The Aversion Project

The Aversion Project was a medical torture program in South Africa led by Dr. Aubrey Levin[1] during apartheid. The project identified gay soldiers as conscripts who used drugs in the South African Defence Forces (SADF). Victims were forced to submit to "curing" their homosexuality[1] because the SADF considered homosexuality to be subversive and those who were homosexual were subject to punishment.[2] In 1995, the Medical Association of South Africa issued a public apology for past wrongdoings.


During the Apartheid Era in South Africa, there existed a dual policy on homosexuality in the South African military. This dual policy consisted of two major components which prohibited permanent members of the force from being homosexual, while permitting homosexuality amongst conscripts. The dual policy was adopted because officials believed that banning homosexuality from the military completely would give a specific group of individuals – young, white South African men – a convenient way to avoid serving in the military.[citation needed] Thus, the dual policy was adopted and enforced; however, with toleration of homosexuality came forced 'therapy,' such as compulsion shock therapy, castration, and other forms of 'therapy' which were said to significantly violate basic human rights.[3]

Between 1971 and 1989, victims were submitted to chemical castration and electric shock treatment meant to cure them of their homosexuality.[4] This trend was heavily supported by psychiatrists with the idea that homosexuals were mentally ill, which was stated in the American Psychiatric Associations "Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders".[5] Conscripts with this proclaimed 'mental illness' were treated significantly different than other members of the military. They were not given military leadership positions and they were not entrusted with sensitive information.[3] During the course of the shock therapy, treatment electrodes were strapped to the upper arm with wires, then run through a dial calibrated from 1 to 10, varying the current. Homosexual soldiers were shown black and white pictures of a naked man and were encouraged to fantasize, at which a point the person-in-charge would administer a shock if the soldiers showed any form of sexual response and voltage was increased throughout the treatment if the soldiers continued to exhibit sexual responses. The patient would then be shown a colored picture of a woman, which was supposed to stimulate arousal, however, more often than not, this failed.[6]

As a result of these failures, there is also evidence that sexual realignment procedures took place on the people who were unable to be 'cured.' [3] Because there is no scientific evidence to prove that these procedures have the ability to alter sexuality, these "therapies" reached their peak during the 1970s, where therapy for homosexual soldiers was no longer supported by the field of mental health.[7] Consequently, the definition of homosexuals as mentally ill was removed from the American Psychiatric Associations manual in 1973, and the treatment was left behind.[5]

The Aversion Research ProjectEdit

A team of academic researchers and activists came together in order to obtain more information about the treatment of homosexual military personnel during the apartheid era. This was a research project based on qualitative methodology that helped to further examine why homosexuality was considered to be unusual behavior at that time. Various homosexual individuals – who were targets of the conversion therapy – along with their families and friends were interviewed in order to obtain in-depth, first hand, experiences of those directly impacted.

Prior to following through with the project, the researchers had to be approved by a research committee. However, the research committee had an issue with researchers using the word abuse as a way of describing what happened to homosexual military personnel. The research committee believed that considering the conversion 'therapy' to be abuse was only an assumption, it was not supported by factual evidence.

Therefore, the term abuse, when used in the research project, had to be supported with factual evidence. Additionally, the researchers considered the actions of psychologists initiating this conversion shock therapy as a human rights violation. The research ethics committee, on the other hand, did not agree. This raised concerns about the research project because the committee did not want this to be an investigation into the practices of medical officials involved in the military. Furthermore, the committee questioned the sampling methods of the researchers. Because researchers would be accepting volunteers, they found that the sampling method used would not be representative of the experience as a whole.[7]

Aubrey LevinEdit

Aubrey Levin was the primary leader of the project against homosexual military personnel. He argued that the same type of procedures could cure other groups. These included drug addicts and the disturbed (those who did not want to serve in the apartheid military). He started the project and ran Ward 22 at 1 Military Hospital, in Voortrekkerhoogte, which is where majority of the patients were treated. He was one of 24 other doctors that were warned by the truth and reconciliation commission that what they were doing was a violation of human rights, and they risked being labeled as perpetrators of human rights abuses.[8] Levin claimed that all patients were volunteers.[9] Since then, Levin has been accused of many more instances of medical foul practice, targeting many other men (not only those who identified as homosexual). He was sentenced in a five-year prison sentence on April 23, 2014.[10]


After the conversion therapy was noticeably failing, staff came up with an alternative. As a result, whenever treatments would not work, they put patients through a sex change operation. This included being put through surgery and being given a new identity.[5] Patients would then be discharged from the military, and advised to cut themselves off from family and friends. As many as 900 homosexuals, mostly 16–24 year-olds who had been drafted, had surgical procedures to alter their genitals and given birth certificates to fit their modified anatomy. This surgery was done in military hospitals and a high rate[vague] of patients died during surgery. Additionally, the reassignments were often incomplete, leaving patients with a halfway finished procedures.[2] After being discharged, there were no follow-up appointments to finish the surgeries or check on their progress mentally and physically. In order to stay on track with their gender reassignment, patients needed an expensive supply of hormones, but they typically lacked the means to pay for these hormones to maintain their new identities.[11] When converting from one sex to another, there is a lengthy process that accompanies the success; individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically for the drastic changes that are going to take place. Without this preparation, patients also faced depression leading to many of these patients to committing suicide.[2]


  1. ^ a b "Africa | Apartheid Military Forced Gay Troops Into Sex-Change Operations". The Gully. 2000-08-25. Retrieved 2013-02-04.
  2. ^ a b c Kaplan, Robert M. (2004-12-16). "Treatment of homosexuality during apartheid". BMJ. 329 (7480): 1415–1416. doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1415. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 535952. PMID 15604160.
  3. ^ a b c Belkin, Aaron; Canaday, Margot (2010). "Assessing the Integration of Gays and Lesbians into the South African National Defence Force". Scientia Militaria: South African Journal of Military Studies. 38 (2): 1–21. doi:10.5787/38-2-87.
  4. ^ McGreal, Chris (28 July 2000). "Gays Tell of Mutilation by Apartheid Army". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  5. ^ a b c Kaplan, Robert (2004). "Treatment of Homosexuality During Apartheid". British Medical Journal. 329 (7480): 1415–1416. doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1415. JSTOR 25469630. PMC 535952. PMID 15604160.
  6. ^ Kaplan, Robert (2001). "The Aversion Project-Psychiatric Abuses in the South African Defence Force During the Apartheid Era". Health and Human Rights. 91: 1–2 – via SAMJ Forum.
  7. ^ a b De Gruchy J, Jeanelle; Lewin, Simon (2001). "Ethics that Exclude: The Role of Ethics Committees in Lesbian and Gay Health Research in South Africa". American Journal of Public Health. 91 (6): 865–868. doi:10.2105/ajph.91.6.865. PMC 1446457. PMID 11392923.
  8. ^ Kaplan, Robert (March 2001). "The Aversion Project Psychiatric Abuses in the South African Defense Force During the Apartheid Era". p. 2 – via World Press.
  9. ^ Jones, Tiffany (2008). "Averting White Male (Ab)normality: Psychiatric Representations and Treatment of Homosexuality in 1960's South Africa". Journal of Southern African Studies. 34 (2): 397–410. doi:10.1080/03057070802038058. JSTOR 40283145. S2CID 144858569.
  10. ^ Poplack, Richard. "Dr. Shock". Retrieved 2017-02-28.
  11. ^ "10 of the Most Evil Medical Experiments Conducted in History". Retrieved 2015-08-22.

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