Dr. Robert Spitzer Retracts 2001 Landmark Ex-Gay Study

For over a decade, ex-gays have relied on the results of a controversial 2001 study to prove their claim that ex-gay therapy works and that sexual orientation can successfully be changed.  But if they continue to promote its flawed research, they will do so only in the knowledge that its author, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, has now retracted his initial claims and publicly disowned the study.

In an article in the May issue of The American Prospect magazine, Spitzer tells author Gabriel Arana he wants his retraction of the landmark study on the record.   According to the article, titled My So Called Ex-Gay Life:

“In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” said Spitzer.  “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.”

After noting that failed attempts to rid one self of homosexual attractions “can be quite harmful,” Spitzer requested that writer Gabriel Arana print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Spitzer’s 2001 study was a surprise and created a media firestorm because he had previously led the charge in 1972-73 to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA).  Spitzer, now 80, admits he was proud of having been instrumental in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.

While some have alleged that homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder in 1973 for political reasons, fact is the APA removed it for scientific reasons.   Specifically, in order for a mental condition to be classified as a psychiatric disorder, the requirement was it had to meet a two-pronged set of criteria set by a scientific committee, in consultation with experts in the field, for the revision of the whole DSM.  Additionally to satisfactorily meet the two-pronged set of criteria, it had to meet both and not just one.  The two-pronged set of criteria that had to be met to be classified as a mental illness or disorder was: (1) in full blown manifestation it had to be distressing to the individual, and (2) in full blown manifestation it had to be invariably associated with social dysfunction.

Since they rightly concluded that homosexuality clearly did not meet this two-pronged set of criteria as do actual psychiatric disorders such as alcoholism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, et al., it was appropriately removed from the DSM.  Had homosexuality been retained in the DSM, it would have stood out as a sore thumb as the only category not meeting the two-pronged standard set by the scientific committee for the revision of the whole DSM.

Yet despite his pro-gay stance, 28 years later, Spitzer released a study that asserted change in one’s sexual orientation was possible.  His 2001 paper, “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Orientation?” was met with criticism from the start.  The flaws were obvious: both the media and his peers blasted the study charging that Spitzer misrepresented his research and distorted his findings.  The APA denounced the study at their annual meeting and noted the research was based on a scientifically insignificant sample of 200, the study was not submitted for peer review – a fundamental prerequisite for the credibility of any study – and Spitzer interviewed his subjects by telephone for 45 minutes, hardly a basis for reliable data.   Additionally the 200 “ex-gays” Spitzer reported on were recruited from Exodus and other ex-gay and reparative therapy groups — the very groups that had a vested interest in proving ex-gay therapy could work.

Spitzer now says his main goal in conducting the 2001 study was NOT to urge gay people to pursue reparative therapy, but to see if it actually worked on those who sought treatment.   Spitzer says, “I actually had great difficulty finding participants.”  This, of course, should come as no surprise.  As some of you know from this blog, I myself personally responded to an ad Dr. Spitzer placed in 2001 eliciting testimonies from people who had been involved in ex-gay ministry when his study was conducted.  I underwent a preliminary phone interview with one of Dr. Spitzer’s associates where it was determined that my background was exactly what they were looking for, for participation in the study.  But then during my telephone interview with Dr. Spitzer, he disqualified me from participating in his study after learning that I did not believe reparative therapy worked.  Dr. Spitzer explained he was “looking to speak with people who believe that gays can change.”  If others who answered his ad were disqualified from participating on the same grounds, one need not be a rocket scientist to figure out how Dr. Spitzer published the conclusion he did.

The ex-gay movement has relied on the Spitzer study as the single piece of objective evidence that therapy can work.  The need for that evidence became even more pressing as the movement began to suffer increasingly more high-profile defections and more and more people who had been involved in ex-gay therapy came forward to say not only does therapy to reorient gay people not work, but that it in fact contributes to making people anxious, depressed and at times suicidal.

Both the American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations also regularly issue warnings concerning the harm incurred in reorientation procedures, whether religious or clinical.  These procedures actually increase the socially-imposed self-loathing of gay people.  These warnings point out several flaws in the research and treatment models: that they take place within a doctrinaire religious climate; that there are no reliable follow-up or long-term studies to confirm reorientation; that their results are not replicable by others.

If you pray with gay Christians, you will see God perform any number of miracles.  They will often include the expunging of self-loathing, of bitterness toward family and wider society, and relief from previously chaotic patterns of sexual behavior.  You will, not, however, see God reorient these seekers to heterosexuality in either their arousal or their fantasy patterns.  That may eventually prompt you to understand that God does not consider their homosexual orientation a disorder.

Yet despite all the available evidence disproving the ex-gay claim, the Exodus International website today contains no less than five direct references to the 2001 Spitzer study to support its message that “sexual orientation can successfully be changed.”

I’ve watched over the years how the semantics of the Exodus message have been regularly massaged to respond to each new wave of criticism.  It will be interesting to see what Exodus and other ex-gay groups will do with this latest revelation.

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About Alex Haiken

Born to a Jewish family in New York City, I came to faith in Christ in 1982 after trying to disprove the Bible. I found so much evidence in support of the claims of Jesus and the Bible that it required more faith to reject it than to believe it. I hold a Master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and among other things am a lecturer, teacher, blogger and conference speaker. I came out as gay at a young age but was taught when I came to faith that I could not be both Christian and gay. I served for a time as a leader of an ex-gay ministry but shifted my views after recognizing that when the few passages generally appealed to in this debate are examined more closely and in context, the traditional anti-gay interpretations do not hold up to scrutiny. I learned that the ex-gay route is a scripturally unsound mirage, a specious illusion that deceitfully draws people not to a life-giving oasis but to a deeper and deeper spiritual desert. Seeing the immense need for education in this area, I began to speak and write about my experience and new-found convictions. I am also passionate about helping the Church better understand her rich Jewish roots; helping other Jewish people understand Jesus as their Jewish Messiah; and helping other gay people integrate a theologically sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality. It is my hope that the reflections in this blog will prompt you to explore the paths they suggest, leading to your own more eloquent thinking, exploration and action. If you want, visit the “Contact” page and let me know what you think.
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