Sweden balks at ban on ‘gay conversion therapy’

Gay conversion therapy is an international issue. But only eight European countries have banned it completely – Malta, Greece, Spain, France, Germany, Albania, Cyprus and Iceland. (Portugal has passed legislation, but the bill has not become law.)

Strangely, Sweden is a hold-out, despite a vigorous campaign for a ban by activist groups and major political parties. Sweden has a well-deserved reputation for progressive views on LGBTQI+ rights. Homosexuality was legalized as long ago as 1944. It became the first country in the world to permit gender change in 1972. Civil partnerships became legal in 1995 and gay marriage in 2009.

So entrenched “homophobia” is unlikely to explain the Swedes’ reluctance.

In 2022, the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society Affairs (MUCF) claimed that some young LGBT people were being pressured to change their sexuality. The government responded by ordering an investigation on whether a ban was needed.

The 372-page report, written by Judge Maria Hölcke, was published in July. She advised the government not to legislate for a ban. She concluded that “the most serious means of influence are [already] covered by the current criminal law regulation [and] the acts that fall outside the scope of the criminal law are not serious enough to justify criminalisation.” (An English-language summary is available in pages 33-36.)

Fundamentally, she says, it will be too difficult to prove conversion therapy, other than physically violent acts, because it is too difficult to define it. She found no evidence that violent methods or even talk therapy was actually taking place in Sweden. Nor would it be advisable to increase penalties for conversion attempts; existing laws are sufficient.

Two paragraphs sum up her approach to the issue:

It is reprehensible to try to change or suppress another person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Criminalisation would send a message from society regarding this and could have a normative effect. However, a new penalty provision should not be introduced for the sole reason that the legislator wishes to send a message. It should also be foreseeable that the provision will be applied to some reasonable extent in practice and help counteract the undesirable behaviour. Further, for a provision to have a normative effect, it is required that the provision can be drafted in a sufficiently clear manner.

The overall conclusion is that further criminalisation would not be an effective means of countering conversion efforts. A separate regulation criminalising them should therefore not be introduced.


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The quality of Hölcke’s report – which also dealt with the gruesome topic of virginity testing and surgery -- is remarkable for its professionalism and depth. She has surveyed the experiences of several countries, including France, Germany, New Zealand, Canada and Malta. She has assessed proposals against the principles of Swedish criminal law at some length. She has made important distinctions amongst four types of conversion therapy.

Her forensic rigour is refreshing after reading Australian reports which consist essentially of statistical mumbo-jumbo intoned over a jumble of first-person testimonies, often decades old.

Pages 33-36 of Förstärkt skydd för den personliga integriteten (Enhanced protection of personal integrity) should be compulsory reading for all Australian politicians who will be voting on this controversial issue. 


Michael Cook is editor of Mercator. 

Image credits: The Karl XIII monument in Stockholm during gay pride month in 2019 / Bigstock 

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