The South African ‘Aversion Project’
In Apartheid-era South Africa, national service was compulsory for all white males. At the same time, homosexuality was classed as a crime. Inevitably, therefore, any gay men who found themselves called into service were in for a tough time. But it wasn’t just name-calling or casual discrimination they had to contend with. Many were subjected to cruel experiments. The so-called ‘Aversion Project’, run throughout the 1970s and then the 1980s, was aimed at ‘treating’ homosexuals. As well as psychological treatments, it also used physical ‘treatments’, many of which would rightly be regarded as torture.
The project first really got started in 1969, with the creation of Ward 22. The creepily-named ward was part of a larger military hospital just outside of Pretoria and was designed to treat mentally-ill soldiers. For the unit chief Dr Aubrey Levin, this including homosexuals, regarded as unstable, or even ‘deviants’. For the most part, the doctor was determined to prove that electric shock therapy and conditioning could ‘cure’ the patients of their desires. Hundreds of men were electrocuted, often while being forced to look at pictures of gay men. The electric current would then be turned off and pictures of naked women shown instead in the hope that this would alter the mindset.
Inmates subjected to such experimental treatment would sometimes be tested, given temptations to see if they really were ‘cured’. Persistent ‘offenders’ were given hormone treatments, almost always against their will, and many were even chemically castrated. Even by the middle of the 1970s, when numerous, more ethical, studies had proven that ‘conversion therapies’ could change a person’s sexuality, Ward 22 carried on with its work. In fact, in only ended with the fall of the apartheid regime. To the very end of the project, Dr Levin maintained that all the men he treated were volunteers and asked for his help. Many of his peers disagreed, as did a judge, who sentenced him to five years in prison in 2014.