Robert Spitzer Retracts 2001 Ex-gay Study

Psychiatrist Bob Spitzer, author of a 2001 ex-gay study, told American Prospect journalist, Gabriel Arana, that he wants to retract his study:

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”?

Knowing this article was coming, I talked last evening with Bob and asked him what he would like to do about his study. He confirmed to me that he has regret for what he now considers to be errant interpretations of the reports of his study participants. He told me that he had “second thoughts about his study” and he now believes “his conclusions don’t hold water.” He added that he now believes that the criticisms of the study expressed in the 2003 Archives of Sexual Behavior issue are “more true to the data” than his conclusions were.

He told me that he had expressed these thoughts to Ken Zucker, editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior several months ago. He wondered aloud to Dr. Zucker if there was some obligation to say the critics were right and that the study should be withdrawn. Although Spitzer said he did not recall Zucker’s exact reply, he did not feel encouraged to withdraw the paper. The Prospect article also references the issue of a formal retraction:

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.)

However, when I asked Zucker via email about his stance, he told me that Bob had not submitted anything for review, but he is free to submit a letter to the Editor or other communication expressing regret and his current views. The ball is in Bob’s court. My guess is that Bob will take him up on that offer.

There is much else to consider in this article which I will get to later today.  The material and personal experience with Joseph Nicolosi is well worth reading.

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  • stephen

    It’s a fine article, far more tempered and even-handed than I could have managed under the circumstances. Among many notable details, Nicolosi’s complete inability to understand the results of his actions stands out. One wonder how he still could have a license. His obsession with the idea of masculinity is telling. Like many, he seems to view homosexuality as a lack of masculinity, a trait he associates with morality and the stays quo. So ‘therapy’ becomes a way of reinforcing a particular view of social order. Perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life but I’ve never heard of phone calls as being an acceptable or appropriate way for a psychiatrist – if that’s what he is – to conduct analysis. I didn’t think anybody did that outside Hollywood.

    The language of ‘choice’ and lifestyle’ is front and centre. One sees the devastation wrought by ‘the parents (read mother) are to blame folly. An idea that tortured my own mother during my very harrowing coming out. But the writer’s personal experience coupled with his measured tone is refreshing and welcome.

  • ken

    I don’t think Spitzer needs to retract anything, clarify maybe. Basically, what Spitzer said in the paper was that it may be possible to change orientation and that there needs to be more research into the efficacy of therapy to change orientation. I think anybody who honestly read his 2001 paper (rather than those who simply grabbed the parts they wanted to support their personal biases) saw that.

    At best, I think all Spitzer should really do is submit a letter to the editor saying the lack confirmation to his results indicates his results were anomalous and people are unlikely to change their orientation through therapy.

    And frankly, I’m surprised Nicolosi hasn’t been sued by any of his former patients.

  • What I want to know is how did this ever get through peer review in the first place. Surely the referees knew that Spitzer’s samping was flawed and without scientific controls.

    Nevertheless, I am profoundly grateful for someone who has corrected a wrong. It took courage and intellectual honesty to do so.

  • David Blakeslee

    The study was exciting and interesting when it was published. The reaction was rabid, and similar reactions occurred to Michael Baily.

    Neither one of these men were political advocates or homophobes, just curious men asking important questions.

    Of course the data is flawed…and hindsight is 20/20. Thank gawd for hindsight. Great post Warren…now to modify further “I do Exist.” ;(.

  • David – I Do Exist is pretty much toast 🙂

  • David Blakeslee

    Bummer…even the best of intentions, leads to bad conclusions. Way to stay strong with the data and let it guide your conclusions Warren. I feel so honored to know you.

  • Scott Rose

    Nicolosi says he’s never met a gay male who had a good relationship with the father. I would invite Nicolosi to meet me with my wonderful dad, but I fear I would be wasting my time and would not even receive a response.

  • Michael Bussee

    So, Spitzer’s study doesn’t hold water. Neither did the Pattison study. Now, if only Jones and Yarhouse would be very clear that their study doesn’t provide solid evidence of orientation change… Even if they did, what do you want to bet that some folks will continue to cite these studies as “proof”?

    For example, Exodus continues to promote the Spitzer study (and NARTH) on its homepage:

    “Information about Dr. Robert Spitzer’s 2003 study on orientation shift can be found on the NARTH (National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) website.”

  • Michael Bussee

    Jones and Yarhouse may have to rethink this:

    “Perhaps the highly publicized recent study in which participants reported successful change of sexual orientation was authored by research psychiatrist Robert L. Spitzer. Spitzer could be construed to be the most qualified person in the world to conduct this sort of research; in addition to a distinguished research career, he was the lead scientist responsible for revision of the DSM of the APA.” ~ “Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation”, Stanton L. Jones and mark A. Yarhouse (Pg. 89)

  • ken

    David Hart says:

    April 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    “What I want to know is how did this ever get through peer review in the first place. Surely the referees knew that Spitzer’s samping was flawed and without scientific controls. ”

    Spitzer didn’t need to worry about sampling any more than Hooker did in her study. He wasn’t trying to prove how likely change was, merely whether it occurred or not.

  • Lynn David

    Politics, Science and Confirmation Biases makes for strange bedfellows.

  • ken

    Scott Rose says:

    April 11, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    “Nicolosi says he’s never met a gay male who had a good relationship with the father. I would invite Nicolosi to meet me with my wonderful dad, but I fear I would be wasting my time and would not even receive a response.”

    Even better, I’d like to see him participate in the following study. Out of 30 straight men and 30 gay men, have each interviewed about their relationships with their fathers. Then see if Nicolosi can determine who is gay and who is straight based only on their responses. I doubt he’d be willing to participate in such a study.

  • Boo

    “The study was exciting and interesting when it was published. The reaction was rabid, and similar reactions occurred to Michael Baily.”

    True, but then Spitzer never claimed anyone who didn’t fit his model must be lying.

  • Boo :

    True, but then Spitzer never claimed anyone everyone who didn’t fit his model must be lying.

    There, fixed it for you.

  • StraightGrandmother

    Michael Bussee I am glad you brought up Jones & Yarhouse again. I have asked Warren in the past to request of Yarhouse the raw data because it is never explained in the Jones & Yarhouse study if the people who moved towards heterosexuality were mainly women. The study fails to break out the gender. Overall I do think the Jones and Yarhouse study needs a peer review of the RAW data. Why should we have to wait decades for this to happen like with Spitzer?

    I looked up the rules of the APA and the rule says that if you publish research you HAVE to provide the raw data to any qualified researcher, and the reviewing researcher has to maintain the confidentiality of the subjects. This is an American Psychological Association rule. You cannot publish research and refuse to give up your RAW data for review. Why is no one doing this? Why do we let research stand with open questions that remain unanswered? Why won’t a qualified research psychologist request the RAW data from Jones and Yarhouse? Why does everybody simply accept their conclusions?

  • Michael Bussee

    Considering that Robert Spitzer has now retracted his 2001 Ex-gay Study, Exodus may want to remove this endorsement of the Spitzer study from the Exodus homepage:

    “Perhaps the greatest shock to the mental health community came in 2001 when Dr. Robert Spitzer of Columbia University published his study on the efficacy of efforts to change one’s sexual orientation….After extensive study, the skeptical Spitzer published his findings in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2001 concluding that sexual orientation can successfully be changed.”

    Further, Alan Chambers has recently admitted that “99,9% don’t change their sexual orientation”. So why continue to use Spitzer’s study as proof that they do?

  • Michael Bussee

    Video on Gabriel Arana, reporter and web editor at The American Prospect and author of the piece “My So Called Ex-Gay Life,” talks with Rachel Maddow about Dr. Robert Spitzer recanting the one paper that served as the basis for “scientific” justifications for programs to “cure” homosexuality.

  • Michael Bussee

    “Rachel Maddow last night delivered two excellent and in-depth segments about the “ex-gay” movement, how it came into being, and why the anti-gay right has been able to ruin lives because of so-called “ex-gay” science.” ~ David Badash

  • Michael Bussee

    “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.” ~ Robert Spitzer

    Couldn’t the very same thing be said about the Jones and Yarhouse study?

  • Michael Bussee

    “After the show, the American Psychoanalytic Association sent this e-mail:

    “This issue deserves coverage in the news as long as individuals and the “ex-gay movement” use faulty science and bias to advance their agenda.

    APsaA states in its 1999 position statement on reparative therapy that efforts to “convert” or “repair” an individual’s sexual orientation are against the fundamental principles of psychoanalytic treatment and often result in substantial psychological pain by reinforcing damaging internalized homophobic attitudes.

    We emphasize that anti-homosexual bias, just like any other societal prejudice, negatively affects mental health and contributes to feelings of stigma and low self-worth.

    Reparative therapy is nothing more than quackery fueled by bias.”

  • Michael Bussee


    “Several months ago I told you that because of my revised view of my 2001 study of reparative therapy changing sexual orientation, I was considering writing something that would acknowledge that I now judged the major critiques of the study as largely correct. After discussing my revised view of the study with Gabriel Arana, a reporter for American Prospect, and with Malcolm Ritter, an Associated Press science writer, I decided that I had to make public my current thinking about the study. Here it is.

    Basic Research Question. From the beginning it was: “can some version of reparative therapy enable individuals to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual?” Realizing that the study design made it impossible to answer this question, I suggested that the study could be viewed as answering the question, “how do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation?” – a not very interesting question.

    The Fatal Flaw in the Study – There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation. I offered several (unconvincing) reasons why it was reasonable to assume that the subject’s reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.

    I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals.”

    Robert Spitzer. M.D.

    Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry

  • Michael Bussee

    Spitzer’s apology reminds of another one:

    “If I need to apologize for something, it is that I misled evangelicals for several years on the matter of sexual orientation. I did not intend to do so. When I made the documentary I Do Exist, I really believed the stories told. I know the people making the video did as well. I believed my clients; I believed people who told me they changed completely. In hindsight, I acknowledge that my work was complicated by the culture war.” ~ Warren Throckmorton