Renouncing “reparative therapy”: A giant in the field admits his humanity

Robert Spitzer, MD, one of the most influential voices in modern psychiatry, readily admits that he has always been drawn to controversy. He definitely has been at the heart of the controversy about sexual orientation and identity since the 1970s. It was during that time that Dr. Spitzer was instrumental in getting homosexuality removed from the DSM-III thereby declassifying it as a “mental illness.” However, the biggest controversy he may have been a part of was his more recent work on so-called “reparative therapies.” And now his recantation of that work may be one the last (he's 80 years old now) and possibly one of the most important contributions Dr. Spitzer will make. In an inspiring act of courage and scientific integrity, Dr. Spitzer has written a letter to be published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in which he states, ““I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy.”

 

The study that Spitzer is referring to is the highly influential 2003 study he conducted and that was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (published, it should be noted, without going through the standard peer-review process) in which he concluded that the majority of participants in his study, who were self-selected as being highly distressed about their sexual orientation, reported having changed their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The result was a study that has been widely misused for political purposes to state that homosexuality can (and should) be “cured.” While Spitzer has, reportedly, always disagreed with this interpretation of his study, he has now publically denounced the study as being based on flawed science. All of the findings in the study were based exclusively on self-report from a “highly motivated” sample. In addition, this was not a study of the effectiveness of any type of particular therapy--nearly ½ of the participants never even engaged in any therapy at all. Basically, his study, which has been cited for nearly 10 years as “scientific proof” that sexual orientation/identity can be changed, consisted of interviewing people who reported that they had, in the past, been highly distressed about identifying as homosexual and now felt that they were more strongly identified as heterosexual.

 

Dr. Spitzer is certainly not alone in his criticism of reparative therapies. In fact he is a bit late in his critique. In 1997, the American Psychological Association came out with a resolution specifically stating that there is no scientific merit to claims of therapies being able to change sexual orientation and condemning the practice of such therapies. In 2000, the American Psychiatric Association followed suit and published a resolution challenging the “validity, efficacy, and ethics of clinical attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation.” Just last week the World Health Organization came out with a report stating that these type of therapies are “a serious threat to the health and well-being — even the lives — of affected people.”

 

The problem with science is that it is conducted by humans, and we humans have our own preconceptions, egos, and agendas that can get in the way of our science. What is heartening is that someone like Spitzer, a giant in the field, can finally take a stand and correct what he has called his “only professional regret.”

 

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Jenna is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with people who struggle with relationship and intimacy difficulties and with those who have a trauma history. Her research focuses on developing interventions targeting stigma.
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