"One is capable of the greatest evil only when one believes one is acting for higher purposes."
Arousal reconditioning attempts to change sexual feelings based on the theory of behavior conditioning. Ivan Pavlov developed this theory in the early 1900s based on his studies of dog salivation. Further animal research led to development of methods to encourage certain behaviors by pairing them with pleasant consequences, and to discourage others by pairing them with unpleasant or painful consequences. These methods were then applied to human patients with the goal of creating these pairings at a deep emotional level, so that desirable behavior would occur reflexively, and undesirable behavior would no longer be attractive.
Therapists and police who use arousal reconditioning assume that they can change sexual feelings in this way. They originally developed these methods in the early to mid-1900s to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals. They attempt to eliminate certain sexual feelings by pairing them with boredom, pain, or unpleasantness. In effect, they assume that sexuality can be changed through punishment. 81% of juvenile sex offender programs and 62% of programs for younger children use some form of arousal reconditioning.2
Effectiveness of treatment with males is often measured by connecting a plethysmograph to their genitals while exposing them to sexually suggestive or pornographic photographs of children, teenagers, or adults, or audio-taped descriptions of sex acts involving them.7 Click here to see a TV news report about the use of arousal conditioning on children ages 12 and over in New York in 1993.
Verbal satiation requires the
dictation on an audiotape of the most stimulating paraphiliac imagery
[sexually deviant fantasy] for at least 30 minutes after masturbation 3
times a week. It is assumed that the paraphiliac fantasy becomes boring
and subsequently extinguished.7
Author Sylvere Lotringer interviewed a staff member at a juvenile sex offender clinic who described it as follows (in this case, photographs were used to assist the fantasies):
It won't be hard-core pornography. The child will just be standing there. There will be frontal nudity. Or she will be lying down...The boys wear the strain gauge [plethysmograph] while they look at the picture and they repeat the phrase over and over. We want to know if they get an erection while they look at the picture. Normally they don't, because the act of speaking prevents them from it.
They always repeat the same sentence?
The same sentence, for twenty minutes. The sentence might be, 'I'm feeling this girl's body.' It's something short. I tell them in advance that it's going to be boring for twenty minutes...there's certainly satiation to that particular sentence.4
A 1994 survey (the most recent national survey which reported specific types of arousal reconditioning) found that 18% of juvenile offender programs used verbal satiation.3
offender is first encouraged to masturbate to ejaculation in response
to socially appropriate sexual fantasies with the concomitant feelings
of affection and tenderness. After this experience the offender is
required to masturbate to deviant sexual fantasies. If the offender
becomes aroused, he or she is told to switch to an appropriate fantasy
or in some instances exposed to an aversive stimulus such as ammonia.7
A 17 year old boy interviewed by Lotringer, convicted of having sex with a 15 year old, said, “They give you an hour-long cassette and you’re supposed to masturbate out loud for an hour, in your own home, in private. The doctor talks it over with you first.”7
Newsday journalist Elaine Rivera reported the following description of masturbatory satiation used on a 15 year old boy:
At the clinic, the youth was told he would undergo 'sexual behavior testing,' and when he resisted, he was told that he would go to jail if he did not participate, the lawsuit states. According to the lawsuit, 'his pants were lowered around his ankles and (he) was forced to place a round, mercury-filled plastic device around his penis, and further forced to wear earphones and listen to pornographic tapes including descriptions of sex between adults and children, and between children and children, violent rape, forced sex and other abnormal sexual acts.' Afterward the youth was encouraged to masturbate, [attorney] Paladino states.5
The U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice notes some concerns about the method:
Masturbatory conditioning, however, has presented practical as well as ethical concerns, because the approach requires asking the juvenile to masturbate, and may include masturbating to deviant stimuli...very little is known about the effectiveness of these approaches for reducing deviant arousal or about the types of juveniles for whom they may be most effective.6
The 1994 survey found that 17% of juvenile offender programs used this method.3
Covert sensitization attempts to pair the child or teenager's sexual feelings with emotionally painful consequences. It requires him to describe (sometimes into a tape recorder) his sexual fantasies. Then he is required to describe intensely negative consequences of his feelings or behavior, such as public shame, humiliation, or imprisonment. The 1994 survey found that 36% of juvenile offender programs used this method.3
deviant imagery is presented which is followed by the
presentation of a noxious odor.7
Aversion therapy was first used 70 years ago to cure homosexuality. (Covert sensitization was developed soon afterward for the same purpose.) It involves exposing the youth to sexually arousing photographs or tape recordings, while administering an unpleasant or painful sensation: noxious odors (ammonia is most commonly used) or electric shock. The use of noxious odors is known as "olfactory conditioning", and the use of electric shock is known as "faradic conditioning".
The expectation is that the youth will come to associate his sexual feelings with pain or fear, and that this will reduce them. The procedure is repeated regularly over several weeks or months. In 1994, 11% of juvenile treatment programs used olfactory conditioning, and 3% used faradic conditioning.3
Although the method is recommended only for adolescents, there are reports of its use with younger children.
learned that more than 100 children, more than one-third of them 10 to
12 years old, go through the program each year...Many are tested for
deviant sexual responses by a penile plethysmograph, a ringlike device
slipped around the penis to measure changes in circumference as a
patient views nude photographs. The program includes use of aversion
therapy, in which patients inhale ammonia to prevent inappropriate
arousal...The hospital had told the girl to record a sexual fantasy.
'Then every time she listened to it, she had to use that ammonia,' the
woman said. 'It wasn't really a fantasy, it was just really bizarre. On
the tape she was talking about hurting this child (in a violent, sexual
manner). My daughter is very passive; she's never been violent.' The
woman is convinced that the fantasy came from the minds of therapists.
'They told her she had to make this tape. She had to rewrite and
rewrite until they were sure she'd get sexually aroused to it.'"
Other arousal reconditioning methods
A 2000 survey listed other possible methods of arousal conditioning on its questionnaire, but the final report did not indicate how many programs used them or what they entailed: orgasmic reconditioning, minimal arousal conditioning, masturbatory training, modified aversive behavioral rehearsal, sexual arousal card sort, fantasy work, vicarious sensitization, and behavioral modification.2
Effects of Arousal Reconditioning
Although some treatment experts have mentioned ethical concerns regarding arousal reconditioning, none have considered its emotional effects on children.
Reports of the use of arousal reconditioning on gay men and on juvenile sex offenders have shown that its effects may include severe stigma, trauma, depression, nightmares, suicidal thoughts, self-hatred, destroyed self-esteem, and a damaged concept of sexuality. These are the very effects of sexual abuse itself. In other words, arousal reconditioning may very well be a form of sexual abuse.
Nevertheless, these methods continue to be used. One book, written by a leader in the field of childhood sexual deviance and endorsed by several others, urges all parents to question their sons in sixth grade about their sexual fantasies. If they involve younger children, or if they've been sexually touched by older children or adults, the book instructs parents to have their sons tested using the AASI, a lie detector, or plethysmograph. If they test positive, parents are to find a sex-specific therapist who uses “covert sensitization, aversion, or satiation.” This information is also at the author's website, along with a list of recommended therapists.
There is even software which automates the process of diagnosing children and prescribing arousal reconditioning methods. Psych Screen, Inc. markets its software to sex offender clinics around the country. A sample report diagnoses a hypothetical 12 year old with several types of deviance, and recommends treatment including Depo-provera, aversion therapy, covert sensitization, masturbatory satiation, and "thought stopping". The company advertises the software as providing “cost effective, comprehensive, easy to understand, highly useful clinical information at the touch of a button. Our software can generate 10 times its cost - it's not unusual for a clinic to gross an additional $35,000 or more per year through use of routine intake screening.”
When experts are wrong
Casualties of war
Lack of knowledge
Humiliation as therapy
Convos with providers