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The Daily Agenda for Tuesday, October 30

Jim Burroway

October 30th, 2012

THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
The Treatment of Homosexuality by Aversion Therapy: 1966. Doctors had been using painful jolts of electricity to try to torture homosexuality out of people since 1935 (see Mar 15 and Sep 6), and so the report that appeared in the October 1966 edition of Medicine, Science and the Law (remember, homosexuality was still against the law in most states, Canada and the UK) is depresingly similar to so many other cases that have been published in the medical literature. In this one, “The Treatment of Homosexuality by Aversion Therapy,” Dr. Northage Mather, a consultant psychiatrist at Crumpsall Hospital in Manchester, England, described “a particular technique in behaviour therapy for homosexuality, developed over the past three and a half years”:

The patient, to whom the treatment is carefully explained, is then shown a large series of slides and a number of films of both males and females, clothed and unclothed, from which he selects a number of both sexes in varying degrees of attractiveness to him. Each patient thus draws up his own particular hierarchies for both sexes. He then lies on a bed in a darkened room, watching a screen upon which these slides are thrown. The slide first used is that of a male which is only mildly attractive, and the patient has in his hand a switch by means of which he can remove the slide from the screen. If after eight seconds he has not removed it, he receives an electric shock which has previously been determined as unpleasant to himself. The shock continues until he presses the switch. During the eight seconds anxiety and tension are created and relief is obtained by an active movement on his part. Once the patient is regularly performing avoidance responses to a male slide in this way he is placed on a schedule of reinforcement so that one-third of his attempts to avoid are successful (reinforced), one-third are delayed for varying intervals of time (delayed), and one­third are held up for so long that he does receive a shock (non-reinforced). These three types of trial are randomly alternated. The purpose of this schedule is to reduce the likelibood of relapse.

In an endeavour to make females less unattractive, especially as many homosexuals also experience anxiety with females, or with the thought of sexual contact with females, relief from anxiety is associated with the immediate presentation of a picture of the female as soon as the patient himself removes the male slide by means of the switch. In two-fifths of the trials the pressing of the switch therefore by the patient not only removes the male slide but replaces it with the female slide which is the most attractive one in the hierarchy which he has previously drawn up. The female slide is removed by the therapist after approximately ten seconds, and before the request of the patient, so that eventually the patient is motivated to request the return of the female slide. This is granted in a random manner to prevent the patient predicting the consequences of removing the male slide.

Each treatment session lasts about twenty minutes, twenty-five presentations being given. Inpatients receive two sessions of trealment per day, outpatients according to patients’ own convenience.

You read it right: inpatients and outpatients. Of the thirty-six subjects in these experiments, fourteen were directly or indirectly referred by a court, and six more were patients at the psychiatric hospital. Only sixteen appeared to be there of their own accord. Eight more beyond the thirty-six had dropped out. One of the dropouts was “of hysterical personality (and) was so frightened of the treatment that he only attended twice.” Another insisted that he receive electric shock therapy under an anesthetic, which of course would have negated the effects of the treatment. Mather attributed three other dropouts to their “gross personality disorders with histories of antisocial and psychopathic behaviour.” What that is supposed to mean is unclear, particularly considering that Mather described homosexuality as “giv(ing) rise to a considerable amount of individual suffering, as well as being responsible for many anti-social acts such as larceny, blackmail, robbery with violence and murder.” And in Mather’s view, if someone was homosexual, then it was obvious that there was something wrong with them. Of each of the patients he evaluated, he was determined to find some kind of problem, even if it was an undefined “self-insecure obsessional personality trait.” Being sent to a shock doctor at a psych ward can have that effect on people.

The treatments continued until the patient managed to show “a change of interest occurs or it becomes clear that no change is likely.” That usually happened after about fifteen to twenty “treatments,” although some were subjected for up to thirty. If a patient was found to have slipped up during a years’ worth of follow-ups, more “booster” treatments were administered. It’s no surprise then that Mather reported that twenty-five showed some “improvement.” The extent of that change however is hard to judge, given the skimpy details he provided, almost all of which were self-reports from patients who were being subjected to torture. “Honest, Doc, I love women now!”, you can easily imagine the conversation going. As for the eleven who stubbornly refused to “improve,” well, it wasn’t the doctor’s fault. They were the ones with “weak-willed personality disorders” or “hysterical or attention-seeking personality disorders.” Naturally.

Mather would go on to become a well-respected leader in Britain’s psychiatric profession. In 1981, he was elected president of the Manchester Medical Society. His 2003 obituary in the British Medical Journal states that during his thirty years at Crumpsall Hospital (now North Manchester General Hospital), he had “(built) up a well known department.” He also was involved in criminal investigations and prosecutions, and served on the parole board.

By the way, forty-three years later, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homoseuxality (NARTH) cited this very study among a host of other obsolete aversion therapy studies to claim that people can change their sexual orientation.

[Source: Northage John de Ville Mather. “The treatment of homosexuality by aversion therapy.” Medicine, Science and the Law 6, no. 4 (October 1966): 200-205.]

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?

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