FAIR, a volunteer organization that provides information about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prepared a thorough explainer regarding aversion therapy, Brigham Young University (BYU), and President Dallin H. Oaks.
President Oaks was president of BYU from 1971 to 1980. During that time, psychology graduate student Max McBride conducted research on aversion therapy, or the use of weak electric shocks to the arm to decrease unwanted homosexual attraction. McBride’s research was overseen by BYU professor Eugene Thorne. Thorne also used aversion therapy as part of his private psychology practice. Both used nearly identical methods, and McBride’s research was intended to finesse the techniques used by Thorne and other mainstream psychologists.
Some church critics have made unsupported claims about the research and about President Oaks. The accompanying explainer provides thorough documentation showing why those claims are misleading and irresponsible.
Some of the most important points are:
- There is no evidence President Oaks had knowledge of the research during his time as president of BYU. BYU is a large university with many students conducting many research projects. There is no reason why Oaks would have known about the research, and no evidence that he did know.
- The research on aversion therapy was thoroughly mainstream at the time of Thorne’s practice and McBride’s study. Aversion therapy research was still being conducted by numerous secular and religious practicing psychologists and researchers, and was still considered a mainstream treatment for unwanted sexual attraction leading to unwanted behavior.
- The electric shocks used in the aversion therapy were extremely weak and not at all dangerous. Subjects were shocked only on the arm or leg, and never on the genitals. The study participants had control over the amplitude of the current, and gave full informed consent to everything that happened. There are FDA-cleared devices purchased for voluntary use today that use far stronger shocks to treat pain.
- Thorne’s patients and McBride’s research subjects were voluntary participants. Indeed, if they had been under duress they would have tainted the results of the research, so McBride had no incentive to accept reluctant or unwilling participants.
- The aversion therapy was not meant to change sexual orientation in the way we understand the term today. It was meant to help the patients control their desires and behaviors. It is different from “conversion therapy” as the term is used today.
- McBride’s disclosure statement to the study participants explicitly disclaimed endorsement by BYU. All subjects signed and had witnessed a prepared statement explaining (a) the experimental nature of the treatment procedure, (b) the use of aversive electric shock, (c) the showing of images that might be construed by subject as offensive, and (d) that Brigham Young University was not endorsing the procedures used.
Some claims made about aversion therapy at BYU are nothing more than urban legends without any good evidence, even according to a researcher critical of the church. These urban legends include:
- Homosexual BYU students were required to undergo aversion therapy as a condition of remaining enrolled at BYU or keeping their church membership: FALSE. Only one study is known to have been conducted at BYU and its design required that participants be volunteers who genuinely desired to reduce their homosexual attraction and/or behavior. The BYU professor who used aversion therapy in his private psychology practice never sought out or coerced participation, and was never asked or directed by anyone at BYU to do so.
- Aversion therapy was practiced by BYU employees on behalf of the university: MOST LIKELY FALSE. Apart from Professor Thorne’s private practice and McBride’s research study, there is no documented use of aversion therapy associated with BYU. Rumors on the internet about coercion and cruel treatment are not only unsubstantiated, but extremely unlikely to be true. We know that the therapy that took place was completely mainstream psychological practice, i.e. with minimal electrical shocks to the arm or lower leg. It would have been illogical to use the harsh or coercive methods claimed in internet rumors because the best evidence of the time predicted it would not be effective at decreasing homosexual behavior.
- The BYU aversion therapy applied electrical shocks to subjects’ genitals: FALSE. The shocks were applied only to the subjects’ upper arm, hip, or lower leg. Dr. Thorne stated that the patients themselves chose which location to use. Plethysmographs were used on each subject’s penis in order to obtain objective data about arousal instead of relying on subjective reporting, but the patients themselves put it on in privacy. The patients were never exposed or nude.
- The work done was out of the scientific mainstream, with the knowledge and assent of university administrators: FALSE. The work was squarely in the academic mainstream, and there is no evidence that administration officials were aware, and no reason to think that they would or should have been aware. The research was mainstream and unremarkable for its time, not controversial as many think of it today.
Any journalists or others who are interested in this subject should review the full explainer, which includes citations to an interview with Thorne, and a detailed review of the psychology research literature from the 1950s to the early 1980s. False and defamatory accusations against Dallin H. Oaks should not be published by reputable outlets.
Full context is often much less salacious than wild claims on the internet. There were no “torture chambers” at BYU where gay students were subject to vile harm. There were, instead, responsible researchers applying the best knowledge as understood at the time to try to help men who wanted help. Today’s very different understanding of homosexuality and psychology doesn’t change the facts of what happened in the past, or the motives of those involved.