My Proposed Therapy for Dr. George Rekers Involves Not GlaxoSmithKline But Smith & Wesson

Remember the unspeakably evil Dr. George Rekers, simultaneous critic of gays and customer of rent boys, who conducted a hideous experiment too see if psychological torture would eradicate "feminine" behavior from a little boy?

CNN is running a three-party story about the experiment. The little boy, Kirk Andrew Murphy, committed suicide at age 38 in 2003. His siblings are now telling his painfully sad and chilling story. This is not a happy link. It will depress and infuriate you.

Rekers is unrepentant.

"I only meant to help, do the best I could with the parents, and I've written articles you can look up, too, on the rationale for our treatment. And the rationale was positive; to help children, help the parents who come to us in their distress asking questions, 'What can we do to help our child be better adjusted?' " Rekers said.

What could they do? Rekers told them to beat the kid if he acted girly.

According to Rekers' case study, blue chips were given for masculine behavior and would bring rewards, such as candy. But the red chips, given for effeminate behavior, resulted in "physical punishment by spanking from the father."

By the way, Rekers' "research" is still cited by anti-gay groups for the proposition that one can "cure" people of being gay. Do you suppose they know what Rekers did to produce the "data"? Do you suppose they care?

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. delurking says

    This is an interesting topic for discussion. At the time, there was an entire community of psychologists who agreed that homosexuality was disorder. It was listed as such in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders. George Rekers was a graduate student at the time (presumably O. Ivar Lovaas, his coauthor, was the adviser and thus ultimately responsible, but I don't know).

    Your description of the technique as psychological torture is also a relatively modern interpretation. The understanding that positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement is also relatively recent, and spanking was certainly an accepted discipline technique 40 years ago.

    So, Rekers is despicable, but not specifically because of the attempted therapy in the early seventies. It is because he has refused to change his opinions in light of the scientific data that shows he is wrong. It is only by attributing past behavior to motives deduced from recent behavior that you criticize his past behavior, but that assumes too much. It is certainly possible that his motives at the time were actually noble. Many scientists become too attached to the theories they ascribe to, for appropriate reasons, early in their careers. This leads them to bad results later in their careers, when those theories are disproved.

  2. Mannie says

    Why do you want to shoot him? I'd consider castrating him with a rusty tomato soup can lid, and letting him bleed to death.

  3. jb says

    You guys have no sense of poetic justice.

    Clearly the answer is to turn him gay through the same aversion therapy. Perhaps give him a less socially-acceptable proclivity.

  4. says

    Clearly the answer is to turn him gay

    Did you miss the part where he hired a rent boy to "carry his luggage" on a European trip? (Presumably "to handle his sack" was too explicit.)

  5. Reginod says

    Come on, Delurking.

    Rekers began providing “therapy” to Murphy in 1974, homosexuality had been removed from the DSM the year before – once the scientific evidence became clear that homosexuality was not a mental disorder – and the 1974 printing of the DSM did not included homosexuality as a disorder. (The American Psychiatric Association recognized homosexuality was not disordered in 1973.)

    Plus, while spankings may be an accepted form of discipline, it’s hard to read the abuse described in the article as the sort of spanking that was “an accepted discipline technique 40 years ago”. Beatings with a belt so severe as to raise welts from back to buttocks was never the sort of discipline a reputable therapist would have recommended, especially not for a 5 year-old child. (And even if it were acceptable “discipline” it certainly was not considered acceptable “therapy”.)

    And even assuming that what Rekers was doing was within the norms of the time (and it wasn’t), it doesn’t make what he did less despicable. Even if it was socially acceptable to beat a 5 year-old child so severely with a belt that it raised welts, it was never morally acceptable to do so. And maybe the social acceptability of it would have some explanatory power – it would help us understand why it happened – but it would not have any effect on the fact that what Rekers did and encouraged was morally reprehensible.

  6. delurking says


    Did he start in 1974? The JABA article was published in the summer of 1974 (and received from the authors on April 12, 1973). The article describes a 10-month treatment program and 26 months after termination of treatment. Thus, the treatment started before April 1970. This is also consistent with the CNN description, which would lead one to conclude that Kyle was born in 1965.

    Whether or not the harshness of the physical punishment was within the norms at the time and in that particular society is something I have little knowledge of. Nevertheless, it seems a stretch to assume that it was dictated by Rekers. It could have been Lovaas, or it could have been the father's interpretation of the Rekers or Lovaas instruction to spank. Regardless, it is beside my point, in part because the psychological damage is probably worse.

    You say that while something may have been socially acceptable at a certain time, it was never morally acceptable. The meaning of morality and its relationship to social acceptability is a philosophical debate. I think what Rekers did and encouraged was morally reprehensible, just as I think slavery was morally reprehensible. Nevertheless, those who would recommend such treatments (or own slaves) today deserve far greater condemnation than those who did it in the late 1960s and early 1970s (or early 1800s for slavery).

  7. Reginod says


    The first story on this guy reads “In 1974…”. But even if that date is wrong, and these “experiments” took place in 1970, there was still good scientific evidence at the time these experiments started that homosexuality was not pathological. So, at best, Rekers was involved in an “experiment” that called for the severe abuse of a child to treat something he knew (or should have known) might not be an illness. (Really given the state of the science he should have known by 1970 it was not an illness, but even the more charitable reading is not one that does much to justify what Rekers did).

    Whether the “treatment” would have been acceptable as punishment (it wouldn’t have been) – a point you now want to lay aside because you lack knowledge, despite asserting that it was acceptable in your first post – it certainly wasn’t recognized as acceptable “treatment”. And whether Rekers personally directed it or not, when he put his name on an article reporting it as an effective “treatment” for something that he knew (or should have known) wasn’t even an illness he encouraged and condoned behavior that at best is abuse, if not outright torture.

    The way I see it, if you think abusing 5 year-old children is a good thing and you do in fact abuse 5 year-old children, then you are morally reprehensible. I don’t see how it matters whether a bunch of people agree with you or not (and to be clear in Reckers case, what he did, contrary to your first post, was well outside the accepted norms of the times). As you say, a slave owner in the 1800s deserves moral condemnation because, even though his behavior was socially acceptable, it was still wrong. Likewise Rekers would deserve moral condemnation for his “experiments” even if they fell within the social norms of the 1970s (contrary to what you first argued). Not that much turns on this in Rekers’ case, since what he did was outside the social norms of the 1970s anyway.

  8. says

    When I was spanked, it was for extreme sass or other behavior (like the time a friend and I broke the windows of a neighbor's garage with rocks). I was never spanked without a clear understanding of why I was being spanked. I think it's highly questionable that whipping Murphy for "feminine behavior" falls into that category.

    I think more people than not who spanked back then would have understood this.

  9. delurking says

    "Good scientific evidence" and "consensus" are two very different things. From our vantage point today it is clear which the correct conclusion was, but it was less clear then. Certainly saying that someone "should have known" then what we know now is presumptuous. Defining what is and isn't a mental illness is fuzzy anyway. After all, the majority is always sane.

    I think my followup post with links is awaiting moderation because of the links, so here they are stripped, you'll have to cut and paste:

    It seems very likely to me that the negative reinforcement techniques were Lovaas's. They must have been deemed acceptable by the peer-review panels that approved them for funding and by review boards within UCLA itself. If they weren't (for example if Lovaas did not accurately describe them in his proposals, and if none of the researchers involved described them to anyone else), it would be difficult to blame a graduate student for this. So, I am skeptical of your claim that it "certainly" wasn't recognized as acceptable treatment. It may only have been an experimental treatment (ie not standard care), but more people than just Rekers thought the experiment was worth doing, as evidenced by the above articles.

    We do many things to ourselves, to others, and to children that are painful. We do them because we feel they provide some benefit that outweighs the pain. Vaccinations are an obvious example, exercise is another. Some researchers in the late 60's thought that the lifetime social difficulties associated with gender-identity issues made the childhood pain worth the lifetime benefit. Enough researchers thought so that there was a center (staffed by multiple professionals and graduate students) funded to apply these behavioral techniques to children with range of different symptoms.

    Rekers was one of the graduate students. His moral culpability for his actions at that time is far smaller than his moral culpability for his actions from, say, 1975 – present.

    I have a question that I think will help me understand where you are coming from. What do you think is the moral culpability of the test subjects in the Milgram experiment? Some of them, to the best of their knowledge, shocked people until they died.

  10. mojo says

    "Speak roughly to your little boy
    and beat him when he sneezes
    He only does it to annoy
    Because he knows it teases"

  11. Booa says

    Responding to delurking's comment of "Rekers was one of the graduate students. His moral culpability for his actions at that time is far smaller than his moral culpability for his actions from, say, 1975 – present."

    In 1974, homosexuality was removed from the DSM, so why did Rekers continue to treat it as a condition that should be prevented, or treated? He was publishing in 2009–that's 35 years when he was completely responsible for his own actions and had every reason not to continue flogging (no pun intended) his treatment for homosexuality. He made a career out of that study, rather than repudiate the need for that sort of treatment. His actions from 1974 on are enough to confirm he's an evil douche.

  12. Reginod says

    I’ll wait for your follow up post contextualizing those links (and more time at work) before commenting on the substance of them but I want to respond to a couple of your points and questions.

    First, that the study was sufficiently rigorous to be published in a peer reviewed journal means that it met the scientific standards of the day, not the moral standards, there is a very real difference between those two things.

    Second, the articles you point to show that other studies conducted by the lead researcher on helping autistic children were thought to be important. Presumably you don’t mean to compare homosexuality to autism so I’m not sure how those links support your point.

    As far as your question about the subjects in the Milgram experiments goes, I’m not sure I see what you are getting at (certainly I don’t see a parallel here), but I’m happy to answer. I think those test subjects are what I would call, for lack of a better term, morally lucky. They intended to take an immoral action under circumstances where it was impossible for them to do so, and so they failed to actually take the immoral action. They are, of course, morally culpable for their immoral intent, but since they did not, in fact, harm anyone (other than themselves) they are not morally culpable for any harm to others.
    Sometimes (often in fact) people get lucky in ways that make their actions substantially less morally blame-worthy. The drunk driver who could have killed a pedestrian, but did not, is lucky and less morally blame-worthy than the drunk driver who did kill the pedestrian – even if both of them took and willed the exact same actions.

  13. delurking says

    Responding to Booa: Rekers is an evil douche. I assume you are not splitting hairs between 1974 and 1975. I am just pointing out that his actions became more and more contemptible over time.

    Responding to Reginod:
    I am not drawing a parallel between homosexuality and autism. I am simply pointing out that Lovaas practiced physical punishment, including beating and electrical shocking, of autistic children, at the UCLA center in 1965. It is likely that he used behavioral techniques to "treat" children with other behavior patterns as well. I haven't (and will not) look in to his whole body of work. From what I have seen in a short search, it seems likely to me that he bears much more responsibility than Rekers for the treatment of Kyle Murphy.

    What I was getting at with the Milgram experiment question is some understanding of how you judge what is worthy of condemnation. As I said, the distinction between social acceptability and morality is a rich area for philosophical discussion, but is somewhat beside the point I was trying to make. We both agree that slave owners deserve condemnation. We disagree that a slave owner in 1800 and a slave owner in 2000 deserve different degrees of condemnation. Our disagreement over the degree of condemnation of Rekers warranted by the treatment of Kyle Murphy is similar to that disagreement. Since there is an axiomatic difference in our approaches, a discussion that would lead to agreement would be very long and involve quite a few hypothetical examples to give clarity. It will be tough to launch into that now.

  14. Jay says

    Both Rekers and his supervisor Richard Green, author of "The Sissy-Boy Syndrome," deserve sanctions from professional organizations at the very least. I assume that any criminal prosecution is out of the question as the result of statute of limitations.

    What happened in this case was fraudulent science as well as child abuse.

    Green ultimately moved beyond the clinical techniques used by Rekers and even denounced Rekers's books and his Christian motivations. But Green also bears some culpability. He interviewed Murphy when he was 18. Murphy told him that he was gay and had attempted suicide the previous year. Yet he pronounce the therapy successful and not harmful!