A Behaviorist’s Ex-gay Legacy

Since Dr. Ivar Lovaas died last week, he’s been memorialized tenderly on autism sites and elsewhere. I remember learning about Lovaas in my community college Pscyh 101 class. He’s rightfully credited with shifting the focus away from psychogenic theories of autism so that we no longer blame distant “Refrigerator Mothers” for their children’s social impairments—a fact for which many moms of kids with autism disorders are no doubt grateful.

His career is more complicated, though. Early on, Lovaas supported corporal punishment as a means to extinguish unwanted behaviors by slapping, electroshocking, and screaming at kids who were “socially crippled.” While he moved away from this practice, Lovaas’ record is not otherwise beyond critique.

As my friend (a mother whose son has autism) noted, the 1970s was a behaviorist heyday. “If anyone would be up for using operant conditioning to change one’s sexual orientation”—or any other unwanted behavior—“it would be Lovaas,” the psychologist she otherwise describes as a “liberal California Scandinavian dude with a Skinnerian streak.”

My friend is right: the autism pioneer was up for such a program, and his experiments on gender variant kids helped form today’s ex-gay industry. In fact, Rentboy-renter George Rekers was one of Lovaas’ star students. Ivar was a Principal Investigator for the NIMH-funded Feminine Boy Project, described below in Phyllis Burke’s Gender Shock:

Kraig’s deviance was also addressed within his home, creating what Rekers described as a “24-hour” program, with “investigators…’on call’ at all times,” and frequent visits to his home by research personnel. The home phase of the behavioral treatment consisted of a token system: when he was good, his mother gave him blue tokens, and when he was bad, she gave him red tokens. Before the token system was put into place, Rekers and Lovaas decided to start with “non-gender” behaviors which would be “clinically safer.” These included brushing his teeth for a blue token, tracking dirt on the carpet for a red token. After he stopped those behaviors which earned red tokens, they moved on to the feminine gestures, and initiated a system of consequences, or “back-up reinforcers,” for the blue and red tokens. Blue tokens could be cashed in for favorite candy bars, watching television or other treats. Getting a red token for a feminine outburst such as “Oh my goodness,” or playing with dolls, might result in Kraig’s losing some of the blue tokens he had accumulated, getting a time-out, or not being allowed to watch television. For the first four months, a research assistant was sent to Kraig’s home three times a week to be sure that his parents, particularly his mother, were fully implementing the token system. The most effective red token back-up reinforcer was selected in “consultation” with the doctors: “physical punishment by spanking from the father.” Each red token earned Kraig one “swat,” and Rekers and Lovaas concluded that spanking was the only red token backup reinforcer that successfully affected Kraig’s behavior. The final feminine play behavior extinguished by Rekers and Lovaas, using the red tokens, was “plays with girls.”

KtB editor Quince Mountain lives in the Great Northwoods and is currently at work on a chronicle of belated manhood and unlikely self-help. You can hear about his sexploits as a teenage cowboy for Christ here.