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Enough To Make You Sick

- Aversion Therapy


In the 1960s, the world of academic psychology was in reaction against the "mentalism" of Freud and his successors. (Mentalism is the belief that human feelings and thoughts originate in an entity called "the mind"). The brain was a machine that controlled behaviour, and a psychologist's job was to study - and if need be, to change - behaviour.

In 1964 Ralph Knowles was 20 when he was "treated" for his homosexuality with aversion therapy. Following the theory of behaviourism, homosexuality was treated as nothing but a simple behaviour that could be altered by conditioning: the "patient" was exposed to the stimulus to be deconditioned, pictures of naked men and erotic stories, and given an aversive stimulus, nauseating drugs or electric shocks. Two proponents of this theory in New Zealand were Drs Pat Savage in Auckland and Basil James in Dunedin. It was Dr James who "treated" Ralph.

"My motivation for seeking treatment was that although I was not unhappy, there were serious conflicts between the religious views I held, the future in the Church I had ahead of me, and my sexual activities...." His parish priest and confessor was also an adviser to the Bishop, so it would have been impossible for him to study for the priesthood without at least trying to be "cured".

"The treatment consisted of two five-day sessions of drug therapy... and one out-patient session of electric shock therapy. [NB, not ECT - Electro-Convulsive Therapy or 'shock treatment'] The sessions were held in the psychiatric ward of Dunedin Public Hospital.

"The questions asked at the first interview were straight out of an American comedy. You could tell exactly what was coming because you had seen it all before - in cartoons. The stimulus used was erotic pictures provided by me and a tape recording on incidents I had related. The tape began in calm, neutral fashion, then concentrated on disgust and revulsion ending with the triumphant announcement that I was feeling sick - which was not surprising since at each session I was given an injection of a nausea-producing drug (apomorphine) together with a measure of whisky just to help things along... If you've ever been sick time and time again through the night until you can only dry retch and drool all over your clothes, you'll have some idea what it is like. ... the room was bare of ornaments and colour, and the windows blacked out. No clean clothes or bed-linen. No food. And no visitors other than the administering orderlies and the psychiatrist. ... these little sessions continued every two hours day and night, with glucose and lime to prevent dehydration ever other hour."

According to a paper by James in the British Medical Journal (1962 - summarised in "Sociological Aspects of Homosexuality" by Michael Schofield (Longmans, 1965)) describing an earlier "successful" case, tape recordings that "explained the causes of his homosexual attraction, suggesting it was a learned pattern reinforced by each homosexual experience, and describing the adverse effects on him and its consequent social repercussions" were also played twice every two hours during the period of nausea. "The tape ended with words like 'sickening' and 'nauseating', followed by the sound of someone vomiting." (In this case, the man reported a complete change to heterosexual attraction and behaviour - but in Czechoslovakia, Freund found only a quarter of his "patients" showed a permanent change after three to five years.)

Near the end of the first five-day course, Ralph nearly threw it in. The therapist persuaded him to continue, and, his acquiescence taken for submission, he was treated as cured: the room was cleaned and decorated with flowers, and the older male orderlies were replaced by young women.

Friends and family were away for the holidays, and Ralph, lonely, found company on the docks: "That night remains in my memory bathed in golden light (actually the light came from a little radio in the steward's cabin, but let's go lyrical.) I should have felt ill, I should have felt disgusted and guilty, but instead I felt the relief of being back to normal, my normal."

He reported this back to James, who persuaded him to take a second course, this time including an injection of hormones (testosterone propionate, to increase sexual desire - though it has no effect on the direction) and reading "a rather pathetic girly magazine". A tape of a heterosexual fantasy James had made up was also played.

After university resumed, Ralph went back for day sessions:

"I was meant to think of something homoerotic, signal, and they would close the electric circuit" giving him a shock on the hand. But "you need to be thoroughly turned on before you can be properly turned off. ... the whole process was pathetic. For a short time it did numb my sexual feelings, but it had no lasting effect whatsoever."

In retrospect, Ralph is wryly grateful to the therapy for showing him that "cure" was futile and forcing him to come to terms with his sexuality.

"Having given that a go, and having found that it made no difference, there was a sense in which I thought, fuck that, I've done what society expects, it doesn't work, I'm gay, I'm perfectly happy with being gay, and I'm going to get on with living, being gay and being out."

The treatment brought him out him to his family, and two months later he met his partner of the next 30 years, David Pine, who died in 1995 of motor neurone disease.

Thanks to the therapy also, Ralph did gain an aversion - to whisky.



Thanks to Ralph Knowles, and to Phil Parkinson and Roger Swanson of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand. Ralph's quotes are from an article in Pink Triangle No 16, 1980, a chapter in "Gay Catholics Down Under" by B. R. Simon Rosser (Praeger 1992) and an interview. Written by Hugh Young. .


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