An analysis of Dr. Spitzer's 2001 study
whether adults can change their sexual orientation
Definitions and background
Three critical terms and their definitions:
It is of paramount important to understand the precise meaning of terms related to therapy aimed at "changing" homosexuals. Different individuals and groups define terms in very different ways:
- "Sexual orientation:" This describes an adult's or older adolescent's feelings of sexual attraction. It describes what a person is, not what they do sexually. Almost all therapists and human sexuality researchers accept that there are three sexual orientations:
However, a few disagree:
- Heterosexual -- a person is attracted only to members of the opposite gender.
- Bisexual -- a person attracted to both men and women, although not necessarily to the same degree.
- Homosexual -- a person attracted only to members of the same gender.
The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a professional therapy group
with a very small membership, and most religiously conservative denominations and para-church groups believe that homosexual orientation is a choice and can be changed with some effort. All other professional groups recognize that for an adult to change one's sexual orientation is extremely rare or even non-existent.
- A minority suggests that asexuality -- a lack of feelings of sexual attraction -- should be considered a fourth sexual orientation.
- Some therapists and researchers, including Dr. Spitzer, do not recognize bisexuality as an orientation.
- A small number of socially and religiously conservative organizations follow the lead of Concerned Women for America and the Traditional Values Coalition. They have added to the list of three sexual orientation about 30 paraphilias (strong sexual urges or behaviors, sometimes criminal in nature) such as pedophilia, bestiality, sadism, exhibitionism, necrophilia, etc. Some commentators have suggested that this very unusual definition is a political maneuver to defeat hate-crimes and anti-discrimination legislation. If the definition of sexual orientation is expanded to include about 33 sexual orientations, then legislation intended to reduce gay bashing would also be seen to protect pedophiles.
- "Sexual behavior:" This describes what a person actually does sexually. There is general agreement that, with some effort, a person can be motivated to change their sexual behavior. For example:
- A person can decide to become celibate and remain sexually inactive.
- A bisexual can decide to pursue sexual relationships with only persons of one gender.
A change in sexual behavior may occur even as their sexual orientation remains the same. For example, in the biblical passage at 1 Corinthians 6, Paul describes a pagan orgy in which a group of persons with a heterosexual orientation apparently engaged in sexual behavior with members of the same sex for a short time. They had a heterosexual orientation before the orgy and presumably had a heterosexual orientation after the orgy. But during the orgy they behaved like sexually active bisexuals.
- Some religious and social conservatives define "homosexual" and "homosexuality" in terms of behavior, not feelings of sexual attraction. Thus:
This appears to be the sources of "ex-gay" claims during reparative therapy and by transformation ministries.
- A person with a homosexual orientation who has decided to become celibate would be considered an ex-gay who has become heterosexual.
- A person with a bisexual orientation who has decided to pursue relationships only with persons of the opposite gender would also be considered an ex-gay who has become a heterosexual.
- Essentially all other groups define "homosexual" and "homosexuality" in terms of a person's sexual orientation, and consider that this is rarely changeable, if ever.
Professional organizations and conversion therapy:
Various professional organizations, including the American Academy of
Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological
Association, and the National Association of Social Workers have
an adult's sexual orientation cannot be changed by reparative therapy. 1,2
As noted above, a very small group disagrees: National Association for Research
and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). It was founded in 1992 as a "non-profit, educational organization dedicated
to the research, therapy and prevention of homosexuality." It currently consists of "more than 1,000 mental-health
professionals." -- fewer than 1% of the number of therapists who belong to either of the APA's.
strongly advocates the use of reparative therapy, believing it to be very
effective and safe. They, alone among processional associations, regard homosexual behavior as a treatable
The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American Association of School
Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Psychological Association, American School Health Association, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, National Association of School
Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, and National Education Association formed the "Just the Facts Coalition." In 1999, they developed and endorsed "Just
the Facts About Sexual Orientation & Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators
and School Personnel." It includes a number of quotations from major
professional organizations expressing concern about reparative therapy and other methods of
attempting to change an individual's sexual orientation. One example is the
American Academy of Pediatrics, which stated:
"Therapy directed specifically
at changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt
and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in
Background of Dr. Spitzer's study:
Dr. Robert Spitzer is a Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. During his three decades of
psychiatric research, he has specialized in the topic of human sexual orientation. In 1973, he was one of the members of the American Psychiatric
Association (APA) who was instrumental in removing homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses. The APA was the first major mental-health
agency to do so. Others followed rapidly.
For their annual conference in 2000-MAY, the American Psychiatric Association had scheduled a
panel discussion to debate whether there is any hard evidence that an
adult's sexual orientation can be altered
through reparative therapy. Dr. Robert Spitzer was scheduled to be the moderator. Two psychiatrists
withdrew from the panel, stating that the topic is too politically
charged to permit a scientific discussion. The debate was then
cancelled. According to the APA:
"The doctors who were to
debate on the topic decided there was not enough scientific
information to have a proper debate. They felt that any debate would
turn into a political debate and not a true scientific debate. While
there is information on reorientation therapy, there have been no
controlled research studies." 6
"I think we ought to be able to talk about
anything in a dispassionate way." Referring to the
speakers who dropped out, he said, "I think they felt that to even debate it was to
legitimize the topic and they felt that since the groups that they
regard as their enemy were kind of salivating over having the debate,
they didn't want it."
Exodus International, a Fundamentalist Christian group who tries to help gays
and lesbians change their sexual behavior, protested the cancellation. Their
national board chairman, John Paulk of Colorado Springs, CO, said: "I'm here
as one representative for a virtually unseen but sizable population. I once
lived as a gay man, but now I'm heterosexual, something the American Psychiatric
Association says does not exist." 7 It is notable that he did not say that he was once gay; he said that he "lived as a
gay man." We have a hunch that he has
had a bisexual orientation during all of his adult life, engaging first in
homosexual behavior, and more recently in heterosexual behavior. [Palk may not
actually be an ex-gay; he was spotted in "Mr. P's," a gay bar in Washington DC
some months later.] 8
At the time of the proposed debate,
Dr. Spitzer suspected that an adult's sexual orientation is fixed. He said: "There is no documentary evidence showing someone's sexual
preference can be changed by therapy. "
Author's note: The term "sexual preference" is
normally only meaningful when used to refer to persons with a
bisexual orientation -- adults who are attracted to both men and women.
often attracted to one gender more that the other. They can thus be described as
having a gender "preference" in their relationships. The vast majority of adults have
either a heterosexual or homosexual orientation. They are attracted to only one
gender, and thus cannot accurately be said to have a "preference." Dr.
Spitzer appears to have used the term here in place of the more generally used
term "sexual orientation."
"There is only anecdotal evidence, mostly
from the therapists themselves, claiming that what they do works. That's not
very scientific. On the other hand, there's no scientific evidence to show
that this is impossible...It hasn't been studied."
Before the scheduled debate, Dr. Spitzer had decided to conduct a study of "ex-gays" and "ex-lesbians," These are individuals
|Had once identified themselves as homosexuals. |
|Had attempted to change their sexual orientation by:|
|either engaging in reparative therapy
with a therapist, or |
|through spiritual counseling from a conservative Christian
transformational ministry. |
|Now consider themselves to be heterosexual.|
All or almost all of the people referred to Dr. Spitzer's study are evangelical Christians.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Answers to your questions about sexual orientation and
homosexuality," American Psychological Association, at:
- Doug Nave, "Organizations of US Mental Health Professionals are
- The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality
(NARTH) has a home page at: http://www.narth.com/
- As of 2001-JAN, NARTH can be reached at: 16633 Ventura Boulevard,
Suite 1340, Encino, CA 91436-1801. Phone: (818) 789-4440. Fax: (805)
- "Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation & Youth: A Primer for
Principals, Educators and School Personnel," at: http://www.apa.org
- APA response copied from a reader's Email
- Psychiatrists cancel gay debate," Associated Press, 2000-MAY-18, at: http://cobrand.salon.com/
- Joel Lawson, "Ex-gay leader confronted
in gay bar," Southern Voice, 2000-SEP-21, at: http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/
Copyright © 2002 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2002-FEB-16
Latest update and review: 2010-JUN-09
Author: B.A. Robinson