From at least 1969 until 1973, the Australian government funded the torture of gay men. Grants from the Medical Research Endowment Fund subsidised Dr. Neil McConaghy’s experiments with so-called ‘aversion therapy’.
Long Read: 10 minutes
As Victoria and Queensland move to ban ‘conversion therapy’, we look back to a time when the Australian Commonwealth actually subsidised it.
McConaghy, from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), conducted his ‘treatments’ at Sydney’s now abandoned Prince Henry Hospital.
He injected some men with a drug that induced severe nausea. Other ‘patients’ suffered painful electric shocks. His most unfortunate victims underwent both. At least one of those ‘patients’ attempted suicide after a week of the ‘therapy’. McConaghy’s response was to re-admit the distressed man for another week of abuse.
Aversion therapy = torture
Gay Liberationists protested that McConaghy’s ‘treatments’ were in fact torture. Significantly, the United Nations later agreed.
In 2001, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights compiled a report on torture for the General Assembly. The report described LGBTIQ people as “disproportionately subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.” It listed electric shock and other aversion ‘therapies’ among the injustices.
In 2015, twelve UN agencies combined to call on member states to protect LGBTIQ persons from violence, torture, and ill-treatment. The statement referenced “abuse in medical settings, including unethical and harmful so-called ‘therapies’ to change sexual orientation.”
McConaghy argued that his patients consented to the ‘treatment’.
“People come of their own free will.”
His research assistant agreed. Alex Blaszczynski is now Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sydney. In 1972, he completed his BA at UNSW and that same year began work for McConaghy. After a UNSW student protest against the doctor’s ‘pseudo-science’, Blaszczynski wrote to defend it.
“There is no compulsion or force to seek treatment.”
But how much free will did the ‘patients’ actually have?
Until 1975, every jurisdiction in Australia criminalised private, adult, consenting male homosexual sex acts. Men convicted of buggery faced up to fourteen year’s jail.
In NSW in 1969, courts convicted 51 men for buggery and a further 57 for indecent acts between males. McConaghy admitted himself that the courts provided some ‘patients’. In certain cases, magistrates gave men a choice of torture at his hands or jail. McConaghy also admitted men undergoing ‘treatment’ stood a better chance of avoiding a conviction. No free will there.
Lawyers also sometimes recommended that clients charged with homosexual offences commence ‘aversion therapy’ before their court appearance. A demonstrated intent to reform might result in a lesser sentence. Perhaps not compulsion, but certainly coercion.
In one group of 40 men McConaghy experimented on in 1969, 18 of the 40 had been arrested by the police for homosexual behaviour.
Beyond legal repercussions, LGBTIQ people faced myriad other discriminations.
In 1973, a federal minister described poofter-bashing as “virtually a recognised civilian team-sport.”
LGBTIQ people also risked job loss, eviction, familial and social ostracisation and more if outed.
As Lindy N. wrote at the time, “surely being bashed at Green Park, arrested at Chez Ivy’s, laughed at by friends… and cried for by parents does constitute some sort of force.”
The ethics of consent
So, despite signing on the dotted line as required, McConaghy’s ‘patients’ often possessed no real choice. They underwent the barbaric ‘treatment’ to avoid jail terms, or in desperate hope of escaping a life where they faced persecution at every turn.
In the late 60s, the great medical ethicist Dr. Maurice Pappworth identified the ‘engineering of consent’ as one of the major malpractices of the time.
McConaghy never needed to ‘engineer’ consent. He simply took advantage of the hopeless situations gay men faced. As he knew all too well — police, courts, families, clergymen, psychiatrists, employers and many more — would all supply him with victims. He only needed publicise the availability of his ‘treatment’.
Homophobia and ‘Intellectual Poofter Bashers’
McConaghy does not appear to have been homophobic.
In 1973, Sue Wills, the pioneering gay rights activist and academic, interviewed him. She published the interview in the magnificent article ‘Intellectual Poofter Bashers’. (Camp Ink Volume 2 Number 11, available online.)
McConaghy told her, “I feel ultimately hopeful that the time could come when public attitudes to homosexuality are such that people won’t get so distressed about their homosexuality.”
However, he also claimed not to know of a single society that saw homosexuality as anything other than bad, contemptible or laughable. Perhaps we can forgive his ignorance because he was a psychiatrist, not a historian.
McConaghy recognised homophobia as the real problem, not homosexuality. Nevertheless, he ostensibly strived to change people’s sexual orientation by inflicting pain.
McConaghy told Sue Wills, “I would like to think [aversion therapy] has some value in our understanding of the entire mechanisms of the human brain…
“We are using it on the entire range of psychiatric symptoms that seem as if they might be helped by aversion therapy…”
He explained that with homosexuals “you can measure sexual responses and see how these change under the influence of treatment.”
He also said that with other conditions he might only get 10 to 15 patients in a decade.
“Whereas with homosexual patients… a large number of people will present themselves.”
McConaghy sold his ‘patients’ a ‘cure’ he knew at least some undertook under coercion. He did it not because he considered homosexuality an actual problem, but because of the easy availability of homosexuals as guinea pigs to further his broader research goals. That easy availability resulted from what he knew to be the real problem — homophobia.
Making torture pay
Aside from whatever payments McConaghy received from UNSW and St Henry’s, he also received government grants from at least 1969 until 1973.
He received $3,580 dollars from the federal government’s Medical Research Endowment Fund in 1969 (about $45,000 today). That rose to $4,924 by 1973 ($47,000 today).
Perhaps the government hoped to save money by investing in McConaghy. He claimed in his grant application that conventional psychotherapy “proved time-consuming, expensive and of minimal effectiveness.”
Quicker and cheaper just to torture people.
He also charged his ‘patients’. One of them remembered paying about $50 or $60 in 1969. That was a week’s wage for some people at the time.
The success failure rate
In 1972, McConaghy claimed an 18% success rate of diminishing homosexual tendencies after a one-year follow-up.
That is a success rate?
If we assume for a moment that homosexuality is a medical condition requiring treatment, we can compare it to other non-terminal medical conditions. Let’s say, for instance, a broken leg. A doctor wants to test a new treatment for broken legs. He tries the treatment on patients suffering from broken legs and while the breaks do not heal, they diminish in 18% of the patients.
Would we claim an 18% success rate for that outcome?
The man was a quack.
1. a person who pretends to have knowledge or skills that they do not possess in a particular field
3. dishonestly claiming to effect a cure
McConaghy explained his rationale in his 1969 grant application.
“The aversive treatments work by setting up conditioned reflexes similar to the conditioned reflexes discovered by Pavlov in his work on dogs.
“[Pavlov] showed that if a neutral stimulus, e.g. a bell ringing, was followed by food which produces a response of salivation, after a time the bell itself would produce the response of salivation.
“With aversive treatment, it is considered that the linking of the pictures of men with unpleasant consequences builds up a negative reaction to these pictures which will weaken homosexual feelings generally.”
In 1969, McConaghy’s ‘unpleasant consequences’ consisted of either electric shocks or subcutaneous injections of apomorphine that induced severe nausea, or both. Once satisfied that apomorphine produced no better results than electric shocks, he dropped the injections to focus on electrocution.
Electric Shock Treatment
McConaghy or his assistants attached a device of his own making, rather like a penis pump in appearance, to the patient’s penis to measure sexual arousal. There is a photograph of his ‘penile plethysmograph’ in a splendid article devoted to it by Kate Davison in the recent book Queer Objects.
With straight out ‘aversion therapy’, ‘patients’ watched slide projections of naked men. They then received electric shocks through electrodes attached to their fingertips, one of the two most sensitive areas to pain on the body.
With ‘conditioning relief therapy’, patients saw the projections of the naked men, but if they turned off the projection within eight seconds, they avoided the electric shock. Instead, a projection of a naked woman appeared and the patient might be allowed a glass of water as a reward.
“By positive conditioning,” claimed McConaghy,”[the patient] will develop increased sexual arousal to the picture of the woman.”
McConaghy evaluated the success of the treatment on follow-up visits by again measuring the sexual arousal of his subjects when they again viewed the same slides of nude men.
While it seems cruel to further erode the professor’s already dismal success rate, anyone who ever watched porn knows that familiarity often breeds, if not contempt, disinterest. An image that excites on a first viewing ceases to stimulate after repeated viewings. Therefore, it was inevitable that McConaghy’s ‘patients’ would be less aroused when shown the same old images during their follow-up visit.
Acceptable pain or torture?
Alex Blaszczynski defended the electric shocks as “far from ‘torturous’ as claimed by homosexual demonstrators.”
However, a victim Sue Wills spoke to described it as an “incredibly traumatic experience.”
Members of the early 70s Gay Lib who experienced McConaghy’s ‘treatment’ described it as “extremely painful.”
Bob Brown, later the first openly gay member of the Australian Parliament, underwent McConaghy’s ‘aversion therapy’ in 1972. He described it to The Saturday Paper as like something from the movie A Clockwork Orange.
McConaghy himself in a 1973 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry said the shocks ranged from 30 to 150 volts.
Patients received up to 1,050 shocks over a five-day course of ‘treatments’.
Perhaps when McConaghy yapped on about Pavlov’s dogs, he meant if you kick a dog hard enough it will stop barking. His treatment sounds about as clever as that of the troglodyte teachers who rapped my sister over the knuckles with a ruler in the 60s to stop her writing with her left hand.
Whatever his qualifications — whatever his medical achievements in his lifetime – McConaghy was a quack.
After his death in 2015, an obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, co-authored by a daughter, spoke in glowing terms of McConaghy’s career.
“Many gays and lesbians respected his work in the scientific study of sexuality, despite his decision in the 1960s to offer treatment to those who wished to suppress their desires to engage in homosexual activities.”
In all of the over 100 newspaper articles, academic journals, books, etc perused for this article, not one gay or lesbian had a nice word to say about the man.
Justice Michael Kirby said in 2000, “Like others, McConaghy found no significant change in measured sexual orientation despite the most energetic attempts at aversive therapy.”
It seems unlikely the lack of success concerned McConaghy. Homosexuals were simply plentiful and convenient human guinea pigs on which to conduct his heartless experimentation. Because so many saw homosexuals as sub-human, degenerate or sinful, he encountered little resistance. At the time, Australian politicians quite rightly responded with revulsion to reports of the Soviets utilising electric shocks and other brainwashing experiments on their citizens. Also, the memory of Josef Mengele’s barbaric wartime experimentation was still fresh. Yet, the Australian government saw fit to subsidise McConaghy’s cruel, inhumane and ultimately futile torture.
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