This Month in History: “Aversion Therapy for Sexual Deviation”
February 29th, 2008
Attempts to cure homosexuality have taken many forms, many of them cruel. Perhaps the cruelest might be the use of electric shock aversion therapy. This method was first described in the academic literature in 1935, and reports of its continued use persisted through the 1970’s and even later. Two of sixteen participants at a Brigham Young University program committed suicide in the mid-1970’s, and there are similar reports of suicide and long-term psychological and physical damage elsewhere.
There are literally hundreds of reports of various forms of aversion therapy in the literature between 1935 and 1980. Thirty-five years ago this month, one such report appeared in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology by two researchers from the University of Vermont. Dr. Harold Leitenberg and Ph.D candidate Edward J. Callahan wrote the following in an article titled, “Aversion therapy for sexual deviation: Contingent shock and covert sensitization“:
Contingent shock: …Shock levels varying from “pain” to “tolerance” were then randomly selected for administration as part of a punishment procedure which made shock contingent upon erection. These shock levels ordinarily ranged from .5 milliampere to 4.5 milliampere, and shock duration was varied randomly from .1 second to .5 second. Erection was monitored by a penile strain gate. Five slides of deviant material and two heterosexually oriented slides were presented for 125 seconds apiece in each session while the subject was instructed to imaging whatever was sexually arousing with the person on the slide. An attempt was made to obtain slides appropriate to each person’s idiosyncratic sexual arousal. If during the “deviant” material slide, the penile circumference increase exceeded a level of 15% of full erection, shock was administered through electrodes on the first and third fingers on the subject’s right hand.
Covert Sensitization: This technique involves the presentation of verbal descriptions of “deviant” acts and the description of aversive consequences, such as nausea, vomiting, discovery by family, etc. … For example, a man might be asked to imagine going to the apartment of a homosexual contact, approaching the man’s bedroom, initiating sexual activity, feeling increasingly nauseous, and finally vomiting on the contact, on the sheets, and all over himself. A variation of this scene might involve the patient finding the homosexual contact rotting with syphilitic sores, or finding that the contact had diarrhea during the sexual encounter.
This was a 19-year-old homosexual with no prior sexual or dating experience with girls. … Sexual contacts [with other men] led to guilt feelings and vacillation over whether he wanted to learn to accept homosexuality or to change his pattern of sexual arousal. After discussing his dilemma with a few friends and relatives, he decided to seek treatment.
Phase 1: Contingent shock was administered for 10 sessions. Penile circumference changes were reduced during slides of males and females initially; however, this suppression during slides of females was only transient. There was an increase in average daily homosexual urges to slightly more than two per day and a slight increase in frequency of daily homosexual masturbation, while homosexual fantasies were slightly decreased. The patient was somewhat disturbed by the experience of shock, but was willing to undergo it in order to change his sexual arousal pattern. He had one homosexual contact late in this phase.
Phase 2: Covert sensitization was administered for seven sessions. Penile circumference changes to slides of men reduced greatly, and penile circumference changes to slides of women continued to increase. Rapid progress was reported by the subject in this phase. … After seven sessions, the subject reported he was progressing more quickly than he could stand “physically.” He felt his progress was strong enough to drop treatment and continue to make adjustment alone. After 3 months, however, he returned to treatment because of “unwanted” homosexual contact which unnerved him about the stability of his progress.
… An attempt was made to return the subject to contingent shock treatment. The subject became very upset by this and misapplied the electrodes during the first scheduled shock session in order to reduce the shock. At the next session, he explained that the felt shock had not helped him and that he did not want to go through the painful experience since he felt it had not therapeutic effect. At this stage, he said he would have to quit treatment rather than go through contingent shock again.
Source: Callahan, Edward J.; Leitenberg, Harold. “Aversion therapy for sexual deviation: Contingent shock and covert sensitization.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 81, no. 1 (February 1973): 60-73. Abstract available here.