Why advertising gay conversion therapy is like advertising make-up

by Rebecca Roache

Various news sources—including The Huffington Post, Gay Star News, and the London Evening Standard—are reporting a High Court case in which a campaigner for gay conversion therapy is fighting Transport for London (TfL) over a ban on its bus adverts that suggest that homosexuality can be ‘cured’.

Dr Mike Davidson is head of Core Issues Trust which, according to its website, is ‘a non-profit Christian ministry supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression’. Davidson, who is married with children, insists that his own gay feelings were removed by therapy. He told The Huffington Post that he had homosexual feelings ‘from the moment [he] opened [his] eyes’. Even so, he believes that ‘gay’ is a ‘late twentieth century political construction’ that people can reject. His adverts read, ‘Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!’—a response to similar posters by lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall which read, ‘Some people are gay. Get over it!’ Davidson’s adverts have been deemed ‘offensive to gays’ by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is also head of TfL.

Exactly why is Davidson’s advert offensive? In a special report, the World Health Organisation (WHO) condemns gay ‘conversion therapies’ for two reasons: first, there is little scientific evidence that people can be turned heterosexual by therapy; second, offering such therapy reinforces the prejudice that non-heterosexuality is bad, and as a result it is harmful both to those seeking treatment and to society as a whole. To contain the potential harm of such therapy, WHO recommends that governments, academic institutions, professional associations, the media and civil society organisations can all contribute to promoting the views that people should be respected regardless of their sexual orientation, and that homophobia is unacceptable.

WHO’s position sounds eminently sensible: it is far preferable that the pressure felt by some people to resist their non-heterosexual feelings is tackled by promoting an environment in which people are respected regardless of their sexual orientation than by allowing purported therapists to reinforce and profit from harmful social prejudices by offering to ‘cure’ non-heterosexuality.

Even so, when compared to many other adverts, it should be surprising that an advert promoting gay conversion therapy is controversial. Davidson’s bus advert is far from unique in reinforcing harmful social prejudices against inoffensive features of people, and in attempting to profit from these prejudices by offering a product to remove these features. Consider adverts for cosmetic procedures, make-up, diet programs, and other products that promise to make their users more attractive. Companies running these adverts reinforce and profit from the huge cultural pressure on people—particularly young women—to conform to a certain standard of physical attractiveness. This pressure is a source of great unhappiness for many, and a source of significant health problems for an unfortunate few. Just as non-heterosexuals would be better off if there were no homophobia in society, everyone who cares about their appearance would be better off if society placed less emphasis on physical attractiveness. Yet, whilst TfL has banned as offensive an advert offering a ‘cure’ for homosexuality, adverts that offer ‘cures’ for unattractiveness are ubiquitous. If advertising purported cures for homosexuality is unacceptable, why is advertising cures for unattractiveness not even controversial? My answer: simply because unattractiveness cures are more familiar.

Am I suggesting that adverts for gay conversion therapy ought to be permitted, like adverts for unattractiveness cures? No: I find the idea of advertising gay conversion therapy on London buses (or anywhere else) shocking and archaic. But I think there are many other adverts that probably ought to be regarded as shocking and archaic, too. The pressure to be beautiful, like the pressure to be straight, is dangerous and demeaning, and it is disturbing how infrequently this is recognised.

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26 Responses to Why advertising gay conversion therapy is like advertising make-up

  • Chris says:

    I wonder when all the poststructuralists will come to the defense of these advertisements and argue that “gay” (like “straight” or “female”) is just a social construction and that such identity could, in fact, be deconstructed.

  • If advertising purported cures for homosexuality is unacceptable, why is advertising cures for unattractiveness not even controversial?
    I think advertising cures for unattractivness is controversial, but this is beside the point: what matters is what is achieved by the use of the word “cure” in this context, and how it relates to an identifiable group of people. What is achieved is the implicature that “that homosexuals are sick, and thus abnormal in a normative sense”, is true by definition of being an homosexual.

    What is shocking, then, and prima facie justifies the ban, is that this use not only conveys the idea that having a certain property (being homosexual) is indesirable; it conveys an normative judgment about bearers of this property (concrete homosexuals), which then become an identifiable target.

  • Marco Luxe says:

    A better analogy to conversion therapy is to something that is harmful if used as designed, like Strychnine-enriched milk or a razor wire Slinky. Harmful products should be banned, and not just from bus adverts.

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “Exactly why is Davidson’s advert offensive?”

    Because it’s clearly a negative rejoinder to gay acceptance messages recently posted on buses, and thus clearly advocating gay rejection.

    In contrast, cosmetic improvement ads are targeted at people who want to improve their appearance, and who are free to agree or disagree that the product or procedure being offered will do that for them. Wanting to improve one’s appearance, or make the best of it, is extremely common and not necessarily connected with any kind of oppression or pathology.

    “everyone who cares about their appearance would be better off if society placed less emphasis on physical attractiveness”

    Huh? Most people who care about their appearance find using make-up, choosing nice clothes etc ENJOYABLE. Caring about your appearance is not pathological except in the case of disturbed people. Should the entire fashion and image industry be closed down because they’re upsetting disturbed people? I think not.

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Chris—possibly they have a point. I’ve met various people who report having been attracted to both sexes at various times in their lives. Some describe themselves as gay, some as straight, and some as bisexual. So, there may be no simple translation from one’s sexual preferences to the social identity one chooses, and there are certainly reasons to believe that they’re not the same thing. Brian Earp has written a great post about this here: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/01/can-you-be-gay-by-choice/

    Adrien Glauser said: ‘What is shocking, then, and prima facie justifies the ban, is that this use not only conveys the idea that having a certain property (being homosexual) is indesirable; it conveys an normative judgment about bearers of this property (concrete homosexuals), which then become an identifiable target.’

    Adrien, I think something similar applies in the case of advertising unattractiveness cures, given the social context in which they appear. E.g. the ad pages at the back of women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan are peppered with ads for cosmetic surgery (at least, they were the last time I looked at one). In the context of a magazine whose content is primarily devoted to the importance of being physically and sexually attractive, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that those ads attempt to capitalise on the assumed beliefs of the readership that being attractive is important, and that they are not attractive enough. Taking an even wider perspective, this is happening in a society in which calling someone ‘ugly’ is not viewed as particularly objectionable. A bit mean, maybe, if said to the person’s face—but nowhere near as outrageous and unacceptable as calling someone a ‘fag’ or a ‘nigger’.

    Marco Luxe said: ‘A better analogy to conversion therapy is to something that is harmful if used as designed, like Strychnine-enriched milk or a razor wire Slinky. Harmful products should be banned, and not just from bus adverts.’

    Marco, I don’t accept that analogy. If the WHO is right, gay conversion therapy is not harmful because of its effects when used as designed, since there is insufficient evidence to believe it actually works. It’s harmful because of the prejudices it embodies and reinforces.

    Nikolas Schaffer said: ‘In contrast, cosmetic improvement ads are targeted at people who want to improve their appearance, and who are free to agree or disagree that the product or procedure being offered will do that for them. Wanting to improve one’s appearance, or make the best of it, is extremely common and not necessarily connected with any kind of oppression or pathology’

    Nikolas, I’m struggling to see the contrast here. Yes, cosmetic improvement ads may simply wash over some people, just as gay conversion ads may do. And yes, wanting to improve one’s appearance is common and (I would add) often very normal and healthy. (Often it is more worrying when someone stops caring what they look like—it can be a sign of depression, for example.) Wanting to look attractive may not be necessarily pathological, but the fact that it can be for some people is itself cause for concern. Analogously, enjoying alcohol is not necessarily pathological, but the fact that it can be for some people is the reason why alcohol advertising is subject to stringent legislation.

    Nikolas also said: ‘Huh? Most people who care about their appearance find using make-up, choosing nice clothes etc ENJOYABLE. Caring about your appearance is not pathological except in the case of disturbed people. Should the entire fashion and image industry be closed down because they’re upsetting disturbed people? I think not.’

    No, it need not be closed down—but society-wide efforts should be made to encourage the view that one’s physical appearance is less important than one’s kindness, intelligence, sporting ability, etc. And I think that looking for signs of pathological concern about appearance is missing the point. The persistent cultural pressure on girls to be attractive begins at a disturbingly early age (see, for example, this story: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2275678/Harrods-forced-apologise-remove-non-gender-neutral-books-Twitter-users-blast-luxury-department-store.html#axzz2KLCIVghm). Does my three-year-old daughter have a pathological concern for her appearance when she constantly asks me whether she’s ‘pretty’? No. Am I worried about it? Yes.

  • Adrien says:

    In the context of a magazine whose content is primarily devoted to the importance of being physically and sexually attractive, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that those ads attempt to capitalise on the assumed beliefs of the readership that being attractive is important, and that they are not attractive enough. Taking an even wider perspective, this is happening in a society in which calling someone ‘ugly’ is not viewed as particularly objectionable

    I think this is beside the point. Yes, ads about attractiveness capitalise on the assumed beliefs that being attractive is more important, and that they are not attractive enough. In this sense, this kind of ad says: “whoever you are, mind your attractivness”. This is already a reason for indignation, but this is a very different speech act from the one achieved by the sexual therapy ad, which can be expressed like this: “you, the homosexuals, there is something wrong with you”.

    So if you pay attention also to the way the message is conveyed, only the sexual therapy targets a specific group of people by implying that there is something bad about being a very member of this group; whereas ads about attractiveness (usually) target nobody in particular but, as you yourself suggested, address to whoever will “hook” to the idea that they should be more attractive.

    This is what, I would argue, justifies the ban. It is not only a matter of explicit content, but of the implicit content as determined by the context plus formal features of the ad. And the fact that, given the actual context, homosexuals are often seen as a vulnerable group of people simply reinforces this point.

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    It’s true that people view themselves as falling into certain social categories depending on their sexual orientation (gay, lesbian, bi, straight), and that the bus ads address people in some of these categories but not people in others. On the other hand, people do not categorise themselves according to their attractiveness in such a neat way, so it’s less clear who attractiveness-related ads address. Let’s say that both types of ad address people in exactly the way you describe. This still doesn’t sufficiently explain why the gay conversion ad is offensive. Compare gay conversion therapy to recently obsolete therapy designed to ‘cure’ left-handedness (a comparison that WHO makes in its report). Like gays, left handed people fall into a relatively neat category, and were once subject to negative attitudes and social pressure to change to the right-handed norm. Like gay conversion therapy, left-handed conversion therapy was ineffective and harmful. But prejudice against left-handed people is so outdated that I don’t think adverts promoting left-handed conversion therapy would be seen as offensive – just puzzling. In fact, unless it were made explicit, I don’t think it would be obvious that such adverts embody a normative judgment about left-handed people at all. I think people would generally take such ads to be offering a service for which there is no demand. This is in spite of the fact that such adverts would clearly address left-handers, and is thus comparable to the way in which you say the gay conversion adverts address gays. Adverts for left-handed therapy would only be offensive if we were still fighting a cultural battle for acceptance of left-handers. Similarly, adverts for gay conversion therapy are offensive chiefly because we are still fighting a battle for acceptance of everyone regardless of their sexual orientation. If nobody truly cared about the sexual orientation of others, then gay conversion adverts, like left-handedness conversion adverts, would likely seem ridiculous, but not offensive. It’s the cultural background of prejudice that’s the chief problem, and that applies to the attractiveness as much as it does to sexual orientation.

  • Adrien says:

    Let’s say that both types of ad address people in exactly the way you describe. This still doesn’t sufficiently explain why the gay conversion ad is offensive.

    I agree. I’ve simply argued that it was a missing component of your analysis of the ad, and a necessary condition for the ban to be justified. So you are perfectly right that this is not a sufficient condition. But I thought we had agreed on the other necessary condition: that gays deserve a particular moral consideration given their vulnerability.

    However, now you are saying that

    It’s the cultural background of prejudice that’s the chief problem, and that applies to the attractiveness as much as it does to sexual orientation.

    . So we may not be exactly on the same page yet — depending on what you mean by “the cultural background of prejudice”.

    If this implies that the vulnerability of gays is a real, yet relational property that will hopefully no longer characterize gays in the future (namely when people have learnt to respect other people’s sexual orientation), I agree. But if this implies that the vulnerability of gays is a social construct which introduces the opposite prejudice to the effect that actually gays deserve no particular moral consideration, then I humbly disagree.

    In short, the reason is that sexual orientation is a trait which, intuitively, is far more entrenched in the personality (or personhood) than, say, attractiveness or left-handedness. Regardless of whether people are born with it or acquire it, regardless of whether people can lose or die with it, it affects people’s behaviour in a much more fundamental way that the aforementionned traits or properties. It is quite plausible, then, that traits with this level of fundamentality should be respected as part of the respect that we owe to each other as persons.

    So no bias in favour of the unfamiliar, here, but a rather sensible intuition.

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    Adrien, I think we agree about the cultural background of prejudice point. At least I think the first interpretation you give represents my view – I’m not confident that I understand the second interpretation.

    Regarding the extent to which homosexuality, left-handedness and attractiveness are ‘entrenched in the personality’, I think the issue may be more complicated than you suggest. Some people seem to define themselves primarily in terms of their sexuality (or their attractiveness, or their intelligence, etc … admittedly left-handedness doesn’t seem a natural choice here!); for others these traits seem less central to their self-conception. (William James says something to this effect in The Principles of Psychology.) It could be that we are currently liable to exaggerate the extent to which homosexuality defines the identity of homosexuals because homosexuality is a ‘bigger deal’ in our culture than ideally it should be. If, in the future, everyone accepts that being homosexual doesn’t necessarily imply anything in particular about what a person is like (other than that they are attracted to people of their own sex), then perhaps people will come to think of it as no more ‘fundamental’ than whether a person has a good sense of humour, or enjoys listening to classical music. Personally, I don’t think of my heterosexuality as a fundamental aspect of my self-conception, so it seems to me perfectly possible that others may not view their homosexuality as fundamental.

  • Adrien says:

    That some people may not regard their particular sexuality as a “defining trait” is not part of my argument. Briefly, my argument is:

    1) Anybody threatened by prejudice is making a (moral) claim to be protected against prejudice.

    2) From (1), everybody has a (moral) reason to give a special (moral) consideration to people who can relate to this claim.

    3) Having a sexual orientation (whatever it is) is a property that shapes interests, values and behaviours in a way unparalled by attractiveness or left-handedness.

    4) Because sexuality shapes interests, values and behaviours, all things being equal, claims responding to prejudice against sexuality should enjoy priority over claims responding to prejudice against properties that put less constraints on interests, values and behaviours.

    C. Given (1-4), and given how the sexual conversion ad targets people making a claim for respect, there is nothing surprising about banning this ad (it is indeed a moral obligation); nothing surprising about not banning ads for sexual attractiveness (provided those ads target no moral claim); and nothing suprising about its being more difficult (though not unreasonable) to justify banning ads that target lest interest-, values- and action- driving properties.

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    Hi Adrien – I don’t really think we disagree much! I didn’t think that point was part of your argument, I just sort of went off on a tangent responding to it.

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “No, it need not be closed down—but society-wide efforts should be made to encourage the view that one’s physical appearance is less important than one’s kindness, intelligence, sporting ability, etc”

    What makes you think that this message is not already very commonplace? I’m sensing a lot of hot air over nothing here.

    • Dave Frame says:

      Rebecca wrote: “No, it need not be closed down—but society-wide efforts should be made to encourage the view that one’s physical appearance is less important than one’s kindness, intelligence, sporting ability, etc”

      Nikolas replied: “What makes you think that this message is not already very commonplace? I’m sensing a lot of hot air over nothing here.”

      I kind of agree with Nikolas. The ads for beauty products I’ve seen aren’t predicated on beauty trumping all those other things. Plus, some of those things – intelligence, aspects of sporting ability – are also unchosen. Why is privileging intelligence more acceptable than privileging beauty?*

      I liked Rebecca’s post, but I must admit my conclusions were totally the opposite from hers. If people are allowed to advertise other half-baked, factually dubious things (alternative medicine, for instance) or morally questionable services (punitive short-term loans, other dodgy financial services; exaggerated claims about the quality of educational services, etc), then why specifically draw the line with gay conversion therapies? I think you’d have a hard time isolating with any consistency why this issue is singular in its offensiveness. I don’t buy Adrien’s argument about special moral consideration for “threatened” groups, since I think that creates a perverse incentive, and I think it would be establish a precedent that’s hard to enact without a bucket-load of fairly arbitrary judgements regarding real-world complexities. [Imagine a radical imam calls for the wholesale return of Israel to Palestinian hands: can Israelis object to this on the grounds that they deserve special consideration as a “threatened group”? Imagine a radical rabbi who calls for the annexation of the West Bank – should this be banned, etc. The value of liberalism, I think, is that it tries not to pick winners in these contests, but rather puts quite a bit of faith in the judgement of the woman reading the side of the Clapham omnibus… perhaps she doesn’t necessarily need a committee of Guardian readers to put her straight on everything.]

      *One argument is the public good argument that encouraging and valuing intelligence leads to positive externalities by superheating brainy people and getting them to do their funky brainy thing, which leads to better widgets, higher productivity, higher quality of living, etc. Cool. But you could make a public goods argument for subsidising beauty, too:
      (P1) being around beautiful people cheers people up.
      (P2) Personal beauty wandering by has the characteristics of a public good: it’s non-rivalrous and non-excludable: your appreciation of the beautiful person does not preclude mine (and vice versa).
      (P2) Public goods are under-provided by uncoordinated markets.** (Academics always love market-failure arguments, so you should like this, right?)
      (c) So we should subsidize beautiful people to ensure optimal provision of beauty. Maybe we could tax ugly people, via the same argument. I think you’d want to levy the tax at the door – basically beautiful people would get cash payments to be out and about, contributing to everyone’s happiness, while the ugly would have to pay a fee to go outside, thus incentivising them to stay inside.***
      (Disclaimer for people who take the Internet really really seriously) – I’m not actually advocating this, obviously. I just post it to show how externalities arguments – very common in defence of subsidies from ordinary people towards clever people – can also be deployed in defence of other unchosen qualities, like beauty.

      **Some conditions apply. But let’s suppose it were true. Or suppose it weren’t. Then would your objection be based solely on factual questions regarding beautiful people & the Samuelson condition, or would your objection be based on something else?
      *** If it’s true that people are nicer to beautiful people than they are to ugly ones then maybe this system is already operating.

      • Rebecca Roache says:

        Dave, this is all really interesting, and I laughed at your idea about charging ugly people to go outside 😀
        ‘The ads for beauty products I’ve seen aren’t predicated on beauty trumping all those other things. Plus, some of those things – intelligence, aspects of sporting ability – are also unchosen. Why is privileging intelligence more acceptable than privileging beauty?’
        I don’t think it’s specifically the ads that are the problem, but the ads in the context of the surrounding culture (see my comments above about the gender divide on this). If you don’t think there is a pervasive message that, whatever else a woman is good at, she had better ensure she looks good while she’s doing it, then we disagree about that. It’s not specifically the ‘unchosen’ nature of beauty (or other qualities) that are the problem, but the return on investment that someone gets from cultivating them. There are reasons to think that we are ‘hardwired’ to appreciate beauty (at least, some empirical research suggests this), but I am afraid that the emphasis on it in our culture risks leading people to cultivate it at the expense of other important qualities (e.g. intelligence) likely to reap greater rewards. Of course, the greater the emphasis on the importance of beauty in our culture, the greater the rewards one gets from ensuring that one looks as good as possible—so part of my concern is about cultivating second-order desires (i.e. people might really really want to be beautiful, but it might be better if they didn’t have this desire, or didn’t hold it quite so strongly). Since my concern in thinking about all this is primarily the effect of it on my children, I expect that I am probably the sort of paternalistic thought police type of person to which you object: children need some guidance in deciding what to value, especially when various influences are trying to persuade them to adopt values that they would do better to resist or at least question.
        ‘If people are allowed to advertise other half-baked, factually dubious things (alternative medicine, for instance) or morally questionable services (punitive short-term loans, other dodgy financial services; exaggerated claims about the quality of educational services, etc), then why specifically draw the line with gay conversion therapies? I think you’d have a hard time isolating with any consistency why this issue is singular in its offensiveness.’
        I think the relevant difference here is that the groups targeted by adverts for those other things you mention are not victims of damaging prejudices. I explained in one of my other replies that I think the gay conversion ads are objectionable only in the context of a culture in which the battle for tolerance of gays is not quite won. If nobody was homophobic, I don’t think the ads would be objectionable. They would be comparable to the other ads you mention. I agree that there needn’t be special moral consideration for threatened groups, but I do think there’s a good case for avoiding adverts that reinforce harmful prejudices that society is still fighting to make universally unacceptable.
        ‘The value of liberalism, I think, is that it tries not to pick winners in these contests, but rather puts quite a bit of faith in the judgement of the woman reading the side of the Clapham omnibus… perhaps she doesn’t necessarily need a committee of Guardian readers to put her straight on everything.’
        I think I have much less faith in this sort of person than you do. In my experience far too many people are willing to put their faith in whatever ‘authority’ figures tell them, and to adopt the belief that if some activity is publicly endorsed (via advertising, or simply by not being made illegal) then it’s acceptable. I don’t think this justifies illiberal practices, which is why I have said that I favour making society-wide efforts to send out ‘the right sort of signals’ rather than banning adverts. I also have to say that I think the belief that Joe Sixpack can be relied upon to consider, question, and weigh his options before forming an opinion is something of an academic prejudice: academics are used to disagreeing, arguing politely, and defending their arguments, but many (most?) non-academics are not. An alarming amount of people believe that their opinion should be respected (=unchallenged) simply because it’s their opinion. If you don’t believe me, try having this discussion on some other, non-academic internet forum and see what happens …

        • Dave Frame says:

          Hi Rebecca,
          I agree that women, especially, face pressures to look good. Men do, too, a bit. I think those pressures are something you learn to take less seriously as you get older (life kind of forces your hand on this one…). But I don’t agree that the returns to beauty are relatively disproportionate: for comparison, the returns to intelligence are higher than they’ve ever been, and we keep making more and more of a fuss about it. I have kids, too, and I feel fairly comfortable with the overall vibe they get from formal indoctrination (pre-school) and less formal indoctrination (books, kids tv, playgroups, etc). There’s a pretty (tediously, from an adult’s perspective) repetitive message there that it’s things like kindness and thoughtfulness that counts, and that unchosen qualities are not that important. So while I accept that there are pressures to possess unchosen qualities, I think it’s easy to over-state these, and these pressures are probably lumpy across society (I bet a pint that the pressures on the not-so-clever at primary schools in Summertown are worse than the pressures on the not-so-good-looking…).

          “If nobody was homophobic, I don’t think the ads would be objectionable. They would be comparable to the other ads you mention.”

          But who decides who faces prejudice? I don’t see an uncontroversial way of deciding when Xophobia has been stamped out, for any given X. Relying on the testimony of X is unreliable if they face incentives to say “no there’s still a long way to go” (because there’s a prize (special moral consideration) for being a victim). Relying on a committee of Guardian (or a committee of Daily Mail readers) will find in favour of Guardian readers’ (or Daily Mail readers) prejudices. As a liberal, non-procedural ways of deciding these things makes me uncomfortable.

          Imagine there was a course of treatment that would help erstwhile heterosexual women who wanted to be lesbians (for political reasons) feel more attracted to women. Presumably this is ok, because it’s helping them become who they want to be. But you’d deny homosexual men who want to become heterosexuals an equivalent treatment. That strikes me as incredibly unfair. Who are you to judge the legitimacy of their choice of who they want to be?

          • Rebecca Roache says:

            I am somewhat uncomfortable with the comparison with intelligence. I often wonder whether academics are prone to exaggerate the benefits of being intelligent: it’s a quality that’s useful to academics, after all, but perhaps less of a benefit to a person who is stuck in a mindless job with little chance of ever doing anything more fulfilling. Anyway, that’s an aside: I don’t think it would be a good thing to pressure people to be more intelligent than they are, since (in the absence of reliable and accessible means of enhancement) we can’t make ourselves more intelligent. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all to push people, especially children, to capitalise on those talents that are going to be useful to them in life, by improving their wellbeing. I don’t count attractiveness among these, for reasons I’ve already outlined; however, I do think you have given me food for thought here and that I probably need to work harder at articulating exactly why I think it’s a less valuable quality than some of the qualities I would be happier to see my kids developing. Also, I agree with you about the constant message that kindness, thoughtfulness etc count, but unfortunately these explicit messages contradict the many explicit and implicit cultural signals that attractiveness counts. (I’m skipping giving examples at this point because I’ve done so in earlier answers.)

            Regarding your penultimate paragraph: you make an extremely good point. I guess that we disagree about how to respond to it. I think it probably needs some regulation, you don’t. I agree that relying on a committee of Guardian or Daily Mail readers is not satisfactory, but that doesn’t entail that it is not possible to come up with some satisfactory way of assessing such things. I, too, am a liberal, and would justify such regulation (which should be as light-handed as possible) on the basis that it is necessary to reduce harm to certain groups of people by potentially rekindling not-quite-extinguished prejudices.

            ‘Imagine there was a course of treatment that would help erstwhile heterosexual women who wanted to be lesbians (for political reasons) feel more attracted to women. Presumably this is ok, because it’s helping them become who they want to be.’

            I’m not sure that *is* okay. I guess I would need to know more about what you envisage sexual orientation having to do with politics. The belief that it’s relevant to areas of life where it really isn’t (or ought not to be) relevant is part of that set of prejudices that create the problem with gay conversion ads. Ignoring that point, though, you observe that it would be unfair to allow this sort of treatment whilst not allowing homosexuals access to therapy to turn them straight. I agree: my objections have focused on adverts for gay conversion therapy, not on the therapy itself. That is not to say that I think it should be freely available, just not advertised. But, if there were a form of gay conversion therapy that worked as reliably as many permitted therapies, there is certainly a case for it being made available in a controlled way, i.e. perhaps only following a course of counselling where the aspiring heterosexual is encouraged to reflect on whether his/her reasons for seeking the therapy relate to a desire to bow to social pressure that it would be better for them to resist. If someone who completed such a course of counselling still wanted to go ahead with the therapy, then I think it would be difficult to justify refusing them access to it. (I would prefer that they didn’t, but my preferences are irrelevant.)

            • Dave Frame says:

              Rebecca wrote: “But, if there were a form of gay conversion therapy that worked as reliably as many permitted therapies, there is certainly a case for it being made available in a controlled way, i.e. perhaps only following a course of counselling where the aspiring heterosexual is encouraged to reflect on whether his/her reasons for seeking the therapy relate to a desire to bow to social pressure that it would be better for them to resist. If someone who completed such a course of counselling still wanted to go ahead with the therapy, then I think it would be difficult to justify refusing them access to it. (I would prefer that they didn’t, but my preferences are irrelevant.)”

              Completely agree, and that’s pretty much how I feel* about transsexualism and the hypothetical example of political lesbianism. I think there’s a strong case to regulate these sorts of things heavily so as to limit regrets imposed by committing to irreversible actions, but basically to permit them if they’re in accordance with people sincere, reflective views of their selves.

              *Except I don’t (usually) have a preference either way regarding people’s gender or sexuality.

              Final thought on the intelligence vs beauty thing – like most properties of people I think they are things that can be improved upon a bit (diet and exercise in the case of beauty; puzzle solving/mental exercises in the case of intelligence…), but to a far greater extent than they can be improved upon they can fall to bits if you don’t take care of them. I’d like my kids to have both sets of properties for the simple reason that they probably make life a little easier. [Notwithstanding all the usual caveats, and that both properties decay over time…]

              • Rebecca Roache says:

                ‘Final thought on the intelligence vs beauty thing – like most properties of people I think they are things that can be improved upon a bit (diet and exercise in the case of beauty; puzzle solving/mental exercises in the case of intelligence…), but to a far greater extent than they can be improved upon they can fall to bits if you don’t take care of them. I’d like my kids to have both sets of properties for the simple reason that they probably make life a little easier. [Notwithstanding all the usual caveats, and that both properties decay over time…]’

                I agree with this. I don’t think attractiveness has no value, just that its value is often exaggerated.

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    Well, we can argue about how much, in absolute terms, these things ought to be emphasised. But, there is a huge gender divide here. I didn’t really take much notice of this until I had children, and my concern about it arises chiefly from my concern to try to ensure that my children grow up well-balanced and respectful of themselves and others, so the examples I can give you relate mainly to the messages we give children. Whereas products (toys, clothes) aimed at boys tend to have an action/adventure theme, products aimed at boys tend to have a ‘look pretty’ theme. Consider, for example, Barbie vs Action Man. Barbie doesn’t really ‘do’ anything except look attractive: you can tell by the accessories you can buy for her (make-up, clothes, etc). Action Man goes diving, biking, does heroic deeds etc etc. The moral: boys do stuff, girls look pretty. Another similar example can be found in the story I linked to near the end of my first comment on this thread. If you suspect me of cherry-picking examples to suit me here, go and visit one of those huge toy shops and look at the way it’s designed (the ‘girl’ aisle is the pink one). As for the messages aimed at adults, paying attention to appearance-themed comments in news reports for a few days should be enough to show that a woman’s appearance is never deemed irrelevant to a news report about her, whereas comments about a man’s appearance would be very odd in many contexts. Hilary Clinton made this point nicely in an interview (see, e.g. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/02/hillary-clinton-style_n_791358.html); another example is the news coverage of the death of Reeva Steenkamp, Oscar Pistorius’s girlfriend, whose bikini’d form was splashed over much of the tattier end of the British news media just after she died. Now, whilst the message here (‘being attractive is important, regardless of whatever else you may be good at’) is chiefly aimed at women, it affects men too: if girls grow up believing that appearance is very important, then the boys who want to get to know them (romantically, platonically, professionally) had better bear this in mind.

    I’m giving you a load of anecdotal stuff here, rather than pointing to any respectable empirical studies. The reason for this is, oddly, whilst I think about this stuff quite a lot, I have always done so with my ‘parent’ hat on: before writing this post, it hadn’t occurred to me to look at it with my ‘philosopher’ hat on. I’m sure social scientists have studied this stuff, I just haven’t investigated it yet. So, it’s debatable the extent to which what I’ve said here is representative of our culture as a whole. But, ‘a lot of hot air over nothing’? I don’t think so.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I agree with Rebecca that this is more than just ‘hot air over nothing’, and it raises the interesting question as to just how hostile we should be to those offering (and seeking to advertise) services aimed at helping people conform to an ideal (in this case heterosexuality) the validity of whch is far from being universally accepted. Perhaps some of these therapies really do work. That’s an empirical question, of course, but if they do (and perhaps even if they don’t), there is certainly a prima faciae case for condemning advertising bans on such services as illiberal.

    What does seem to be missing from the analysis, though, is due consideration of the bitter struggle gays have had to overcome entrenched and officially sanctioned hostility to a core part of their identity. Like it or not, there just isn’t an analogous “ugly and proud of it”, or perhaps I should say “Not Conventionally Beautiful and proud of it” movement to be offended. So no, we should not be surprised that a gay conversion ad is more controversial than (say) a make-up ad. To be so surprised would be to inappropriately ignore or downplay the social and historical background to the ban.

    • Dave Frame says:

      Peer wrote: “Perhaps some of these therapies really do work. That’s an empirical question, of course, but if they do (and perhaps even if they don’t), there is certainly a prima faciae case for condemning advertising bans on such services as illiberal.”

      I don’t think I understand why someone choosing to use a service to address something they don’t like about themselves is illiberal (especially if it works).

      If X and Y are A, and X is unhappy about it and Y is happy about it, then surely the liberal thing is to let Y be A and let X try to be -A. Why are these preferences any of your or my or the Government’s business?
      As I understood it, the objection is that there’s something wrong with X’s evaluation: they’re wrong to object to being A. But that strikes me as a totally separate issue to whether or not services providing transformations from A->-A are available.

      What about where A is “male gender”, and -A is “female gender”, and X is a male who wants to undergo a male-to-female course of treatment? Why is that any different from the case of a gay person who’d rather not be gay? Perhaps I’m limited here in my understanding, but the only difference I see is that people seem to regard the preferences in the transsexual case as being legitimate and the preferences in the gay person’s case as illegitimate. But, as a liberal, I don’t think that’s a judgement you, I, or the Government are well-positioned to make. Surely the obvious liberal thing to do is to assume fairly broad legitimacy of preference and to try to ensure adequate support for as large a range of preferences as possible?

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    I don’t think that banning advertising about unattractiveness cures (to continue with the shorthand I’ve been using here) is the best way to go about things. I think there is probably a case for stricter regulation about the way in which products are marketed at children, but I’m not sure quite how that could be made to work. Perhaps the best way to go about reducing the harm done by overemphasis on attractiveness is via education and via the right sort of cultural messages: positive role models for children in books, films, and TV programmes (thankfully this seems to be happening already), public discussion and media coverage—it may be that even discussing the issue would be valuable, as the problem might have gone unnoticed by many. If people were less willing to buy into the ‘attractiveness is paramount’ message, I imagine advertising would eventually come to reflect this and the problem may be reduced. At least, that’s my initial take on things.
    I agree with everything you say in your second paragraph, Peter. I said something along these lines in one of my replies to Adrien, above. This could all mean that getting rid of anti-attractiveness attitudes could be more difficult than getting rid of anti-gay attitudes. Since anti-gay attitudes target a fairly well-defined group of people, and affect their lives in often very clear and obvious ways (ostracism, job loss, violence, etc), the case for making a big effort to rid our culture of these attitudes is very clear: the attitude is wrong (we see now), and it causes significant harm to individuals, so let’s get rid of it. On the other hand, apart from an unfortunate few, anti-attractiveness attitudes do not have the same sort of clear and obvious bad effects on people. I imagine that, mainly, such attitudes affect people by causing them to place attractiveness above other more valuable qualities, resulting in opportunities being lost in such a way that it might not be obvious even to the victim that these attitudes are to blame. Things like: a young woman failing to promote herself in her career because she’s afraid of appearing unfeminine and therefore unattractive, women and men failing to take advantage of promising opportunities because of a lack of confidence about their looks, and simply the time, effort, and money spent on appearance that could have been directed to other ends. In essence, what I’m saying is that anti-gay attitudes significantly harm a specific group of people, whereas anti-attractiveness attitudes probably harm a larger and less well-defined group of people in a milder way. Which set of attitudes is more harmful overall is debatable and depends partly on theoretical questions like the one often asked in relation to Utilitarianism; i.e., which is worse: inflicting 10 units of pain on 1 person or inflicting 1 unit of pain on each of 10 people?

  • Teresa says:

    I’m not sure many understand the problem conversion therapy entails. There is nothing wrong with being homosexual and trying to fix something that’s not broken can cause severe stress. People have been pushed to the brink of suicide because of this ‘therapy’. I equate conversion therapy to jumping off a cliff where one could hit a few, very few, pools of deep water or, more likely, hit shallow water and hurt or hit the rocks and be killed. Yes, people have committed suicide as a direct result of this ‘therapy’. Another comparison is smoking cigarettes. A small few who smoke may live to a ripe old age but, while I understand that there are other factors involved, many smokers will have their lives prematurely ended by cancer or heart disease. Advertisements of cigarettes have been banned in at least one country. Many of the participants come from deeply Christian families and already feel bad about way they are. These treatments make the person feel worse and they have been compared to torture. Also, the ‘success’ rate is very poor. For those who do live a heterosexual life it masks the underlying truth that they are still homosexual and many ‘poster boys’ of such techniques have gone back to who they really are. My question is, is it right to advertise something that will result in death or extreme pain with a slim chance at an illusion of success? I think not.

  • nomso says:

    I don’t know why gov should ban an ad that allows people to freely choose who they’ll rather be. If u are gay and u are convinced there is nothing wrong with u, why feel hurt or troubled over another gay who is convinced he needs a conversion? Must everyone now keep being gay because some gays believe they can’t change? I think dt gov a lot of people are already prejudiced against heterosexuals and like it or not, its happy to be one than not. Again, like it or not many gays are unhappy as gays and would rather be converted and many have been. So why ban an advert that would encourage such people. Homosexuals are people who are define by their feelings and not by physical appearance or race. They all have their sexual identities and homones well formed in the womb before being born, otherwise they’ll have had distorted look at birth. So why should policies be hostile to those who have succeeded in changing their sexual orientation and in addressing issues of their feelings by stopping them from helping those who are willing to give it a try? Let freedom be real in our society.

  • nomso says:

    “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their foolish imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, A changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into a lie and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over t a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient…. Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.” Romans 1:21-28&32. Man and goverments with all their absurd liberalisations can NEVER be wiser than God. Modern societies are speedily pronouncing their own great judgments against themselves. God never created any man to be gay, or any woman to be lesbian. The only hope and rescue for these ones and other sinners is JESUS CHRIST. If u trully know HIM, u Can’t keep being gay/lesbian/sinner. So, quick! Run to HIM! He’s waiting! And please, DON’T be LATE.

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