40 Years Since Homosexuality Decriminalized

electric shock machineForty years ago, homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK. For many years after, however, homosexuality remained a diagnosable mental disorder, and teams of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other psychotherapists offered a “treatment” to “convert” homosexuals into heterosexuals. The British Medical Journal has published oral history articles of both the patients’ and the professionals’ experience with these treatments. Although there were many aspect to the regimen, and it varied somewhat from place to place, it often involved electroshock aversion therapy (on the behaviorist assumption of the day that sexual orientation is a purely learned behavior).Some of the material is truly fascinating:

One of the clinical psychologists involved in the treatment writes:

We had to become electrifying geniuses! The situation was you had the screen, the person sat at the table with the things [equipment] on and with a lever that they had to pull to avoid the shocks. The pictures started off with pretty men, working their way through ugly men into ugly women and into pretty women. That was the whole process literally.

Apparently many of the professionals involved were doubtful of the treatment’s effects. One of the patients writes:

I said, “when am I going to find a breakthrough? You keep saying things will change and everything’s going to be OK.” She [the psychiatrist] said, “well, I’m going to have to tell you now I don’t think we are going to get anywhere. To be quite honest I never expected we would in the first place. You’re going to have to go home and tell your wife that you’re gay and start a new life.” Boom!


About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.