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Religious Tolerance logo

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

Responses to the study. Conclusions. APA
presentations. Spitzer interview. Author's note.

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Responses to Dr. Spitzer's study:

In response to Dr. Spitzer's study, the APA issued a statement affirming its position and cautioning that "there is no published evidence supporting the efficacy of reparative therapy as a treatment to change one's sexual orientation." Quoted in Ref. 1

Other comments were:

bulletThe then APA president, Lawrence Hartmann, a professor at Harvard Medical School, called Spitzer's study "too flawed to publish." A Washington Post article stated that:

"Hartmann noted the study was retrospective, that it lacked controls or independent measurements, and was based entirely on self-reports by people who were motivated to say they had changed because of their affiliation with ex-gay or anti-gay groups." 2


On 2001-SEP-23, Jack Drescher, M.D., FAPA Chair Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association wrote a letter to the Finish Parliament which discussed the Spitzer study:

"As for the scientific merits of his study, I believe it is significantly flawed. One flaw is that the majority of subjects in the study had one 45-minute telephone interview with Dr. Spitzer and no follow-ups. Other than Dr. Spitzer, I can find no reputable researcher who will agree that this is an accurate way to assess whether a person has changed their sexuality. That point was underscored in another study presented at the same symposium. Schroeder and Shidlo's study (in press) found that many individuals who claimed to have changed sexual orientation during a first telephone interview changed their story at a second, follow-up interview." 3

bulletDavid Elliot, spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said, "The sample is terrible, totally tainted, totally unrepresentative of the gay and lesbian community."
bulletPsychologist Douglas Haldeman of the University of Washington commented that there is no credible scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed, "and this study doesn't prove that either." He noted that the participants appeared unusually skewed towards religious conservatives and people treated by therapists "with a strong anti-gay bias."
bulletJoan Gerry of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) referred to the subjects as:

"... a self-selected sample of people who are so troubled by their sexual orientation that they will go to any lengths to attempt to 'change' it. ...These are people who live in a world where gays, lesbians and bisexuals are treated like second-class citizens."

bullet The report on the study claim that "some gay people can turn straight if they really want to." The implication is that the vast majority of people who try reparative therapy or transformational ministry and fail to change their sexual orientation were lazy; they just didn't try hard enough. The CNN report also implies that the study showed that people can change their sexual orientation. There is no evidence that any of the 200 subjects were able to do that; many probably had a bisexual orientation in the past and remained bisexuals at the time of the study and afterwards; they just decided to stick with opposite-sex partners. Others probably had a homosexual orientation in the past and remained homosexual during therapy and afterwards; they just decided to be celibate.
bulletDoug Nave of Covenant Network of Presbyterians commented:

"...the subjects did not have any anonymity that might help them candidly report unfavorable outcomes; Spitzer could not assess their credibility face-to-face; and the findings were based entirely on the subjects' self-report (rather than, e.g., physiological measures of arousal), which research has shown is often very misleading. In addition, Spitzer's study has not been subject to any peer review or other normal professional tests of validity. Some therefore believe that the study merits no credit at all." 4

[Actually, after peer review, Dr. Spitzer's paper was published in the 2003-OCT issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior.]

bullet Barbara Pogue, reporter at the Lone Star Citizen, wrote: "Spitzer concluded that sexual orientation shifts are definitely possible, albeit rare, unusual and difficult." 5
bulletJoe Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), said that the study is "an historic event in the history of psychiatry's understanding of homosexuality." 6
bullet Family Research Council, a fundamentalist Christian group, simply reported that:

"Dr Robert Spitzer's study of 200 former homosexuals found that change is possible... [He] found that 66 percent of the men and 44 percent of the women had achieved 'good heterosexual functioning.'  The vast majority of the study participants reported that they were bothered only slightly, or not at all, by unwanted homosexual feelings."

The implication is that the subjects were chosen at random from among homosexuals who had gone through therapy, and that most homosexuals would have the same success rate if they tried to change their orientation. This is either inaccurate or deceptive reporting. 7

bullet Family Research Council, another fundamentalist Christian group, reported that the Spitzer study was not widely reported in the media. However, Exodus International, the largest evangelical Christian umbrella group of transformational ministries stated that:

"The Spitzer study is reported in today's issue of USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and was released to hundreds of local newspapers by the Associated Press. The story is also being widely reported on the World Wide Web through such prominent news sites as,,, and Dr. Spitzer was featured on this morning's edition of 'Good Morning America.' " 8

bulletABC News interviewed Dr. Spitzer about the hazards of "change therapy." He replied:

"There's no doubt that many homosexuals have been unsuccessful and, attempting to change, become depressed and their life becomes worse. ... I'm not disputing that. What I am disputing is that is invariably the outcome."

He later told ABC news that some of his subjects had become despondent and even depressed after having been told " many mental health professionals that there was no hope for them, they had to just learn to live with their homosexual feelings." 8

His assessment is probably accurate. There are anecdotal stories of individuals who had struggled with their homosexual or bisexual orientation all their life, and had finally tried reparative therapy or transformational ministry. When that failed, they realized that they had done everything possible to change and had been unsuccessful. They finally accepted their sexual orientation as fixed, came to terms of themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and were finally at peace.

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There are at least four fatal flaws in the study. in our opinion, any one of them seriously weakens the validity of the study, in our opinion:

  1. Most of the 200 subjects interviewed were referred by reparative therapists or by Christian transformational ministries. Some were in leadership roles in such groups. Apparently most of the clients were evangelical Christians. Thus:
    bulletThey probably would have defined "homosexuality" in terms of behavior, not orientation.
    bulletAny results would not necessarily be representative of non-evangelicals.
  2. Dr. Spitzer seems to have asked the subjects whether they rated themselves as "homosexual" before therapy. Being conservative Christians, they probably would have answered this question in terms of their behavior, not their sexual orientation. Dr. Spitzer did not include "bisexuality" as an option. "Spitzer told Extra! he did not include a category for bisexuality in his study 'because there's no accepted definition of what bisexuality is'." Thus it is not known what percentage of the 200 subjects initially had a homosexual orientation, and what percentage had a bisexual orientation. The difference between the two groups is massive. It is much easier to confine ones relationships to members of the opposite sex if one is bisexual and thus sexually attracted to both men and women. We suspect that most of the subjects had a bisexual orientation and had previously engaged in at least some homosexual activity. After therapy, we suspect that they remained bisexual, chosen to confine relationships with members of the opposite sex, and feel that they have successfully developed such relationship. Others had a homosexual orientation, still have that orientation, and decided to be celibate.

  3. Telephone interview data on behavior and practice are notoriously unreliable. Individuals often answer questions according to what they think others expect of them. For example:
    bullet17% of American adults say that they tithe (i.e. give 10 to 13% of their income to their church). Only 3% really do. 9
    bullet Many polls indicate that the percentage of adults who say that they regularly attend religious services is about 44% in the U.S., and a little under 20% in Canada and perhaps 10% or less in Europe. But when noses are actually counted, the true figures are about half the stated North American figures (about 20% in the U.S. and 10% in Canada.) 

On a topic as incendiary as changing one's sexual orientation, a lack of honesty can be expected on the part of many of the participants. This problem is even more severe in this study because so many of the subjects were so closely associated with ex-gay or anti-gay groups, and were heavily motivated to show that transformational ministry and reparative therapy works.

Assuming that the more than 1,000 therapists in NARTH each have had 50 clients per year over the previous five years, then they have treated over 250,000 homosexuals and bisexuals with reparative therapy. Various transformational ministries have treated thousands or tens of thousands of other gays, bisexuals  and lesbians who were seeking change. Yet, Dr. Spitzer was only able to find 200 potential subjects for his study in all of America. This alone indicates that reparative therapy is almost always a failure.

Presentation of studies to the APA:

Although the panel discussion at the 2000-MAY annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association never materialized, two studies were presented at the APA's 2001-MAY-09 meeting:
bulletDr. Robert Spitzer presented a paper described above and titled: "200 Subjects Who Claim to Have Changed Their Sexual Orientation from Homosexual to Heterosexual."
bulletTwo psychotherapists from New York City, Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, discussed:

 "... 202 randomly recruited subjects who had tried to change their sexual orientation through therapy. 88 percent failed completely, while 9 percent considered themselves successful but were celibate or still struggling with same-sex behavioral "slips"; only six people (3 percent) were actually successful."

"Additionally, Shidlo and Schroeder found that a great number of their subjects suffered 'significant harm' due to instances in which reparative therapists appeared 'not to be practicing in a manner consistent with the APA Ethics Code'--encouraging patients to remember childhood abuse as the 'cause' of their homosexuality when no such abuse occurred; insisting that lesbians and gays can never live happy, healthy or monogamous lives; or practicing coercion (for example, students at religious universities were sometimes required to attend conversion therapy in order to graduate or receive financial aid." 10

An article in Wikipedia speculated:

"Of the 8 respondents (out of a sample of 202) who reported a change in sexual orientation, 7 were employed in paid or unpaid roles as 'ex-gay' counselors or group leaders, something which has led many to question whether even this small 'success' rate is in fact reliable." 11

This study also has deficiencies. The subjects were self-selected, and thus may not represent the experiences of all gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

Dr. Spitzer's comments on his study:

Dr. Warren Throckmorton interviewed Dr Spitzer in 2006 in which he gave his candid views on the meaning and value of his study:

Author's note:

I am personally enraged at the irresponsibility of the large professional mental health organizations. I believe that it is close to depraved indifference. Such organizations have not had a good record with emerging therapies. They took little effort in the 1980's and 1990's to curb recovered memory therapy (RMT) which generated false "memories" of incest, Satanic ritual abuse, abuse in former lifetimes and abuse onboard UFOs. RMT, a therapy that was both experimental and untested, caused the destruction of tens or hundreds of thousands of families of origin, and probably triggered many hundreds or perhaps thousands of suicides. Thankfully, there are few therapists still conducting reparative therapy.

There are many dozens of fundamentalist or other evangelical Christian ministries also attempting to convert clients' sexual orientation. Yet no statistically valid, long term, peer-reviewed study in this field has ever been attempted that might give some indication of the therapy's safety and effectiveness. Dr. Spitzer's study was eventually peer-reviewed and published. However, it was  confined to a small number of carefully selected subjects who were interviewed by telephone. It is a deeply flawed study as described above and in a book devoted to the study.

There are anecdotal stories of suicide attempts following failure of reparative therapy. There is a general impression among secular therapists that the therapy is dangerous and has a miniscule success rate at changing sexual orientation. There is a general impression among reparative therapy counselors that it is safe and has a high success rate if the client is committed to change. However, there is still no accurate and reliable data on the therapy's safety and efficacy.

The situation is similar to that during the 1980s and 1990s with recovered memory therapy (RMT) and multiple personality disorder therapy (MPD). We now know that both were dangerous, responsible for the destruction of tens of thousands of families, created enormous numbers of false memories -- images of events that never happened. They drove some clients to suicide.

In 2010, the world is still waiting for a peer reviewed study of reparative therapy and transformational ministry therapy. If less than 1% of the millions of dollars spent on therapy and ministry had been directed to fund a meaningful study, then we would now be aware of the therapy's safety and effectiveness. It could then be either abandoned or promoted.


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

  1. Doug Nave, "Organizations of US Mental Health Professionals are unanimous," at:
  2. 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:
  3. Jack Drescher, "Letter from the American Psychiatric Association to the Finnish Parliament," 2001-SEP-23, at:
  4. Doug Nave, "Organizations of US Mental Health Professionals are unanimous," at:
  5. Barbara Pogue, "My Brother's Keeper - Part II," Lone Star Citizen, 2001-SEP issue. Online at Focus on the Family, at:
  6. 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.
  7. "Spitzer study is news but doesn't make the news," Family Research Council, at:
  8. " 'Some Gays Change," prominent Psychiatrist Says," Press release, Exodus International, at:
  9. See our essay on Christian practices in the U.S.
  10. Jennifer L. Pozner, "Controversy, not credibility. A study of 'gay change' with the results media were looking for," Extra! magazine, 2001-SEP/OCT.
  11. Reparative Therapy," Wikipedia, 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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