Sex, Psychiatry And The Cold War

A Transnational History of Homosexual Aversion Therapy, 1948-1981

Abstract: Aversion therapy was a method of ‘treatment’ for sexual ‘deviation’ adopted by some psychiatrists and psychologists in the decades following the Second World War. There were several variations of the procedure, but most involved subjecting a patient to nausea or electric shocks while showing them erotically stimulating images in order to de- and re-condition their sexual behaviours. Aversion therapy enjoyed two short but intense waves of clinical experimentation, first in Czechoslovakia (1950-1962), and then in the British world, including Australia (1962-1975). The Sydney psychiatrist Dr Neil McConaghy, a self-declared ‘Marxist’ and himself bisexual, was directly inspired by the Czechoslovakian experiment led by Dr Kurt Freund and promoted the practice in Australia. McConaghy, Freund and some other practitioners of aversion therapy believed themselves to be sympathetic to sexual minorities, rejected the idea that sexual orientation could be changed and supported decriminalisation. How was this possible?

The explanation is to be found in the specific context of its emergence: the geopolitical polarisation of the Cold War and a parallel theoretical polarisation within psychological medicine. A behaviourist paradigm based on the ideas of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov gained popularity in contradistinction to Freudian psychoanalytic theories favoured in the United States, and from 1949 was the unofficial doctrine of the Eastern Bloc. As homosexuality became a crucial area for expert research by intelligence and security organisations, technologies of detection and diagnosis turned to behaviourism through emotional observation, visual surveillance, psychometric testing and physiological measurement. In a therapeutic context, the Pavlovian framework was taken up in Western countries by practitioners who sought a more empirical and scientific – and therefore ‘humane’ – approach to clinical practice. Patients, however, did not view the procedure as ‘humane’. Nor did activists in the new social movements for gay and women’s liberation and in 1972 in Australia Neil McConaghy became their number one target.

This thesis draws on intelligence documents, medical and psychiatric literature, gay print and radio media, oral history interviews, and a newly discovered archival collection: Neil McConaghy’s personal papers. My research charts shifting understandings of sexual orientation from endocrinological and psychoanalytic theories that were dominant in the first half of the twentieth century, to more emotional and behavioural theories in the post-war period. This shift was accompanied by the development of new technologies of detection and treatment which tied in with post-war modernity’s promotion of scientific and materially efficient machines and methods. My contention is that the influence of Pavlovian ideas in post-war therapeutic approaches to homosexuality can only be understood as part of the transnational Cold War circulation of sexological knowledge. By focusing on the movement of this knowledge from East to West, I hope to contribute to the project of ‘decentering Western sexualities’ (Mizlielinska & Kulpa, 2011) and to emerging scholarship charting the global histories of sexology.

Thesis supervisor: Stuart Macintyre and Joy Damousi

Institution at which thesis was completed: University of Melbourne