As a trial of "conversion therapies" is underway in New Jersey, The Guardian reviews a book on how "aversion therapy" became a vogue in the UK after World War II:
The influence of popular and highbrow culture on nurses emerges from the testimonies given to Dickinson. In the 1950s, both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers carried reports of how science was now able to cure the “illness” that was homosexuality. Such journalism allowed some hospital staff to feel that they were being cruel to be kind – that aversion therapy would put an end to the psychic agonies endured by the men who presented themselves for treatment. However, newspaper stories could also help nurses to empathise fully with their patients, as did novels and, later, films. Rodney Garland’s 50s novel The Heart in Exile, for example, brought one female nurse “an understanding of the challenges homosexual men face. I never realised how difficult it must have been for them”. Given no ethical guidance in their training or workplace, many of the nurses found that it was culture that helped them establish for themselves why what they were being asked to do was wrong.
What were they being asked to do? In chemical therapy, an emetic was injected by the nurse, and as nausea took hold, the subject was given pictures of an unclothed or barely clothed male. In some hospitals, the patient was confined to his room and left surrounded by his vomit, his latrine bucket unemptied too, so that the link could be forged in his subconscious between his sexual preference and physical squalor. One variant added torment by tape recorder: a consultant recorded statements of how disgusting the patient and his sexuality were, and the tape was played as the emetic began to take effect. The same consultant asked the nurses to wake the patient every two hours and play another tape, in which the benefits of having a wife or girlfriend were intoned. This could go on for three days and nights.
With electrical aversive techniques, electrodes were placed on wrists, calves and feet, and shocks administered when a picture of an unclothed male was displayed, or when the subject was asked to fantasise about a male. Alternatively, the entire floor would be covered with an electric grid, with the current passing through the feet when arousal was detected. In both types of treatment, it was thought that sleep deprivation and provoking emotional crises made subjects more easily persuadable.Does it even need to be said that none of Dickinson’s interviewees became heterosexual? Many patients were shattered by the process, though. One told Dickinson: “I think three days [of treatment] has destroyed 25 years.”