Dr. Robert Spitzer’s study of 200 self-identified former homosexuals is back in the news.

The Archives of Sexual Behavior, the official journal of the International Academy of Sex Research, published it, along with 26 peer reviews and a response from Dr. Spitzer, in its October issue. Titled “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? 200 Participants Reporting a Change from Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation” (abstract), it has garnered fresh attention from Focus on the Family, Exodus International (as noted earlier on XGW), and NARTH.

(ReligiousTolerance.org offered a thoughtful analysis after the study was first published in May 2001, prior to peer review.)

With the articles in hand, Ex-Gay Watch will analyze it in pieces. Today, we will look at the reason cited by Dr. Spitzer for undertaking the study and the objective it achieved.

From the abstract that introduces the study:

Position statements of the major mental health organizations in the United States state that there is no scientific evidence that a homosexual sexual orientation can be changed by psychotherapy, often referred to as “reparative therapy.” This study tested the hypothesis that some individuals whose sexual orientation is predominantly homosexual can, with some form of reparative therapy, become predominantly heterosexual.

Under the heading “Clarifying the Research Question” in his reply to the peer reviews, Spitzer notes:

When I started the study and told colleagues about it, I was greeted with anger and disbelief that I would be so foolish as to believe what ex-gays said about themselves.

To which he later adds:

The basic assumption of the study is that research on the possible benefit of reorientation therapy must begin with listening to what ex-gays say about how they believe they have changed.

This is an essential point. Other researchers have studied ex-gays, listening to their self-reports of change, but by and large have worked with folks who were either unsatisfied with the extent of change they had achieved or used methods which discounted the participants’ self-reports. The results have been at odds with self-reports of ex-gay ministries and NARTH (which cites anecdotal evidence but has not conducted structured studies and submitted them for peer review).

With ex-gay advocates like Exodus and NARTH boasting thousands of successful, contented former homosexuals yet unable or unwilling to produce anything other than anecdotal evidence of them, Spitzer set a microscopic target: Use structured methods to study self-identified ex-gays.

Donald Strassberg, Ph.D., from the University of Utah Department of Psychology, described the study this way in his peer review:

Spitzer is to be congratulated on trying to “light a candle” rather than continuing to “curse the darkness” when it comes to trying to understand what happens as a result of reparative therapy.

It’s not hard to see the problems with choosing a result (ex-gay success) and working backwords from it (looking for common characteristics among ex-gays) using limited-scope (45 minute) phone interviews which gather unverified self-reports. As Strassberg put it:

Although Spitzer made some laudable methodological improvements in his approach to an important research question, the design of his survey does not really put it into the category of “scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of reparative therapy” for which so many seem to be looking.

But, in testing his hypothesis — that some predominantly homosexual folks can, with some sort of support, adopt predominantly heterosexual identity and functioning — Spitzer focused on the change without examining the therapy. It was not a “does reparative therapy work?” study, or even a “what is reparative therapy?” study. It was a “what does self-reported change look like?” study.

It was a micro-sized target, a starting point.

Coming in future installments: Where did the peer reviewers find value and find fault in the study? How do well-known ex-gay leaders compare to the profile of the study subjects? What did reviewers infer from the study size and participant selection criteria? How many of the 26 reviews echoed Joseph Nicolosi’s appreciative review?

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