Shock the Gay Away: Unpacking the Farrall Instruments Electro-Shock Machine

This post is written by Ren L[i]u, Getty Marrow Summer 2022 Intern at the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.

Photo of two visually keyed electric shock devices used in aversion therapy. Both devices have green metallic surfaces. The one on the left has a wooden casing and various switches and buttons that read: "STANDARDIZE," "BALANCE," "AUDIO TRIGGER," PATIENT MONITOR," and a dial from "DECREASING INPUT" to "INCREASING INPUT." There is also a scale measuring direct current in milliamperes. The device on the right has an "ON" switch, a "DURATION" dial, an INTENSITY" dial, and a "SHOCK" button.

CW: aversion therapy, homophobia, transphobia, psychiatric abuse, mention of conversion therapy

Walking through the ONE Archives, the Farrall Instruments AV 5 Visually Keyed Shocker, a stand-alone dark green device covered in switches and buttons, is an unnerving and rare item —a sterile metal island between stacks of periodicals and archival materials. The tabletop machine is small enough to fit in most spaces, but large enough to be easily noticed. 

The placement of this “shocker” within an LGBTQ+ historical archive immediately evokes racing thoughts about its use: Where were these devices sold and utilized? When were these common, and do they still exist? Who operated them? And of course, why were they made in the first place? This article takes a closer look at the mechanics and history of these devices and anti-gay aversion therapy, where machines like these were used on homosexual patients to “cure” them by means of “shocking the gay away.” 

An earlier article on the use of aversion therapy to “shock the gay away” was published by HuffPost, written by then ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives Project Manager Jamie Scot in 2013. You can find that article here. For a video introduction, see our TikTok on the machine here. This piece builds on these, offering more context and analysis for this eye-catching ONE Archives object.  

“Treating” Homosexuality? Defining/Differentiating the Terms Aversion Therapy,  Conversion Therapy, & Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) 

Popular portrayals of inhumane attempts at “treating” homosexuality have been sensationalized in film, tv, and news stories—often interchangeably using the the terms aversion therapy, conversion therapy, and electro-convulsive therapy. While these can sometimes denote the same procedures, they all refer to different scales and methods. Aversion therapy is a form of psychotherapy that associates pathologized behaviors with undesirable stimuli in order to ultimately reduce/eliminate a patient’s “undesirable” behaviors.   Conversion therapy describes a broader category of psyciatric interventions aiming to “convert” a person’s sexual attraction or gender expression to that of a cisheterosexual “norm.” Finally, electro-convulsive therapy (ECT)  is used to trigger brief seizures through electrical shocks to the brain and is generally done under anesthesia. In our case of the Farrall Instruments AV 5 Visually Keyed Shocker, shocks were to be delivered to the patient when a projected slide showed homosexual (or otherwise gender/sexuality-deviant) behavior. This mode of anti-gay aversion therapy, then, gets its name from its desired outcome of creating aversion to homosexuality through aversion to pain, so intensely that homosexual behavior is reduced, or avoided entirely.

Both aversion therapy and ECT deliver a shock to the patient but while the former is more mild, the latter is intended to induce a seizure/convulsion. These therapies have been widely used as conversion “therapy,” as detailed in the 2020 global overview of conversion therapy, which explains our inclinations to conflate these therapies with one another. A 2016 study on ECT in film and pop culture showed that the most popular portrayals of ECT—across 52 movies, 21 TV programs, and two animated sitcoms—used shock therapy as repression of [homosexual] identity. A cut-and-dry example of anti-gay shock therapy comes up in lesbian classic But I’m a Cheerleader as homosexual boys and girls are given tasers to shock themselves every time they have an impure, gay thought (a sort of DIY aversion therapy, if you will). The pathology and stigma surrounding shock devices such as the Farrall Instruments one is also blatant in the titles of IMDb’s highest-grossing movies tagged with ECT: Mad to be normal,” “Out of Mind,” “Stonehearst Asylum,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,”  and “Suicide Squad.” The pathologization of shock therapy, and its connection to homosexuality, not only further constructs homosexuality as dangerous but constructs gender and sexual deviants as deserving/in need  of dangerous and inhumane "treatment"

Believing in a “Cure” for Homosexuality 

The (now scientifically-disproven) psychiatric claim of homosexuality as a “psychosocial maladjustment” has not just resulted in an ongoing legacy of pathologizing gender and sexual deviance, but also left a legacy of clinical attempts to cure homosexuality. Pathologization → means belief in a cure. In the 1960’s, psychiatrists not only endorsed, but spearheaded attempts to “cure” homosexuality. A TIME Magazine February 1965 article “Homosexuals Can Be Cured” cites the notorious Samuel Hadden—an often-quoted primary source—and his multi-year group psychotherapy “treatments” for gay men. Hadden speaks about his methods of repression as revolutionary, from discouraging “flaunting gay clothing” to working through “hostility toward [their mothers to] start dating girls.” The article does not once question Hadden’s beliefs or the inhumanity of his methods, taking its titled “Homosexuals Can Be Cured” as fact. As these psychiatric beliefs—popularized by psychiatrists like Hadden, Irving Bieber, and Charles Socarides—and their associated behavioral therapies grew more and more popular, the late-1960’s and 70’s turned to electric shock aversion therapies as the next development in “curing” the gay away. 

Farrall Instruments Aversion Therapy Products - for the Institution and the Home!

Photo of the Farrall Instruments product catalog describing "Aversive Conditioning." Text included in the body of the article.

“Aversive conditioning has proven an effective aid in the treatment of child molesters, transvestites, exhibitionists, alcoholics, shop lifters, and other people with similar problems. Stimulus slides are shown to the patient intermixed with neutral slides. Shock is delivered with stimulus scenes but not with neutral scenes. In reinforcing heterosexual preference in latent male homosexuals, male slides give a shock while the stimulus relief slides of females do not give shock. The patient is given a "slide change" hand button which enables him to escape or avoid a shock by rejecting a shock cue scene."

Photo of a slide projector machine and a "How It Works" subtitle from the Farrall Instruments product catalog. Body of text included in article.

“A slide projector is attached to a special aversive shock generator. The edges of the shock slides are marked with ink. Neutral slides do not have marked edges. The slides are automatically advanced. When a shock slide is shown a photo-transistor reads the mark and triggers the shock. The patient is automatically conditioned by the visual stimulus paired with the aversive shock. In the case of some problems it is possible to use escape and or avoidance conditioning. Conditioning here is done by giving the patient a hand button with which he can escape or avoid shock by a proper response”

These quotes are pulled from the instruction manual for the Farrall Instruments Visually Keyed Shocker. This manual is part of a larger Farrall Instruments catalog introducing all of their products, titled “Presenting: The Farrall Instrument collection of the world’s most advanced Behavior Modification Equipment for treatment of Compulsions, Addictions, Phobias and Learning Difficulties.” The catalog advertises each device’s effectiveness in the psychiatric institution—with a list of references on sexual deviants in every manual—in marketing its usage in the home “without the attendance of a professional” (Visually Keyed Shocker, mentioned on many other pages as well). While many of the products are focused on anti-gay-specific aversion therapy, the manuals advertise Farrall Instruments’ treatment of child molesters, alcoholics, certain undesirable phobias [including elevators], drug addiction, transvestism, and even frigidity [referring to indifference/disinterest in sex, in women of course].

Legality, Morality, and a Questionable History of Patenting Pathology

The marketing and business of Farrall Instruments aversion therapy devices was dependent on the widespread belief that homosexuality needed to and could be cured—and ultimately, that gender and sexual deviance were diseases. Put simply, for companies like Farrall Instruments, pathology meant profit. 

However, what is remarkable in this history is that even after the official depathologization of homosexuality in the DSM of 1973, Farrall Instruments continued patenting not only some, but all of its devices. This record of Farrall Instruments’ FDA filings dates the earliest patented device to 1976, and the latest one to 1995, over 22 years after homosexuality was removed from the DSM II. Even after psychiatry disproved attempts to cure homosexuality/gender deviance, it was still in Farrall Instruments’ favor to continue producing and selling these unnecessary and dangerous devices. 


The inhumanity of one instrument in particular, the Penile Plethysmograph (which measures genital arousal via penis bloodflow, patented under PMN K940128 and PMN K936115), was legally codified as unconstitutional in Harrington v. Cole, violating an individual’s due process rights. Before Farrall Instruments’ patenting of both its penile plethysmographs, the 1992 court in Harrington had already established these tests as “nonroutine manipulative intrusions on bodily autonomy.” Three years later, though, two patents for those same instruments were filed on January 10, 1995. In the 2006 case U.S. v. Weber, the U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals ruled that penile plethysmography was unconstitutional and deprivation of human liberty. The case surrounded the treatment of a child sex offender in prison, and the ruling opinion emphasized that prisoners do not cease being people in the context of a prison, and that “penile plethysmography is a highly intrusive procedure contrary to the basic human rights that prisoners do not relinquish once incarcerated”  (U.S. v. Weber, 451 F.3d 552 (9th Cir. 2006)). That penile plethysmography [electroshock therapy to the genitals] is considered inhumane including in prisons–sites where a “fate [we think of as] reserved for others, a fate reserved for the "evildoers, [a space] into which undesirables are deposited”—but enmeshed in both our ideological understandings and corporeal treatment of homosexuals, emphasizes the extremities of how pathologizing homosexuality/transvestism has materialized in our legal, psychiatric, and relational systems. 

However, even after this ruling, electroshock therapies like those of the Farrall Instruments Visually Keyed Shocker have persisted even into this past decade in documented* instances in China, Lebanon, Malaysia, Indonesia, Poland, and Iran (ILGA World: Lucas Ramon Mendos, Curbing Deception: A world survey on legal regulation of so-called “conversion therapies” (Geneva: ILGA World, 2020)). 

*in this specific report


Understanding this green metallic machine—formally known as the Farrall Instruments AV 5 Visually Keyed Shocker— means unraveling the complex histories of the pathologization of difference in sexuality and gender in our ideologies, psychiatric institutions, legal code, and even our own homes. It also means confronting the magnitude of psychological and physical violence that continues to impact queer and trans people everywhere. Keeping these materials in an archival setting like ONE Archives, gives us touchable, physical perspectives on LGBTQ history and the treatment of homosexuals.

Farrall Instruments no longer exists, its internet footprint only embedded in reports on conversion therapy and LGBTQ+ archives, or as a rare artifact on reselling sites like Etsy and eBay. But unpacking shocking material history can serve as a gateway to understanding how much has transformed in our queer and trans existences today, how much has stayed the same [or goes by a different name], and where we go from here in realizing liberatory futures that truly queer [destabilize] the structures of our status quo. 

Look below for a slideshow of the other devices from the Farrall Instruments catalog.