Great moments in science: giving electric shocks to masochists

We’ve had two posts on the psychoanalyst Dr June Rathbone, and her textbook on “Masochism”. The book’s mainly interesting for its over-the-top hostility to the people she chose as her topic.

Still, if someone who was attracted to or practiced bdsm ever needed counselling or psychiatric help, and they went to a therapist whose ideas about bdsm were shaped by Rathbone’s book, then they’d be likely to be harmed.

Still, you can do even worse than that sort of bigotry. My favourite contender for the Great Moments in Science series is some early work by John Bancroft.

Stoned elephant. Of stone.

Stoned elephant. Of stone.

He turned his attention to one of those great scientific questions we’ve all wondered about, lying awake late into the night. Like, “Can you kill an elephant with LSD?”

That one was solved by a Dr Richard West, then working on some extremely dodgy projects for the CIA.

The answer was, “Yes, but it takes one fuck of a strong dose.”

But I digress.

"The safe word is Bzzzzzzzttttt..."

“The safe word is Bzzzzzzzttttt…”

Anyway, Bancroft’s question was different:

“If you give masochists ‘aversive therapy’ to cure their sexual orientation, are you going to cure masochism, or are those pervy masochists just going to get off on the electric shocks?”

This one’s been solved too. Bancroft’s team found that masochists, just like everyone else, generally dislike getting electric shocks. So they didn’t actually pick up an electrification fetish.

So aversive therapy could proceed. 


That was early in John Bancroft’s otherwise distinguished career. I’d expect he finds that project pretty embarrassing now, if he ever thinks of it.

And he’s done some good and progressive stuff on increasing understanding of a range of minority sexual tastes. 

I shared a taxi with him once, on the way to dinner at some conference in Scotland, and it crossed my mind to ask him about that study. But it would have been rude, and anyway I was too star-struck. He’s actually one of the good guys.