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Religious Tolerance logo

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

2012: Dr. Spitzer's apology for his 2001 study.
Reactions from LGBTs. Webmaster's note.

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2012-MAY: Twelve years later: Dr. Spitzer apologizes for deeply flawed study:

On MAY-35, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer wrote a letter to Dr. Ken Zucker, editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the journal in which Dr. Spitzer's study 1 was originally published. He wrote:

"Several months ago I told you that because of my revised view of my 2001 study of reparative therapy changing sexual orientation, I was considering writing something that would acknowledge that I now judged the major critiques of the study as largely correct. After discussing my revised view of the study with Gabriel Arana, a reporter for American Prospect, and with Malcolm Ritter, an Associated Press science writer, I decided that I had to make public my current thinking about the study. Here it is.

Basic Research Question. From the beginning it was: 'can some version of reparative therapy enable individuals to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual?' Realizing that the study design made it impossible to answer this question, I suggested that the study could be viewed as answering the question, 'how do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation?' – a not very interesting question.

The Fatal Flaw in the Study – There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation. I offered several (unconvincing) reasons why it was reasonable to assume that the subject’s reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.

I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals." 2

Truth Wins Out reacted to Dr. Spitzer's apology, stating:

"Dr. Spitzer’s apology to the victims of 'pray away the gay' therapy and the greater LGBT community marks a watershed moment in the fight against the 'ex-gay' myth. We commend him for it, because not only will it solidify his legacy as a respected doctor and significant historical figure, but it will help to greatly hasten the day when the scourge that is reparative therapy is eradicated forever and LGBT people can live openly, honestly, and true to themselves. 2

Readers of the article posted 116 comments. Most were positive:

  • "LD" wrote: "Very happy to hear that Spitzer is reiterating and making a very specific and direct recant at this time accompanied with an apology. Congratulations and may it be helpful to many struggling souls in the years to come."

  • Michael Bussee, apparently one of the founders of Exodus International, wrote: "This is big news! My question: It seems that all the studies of “ex-gays” have the same “fatal flaw” than Spitzer admits he made ... Doesn’t the Jones and Yarhouse study of Exodus participants have that very same flaw?"

  • "RainbowPhoenix" wrote: "Tumescence exams would go a long way to fixing that flaw, but 'ex-gays' for some reason are terried of taking one."

  • "justme" wrote: "Now that’s a proper public apology. All of the frauds in the “ex-gay” industry: please take note of this one for when you finally get around to writing yours. Or would you really rather go to your graves in eternal disgrace?"

  • Michael wrote: "Thank you, Dr. Spitzer, for having the courage to tell the truth about your own misused research. This will help gay people and all pro-equality Americans. On the other hand, anti-gay proponents of the “ex-gay” myth will ignore it or explain it away. They will continue to push their quackery, because they love money and it’s an easy way to get lots of $$$ without much effort."

  • "Ed" wrote: "Nice, but how about also apologizing to the families and loved ones of all the gay people who have committed suicide because the so-called 'reparative' therapy he once endorsed didn’t 'work'? Not to mention all the gay people who have been murdered, and their families and loved ones, because his past endorsement gave license to ignorant fools to engage in homicidal violence. His apology is a good start, but it doesn’t seem like he realizes quite how much blood is still on his hands."

  • "Estraven" wrote: "These studies always ignore the existance of bisexuality. The way it works is this. Say someone is 20% straight, 80% gay. Due to ignorance of bisexuality, or internalized biphobia, or lack of a bisexual community where they are, they identify as gay, since their attractions are mostly gay. Now their parents insist that they 'pray away the gay,' or go for the cure, or what ever. They are pressured and shamed until they stop acting on the gay urges. However, they always were a little bit bi, and if the right woman comes along, they can function sexually with her (probably while fantasizing about men). So they HAVE NOT CHANGED AT ALL. They were always bisexual, and are still bisexual. They are just a gay-leaning bi guy who is only acting on his straight urges, and who has been shamed into identifying as straight. The numbers of the men who go through these camps who kill themselves is HUGE; being shamed for something we don’t chose is very damaging."

  • Michael Busse also wrote: "Anyone studying 'ex-gays' has to take into account the mindset of many of the participants. The impact of 'name-it-and-claim-it' theology on self-reports of 'change' cannot be under-estimated [sic]. It’s not so much that 'ex-gays' deliberately lie. It’s more that they have a special way of looking at 'belief'. Those from more charismatic backgrounds are told that 'what they profess in faith' will come to pass – if their faith is strong enough.

    For example, such a believer may say, 'I have been healed by Jesus' of this or that affliction – even though they still suffer from it. By proclaiming it on a spritual level they help to bring it about on the physical level. This idea of 'claiming it on faith' is reinforced by such Biblical passages as 'By His stripes we ARE healed' (past tense) and 'Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you HAVE received it, and it will be yours.'

    When these believers say, 'My sexual orientation HAS changed', they may actually mean something closer to: 'I strongly believe that my orientation has changed on the spiritual level and I am professing faith (confident hope) that it will also be true on the physical level.'

    That’s what I meant when I said I was 'ex-gay'. It was what John Smid meant. It’s what many of the men in our ministries meant. But these were self-reports of our hope – not a factual reality – believing (in faith) that what had changed on the spiritual level would manifest itself on the physical." 2

Webmaster's note: Bias alert

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 traditionally 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, sent hundreds of adults to jail for crimes that never even happened, and probably triggered many hundreds or perhaps thousands of suicides. Thankfully, there are only a few therapists still conducting reparative therapy. Most have gone on to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) which is an equally worthless therapy, but at least does not have the potential for destroying lives and families of origin.

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. One is badly needed in order to 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 a very large number of clients, who were interviewed only 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 that wold allow individuals to determine which view is correct.

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 2012, 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.

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References used:

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

  1. Robert L. Spitzer, "Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? 200 Participants Reporting a Change from Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation," Archives of Sexual Behavior, Volume 32, #5, (2003)
  2. John M. Becker, "EXCLUSIVE: Dr. Robert Spitzer Apologizes to Gay Community for Infamous ‘Ex-Gay’ Study, 2012-APR-25, at:

Copyright © 2002 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-FEB-16
Latest update and review: 2012-OCT-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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