Spitzer Retracts 2001 Landmark Ex-Gay Study
For a decade, ex-gays have relied on the results of a 2001 study to prove their claim that “change is possible.” 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 publicly disowned it.
In an article in the May issue of The American Prospect magazine, Spitzer tells Gabriel Arana he wants his retraction of the landmark study on the record:
“In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” he said. “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.” … Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”?
Spitzer, now 80, was a key figure in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. Despite his pro-gay stance, he later published research claiming that some gays and lesbians could, with effort, change. In 2001, his paper “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Orientation?” was met with criticism from his APA colleagues. In 2003, it was published in the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, thus gaining an academic status that ex-gay groups such as NARTH and Exodus International could point to as evidence that the research was on their side.
But the flaws were obvious: To arrive at his conclusion that “some highly motivated individuals” could make “substantial change” to their sexual orientation, Spitzer had interviewed, by phone, 200 ex-gays — all referred to him by the very groups that had a vested interest in proving ex-gay therapy could work.
Over the years, Spitzer has disassociated himself from such groups, denouncing them where he believed they distorted his findings. He says he asked Archives of Sexual Behavior to publish a retraction, but its editor refused.
What will ex-gay groups do with this revelation? Spitzer’s presence on the NARTH website is ubiquitous — an internal Google search turns up almost 200 results. One article by Daniel Byrne declares boldly that “another attempt to discredit the Spitzer study … has failed.” How will NARTH react by this new attempt to discredit the study — by its own author?
As of today, the Exodus International website contains no less than five direct references to the 2001 Spitzer study to support its message. The 2009 article “What Does Science Say?” for example, cites it as evidence that “sexual orientation can successfully be changed.” The FAQ “What Does Exodus Believe About Sexual Orientation & Change?” says it shows that “efforts to change sexual orientation can produce significant success,” by which it means “a significant shift from homosexual to heterosexual attraction … sustained … for at least five years.” The site also reprints a May, 2001, Wall Street Journal article in which Spitzer leans on his conclusions to argue that sexual orientation is not fixed and ex-gay therapy can work.
Exodus International has already purged its bookstore of NARTH materials, and its president, Alan Chambers, declared earlier this year that “99.9 percent of the people I know have not changed their orientation.” He later “clarified” that he was referring only to “complete orientation change.” So yes, he says, gays can and do change, much as Spitzer claimed in 2001.
So, will Chambers and Exodus now purge Spitzer from its archives the way it purged NARTH and the pseudoscience of reparative therapy? Will Chambers perhaps finally admit that the “change” Exodus has promoted for 40 years hardly happens at all? That it might be possible to manage choices and behaviour, but that fundamental change in sexual attractions is a pipe-dream? With Spitzer’s retraction, the hope of academic support for the ex-gay paradigm grows ever dimmer.
Update: Now the article is online in full, here is a lengthier quote to give a better idea of the context:
Spitzer was drawn to the topic of ex-gay therapy because it was controversial—“I was always attracted to controversy”—but was troubled by how the study was received. He did not want to suggest that gay people should pursue ex-gay therapy. His goal was to determine whether the counterfactual—the claim that no one had ever changed his or her sexual orientation through therapy—was true.
I asked about the criticisms leveled at him. “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” he said. “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.” He said he spoke with the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior about writing a retraction, but the editor declined. (Repeated attempts to contact the journal went unanswered.)
Spitzer said that he was proud of having been instrumental in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. Now 80 and retired, he was afraid that the 2001 study would tarnish his legacy and perhaps hurt others. He said that failed attempts to rid oneself of homosexual attractions “can be quite harmful.” … [Spitzer] asked how many more questions I had. Nothing, I responded, unless you have something to add.
He did. Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”?
Spitzer asked Arana to print his retraction — and there it is.
This justifies the perennial criticisms of these damaging therapies.
The Echo-chamber – efficacy of a talking therapy involving attempts to change behaviour through mental prcesses such as “there is no such thing as gay” cannot be unravelled from the confounding effect of religious motivation of the client. A very high % (98% I seem to remember) of those in study are highly motivated to declare themselves changed. Spitzer is right that the study can only tell us about this group and no one else (and I don’t believe a word they told him personally).
Jones and Yarhouse – now the lone voices pushing their longitudinal study.
Bets now being taken on NARTH implosion within….
It’s not just NARTH that points to his study. But FRC, NOM and FOTF family have done so.
Those groups have consistently used this when addressing the Senate or Congress on civil law and gay lives as well as direct political information to voters in order to gain support of anti gay discrimination.
James Dobson, cited several researchers, whose work he deliberately distorted in an article printed in TIME magazine, I think it was.
Each of those researchers demanded a retraction and cease and desist of Dobson using their work in that manner, which Dobson ignored.
When such information becomes public, anti gay orgs either deny it, dismiss it or omit it as if it never existed.
They hope the accelerated news cycle will make it go away and they can pretend they were never proven wrong.
We can easily see how NOM’s Maggie Gallagher spun the revelation about deliberately forming hostility and a wedge between people of color and gays. It’s truly unbelievable how many layers of BS they can continue to spackle onto this ugly mess.
Playing the victim is another way of maintaining the upper hand, after all.
I’m thinking NARTH will do the same thing. Expect that Spitzer will be scrubbed from their websites or other information as if he never existed or renounced himself. While at the same time renouncing HIM as betraying ‘the Truth’ and kowtowing or being pressured by ‘the militant homosexual agenda’ to capitulate.
Y’all are welcome to correct me if I’m wrong about that.
It’s up to us to keep what they are trying to hide in the spotlight where it belongs.
@Regan DuCasse I think that another possible reaction of Exodus, FOTF, NARTH et al. may be to try to spin Spitzer’s retraction so as to make it seem as though it isn’t “really” a retraction. After all, look how Alan Chambers has later “nuanced” some of his own damaging admissions.
I agree with William. I think it’s very possible that NARTH, Exodus and other anti-gay organizations will spin Spitzer’s retraction as him buckling under pressure from “the liberal media” and gay activists. They will not accept it as genuine. I would be shocked if they directly responded to it at all, though. Like Regan said, it will likely just be dusted under the rug.
The Ouldian Logic Loop has already begun that trend.
Legitimate groups long ago took heed of the overwhelming professional criticism levied at the study. Groups like PFOX will simply blame the “Gay Activists” (their new term for the “Gay Agenda”). Exodus has bigger things to worry about right now. Nevertheless, it’s an important development for those who care about the facts.
If I remember correctly, the media hyped that study out of all proportion when it came out. Even then it never meant what it was reported to. Like the distorted figures surrounding the Jones and Yarhouse study, that didn’t seem to bother ex-gay and anti-gay proponents, who ran with it.
While the Arana article is an amazing personal story and scoop in terms of the Spitzer revelation, what I found missing was any mention in his assessment of how the whole ex-gay notion is being actively exported around the world. “Cures that Kill” was one of the main themes last year of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). Check it out at http://www.dayagainsthomophobia.org/spip.php?page=recherche
Robert Spitzer was extremely ill-advised ever to let his taste for controversy lead him into getting involved with this sort of thing, and I’m sure that he has spent a considerable part of the intervening years repenting of it.
He strikes me, from the interviews with him that I have seen, as a thoroughly good, decent and honest man. I understand that he is also an atheist, and I think that this may have been a positive handicap to him in pursuing an investigation into ex-gay claims. I suspect that, with his rationalistic and completely secular outlook, he perhaps could not really appreciate, because he could not fully comprehend, the extent to which cruel, fundamentalist teaching on homosexuality might terrorize religious gay people into dishonesty and self-deception of the “name-it-and-claim it” variety.
[…] news that Robert Spitzer, the US psychiatrist behind a 2001 study supporting ex-gay therapy, has retracted his findings. A major plank in the ex-gay argument (although it had been routinely debunked for years by all […]
See here for the latest attempt to spin Spitzer’s retractation of view:
@William, yeah, I’ve heard others making that argument. There are issues with anecdotal evidence, obviously, and I’m thinking through a lot of it myself at the moment. But it’s simplistic just to say, as the author of that article does, that if the ex-gay studies are invalid, so must every study that relies on anecdote. Subjective reports are the heart of any qualitative social-science research. The question isn’t whether subjective reports (anecdotes) are useful, but how we can gauge their reliability, and there are a lot of factors that come into play.
I can think of the many times that NARTH, or NOM or any other well known anti gay org has complained about public money or taxes going to LGBT studies of ANY kind. Never mind that some WERE conducted with private funds, it’s obvious that research and studies have been crucial to much more than the social angle. So, as they were constantly criticizing the scope, expense or truth of studies that WERE conducted by publicly funded agencies (CDC, NIH) or those of expansive peer review (AMA, APA). The anti gay certainly didn’t invest in anything widespread or lengthy themselves and they have relied instead on non professionals for opinions, or they made up something that SOUNDED like a legitimate peer group.
We can be pretty sure of who has had the most accurate and reliable results. Which are either not mentioned, or much of the truth was omitted.
Folks, I’d like for you to check out Michael Brown’s latest gay defaming article at
I’d like to know what you think.
He’s flipped the script on the Day of Silence.
He’s called the SPLC the real hate group.
And he’s claimed that GLAAD are the real bullies.
And he also claims that his books are not published because publishers are ‘afraid’ of the truth.
He’s contributed some comments on this blog before.
And I’ve noticed that Michael Brown, Tony Perkins and Brian Brown and Matt Barber and Peter LaBarbera, use a lot of language about themselves as if they are in combat and things are so, so tough for them more and more money has to be committed to the ‘fight’ against the gay scourge.
This is off topic I guess. But I’d like you all to help me out here with this.
Their reports and articles sound like terrorist alerts. And their work sounds like it takes fearless confrontation to do what they do.
Don’t they realize how ridiculous they would seem to someone who has actually worked in the trenches for an UNPOPULAR group of people? For UNPOPULAR public policy?
We have examples and supporters like Rep. John Lewis and Julian Bond who were THERE, were beaten and lived under Jim Crow…and yet, give their support and eloquence to the cause of gays and their civil rights?
Would they call such men fools to their faces for their support?
Would they claim these men are lacking in street cred regarding their experience?
In an indirect way (of course), they are.
Brian Brown et al, truly deserve all the contempt we can muster. They’ve earned it.