Unethical Use of Aversion Therapy to ‘Cure’ Homosexuality

March 7, 2012

Although accepted in most UK societies today, homosexuality was once considered a crime, a disease and a mental illness which needed treatment to be ‘cured’. For many years aversion therapy was a method used in order to ‘cure’ those from homosexuality. The method was mostly used on men, and it was thought that unethically administering drugs or placing patients in dirty, sickening surroundings while shown pin-up images of men, would cause them to form an association between the images and the negative effects. The aim was to make them nauseous when they saw men in a sexually attractive way and so would hopefully turn them ‘straight’. Shockingly it was also only in 2006 that the American Psychological Association (APA, 2010) deemed that using this method on homosexual patients broke the codes of practice.

Aversion therapy is commonly used in treating alcoholism. It has proven to be an effective treatment as it causes the patient to form an association between a nauseous feeling and alcohol, which leads to them being able to resist drinking. Aversion therapy in itself can be considered unethical as patients are made to smell or drink substances that can cause them to vomit and feel extremely nauseous. However, when aversion therapy was used in cases to treat homosexuality the circumstances were different. A case involving the use of aversion therapy was reported by The Independent (1996).

In 1962, Billy Clegg-Hill died during medically supervised aversion therapy after he was arrested for homosexual offences. The death was covered up and it was claimed that he had died from ‘natural causes’. However when the case was re-opened thirty four years later,  it was found that he had infact died from a coma and several convulsions caused by many injections of Apomorphine, a vomit-inducing drug. It was hoped that while the patient saw images of pin-up men and was injected with the drug, he would associate men with nausea and vomiting and so it would ‘cure’ his homosexuality. Also, it has been found that in a study by Max (1935) electrical aversion therapy was also used to try and cure homosexuality which had negative effects.

The case of Billy Clegg-Hill in particular is awful. A man died due to the aversion therapy, given as a punishment or ‘treatment’ in order to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. It would be an understatement to say that the use of aversion therapy in such cases is unethical, as it causes extreme harm to participants and as demonstrated in this case, even death. Furthermore, as aversion therapy was administered as a punishment for the crime, they were obviously not given the right to withdraw and leave whenever they wished. It can therefore be seen as not only breaking psychological ethics, but basic human ethics or rights as it could be seen as extreme punishment or even in some cases torture. It should also be noticed that it was only in 2006 when the APA decided that using aversion therapy in such circumstances broke the rules of practice, when in the UK the law against homosexual activity was lifted in 1967, and was completely invalidated in all US states by 2003. In 1994 the APA also said that aversion therapy was not an effective treatment in these cases, however it took so long for it to be deemed as unethical, which can be deemed unethical in itself. Also, aversion therapy normally has other ethical issues as it can affect a person’s mood so that they often become aggressive, angry and hostile and can it lead to problems with public relations.

Overall, aversion therapy can be an effective treatment for people with substance abuse issues, however using it to ‘cure’ homosexuality was extremely unethical and ineffective, and was damaging not curing.

References:

American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.

D’Silva, B. (1996, August 4). When Gay Meant Mad. The Independent. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/when-gay-meant-mad-1308085.html

Max, L. (1935). Breaking up a homosexual fixation by the conditioned reaction technique. Psychological Bulletin, 32, 734.

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5 Responses to “Unethical Use of Aversion Therapy to ‘Cure’ Homosexuality”


  1. I personally do not agree with ‘treatment’ for homosexuals, especially painful and apparently ineffective aversion therapy. However, Seligman (1966) reported that 50% of homosexual men did not continue with homosexual practices after therapy. It has been said that Seligman perceived this as a breakthrough, believing this therapy is a great success. However, it was later reported that the men who found the therapy ‘helped’, were bisexual. Therefore Seligman’s study was not valid as he claimed it was a success on homosexual men. As you have mentioned, there are serious ethical issues too. Patients may have felt obliged to have the therapy, due to the pressures of society at the time- therefore it was not there own decision. Even if they seemingly volunteered to have aversion therapy, they may have been asked by family or doctors and felt they did not have the power to say no.

    References:

    Seligman, E. P. (1993). What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-679-41024-4 (pg. 156-157).

  2. psue95 Says:

    It is shocking that such horrific things were not considered unethical until only 6 years ago. Especially because it is associated so much with homosexuality which is not a ‘disease’ and doesn’t harm anyone in any way. However, aversion therapy can have its advantages if used in the correct manner and for well established disorders/diseases for which it is necessary such as alcoholism. Although, one study was carried out using aversion therapy for alcoholism and they used succinylcholine chloride dehydrate, which causes
    total apneic (respiratory) paralysis, now surely that isn’t a safe way to discourage someone from drinking (Farrar et al, 1967). Therefore, if it is continued to be used then precautions should be put in place to ensure for the full safety of patients and that the drug is completely safe in terms of long term health so that cases like that of Billy Clegg-Hill are not repeated.

  3. psuf09 Says:

    Even after the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the DSM (American Psychological Association, 1987), some researchers and therapists still believe that sexual orientation can be changed and have developed techniques for either ‘reparative therapy’ or ‘conversion therapy’ (Nicolosi, 1991; Socarides & Kaufman, 1994). These therapies can include praying, religious conversion and individual or group counselling. Even though these therapies are not as blatantly unethical as aversion therapy, they can still have negative consequences. For example, Haldeman (2002) suggested that these therapies can cause chronic depression, low self-esteem and difficulty maintaining relationships. Similarly, Shidlo and Schroeder (2002) reported effects of psychological harm, such as depression, suicide attempts and loss of social support. Some people believe that these therapies should be available (Rosik, 2003), whilst others claim they are harmful and unnecessary (Green, 2003). I agree with the latter, there is no need to ‘treat’ homosexuality.

    References:

    American Psychological Association. (1987). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-III-R. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

    Green, R. J. (2003). When therapists do not want their clients to be homosexual: A response to Rosik’s article. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 29(1), 29–38. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2003.tb00380.x

    Haldeman, D. C. (2002). Gay rights, patient rights: The implications of sexual orientation conversion therapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33(3), 260–264. doi: 10.1037/0735-7028.33.3.260

    Nicolosi, J. (1991). Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

    Rosik, C. H. (2003). Motivational, ethical, and epistemological foundations in the treatment of unwanted homoerotic attraction. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 29(1), 13–28. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2003.tb00379.x

    Shidlo, A., & Schroeder, M. (2002). Changing sexual orientation: A consumers’ report. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33(3), 249–259. doi: 10.1037/0735-7028.33.3.249

    Socarides, C. W., & Kaufman, B. (1994). Reparative therapy [Letter]. American Journal of Psychiatry, 151, 157–159.


  4. […] Connolly, E. (2012, March 07). Unethical use of aversion therapy to ‘cure’ homosexuality. Retrieved from https://emconnolly.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/unethical-use-of-aversion-therapy-to-cure-homosexuality/ […]


  5. […] Unethical Use of Aversion Therapy to ‘Cure’ Homosexuality … – Mar 07, 2012  · For many years aversion therapy was a method used … Unethical Use of Aversion Therapy to ‘Cure’ Homosexuality … Unethical use of aversion therapy … […]


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