. I would hope California would encourage the implementation or development of other methods to meet client needs.

#5. There are lot of questions about what AB 2943 will control. 

Here's a punch list of relevant discussion.

  • From the Bill Analysis in response to concerns from religious organizations: "Staff notes that nothing in this bill prohibits clergy from counseling their parish. This bill merely addresses advertising, offering to engage in, or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with an individual “in transactions intended to result or that results in the sale or lease of goods or services to any consumer.” Furthermore, this issue has arguably been addressed by the courts when they reviewed SB 1172’s ban of conversion therapy and found that conversion therapy is a type of conduct subject to reasonable government regulations with a secular purpose (i.e., neutral laws of general applicability). Staff does note, however, that the court found it important that the law applied only to the conduct of state-licensed health care providers, and not religious leaders. This bill presumably has the same outcome, given the element of “transactions” involved." (Assembly Privacy And Consumer Protection)
  • Attorney Anthony Sampson, who advised Low’s office on the bill, told The Associated Press in an email: “As it applies to ‘practices’ only, it does not apply to the sale of books or any other kind of goods, and it does not prevent anyone from speaking or writing on the subject of conversion therapy in any forum.”
  • On the other hand, "Paul Horowitz at the University of Alabama School of Law said there’s a serious question that the law 'could include books arguing that one should refrain from homosexuality lest one be condemned or damned, and thus could include the Bible, at least as some read it.'"
  • LifeSite News reports: "National Review’s David French, an attorney who specialized in religious liberty with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), wrote Tuesday that by classifying the subject under prohibited “goods,” the legislation would “actually–among other things–ban the sale of books.” He added on Twitter that it was “terribly drafted.” “At its core, AB 2943 outlaws speech,” ADF’s legal analysis of the bill reads. It says that licensed counseling, religious conferences, book sales, and paid speaking engagements could all potentially face legal penalties for promoting ways to reverse unwanted attractions or for expressing traditional Christian teachings on sexuality.  ADF further notes that the section of California’s civil code pertaining to “deceptive acts or practices” expressly “commands that it be ‘liberally construed and applied,’ Cal. Civil Code § 1760, resulting in prohibitions against [sexual orientation change efforts] potentially being applied beyond the confines of a traditional counseling relationship to many other constitutionally protected activities.”
  • Politifact has a good article quoting a number of attorneys discussing the implications. 
  • In Illinois, where a similar bill was passed, a "federal district court held that Illinois's Youth Mental Health Protection Act restricting conversion therapy does not apply to religious pastoral counseling. The Act bars mental health providers from offering conversion therapy to minors and prohibits anyone from deceptively offering conversion therapy in trade or commerce. The court concluded that private religious counseling is not 'trade or commerce.'"
  • When Nevada passed a bill banning reparative therapy for minors in 2017, they noted in the bill:"This bill is modeled on similar laws enacted in California and New Jersey. (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 865 et seq.; N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 45:1-54 et seq.) In interpreting those laws, courts have determined that the laws do not regulate or prohibit licensed health care professionals from engaging in expressive speech or religious counseling with children who are under 18 years of age if the licensed health care professionals: (1) are acting in their pastoral or religious capacity as members of the clergy or as religious counselors; and (2) do not hold themselves out as operating pursuant to their professional licenses when so acting in their pastoral or religious capacity."

Because the Bill and the Bill Analysis for AB 2943  have such vague language, and because of how the courts have narrowly specified the scope in similar bills, I don't know what this could potentially mean for in-church ministries, para-church organizations, authors or speakers. Wikipedia has a list of states with similar laws; so far, I can't find any stories decrying a resultant encroaching religious stifling. However, none of the other bills have contained the kind of vague language that is so potentially far-reaching. 

The LA Times has an editorial describing the problems pretty well:

The text spells it out explicitly: It prohibits "any practices that seek to change an individual's sexual orientation." Would that clause make it illegal to market a book that urges readers to change their sexual orientation through prayer, as some religious conservatives have asserted? Probably not. Books aren't a change effort "with an individual" and no federal court would let a ban on religious books stand.  
A subsequent passage, however, is more sweeping. It prohibits "efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex." That goes even beyond trying to change sexual orientation. 
Indeed, it would seem to encompass a gay man who goes to a therapist and says, "Look, I understand that you can't make me straight, but I'm married to a woman, we have children, and I want to try to be faithful to her and focus on our family at least until the kids are out of the house — can you help me to change my behavior, or at least reduce how often I think about sex with men?" 
Or, a woman goes to a therapist and says, "I was assigned the sex female at birth, but lately I just don't know if I am trans or not. I've always hoped to get pregnant one day, and everything would be so much easier if I could be comfortable in my body so I don't feel any need for surgery or hormones or even these men's clothes." Would helping her try to "change gender expressions" be illegal? Should it be? 
The matter is complicated by yet another clause that lays out what are not "change efforts." The bill says it is OK for therapists to support "identity exploration and development, including sexual orientation-neutral interventions to prevent or address unlawful conduct or unsafe sexual practices." In other words, to settle what the law really is saying will require a decade of court battles.

Buckle up for the extensive court battle that is sure to come as arguments for freedom of speech, belief, commerce and religion move front and center. 

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So, there's the basics.

Like I said earlier, I welcome any input in the comments section that would clarify or correct anything I wrote.

My goal is truth, and I have missed it, I want to find it.


  1. So from what I've been able to determine about homosexuality, Christians and secular persons seem to think of two very different things. That's why I a\so approve of the term "unwanted same sex attraction" because that's what so many people that get lumped into this category have. To the world, they are homosexual. Howver as far as scripture is concerned, there often has been no action on those attactions, just an unwated presence of thought processes that they desire to rid themselves of. It is no more sinful than unwated sexual thought of a heterosexual kind, except that heterosexual thought can culminate in a biblical marriage of the person involved is said desire. As Paul said, it is better to marry than burn, but many people burn without the scriptural destination of marriage as an option for that particular attraction.

    That's when I believe we should treat that attraction in the same manner a potentially adulterous attraction would be treated. It is something to resist and not give into. But that very piece of advice, if written in a book, could lead to a lawsuit against any book seller that carries it. Does it matter that the lawsuit may never be brought? Of course not. It's far easier to ban books by threatening those who sell them than to say you can't print it. So sure, I could print it, but Amazon, WalMart, Barnes and Noble, et al would never allow it to be sold in any of their venues for fear of a costly lawsuit over it. That's the true intent of the law. Not to change a hazardous counseling behavior, there are already laws for that. The purpose is a shadow ban of books on the topic that silences the speech of those apposed to the primary narrative of those writing the law, that homosexuality is inherently a protected topic that must not be spoken against. This goes hand in hand with the claim by boards of education that parents have no right to excuse their children from homosexuality positivity classes.

  2. " The purpose is a shadow ban of books on the topic that silences the speech of those apposed to the primary narrative of those writing the law, that homosexuality is inherently a protected topic that must not be spoken against." So far, that has not happened in other states with similar laws. But, like I said, California's language goes further than any other bill I have read (and I think I read all of them). Thats why I assume there will be an extensive court battle over freedom of speech, belief, commerce and religion.