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Aversion Therapy in the 1950s and 1960s

08 March 2022 | by Guest

The following article was written by David Pilgrim, Honorary Secretary of the BPS History and Philosophy of Psychology Section.

In the days when ‘conversion therapy’ alluded specifically to same sex attraction, psychologists and psychiatrists played their biddable role (MacCulloch and Feldman, 1967).

What now seems scandalous, the use of electric shocks or nausea-inducing drugs to alter sexuality, was normalised for a while in mainstream mental healthcare in Britain and elsewhere.

The practice of aversion therapy was overwhelmingly applied to men but recently a minor theme of altering the sexuality of women has been reported historically as well (Spandler and Carr, 2022).

This imbalance reflects the older social norms in Britain about male and female homosexual acts.

This was enshrined in law until 1967 but there remained a strong cultural inertia opposed to homosexuality after that; though diminished, some of that remains even today.

After the 1970s any residual demand for altering a homosexual orientation tended to be limited to religious rationales (Bufford, 1999), whereas in the 1950s and 1960s this was not narrowly the case.

Apart from wider social norms which today would be called ‘homophobic’ the legal context was different.

The illegality of male homosexual acts shifted in 1967 (and even then the age of consent was limited to private consensual acts between men, over the age of 21).

Thus we can think of the spike of interest in aversion therapy has having an early phase, when there were explicit legal sanctions and a second phase when cultural inertia sustained the practice.

This was even true after homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association after 1973.

This mixed picture also reflected one aspect of the state of British psychology.

It was driven largely by historical forces of eugenics and behaviourism. These came together in the work of Hans Eysenck and his colleagues, who were advocates of deconditioning (behaviour therapy, now confusingly called the ‘first wave’ of CBT).

Protest against this conservative British trend was exemplified when the young gay activist, Peter Tatchell, attended a learning event with Eysenck and his psychiatric colleague Isaac Marks, from the Institute of Psychiatry, and challenged their viewpoint.

At the lecture at St Thomas’ Hospital London in 1972, Eysenck argued that “aversion therapy is used for the patient’s own good…it can change the emotions, where the person himself cannot change them of his own free will…By associating emotions with pain or fear, the emotional response can be de-conditioned”. (Aversion Therapy Exposed | Peter Tatchell).

Thus we can read the history of aversion therapy at two levels.

The first is in relation to the specific politics of homosexual rights and the ways in which applied psychology responds in a biddable manner to changing social norms.

The second is the wider context of the strong overlap between the British traditions of eugenics and empiricism, which were, and still are, a form of naïve realism (Pilgrim, 2020).

The British discipline has a strong undertow of this naivety, especially in the failure to recognise the relationship between facts and values (an old distinction made by the British philosopher David Hume).

That glib failure is exemplified in the statement put on record from Eysenck by Tatchell above.

This means that applied psychology is susceptible to unreflective norm enforcement; a point that applies for more widely than just about the topic of homosexuality.

References

Bufford, R.K. (1999) Aversion therapy In D. G. Benner and P. C. Hill (Eds.), Baker Encyclopedia of psychology and counseling (2nd ed.; pp. 115-116). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books

MacCulloch M.J. and Feldman, M.P. (1967). Aversion therapy in management of 43 homosexuals. British Medical Journal Jun 3;2(5552):594-7

Pilgrim, D. (2020) Critical Realism for Psychologists London: Routledge.

Spandler,  H. and  Carr S. (2022) Lesbian and bisexual women’s experiences of aversion therapy in England. History of the Human Sciences. January, online.

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