Hidden from history? A brief modern history of the psychiatric “treatment” of lesbian and bisexual women in England

Carr, Sarah and Spandler, Helen orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-0970-5141 (2019) Hidden from history? A brief modern history of the psychiatric “treatment” of lesbian and bisexual women in England. The Lancet Psychiatry . ISSN 2215-0366

[thumbnail of Author Accepted Manuscript]
PDF (Author Accepted Manuscript) - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.


Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(19)30059-8


It is well documented that homosexuality was classified as a mental illness in the DSM until 1973, when it was replaced
with the diagnosis of “sexual orientation disturbance”. While it is widely known that homosexual men were criminalised and risked a spell in prison or aversion therapy in a psychiatric hospital (Dickenson, 2013), the class dimension is probably less well known. According to the Queer historian, Chris Waters (2017), it was the more privileged middle class men who were offered aversion therapy, as a “softer” option than jail (Alan Turing being the most prominent example). In contrast, the majority of mostly working class men who were discovered engaging in same-sex relations were more likely to end up in prison, without the offer of “treatment” as an alternative. However, there are aspects of this history we know even less about.
Because it is well documented, gay men’s experiences of psychiatric treatment for same-sex attraction have become a dominant historical discourse. But what happened to same-sex attracted women in England (1950–70s) who were not subject to direct court referral routes into psychiatric treatment like their male counterparts? Although female homosexuality was not criminalised in England, it was still, like male homosexuality, officially classified as a mental disorder (“sexual deviation”). As part of a cohort of studies around the theme of sexualities and health funded by the Wellcome Trust, we
conducted a bottom-up archival study of women’s and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGB&T) archives in England to investigate this question. Documentation proved to be sparse and fragmented, and what little material we found presented us with numerous challenges to interpretation. A small number of psychiatrists and psychologists had various, often competing, theories about homosexuality and published papers promoting examples of experimental or purportedly successful “treatments”, which they often used to test out their theories. However, it is not clear how much these theories actually influenced practice (Oram and Turnbull, 2001).

Repository Staff Only: item control page