Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/Julian Smith)

With Dan Andrews having triumphed over the dreaded COVID, turning the opposition into a sack of chicken giblets in the process, his government has returned to traditional Labor imperatives: not getting outflanked by the Greens on social issues.

The issue du jour is conversion therapy, or the banning thereof, which Labor is making a big thing of. “Conversion therapy” is the almost wholly bogus and sinister practice of offering to convert someone (or someone’s teenage child) from same-sex desire to vanilla heterosexuality.

Since there are very few rules as to who gets to hang out their shingle as a counsellor, and most of those offering it have an evangelical Christian background, there’s not much to object to in making it illegal, even if there’s a whiff of the municipal authoritarianism that hangs around our beloved Danistan.

But that lack of objection points to something interesting about how we think about sexuality and identity — and the contradictions therein, especially among progressives.

For “conversion therapy” is another one of those practices that has passed from acceptable to abhorrent in not much more than one generation. More than acceptable; homosexuality was listed as a mental illness until the mid-1970s, and much of the business of therapy was in “treating” it.

A big part of the private mental hospital industry was parents committing their “deviant” children, for sorting out, pretty much a racket. Now we regard the whole proposition as absurd, and damaging, pretty much a category error, as if one’s sexual being and gender identity was like smoking, to be altered with hypnosis.

But if conversion therapy were merely bogus, we wouldn’t be banning it — as we don’t ban bogus but harmless therapies such as crystal psychic hearing, tarot therapy etc. Banning conversion therapy is more like banning bogus cancer therapies, the sort that can get people killed with promise of miracle cures.

The implicit, immediate objection to conversion therapy is that it is not merely bogus, but seriously harmful, especially for teenagers and young adults — indeed that there is inherently no non-harmful way of conducting conversion therapy.

The implicit belief most of us would hold, I would guess, is that sexual being is so entwined with selfhood that any attempt to change it could only be done by fomenting a rejection, and hatred, of part of one’s self, with the attendant collateral damage — that conversion therapy is something of a demolition job.

It’s that aspect which gives conversion therapy its abhorrent quality. But here’s what’s interesting, for that notion of a relative fixity of sexual being is somewhat contrary to the other widespread and authorised understanding of sexual being, which is the notion of “fluidity” and radical self-definition of gender.

Like much of the body of ethics that constitutes progressivism, two contradictory imperatives are at work. For if we take the notion of fluidity and self-definition fully seriously, what would be the objection to conversion therapy in principle? If desire could be rerouted, as any fluid can, why not respect the choice to do so in an adult?

There remain a lot of advantages to becoming straight, so why not regulate the practice rather than ban it?

The fact that this seems so basically wrong, that you can’t really convert sexual being in that way, tells us what we really think about sexual being and sex/gender identity.

We don’t really believe in the fluidity of such identities, nor the capacity for radical self-definition. Our abhorrence at conversion therapy is an expression of our belief — a belief that anchors our secular notion, that sexual authenticity is pretty much essential to the possibility of happiness and meaning in life.

Really, we believe that it is not about choosing or defining what you are, but discovering who you are, and that is somehow about touching “the real” of yourself, of being grounded in that part of you that precedes choice or self-determination.

Paradoxically, that relation between sexuality and being is far more characteristic of our post-Christian era, in which “lucidity” and self-definition have become themes, than it was in a culture defined by religion.

For the dirty little secret of “conversion therapy” was that versions of it were not uncommonly resorted to by same-sex attracted men throughout the 20th century and it did kinda work in many cases, simply because desires like family, conformity and tradition played a larger role in the idea of happiness than authenticity, especially sexual authenticity, did.

The dirty little secret being not just that it was common, but also that it seemed to work, well enough. With hindsight we may find that hard to believe; or we may find it something we’re unwilling to believe. 

If our widespread view of conversion therapy is as something abhorrent — a deep wrong against the person it’s tried on — why has the notion of fluidity and radical self-definition persisted? And not merely persisted, but become the core heroic discourse of our era?

Its dominance suggests a bifurcation, between real and ideal worlds. A notion of deeply grounded sexual being carries within it the possibility of unfairness and tragedy: that some people will never find their depth, never integrate their contradictory aspects, while others will find deep-grounded satisfaction, in their sexual being, and their sexed/gendered embodiment.

The fluidity/self-definition principle offers the notion that you can simply be congruent with your desires through an act of choice. Paradoxically again, it is the very secular-humanist belief in fluidity/self-definition that smuggles back in Christian notions of a soul/body distinction, and the fantasy possibility that one’s desires could be wholly expressed and satisfied in one’s morals.

The celebration of the “identity-complex” person — from about the time that Caitlyn Jenner was named “woman of the year” — has provided a story lending itself to ekstasis and redemption, analogous with the Catholic cult of Mary, or the Protestant cult of revelation.

The possibility that attends it is that deep down, no-one really believes that, and that widespread abhorrence of conversion therapy tells us that that is so.  Such things are worth exploring at some length to make us — i.e. progressives — think more clearly and reflectively about present actions.

Few are going to shed a tear for the passing of conversion therapy — even if a rational version of it might have offered some people something that they genuinely wanted — but the persistent feature of progressivism is the incapacity to imagine that it could at any one historical moment be wrong, while repeatedly getting things horribly wrong, from, in our long era, eugenics onwards.

Progressive psychologists of the ’50s and ’60s saw most manifestations of homosexuality as an expression of pathological narcissism, and believed they had an ethical duty to treat, to give the patient access to the possibility of sexual and emotional happiness.

Some lived long enough to have to engage in protracted apology for their actions, when the intellectual framework that had sustained such had fallen away.

In our era progressivism has taken the undeniable reality of the trans condition, and trans being, and radically generalised it, to deny the possibility that the culture might be generating, in teens and pre-teens, a gender/body dysmorphia it would be better not to have, but which, under the sway of redemptive notions of fluidity/self-definition, cannot be addressed as a condition we should actively try to minimise in development — and certainly not to propagate.

At the very least, we should try and be reflexively aware as to whether specific educational and institutional practices are producing such identities, which then present themselves as spontaneously generated.

The next wave of apologies for progressive hubris may be for that cultural regime — one whose excessive application (not least by the Andrews government) may come to seem as abhorrent and destructive as we now see conversion therapy to be.