The Machines of Sex Research

Part of the series SpringerBriefs in History of Science and Technology pp 19-43


The Penile Strain Gauge and Aversion Therapy: Measuring and Fixing the Sexual Body

  • Donna J. DruckerAffiliated withTechnische Universität Darmstadt Email author 

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The early Cold War had far-reaching effects into the gendered and sexual aspects of adult life. Those effects are clearly evident in the United States and United Kingdom, in which physicians and their assistants used technology to practice aversion therapy on male patients who were sexually “deviant,” including homosexuals, cross-dressers, fetishists, sadists, and masochists. They designed a form of aversion therapy using an electroshock machine together with a penile strain gauge in order to shock those men into heterosexually normative sexual desires and behaviors. The treatment did not work, and physicians abandoned it in the light of the rise of gay rights and amid civil rights movements and professional reinterpretations of homosexuality in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This chapter first describes the setup of early voluntary sex research laboratories, which provided a framework for the setup of laboratories using involuntary subjects. It then details the theoretical framework, based on Martha Nussbaum’s conception of objectification and Michel Foucault’s ideas on the functions of institutions in policing people’s bodies and minds. It describes how aversion therapy (originally using drugs) and the use of electricity on human and animal bodies came together in the mid-1960s in the form of electroshock aversion therapy. That description includes primary-source interviews with patients, doctors, and nurses, all of whom had varying responses to the use of such therapy. The chapter concludes with an explanation of how electroshock aversion therapy largely ended by the mid-1970s and how some doctors, nurses, and patients resisted it.


Electroshock Aversion therapy Penile strain gauge Homosexuality Sex research Cold War