The National:

WHEN most people hear the words “conversion therapy”, it calls to mind a very particular sort of scenario, like being bundled off to a euphemistically titled summer camp, or worse, and held against your will. It also tends to conjure up visions of a place, time, culture other than our own — because how could something like that be happening here and now?

Except it is, and the reality of what that looks like for many who have been targeted by these practices in the UK is often altogether more insidious and complex, harder to pin down or even to acknowledge.

Yesterday, campaigners from End Conversion Therapy (ECT) Scotland gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s equalities committee on why this so-called “therapy”, aimed at altering a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, should be banned in Scotland.

One of those campaigners, Blair Anderson, shared his own experience of an ongoing struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from seven years of “intimate abuse” and “psychological abuse” at the hands of a parent, motivated by their homophobic beliefs. This included “isolation from friends, peers and other family members” and preventing him from accessing healthcare in case his situation came to light.

READ MORE: Catholic Church told to shut down gay conversion therapy groups

Anderson described conversion therapy as a form of “coercive control”, with significant similarities to the tactics and impacts associated with domestic or intimate partner abuse, and called on the committee to hear evidence from experts in those areas.

This is an important point which is worth considering when opponents of a ban raise the question of consent. The campaigners were asked that very question during the session: what if somebody wants this kind of “support” and seeks it out for themselves?

But this line of inquiry fails to understand how conversion therapy operates, which is typically through a process of emotional blackmail and, as Anderson put it, “gaslighting”. If you are made to feel broken and wrong by your community or the people closest to you, why wouldn’t you want to be fixed?

The trouble is that such an outcome isn’t possible, even if it were desirable. You will never truly “pray the gay away”. As ECT Scotland’s co-founder Tristan Gray explained: “You can only force [someone] into expressing themselves differently to how they feel or to live in denial to prevent the abuse continuing.”

Consent is worthless when a person has so much to lose from withholding it, and suggesting that someone can consent to behaviour that causes them deep psychological harm only serves to legitimise it.

When we think about conversion therapy, there is a lot that can be learned from how we have come to understand domestic abuse as a pattern of behaviour which seeks to control and coerce. Someone might stay in an abusive relationship for years, even decades. But Blair Anderson is right: “People cannot consent to be abused.”

We have come a long way as a society in appreciating that abuse in relationships might not always be immediately obvious to an outsider, or even to the person experiencing it. Often it happens by stealth, like the slow and steady tightening of the creeping vine, pulling you in until you are no longer visible, no longer your own.

Through the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, coercive control of an intimate partner became a criminal offence, and its effect and purpose was as much about public education as it was about the law. It sent a message that this behaviour is abuse and it is not acceptable.

Banning conversion therapy could have a similar impact for those who are or have been targeted by it. Simply knowing that this isn’t normal, it isn’t legal, and that there is support available for those affected could be life-changing.

READ MORE: Holyrood committee hears harrowing evidence of conversion therapy in Scotland

In its Programme for Government, announced yesterday, the Scottish Government committed to “banning the damaging promotion and practice of conversion therapy, bringing forward legislation that is as comprehensive as possible within devolved powers by the end of 2023, if UK Government proposals do not go far enough”.

That’s a big if, and not one that campaigners are willing to bank on. Given the Conservative government’s record to date, and its rapidly deteriorating approach to equalities, it’s not hard to see why.

In so many ways, Scotland stands on the precipice of transformation, suspended in the promise of something better, something more than all this. Now, more than ever, the Scottish Government should be demonstrating its willingness to be a world leader in protecting human rights.

What better way to do that than by making clear that Scotland is not prepared to wait for the Tories to do the right thing, and enacting a ban which is already long overdue?