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Religious Tolerance logo

An analysis of Dr. Spitzer's 2001 study into
whether adults can change their sexual orientation

More on the use of terms by religious
conservatives. Description of the study

Sponsored link.

More on the use of terms by religious conservatives:

Essentially all "ex-gays" and "ex-lesbians" are conservative Christians, who use the same definitions of words as do fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians. That is:

bulletThey regard a homosexual as a person who has sex with others of the same gender. That is, their definition is based on a person's behavior. This differs from the definition of "homosexual" by most therapists, human sexuality researchers, religious liberals, gays and lesbians. These latter groups define a homosexual as a person who is sexually attracted only to members of the same gender -- whether these feelings are acted upon or not.
bulletThey rarely refer to bisexuals -- persons who are attracted to both men and women. They generally lump them together with gays and lesbians or with heterosexuals, depending upon their behavior at the time.
bullet A person with a bisexual orientation who enters therapy and makes a decision to confine their sexual relationship(s) to members of the opposite gender are considered to have "left the homosexual lifestyle," to have become "ex-gays" or "ex-lesbians," and to have become heterosexual. They are counted as success stories by reparative therapists or transformational ministries. Non-evangelicals would suggest that the individuals are still bisexual in that they are still sexually attracted to both men and women. Their orientation has remained unchanged.
bullet A person with a homosexual orientation who decides to become celibate is also considered a victory for reparative therapy or a transformation ministry; they have become an "ex-gay." Again, non-evangelicals would suggest that the individuals have not changed their orientation, which remains homosexual. They are simply celibate homosexuals.
bullet Unfortunately, in their advertising and promotion of reparative therapy and transformational ministries, their wording is often open to interpretation so that many readers will assume that they are quite successful at changing their clients' sexual orientation, not just their behavior.

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About the study:

According to Paul Varnell of the Chicago Free Press:

"Spitzer admits that he had 'great difficulty' finding people who claimed to have changed their orientation from gay to straight. Ex-gay groups regularly claim to know of 'thousands' of people who have 'changed' or 'left homosexuality.' But after searching for nearly a year and a half, Spitzer could only find 274 possibilities." 1

Dr. Robert Spitzer finally studied 200 subjects -- 143 "ex-gays" and 57 "ex-lesbians" -- who had reported that they had become "straight." During 45 minute telephone interviews with each subject, they were asked 60 questions about their:

"feelings and behavior before and after their efforts to change orientation. They discussed their motives for change; their strategies, which included counseling, support groups, prayer and mentoring; and their current relationships with the opposite sex". 2

Dr. Spitzer reported:

bullet"Some people can and do change. Like most psychiatrists, I thought that homosexual behavior could only be resisted, and that no one could really change their sexual orientation. I now believe this to be false." 3
bulletThat 86% of the men and 63% of the female subjects emerged from therapy still having feelings of attraction to persons of the same-sex. That is, after therapy they have a bisexual orientation. We suspect that all or essentially all were also bisexual when they entered therapy. Unfortunately, their initial sexual orientation is unknown; we suspect but cannot prove that most or all were bisexual.
bulletThat sixteen (11%) of the men and 21 (37%) of the women report that they now are heterosexual. It is not known how many of these had entered therapy as bisexuals and how many had been homosexuals.
bulletThat 66% of the males and 44% of the females had arrived at "good heterosexual functioning." According to, that term is defined as having been:

"in a sustained, loving heterosexual relationship within the past year, getting enough satisfaction from the emotional relationship with their partner to rate at least seven on a 10-point scale, having satisfying heterosexual sex at least monthly and never or rarely thinking of somebody of the same sex during heterosexual sex."

bullet"Of the 112 men (out of the total 143) who acknowledged that they masturbated, more than half (56 percent) said they used homosexual fantasies some of the time and about one-third (31 percent) said they seldom had opposite-sex masturbation fantasies." 1

Of the 200 subjects, 86 had been referred to Dr. Spitzer by conservative Christian groups specializing in converting homosexuals. NARTH referred 46 subjects. Some other sources provided 68 to make the total of 200. It is apparent that the individuals that Dr. Spitzer interviewed were hand-selected from a very large group of persons who had either a homosexual or a bisexual orientation. Those who had been unable to change their sexual behavior thus would have been rejected for the study.

There are more than 1,000 professional therapists who belong to NARTH. Assume that the average member has treated 50 clients a year for the past five years. That means that there are over 250,000 clients from which NARTH could select subjects for this study. Assuming that reparative therapy had a "cure" rate of 0.02%  then NARTH would have been able to provide the approximately 50 "successful" clients to this study. But a cure rate of 0.02% can be expressed as a failure rate of 99.98% -- not a promising form of therapy! If one considers the anecdotal accounts of gays and lesbians who have committed suicide after failed reparative therapy, then it becomes an even less attractive alternative.

Dr. Spitzer reported his findings at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association on 2001-MAY-9.

In later interviews, Dr. Spitzer said:

bullet"Our sample was self-selected from people who already claimed they had made some change. We don't know how common that kind of change is. . . . I'm not saying that this can be easily done, or that most homosexuals who want to change can make this kind of change. I suspect it's quite unusual." 4
bullet"I suspect the vast majority of gay people would be unable to alter by much a firmly established homosexual orientation." 5
bullet"...the kinds of changes my subjects reported are highly unlikely to be available to the vast majority [of gays and lesbians]... "[only] a small minority -- perhaps 3% -- might have a "malleable" sexual orientation." He expressed a concern that his study results were being "twisted by the Christian right." 6
bullet He told the Washington Post in 2005 that supporters of reparative therapy have misrepresented the results of his study.  He said:

"It bothers me to be their knight in shining armor because on every social issue I totally disagree with the Christian right...What they don't mention is that change is pretty rare."

He noted that the subjects of his study were not representative of the general population because they were considerably more religious. He calls as "totally absurd" the beliefs that everyone is born straight and that homosexuality is a choice. 7

Unfortunately, these statements were lost in a sea of media accounts that emphasized that "change" is possible.


The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Paul Varnell, "Those Not Very 'Ex' Gays," Chicago Free Press. 2001-MAY-16. Online at:
  2. Ethan Campbell, "Score one for politics," Boundless Webzine, at:
  3. Pete Winn, "A life-changing study," Focus on the Family. This is no longer online, However, a search on for spitzer study found three hits.
  4. CNN, 2001-MAY-9. Cited in Reference 8.
  5. Wall Street Journal, 2001-MAY-23. Cited in Reference 8.
  6. Advocate, 2001-JUL-17. Cited in Reference 8.
  7. Sandra G. Boodman, "Vowing to Set the World Straight: Proponents of Reparative Therapy Say They Can Help Gay Patients Become Heterosexual. Experts Call That a Prescription for Harm," Washington Post, 2005-AUG-16, at:
  8. Doug Nave, "Organizations of US Mental Health Professionals are unanimous," at:

Copyright © 2002 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-FEB-16
Latest update and review: 2010-JUN-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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