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Sex, Psychiatry and the Cold War: A Transnational History of Homosexual Aversion Therapy, 1949-1981

Werkstattgespräch mit Kate Davison (University of Melbourne)


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. It 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 and Freund believed themselves to be sympathetic to sexual minorities, rejected the idea that sexual orientation could be changed, and supported homosexual law reform.

How was this possible? The explanation is to be found in the context of its emergence: the geopolitical polarisation of the Cold War and a parallel theoretical polarisation within psychological medicine which pitted a behaviourist paradigm based on the ideas of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov against Freudian psychoanalytic theories that were favoured in the United States. As homosexuality became a subject of interest for intelligence and security agencies, technologies of detection and diagnosis turned to behaviourism, utilising 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 Australia in 1972, Neil McConaghy became their number one target.

My thesis draws on intelligence documents, medical and psychiatric literature, gay print and radio media, oral history interviews, and the papers of Neil McConaghy to chart 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. My contention is that strong influence and spread of Pavlovian ideas in post-war therapeutic approaches to homosexuality can only be understood in the context of Cold War transnational sexological knowledge exchange. 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 Western sexological paradigms.


Donnerstag, 31.10.2019, 18 Uhr


LMU München
Sonderforschungsbereich 1369 'Vigilanzkulturen'
Amalienstraße 17, Raum A 105
80333 München