Statement on Conversion Therapy and Practices, 2021
The following position statement was approved by the ABAI Executive Council in May 2021. The statement will soon be released to ABAI members for a period of commentary. After the DEI Board and the Executive Council review members' input, the final statement will go before the membership for a vote. The outcome of this vote will determine whether the statement becomes an official position of ABAI.
The Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) recognizes, respects, and supports diversity of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. We condemn conversion therapy, conversion practices, and any other act that promotes discrimination, oppression, harm, stigma, prejudice, and/or violence against members of the LGBTQIA+ community. These practices and the assumptions on which they are based are fundamentally unethical, harmful, and inhumane. We commit to promoting human rights, advocating for equitable and safe environments for all individuals, and respecting individual autonomy and diversity. We stand with those who are and those who have been harmed by conversion therapy practices.
Conversion therapy is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of interventions, the common premise of which is to change an individual's sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, or any combination thereof. Related terms include reparative therapy and sexual orientation change efforts. These interventions target children, adolescents, and adults, often without consent. Problematic assumptions of these practices can include that someone's sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed, and that non-cisgendered and non-heterosexual individuals are mentally disordered. Today’s scientific community regards these assumptions as fundamentally incorrect and ethically untenable.
Conversion therapy practices are scientifically discredited, violate fundamental human rights, and are known to directly harm individuals who are subjected to them. Examples of these harms include anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and attempts. These practices also entail broader and long-term harm to LGBTQIA+ people through their perpetuation of stigma, prejudice, discrimination, and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. For all of these reasons, the use of such practices is both unwarranted and unethical.
Conversion therapy procedures have been used by practitioners in a wide range of areas, including behavior analysis, psychology, psychotherapy, medicine, and some religious communities. Conversion practices are defined by their behavior-change goals: changing sexual arousal and romantic/social behaviors from homosexual to heterosexual, changing behaviors that are deemed to be gender-non-conforming to gender-conforming, or both. For example, conversion therapy practices have used physical or verbal punishment, reinforcement, respondent conditioning, traditional talk therapies, counseling, and medical procedures.
Any practices designed so as to deny a person their identified sexuality, gender expression, or gender identity should be considered conversion therapy practices, even when they are not explicitly named as "conversion therapies." Such conversion practices include but are not limited to: disrespecting someone’s gender identity and gender expression; discriminating, including acting in violence, towards gender expression that does not align with the socially-constructed binary of masculine and feminine forms of expression; limiting an individual’s choice options in terms of access to items, activities, toys, and clothes; excluding gender-neutral options; and/or punishing selection of options that align with the individual’s gender expression or that do not align with the socially-constructed masculine-feminine forms of expression. These practices are also inappropriate, unethical, and inhumane.
Expanded definitions of conversion therapy can also be applied to the many ways in which society normalizes and promotes the beliefs and behaviors of the majority, while concurrently discriminating against those of marginalized cultures and identities. Non-examples of conversion therapy include evidence-based treatments for mental disorders, sexual assault, harassment, or abuse, or other services that help a person to find acceptance and social support or to explore their identity.
In contrast to the conversion practices described above, behavior analysts should consider the use of affirmative practices that respect and support the autonomy and identity of the individual client. Affirmative practices have been shown to increase the client’s well-being and to decrease rates of suicide, depression, and other mental illnesses. Behavior analysts are expected to engage in continuing education in their own areas of competence to maintain the highest standards of ethical conduct. Thus, behaviors analysts are encouraged to seek out and to create learning opportunities related to these current and evolving topics (i.e., gender identity, gender expression, conversion therapy practices, and affirmative practices).
In sum, it is the position of the Association for Behavior Analysis International that conversion therapy and associated practices are fundamentally unethical and unwarranted. This statement aligns with ABAI's position on the "Right to Effective Behavioral Treatment as a set of guiding principles that protect individuals from harm as a result of the inappropriate use of behavioral treatment." We commit to work that supports the rights and autonomy of LGBTQIA+ people.
Key Terms and Definitions:
Asexual is an umbrella term describing those who identify as having little to no sexual attraction to others. Asexual people can still be romantically attracted to those of the same or opposite gender.
Bisexual people may be attracted to individuals of the same or different sex and/or gender identity.
Binary/nonbinary: Binary assumes a sole distinction between male and female. Nonbinary includes people who identify as both or neither. Nonbinary identification rejects the idea that there are only two gender identities.
Cisgender means having a gender identity that matches one’s assigned sex. Opposite of transgender.
Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men—such as the norms, roles and relationships that exist between them. Gender expectations vary between cultures and can change over time. Gender interacts with but is different from sex, which refers to the different biological and physiological characteristics of females, males, and intersex persons, such as chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs. It is also important to recognize identities that do not fit into the binary male or female sex categories.
Gender Expression refers to an individual’s overt behaviors that may be tacted by themselves or others according to socially normative gender constructs. Examples of these behaviors may include the way one dresses, speaks, or conducts themselves socially. Gender expression is not always indicative of gender identity.
Gender Identity refers to how an individual defines or tacts their own gender on the basis of their own thoughts, feelings, and other lived experiences. A person’s gender identity may or may not correspond to their physiology or designated sex at birth. Gender identity can be fluid and exists on a spectrum.
Heterosexual people are attracted to individuals of a different sex and/or gender identity from themselves.
Intersex people are born with physical or biological sex characteristics (including sexual anatomy, reproductive organs and/or chromosomal patterns) that do not fit the traditional definitions of male or female. These characteristics may be apparent at birth or emerge later in life, often at puberty.
Lesbian women and Gay men are attracted to individuals of the same sex and/or gender identity as themselves (1).
LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and More: This umbrella designation is inclusive of the full range of individuals who self-identify with sexual orientation and/or gender identity outside of the social normative constructs. This fluid concept and related terminology is continuously evolving to represent the diversity of the community, which includes families and allies. The umbrella designation includes a variety of subgroups, some of which are defined herein.
Queer is an umbrella term commonly used to define lesbian, gay, bi, Trans, and other people and institutions on the margins of mainstream culture. Historically, the term has been used to denigrate sexual and gender minorities, but more recently it has been reclaimed by these groups and is increasingly used as an expression of pride and to reject narrow reductive labels. Queer can be a convenient, inclusive term when referring to issues and experiences affecting the many groups subsumed under this umbrella. Because it is still used to demean lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, those who do not identify as queer are urged to use the term with caution, or not at all.
Sexual Orientation: Sexual orientation refers to an individual’s patterns of physical and romantic feelings, thoughts and attractions to other people.
Transgender (sometimes shortened to “trans”) is an umbrella term used to describe people who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth based on their external genitalia. Transgender people have a wide range of identities. This term is not restricted to binary trans identities; it also recognizes the fluidity of gender identity within the community and trans individuals.
A task force authorized by the Executive Council of the Association for Behavior Analysis developed the above statement concerning Conversion Therapy and Conversion Practices (members: Sarah Campau, Shawn Capell, Daniel Conine, Kent Johnson, Fernanda Oda, and Carol Pilgrim). Members of the task force reviewed scientific and other literature on Conversion Therapies and agreed unanimously to the content of the statement.