Weeks after the blogosphere picked up on it, The New York Times ran a story today about Dr. Robert Spitzer apologizing for his controversial and poorly researched 2001 study of patients involved in so-called reparative therapy.
Published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior more than a decade ago, Spitzer’s “findings” indicated that many of the 200 men and women he surveyed reported a “change from a predominantly or exclusively homosexual orientation before therapy to a predominantly or exclusively heterosexual orientation in the past year,” according to the Times piece.
First presented at the 2001 APA convention, Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? maintained that 66% of the men and 44% of the women interviewed had arrived at good heterosexual functioning, i.e., “being in a sustained, loving heterosexual relationship within the past year, getting enough satisfaction from the emotional relationship with their partner to rate at least 7 on a 10-point scale, having satisfying heterosexual sex at least monthly, and never or rarely thinking of somebody of the same sex during heterosexual sex.”
The study also claimed that “89% of men and 95% of women surveyed were just slightly or not at all plagued by “unwanted homosexual feelings,”
Even without a degree in psychiatry or statistics, we can tell Spitzer’s study is full of holes:
* He recruited his candidates from reparative-therapy groups NARTH and Exodus International, people with a strong desire to say they were seeing results, whether they were or not. People with strong religious values who needed to see results. Some were even active in anti-gay political groups.
* Spitzer’s study was based on telephone interviews with these people, not objective physiological-response tests to erotic stimuli (i.e. hooking their junk up to wires.)
* His respondents weren’t all using the same therapy method—some were involved in independent Bible study or just trying to “pray away” the gay with their pastors.
* Spitzer’s questions required respondents to think back years, to fuzzy memories, and quantify what is nearly unquantifiable.
Yet, Spitzer—whom the Times calls the father of modern psychiatry—though he had some good science on his hands and ran with it.
Since they were first published, Spitzer’s findings have been picked up by Exodus, NARTH and other ex-gay groups, and used in as proof that their methods work. They’ve been cited by politicians trying to block anti-discrimination bills and same-sex marriage legislation.
And they’ve been read by countless men and women struggling with their sexuality, people despondent they couldn’t get over their “condition” like the folk Spitzer interviewed.
Would it be overstatement to say the study cost people their lives?
The Times profile paints a portrait of Spitzer as a man too eager to be seen as at “the pinnacle of his field.” A man who employed shoddy methods to get his name, his ideas, out in front. While Spitzer originally helped to remove homosexuality as a mental disorder in the 1970s—moving him to the forefront of the discipline—he chafed at being an authority figure:
But power was its own kind of confinement. Dr. Spitzer could still disturb the peace, all right, but no longer from the flanks, as a rebel. Now he was the establishment. And in the late 1990s, friends say, he remained restless as ever, eager to challenge common assumptions.
Criticism of the study emerged immediately: It was rejected by the APA and Spitzer was excoriated by both fellow psychiatrists and members of the gay community. But it look him more than a decade to respond. In a letter to be published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior this month, Spitzer writes “I believe I owe the gay community an apology.”
That’s the very least you owe us, doctor.
Even in his mea culpa, Spitzer, now crippled by Parkinson’s, seems unable to let go of the egotism that lead him to threaten the rights and well-being of so many LGBT people.
“You know, it’s the only regret I have; the only professional one,” Dr. Spitzer said of the study, near the end of a long interview. “And I think, in the history of psychiatry, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a scientist write a letter saying that the data were all there but were totally misinterpreted. Who admitted that and who apologized to his readers.”
He looked away and back again, his big eyes blurring with emotion. “That’s something, don’t you think?”
No, not really.