Over the past few years, opposition to reparative and conversion therapies have gained momentum. Robert Spitzer, whose research continues to be cited by reparative therapists as evidence for efficacy of sexual orientation change efforts, admitted that his studies were fatally flawed. One of most well-known reparative therapy organizations closed its doors. Many states have banned conversion therapy, identifying it as harmful and unethical treatment of LGBTQ clients.
These trends against reparative therapy correlate with an increased acceptance from the general population of LGBTQ individuals. Because of this acceptance, more people view conversion therapy as harmful. They also understand how LGBTQ individuals are vulnerable to wanting to change something about themselves that isn’t changeable. This cultural shift hasn’t been good for reparative and conversion therapy.
Despite our rapidly changing culture, there are still vulnerable people who will seek out one of these therapists. Unfortunately, there are therapists who continue to offer this. And such practices are still legal in most states.
Don’t fall for disguises, because they all cause the same harm.
Conversion therapy used to be the term that was recognized by groups and therapists working to change sexual orientation. Some cultural perspectives changed that advocated for a “softer” tone. These progressed to a belief that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people would always have “same-sex attractions,” but could find ways to “control” their behavior. This belief is still held to this day.
Over the past two years, reparative therapy has gotten the bad publicity that it deserves. Many of those who have gone through this have come out and shared their stories. Sadly, many of these stories include tales of extreme shame and trauma caused by those who they thought would help them. This has further linked reparative therapy to harm, mistreatment, and increased shame.
Not surprisingly, to counteract these negative perspectives, there is a new term on the block. Reparative therapists seem to have identified that their “treatment” is viewed more unfavorably than ever before. As a result, they are now using an acronym, “SAFE-T,” to shift this cultural perspective. This acronym is short for Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy.
The softer and kinder tone is equally as shaming.
By using the term of SAFE-T, reparative therapists are attempting to counteract ethical, gay-affirmative therapy. Affirmative therapy has become recognized by professionals and the general public as the most appropriate therapeutic treatment of LGBTQ individuals. This SAFE-T term is mimicking affirming therapy, but that’s only an illusion. It sounds more open than it is.
Affirmative therapy is about helping clients identify what they want and who they are in a safe, open, and trusting space. SAFE-T differs in that it’s offering treatment to those who are victims of the stigma, shame, and stereotypes that their proponents perpetuate. For example, reparative therapy has long promoted the idea that attraction to the same sex is based in issues with attachment, trauma, and discomfort with gender. Therefore, it’s no surprise that people who fear religious, family, and organizational consequences seek out professionals who openly believe that this is a changeable issue.
Despite sounding open and “safe,” SAFE-T promotes shame, even if it sounds kinder. There is nothing more unsafe than that. Increased shame leads to increased risk of substance abuse, suicidality, and depression. On the other hand, decreasing shame, and helping people with self-acceptance shows a decreased risk in all of these outcomes.
SAFE-T also manipulates another term that many sex positive therapists use and discuss. When sex positive therapists talk about this, there is a focus on sexual openness that allows a person to express and experience sexuality in various ways of expression, without stigma. In other words, sexuality may not be constrained to historical labels. By using an acronym that includes “fluidity,” reparative therapists are again trying to sound open and non-judgmental when they’re not. SAFE-T is a belief that sexual orientation is changeable, and should be changed to fit a heteronormative and cisgender dominant society. Again, this is the manipulative use of a sex positive term to cover up a sex negative perspective.
Unlike SAFE-T, affirming therapy has no agenda. It allows people to open up about their fears. It helps people work through incongruence in their own lives. However, it does it in a way that focuses on reality, while accepting grief, fear, and shame that comes with this. Although there is an increase in social acceptance, being an LGBTQ individual can still come with a lot of fear.
New name, same bad science.
Those who are advocating SAFE-T continue to abide by outdated studies, like the study that Spitzer himself said was flawed. This is only the beginning of the problems with this “science.” Those who use SAFE-T are using small samples, testimonials, and opinions as a mirage of science. Don’t fall for it. Many of these studies have been criticized and critiqued, only to be proven to be “junk.”
If you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, if you’re unsure, or if you have a family member who is unsure, don’t be fooled by the safe sounding SAFE-T. It’s the same old, dangerous, shaming practice that is reparative and conversion therapy.
Recognizing that you might be an LGBTQ person isn’t easy. It’s a scary journey that shouldn’t be taken for granted. However, something like SAFE-T is likely to make it worse. Instead, look for an LGBT-affirmative therapist in your area. This person can help you identify and accept who you are, navigate through a complex journey, and identify ways to express who you are in an authentic way.