Question: What was the history of BYU and aversion therapy for treating homosexuality?

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Question: What was the history of BYU and aversion therapy for treating homosexuality?

In the mid-1970s a graduate student, Max McBride, conducted a study entitled Effect of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy

In the mid-1970s a graduate student, Max McBride, conducted a study entitled Effect of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy. It appears that the study was conducted during 1974 and 1975 with the average length of treatment during the study being three months. The results of this study were published in August 1976 as McBride's PhD dissertation in the BYU Department of Psychology. McBride's research has recently been sensationalized and several incorrect claims have been made about his study. The following facts need to be kept in mind as the study is evaluated.

Basis for the study. BYU did not pioneer the use of aversion therapy as a treatment for homosexuality and it ceased use of the therapy decades before the APA stopped recommending the practice. BYU was one of many places where research in this area was done. McBride's dissertation contains over 17 pages of documentation discussing other studies from across the discipline in which aversion therapy had previously been applied to male homosexuality. In fact, the purpose of the McBride's study was not to determine the effectiveness of aversion therapy in treating homosexuality. That question was generally accepted, at the time, to have been satisfactorily answered in the positive as a result of previous studies at other institutions.

Supervision. The study was conducted under the supervision of Dr. D. Eugene Thorne, who also served as McBride's PhD committee chairman. All study procedures followed common medical practice. McBride acknowledges the assistance of medical professionals at the Salt Lake City Veterans Hospital in designing the study and completing the statistical analysis.

Population. The study was limited to ego-dystonic homosexuality and did not involve any treatment of ego-syntonic homosexuality. The volunteers for McBride's study were all men whose same-sex attraction was contrary to their desires and who wanted to change their sexual orientation.

Subjects. McBride discusses the subjects chosen in the following excerpt from his dissertation:

Seventeen male subjects were used in the study, 14 completed treatment. Selection was on the basis of clinical evidence of homosexuality; absence of psychosis (no prior history); desire for treatment; no history of epilepsy, alcoholism or drug addiction.

Disclosure. McBride describes the procedures used to ensure full disclosure of what the subjects were to expect. We quote from his dissertation:

It was mandatory that all subjects chosen to participate sign and have witnessed a prepared statement explaining (a) the experimental nature of the treatment procedure, (b) the use of aversive electric shock, (c) the showing of 35 mm slides that might be construed by subject as possibly offensive, and (d) that Brigham Young University was not in any direct way endorsing the procedures used. This was to insure that all subjects were in full agreement and understanding as to what the treatment procedure would involve, provide and demand from them.

Nature of the study. The techniques used by McBride followed the standard aversion therapy procedures of the time. The volunteers were subjected to electric shocks applied to their upper arms while being shown both clothed and nude pictures of men. They were able to choose to end the shocks by switching to nude and clothed pictures of women.

Materials. The materials used in the study consisted of nude pictures of men and women and pictures of clothed men and women taken from current fashion magazines. None of the pictures displayed or even implied sexual acts. In fact, the thing being investigated in McBride’s study was not the effectiveness of aversion therapy, but the relative value of clothed versus nude pictures in this type of therapeutic procedure.

In the years since the study, some of the study participants have talked publicly about their experiences

In the years since the study, some of the study participants have talked publicly about their experiences. Many of these reports are troubling to read, as are similar reports from participants in studies at other universities and facilities of the time. While it seems likely that the McBride study was traumatic to some of the individuals involved, it must be remembered that participation in the study was voluntary, each participant had a clear explanation beforehand what the study would entail, and participants could leave the study at any time they wanted. Indeed, three of the seventeen participants in the study did not remain to its completion. These points are not mentioned to minimize the experiences of these participants in any manner; they are only made so that the professional and ethical context of the study can be properly evaluated.

It is also important to note that aversion therapy as a treatment for homosexuality was not a major element of BYU research. In the APA task force report, BYU's contribution to the field of aversion therapy was not covered. This is probably because BYU's involvement was too minor to include. Other universities had more participants and many conducted their studies later than BYU.

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