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Published study finds ‘ex-gay’ therapy works

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The man who led the charge in the 1970s to remove homosexuality from a list of mental disorders now says that those claiming to be “ex-gay” are telling the truth.

Robert Spitzer’s finding that some homosexuals can become heterosexuals is sure to re-ignite the debate over the effectiveness of such organizations as Exodus International, which seeks to reach homosexuals with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Three decades ago Spitzer helped lead the charge to take homosexuality off the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders.

Spitzer’s study, along with critical analysis from peers, is published in the October 2003 edition of the Archives of Sexual Behavior. He announced his findings in 2001 but had yet to publish them in an academic journal.

His study involved 45-minute telephone interviews with 200 people claiming to be former homosexuals — 143 men, 57 women. They had to meet certain criteria, such as reporting “at least some minimal change” from homosexuality to heterosexuality that lasted at least five years.

For the purpose of the paper he called all forms of therapy — religious and non-religious — “reparative therapy.”

“This study … clearly goes beyond anecdotal information and provides evidence that reparative therapy is sometimes successful,” Spitzer wrote. “For the participants in our study, there was no evidence of harm [from reparative therapy]. To the contrary, they reported that it was helpful in a variety of ways beyond changing sexual orientation itself.”

One argument against reparative therapy is that it will trigger depression in homosexuals. Spitzer, though, found just the opposite to be true: Those who had undergone reparative therapy had experienced far less depression. Forty-three percent of males and 47 percent of females reported being “markedly” or “extremely” depressed before their therapy. But that number dropped significantly after therapy, with only 1 percent of males and 4 percent of females in the study reporting having been depressed at any time during the year preceding the interview.

“Participants reported benefit from nonsexual changes, such as decreased depression, a greater sense of masculinity in males, and femininity in females, and developing intimate nonsexual relations with members of the same sex,” he wrote. “There is no doubt about what the participants in the study reported. The key question is judging the credibility of their self-reports.”

Spitzer acknowledged the controversial nature of the study. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, National Association of Social Work and American Counseling Association all have issued position papers warning of possible harm of reparative therapy, he noted.

His colleagues criticized the report in a series of analytical pieces in the journal. Some said the study’s subjects had an agenda and exaggerated the truth; others said the subjects were simply “bisexual.”

“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,” he wrote. “I therefore should have realized that, despite any methodological improvements in assessment of change that I could incorporate into the study (such as the use of a fully structured interview schedule with detailed questions assessing multiple components of sexual orientation), many critics would never accept the subject’s self-reports as credible.”

The average age of the men in the study was 42, the average age of the women 44. Sixty-six percent of the men and 47 percent of the women were married.

The study showed that some of the subjects were still struggling with the change. Of the 158 participants who were no longer in therapy, 13 percent of the men and 10 percent of the women reported that since undergoing therapy they had had a brief occurrence — usually only a few days — of “overt homosexual behavior.” But only two of these occurrences had happened in the previous year.

Only 11 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women reported a “complete” break from homosexuality — that is, not even occasionally thinking a lustful thought.

Forty-three percent of the participants learned about the study from religious ministries while 23 percent learned about it from the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a group of professionals who offer therapy to homosexuals wishing to change. Ninety-three percent said that religion was “extremely” or “very” important in their lives.

Indiana University’s John Bancroft argued that the subjects were biased.

“Given their powerful agenda of promoting such treatment, it would be surprising if they did not overestimate the amount of change,” he wrote.

But Spitzer asserted that if the subjects were lying they would not have admitted to their continuing struggles.

“If there was significant bias, one might expect that many participants would report complete or near complete change in all sexual orientation measures … ,” he wrote.

On average the subjects began having homosexual thoughts at age 12 and began undergoing therapy at age 30.

If taken seriously, the study’s findings have a far-reaching impact, Spitzer said.

“First, it questions the current conventional view that desire for therapy to change sexual orientation is always succumbing to societal pressure and irrational internalized homophobia,” he wrote. “For some individuals, changing sexual orientation can be a rational, self-directed goal. Second, it suggests that the mental health professionals should stop moving in the direction of banning therapy that has as a goal a change in sexual orientation.”

Spitzer, who said he was skeptical of reparative therapy before beginning the study, said more studies need to be done.

“[But] given the cost and complexity of such a study and the current view in the mental health professions of the benefits and risks of reorientation therapy, such a study is not going to happen in the near future,” he wrote. “This is unfortunate because of the real questions raised, albeit admittedly not resolved, by this study.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust