What are conversion attempts, and why should they be prohibited?


Conversion attempts or conversion therapy is when someone, through coercion or pressure, is asked to change their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Conversion attempts can lead to physical as well as mental damage, and the UN has classified it as torture. We have collected information and common questions about conversion attempts on this page.

According to a recent report from the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF), 18 per cent of young LGBTQI people have experienced that someone has tried to influence their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. 5 per cent have been subjected to more serious attempts at conversion. It may be in the form of “treatments”, such as medications, group therapy, prayers or exorcism. It may also mean being taken out of the country, forced into marriage or sent on disciplining trips. 

Shaming and exclusion

For a long time, RFSL and RFSL Ungdom have encountered stories about conversion attempts from both young and adult LGBTQI people. In most cases, there has been shaming or pressure to keep someone from being open about their sexuality, gender identity or gender expression. Many have also been excluded from their communities. There are also attempts at “curing”, for example forcing the person to visit a psychologist, doctor or religious leader. Some are subjected to sexual assault.

According to the law, treatment within Swedish healthcare should be based on research or approved experience. Thus, it is not allowed to practice for example therapy with the goal that someone should stop being themselves. Coercion and threats are also forbidden. In spite of this, there are conversion attempts.

Many believe that conversion attempts and honour-related violence are linked. However, RFSL and RFSL Ungdom’s experience, as well as MUCF’s report, shows that it can’t be linked to a specific context or group.

Aren’t conversion attempts already prohibited in existing legislation?

There’s a ban on coercion, threat and violence in Swedish legislation. Treatment within public healthcare that isn’t science-based or approved is also prohibited. In spite of that, there are attempts at conversion and conversion therapy happening in Sweden. RFSL believes that there needs to be an investigation in order to pinpoint what needs to be prohibited. Conversion attempts may include things that aren’t necessarily prohibited today. For example, being sent to “disciplining camps” or being subjected to exorcism. In their report, MUCF points out that there seems to be a gap in Swedish legislation. 

In the countries where conversion attempts have been prohibited, existing legislation has also been viewed to be inadequate. An investigation from Canada has shown that even in provinces with strong anti-discrimination and hate crime legislation conversion attempts weren’t satisfactorily prevented. The same report concluded that the legislation in Canada that prohibits for example imprisonment and assault didn’t cover the breadth of pressure that may constitute conversion attempts.

Apart from this, conversion attempts differ from other forms of abuse and unlawful threat. There’s a clear intention behind it; to change someone’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression. This is comparable with our hate crime legislation. In these cases, heavier penalties may be called for if the motive can be traced to hate or prejudice towards an identifiable group. Heavier penalties may also be warranted in conversion attempts. RFSL would like an investigation to look more closely at this.

Do you want to prohibit therapy that helps people explore who they are?

RFSL doesn’t want to prohibit self-exploring processes. That is, processes where individuals are supported in defining their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. We believe that this kind of therapy is important in aiding individuals who are uncertain of their identity. This stands in contrast to conversion attempts. There is a clear goal; people should change their sexuality, gender identity and gender expression, generally to what people in the community think is right. In exploratory processes, there is no valuation about what identity is desirable. Focus is on supporting the individual in their own process, no matter what they find.

Should people be able to consent to conversion attempts?

This question is complicated since it potentially could go against other rights, such as freedom of expression and religion. At the same time, there’s a great risk that an individual is subjected to coercion or feels forced to “consent” to conversion attempts. Exactly how this balance should be solved is something that needs to be looked at by an investigation.

However, different countries have different solutions to the issue of consent to conversion. In Germany, for example, advertisement for conversion is prohibited. In Malta, the law offers protection to “vulnerable” individuals, who, for example, because of their neuropsychiatric disability, are at higher risk of consenting to conversion attempts against their will. 

Do you want a ban to include gender identity?

Trans people are at higher risk compared to other groups of being subjected to conversion attempts, which comes to light in MUFC’s report. Therefore, it’s important to include the group in a ban on conversion attempts.

In practice, conversion attempts at sexual orientation also often encompass different ways of changing the person’s gender expression to fit the norm, such as dressing more masculine and feminine or changing one’s interests. This is yet another argument for banning the conversion of gender identity and gender expression. 

Where can I turn if I’ve been exposed or am afraid of being exposed to conversion attempts?

If you’ve been subjected to conversion attempts you can contact RFSL’s Support Service. All staff at RFSL is educated and experienced in talking to LGBTQI people who have been subjected to threats and violence. They can also support you if you have been subjected to conversion attempts, are afraid of being subjected to conversion attempts or are worried about someone else. If what you have been subjected to is a criminal offence, we can offer support when you make a police report and during a trial process.