Researcher Robert Spitzer Retracts Landmark Ex-Gay Study

Jim Burroway

April 11th, 2012

When I wrote about Gabriel Arana’s piece in The American Prospect about his experiences in ex-gay therapy under Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, I wanted to emphasize his personal story. It was both poignant and harrowing, and I think that ex-gay voices are too often unheard whenever we talk about the movement.

But there is another aspect of that story which, in the larger scheme of things, is quite significant. In 1973, Dr. Robert Spitzer, who was the chief editor of the Diagnostics and Statistical  Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (the manual which decided what was a mental disorder), had led the effort to remove homosexuality form the APA’s official list of mental illnesses. In 2001, Spitzer presented a paper to a meeting of the APA which, based on 200 interviews, concluded that ex-gay therapy worked for those who worked hard at it. (That paper was subsequently published in the prestigious Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2003.) It was a huge boost to the ex-gay movement, with headlines from the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal.

For his article in The American Prospect, Gabe visited Spitzer at his home in Princeton:

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.” He has, though, no doubts about the 1973 fight over the classification of homosexuality.

“Had there been no Bob Spitzer, homosexuality would still have eventually been removed from the list of psychiatric disorders,” he said. “But it wouldn’t have happened in 1973.”

Spitzer was growing tired and 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”?

In 2007, Spitzer spoke out against the ex-gay movement for misrepresenting the results of his study. At that time, he told the New York Times that he thought that if change occurs in ex-gay therapy, it was very rare. “Is it 1 percent, 2 percent? I don’t think it’s 10 percent.”

Jay Jonson

April 11th, 2012

Is this news?

John Becker

April 11th, 2012

@Jay: Yes. Major news. Every major anti-gay and “ex-gay” org cites the now-discredited Spitzer study. Today is a landmark day in the defeat of the “ex-gay” movement.


April 11th, 2012

It is a big deal.

What still completely befuddles me is that none of these researchers seem to have heard of bisexual people.

The evidence isn’t that gay people who work hard at it can become straight, but that bisexual people with a predominant same-sex attraction and history of sexual activity can sometimes shift their attractions and sexual functioning to members of the same sex.

It the whole ex-gay movement was focused on helping people figure out whether or not they are actually bisexual to begin with rather than asking Jesus to work a miracle and make the gay go away, there would be a lot fewer ruined lives in their wake.

Tim Stewart

April 11th, 2012

I can believe that some small percentage of those who’ve undergone therapy have successfully shifted their sexual interest to the opposite gender. What they probably fail to admit to anyone, even themselves, is that they were bisexual all along. Or if you’re a Kinsey scale type, they simply weren’t entirely homosexual in the first place.


April 11th, 2012

Shortly after this study was published I coauthored (along with over 40 other researchers) a Letter to the Editor of Archives of Sexual Behavior, that meticulously critiqued the methodology and conclusions of the study. This is the first I’ve heard that Spitzer has shown any sense of regret over that study. For someone with such a solid reputation, I was and remain shocked that he could be responsible for writing something so methodologically sloppy, and yes, unfortunately I believe it has irrevocably tarnished his legacy.


April 11th, 2012

Spitzer has been asking the “ex-gays” to stop taking his study out of context for years. Why does ANYBODY think that the people who still quote Paul Cameron’s work will stop quoting Spitzer’s work, regardless of his retraction?

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. Mark Twain


April 11th, 2012

Typically I am the really precise one in the room. Where exactly is the “I Robert Spitzer do hereby revoke my previous researcy on…”

This quote just doesn’t cut it for me,
“He did. Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”?

I am looking for a stand alone retraction. Where is it?

Regan DuCasse

April 11th, 2012

I commented about this over at ExGayWatch.

We know that orgs like NOM, FRC and FOTF have also used Spitzer as an example, and Dobson is guilty of outright distorting legitimate research.
And, disregarding and ignoring these same researchers complaints and appeals to cease and desist.
NOM’s reps have gone into denial mode of their activity and agenda when it comes to engaging voters against gays and lesbians.
I’m certain that they will respond to Spitzer’s renouncement in several ways.

1. They won’t acknowledge it and pretend he didn’t say it and try to scrub him from their history of using him for their purpose.

2. They’ll say he’s a tired old man, that helplessly had to capitulate to the pressures of the ‘militant homosexual agenda’, the way he did back in the 70’s. Because gay people are so relentless and threatening against those who disagree with them, or don’t do what they say.

3. That he was never a big enough or important enough study in the first place so why don’t we all move on and forget him?



April 11th, 2012

StraightGrandmother wrote: “This quote just doesn’t cut it for me:

‘He did. Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, ‘so I don’t have to worry about it anymore’?

I am looking for a stand alone retraction. Where is it?”

TG replies:

I have to agree, SG. I’ve been debatating a couple of anti-gay fundies for several years in a Yahoo group, and I know *exactly* what they’re going to say to Spitzer’s comment: “He’s being pressured by gay activists, that’s why he’s saying that now” (which coincidentally is the exact same reason they give for homosexuality being removed from the DSM).

It bothers me the Archives of Sexual Behavior refuses to print Spitzer’s retraction. I’m not doubting Spitzer’s motive *at all*, but does anyone have any ideas as to WHY A of SB won’t print it?


April 11th, 2012

I’m not doubting Spitzer’s motive *at all*, but does anyone have any ideas as to WHY A of SB won’t print it?

The usual reason. Every retraction erodes credibility of (relatively) scientific journals by demonstrating failure of their review process. Retraction of a relatively prominent and widely cited paper is particularly damaging.

Credibility in this particular area of research is exceedingly precious. The main editor or editorial board is being pain averse. They know they’ll have to publish the retraction or a “correction” at some point. That’s not the hard part. It’s writing some sort of explanation how the original article got through review in the form it did. The more elementary the failure, the more painful it is to admit to it.

Priya Lynn

April 11th, 2012

Well explained, cd.

Timothy Kincaid

April 11th, 2012

There appears to be a misunderstanding. The Archives of Sexual Behavior would welcome a retraction but are waiting for Dr. Spitzer to send one. He appears to have believed that they wouldn’t print one.

Spitzer has now been informed that ASB will print his retraction and it is expected that he will draft one soon.


April 11th, 2012

The original publication was, supposedly, peer-reviewed. A retraction involves more than Spitzer and the journal; it drags in (justifiably) the persons who reviewed the work and found no problems with it. Tsk.


April 11th, 2012

My comment was written while Mr. Kincaid was writing his, apparently. I wouldn’t have posted mine had I first seen Kincaid’s.


April 11th, 2012

He’s “attracted to controversy,” is he? He should have thought about the possible consequences before he acted on those attractions. What that study needed was a prophylactic.

By the way, “Archives of Sexual Behavior”?!?
Sounds like someplace librarians go for secret trysts on top of a pile of gray, acid-free boxes.


April 12th, 2012

I dunno that this is all that big news because, as BTB’s “How to write a homophobic screed” points out: anti-gays love to cite innumerable sources because nobody’s actually going to check on them and ensure that they’re valid. I fully expect the other side to keep citing this study for decades.

It’s a tactic known as the Gish Gallop: innundate your audience with all sorts of ridiculous and wild claims – by the time your opposition has researched the BS you’re spewing and debunked it, you’ve gone on to make a dozen more equally insane claims.

Don’t get me wrong – this retraction is a good thing – I just don’t think it’ll mitigate the ridiculousness of the anti-gay side or, more importantly, reduce the damage they can do.

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