40 years on: Experiences of ‘gay conversion therapy’

This Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the first major decriminalisation of male-male sexual acts in the UK. Dr Petra Boynton looks back at how the change came about and has dug up some fascinating articles on the experience of <a href="http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/328/7437/427
“>patients and professionals who took part in ‘gay conversion therapy’ in the 60s and 70s.

At one time, homosexuality was considered both a criminal act and a mental disorder.

It was decriminalised in both the US and the UK before it was removed from the diagnostic manuals, and treatments to change homosexuals into heterosexuals peaked in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Two articles were published in the British Medical Journal in 2004 that highlighted the experiences of patients and professionals who were involved in ‘conversion therapy’ either voluntarily or because of a court order.

One paper describes some of the methods:

In electric shock aversion therapy, electrodes were attached to the wrist or lower leg and shocks were administered while the patient watched photographs of men and women in various stages of undress. The aim was to encourage avoidance of the shock by moving to photographs of the opposite sex. It was hoped that arousal to same sex photographs would reduce, while relief arising from shock avoidance would increase, interest in opposite sex images. Some patients reported undergoing detailed examination before treatment, while others were assessed more perfunctorily.

Patients would recline on a bed or sit in a chair in a darkened room, either alone or with the professional behind a screen. Each treatment lasted about 30 minutes, with some participants given portable electric shock boxes to use at home while they induced sexual fantasies. Patients receiving apomorphine were often admitted to hospital due to side effects of nausea and dehydration and the need for repeated doses, while those receiving electric shock aversion therapy attended as outpatients for weeks or in some cases up to two years.

Oestrogen treatment to reduce libido (two participants in the 1950s), psychoanalysis (three private participants and one NHS participant in the 1970s), and religious counselling (two participants in the 1990s) were also reported. Other forms of treatment were electroconvulsive therapy [ECT], discussion of the evils of homosexuality, desensitisation of an assumed phobia of the opposite sex, hypnosis, psychodrama, and abreaction. Dating skills were sometimes taught, and occasionally men were encouraged to find a prostitute or female friend with whom to try sexual intercourse.

The professionals interviewed in the study present mixed views, but “most doubted the treatment’s efficacy, however, and came to question whether they were acting in patients’ best interests. They began to think that treatment was underpinning questionable social values and that patients might say anything to convince them that it had worked to avoid yet more treatment or further legal repercussions.”

As we reported earlier this month, this is currently a hot topic for the American Psychological Association, who are currently re-assessing their guidelines on whether they should explicitly denounce ‘conversion therapy’.

If you want to know more about how homosexuality was de-listed as a mental illness, there’s a fantastic radio programme online which looks at how the campaign was intricately tied up with one woman’s remarkable family history.

Link to Dr Petra on 40 years of decriminalisation.
Link to BMJ article on patients’ experience of ‘conversion therapy’.
Link to BMJ article on professionals’ experience of ‘conversion therapy’.
Link to radio programme ’81 words’.

14 thoughts on “40 years on: Experiences of ‘gay conversion therapy’”

  1. I am a therapist and counsellor working in Manchester, UK and work with gay clients regularly. The history of “treating” homosexuality is shocking and horrifying. Thank god the western world has moved on and stopped this abuse of perfectly normal human beings.

  2. The truth is, gay professionals and therapists have known this was witchcraft in disguise… trying to “cure” gay people.


    why not “cure” republicans instead. but then again, their is an argument that their greed and bigotry is just as born into them as my gayness.

  3. As one of the 29 men who related my experience of “conversion therapy” the BMJ article, I participated on the understanding that a comprehensive book of some kind was going to be the result of the research, I was very disappointed to find out that nothing was produced apart from the BMJ articles and a frankly useless website: http://www.treatmentshomosexuality.org.uk/index.html

    I had hoped I would have got the chance to talk to other people who underwent this experience if only to have some sort of closure. I have been through many depressions over the electroshock therapy that I was forced to have. I would still be interested to talk to anyone in this regard.

  4. My brother underwent shock therapy about fifty seven years ago . He committed suicide fifty years ago. That fiftieth anniversary of his death is what prompts me to try now to reseach the reasons why he had that therapy. I do not know if he was gay; I was never told. The prejudices of the time would have silenced my parents.
    I was 17 years old when he died but I have never got over his death , partly because I don’t know why he killed himself. If anyone can suggest how I might research this then I would be glad of any suggestions. I too need closure.

    1. Hi there,
      I am looking to speak with people who have been affected by electro shock treatment as aversion therapy for being gay for a film I am making. Please get in contact for an initial chat…

      Best wishes,


      1. Hi John, I will help you, but I can’t work out how I can contact you?

        Can you contact me?

  5. Hi Paul, any chance I could get in touch with you about your experience? I’m writing my dissertation on homosexuality and medicine in England with a focus on treatments. I realise this is very chancy, but my thesis is due in May 2nd, so if you see this in the next few days could you please send me an email at hjh1g10@soton.ac.uk.

  6. Hi everyone, I’m from the history department at the University of London. We’re interested in talking to individuals who underwent aversion therapy and would like to have their experiences documented with the aim of producing an article.

    If you’re interested, please email me at zxfb011@live.rhul.ac.uk


    1. For those still interested in this therapy I have written a book about my experience of receiving electric shock therapy.

      I am in the process at the moment of submitting the book to various publishers. If interested please contact via email.

      I will reply to Tony.

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