Jun 29, 2011

EX-Gay Research: Analysing the Spitzer Study and It’s Relation to Science, Religion, Politics and Culture

Book Review
“EX-Gay Research: Analysing the Spitzer Study and It’s Relation to Science, Religion, Politics and Culture”
Anthony Venn-Brown
Author of “A Life of Unlearning – a journey to find the truth”

I think the consistent underlining and notes throughout my copy of “Ex-Gay Research – Analysing the Spitzer Study”, are a good indication of how helpful and relevant I found this book.

It might help if I briefly give you my background. This book was particularly relevant to me, as through personal experience I have a deeper insight into the content than most people. I admitted myself into Australia’s first ex-gay live-in program for 6 months in 1972 in order to free myself of unwanted homosexuality and become straight. Subsequently I married in 1974 believing that God had healed me and that I had the power to overcome any future same sex temptations. Being married for 16 years and fathering two children, I probably would have volunteered for a study such as Spitzer’s. As a high profile preacher though, there was a constant battle going on behind the scenes in order to maintain the façade. That ended quite tragically and publicly in 1991. I now live as a totally out, fulfilled gay man. In addition, for ten years I have been moderating a Yahoo Group for survivors of ex-gay programs as well as working with people who are same-sex-oriented from Christian backgrounds.

Robert L. Spitzer was substantially involved in the American Psychiatric Association’s Board of Trustees decision to remove "homosexuality" from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Second Edition (DSM-II) in 1973. This makes the paper he presented “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?” in 2001 during the Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association even more intriguing. The similarities of those two events contain some eerie similarities that reflect more on Spitzer’s character than his objectivity as a researcher.

This book is a cleverly constructed collection of essays from over 30 academics, researchers, psychologists and social commentators. The spectrum includes a few who feel Spitzer’s study is valid to those who say it was highly irresponsible to even publish it. There is also a chapter of Spitzer’s in response to the criticisms and finally an interview with him. As one reads, one becomes quickly aware of the limitations in his research methodology. Those gaping holes are restated ad infinitum throughout the book. Spitzer surveyed 200 people who once believed they were homosexual but after going through some form of “reparative therapy” (a misnomer in itself), now believe they are heterosexual. Spitzer interviewed each one personally over the telephone for 45 minutes where they were asked 114 questions.

The common criticisms of his methodology are.
  1. Self reporting. The anecdotal reporting of the individuals leaves a wide space for self-deception, denial and changing of memories over time. I am very familiar with this having spent many years pretending to be heterosexual and excusing my occasional slip ups as just temptation.
  2. Not using penile or vaginal photoplethysmography to determine sexual orientation. Most of the writers agree this is the only way sexual arousal can be gauged objectively.
  3. The sample was very limited. Mostly white middle class, middle-aged men and women: people who grew up in a society with sodomy laws, an intense pressure to conform and all the stigma attached.
  4. The sample was extremely religious. 93% said that religion was extremely or very important in their lives. A significant number were actually in ex-gay ministries and made their living working with people with unwanted homosexual “feelings”. The strong vested interest in reporting successful outcomes is obvious.
  5. The sample is small.  Whilst Spitzer admits this, he fails to mention that it took him over 18 months to find the 200 participants and had to enlist the help of people such as the now infamous Dr Laura. Others claim the search was more like three years to actually find 200.
  6. “Reparative therapy” is never clearly defined. It has many hybrids none of which are based on scientific research.
  7. Length of time. Previous studies with people who underwent aversion therapy and married, showed 20 years later, all marriages had failed. One wonders if these people, who underwent “reparative therapy”, were interviewed in another 10 years whether their marriages would also have failed. From my experience, it is frequently in midlife that these unresolved issues have to be dealt with.
  8. Bisexuality. It appears that a large group of his sample were not initially exclusively homosexual and were possibly bi-sexual. The demonstrated fluidity of female sexuality as opposed to male sexuality is also never taken into account.
  9. Quality of their current heterosexual functionality is very subjective. Particularly for men in this situation that have had “sex with a 100 men once but had sex with one woman 100 times”. My initial homosexual experiences, though frequent, were very limited and never contained the elements of love, passion, affection or intimacy and were constantly linked with self-loathing and guilt. Whilst having a fondness and love (not in love) for my wife, I realise now, that sex was often little more than duty or release. I genuinely believed, as I had nothing else to compare it with, I was doing the right thing and that this was just how it was. This book helped me to see that experience as “situational heterosexuality”.
  10. The study didn’t look at those for who “reparative therapy” didn’t work or did harm. Mental health professionals have agreed that attempts to change one’s sexual orientation causes stress and depression often leading to thoughts of suicide because of constant failures. Some in the sample group had been in therapy up to 15 years.
Religious groups immediately hailed the Spitzer study as a breakthrough, justifying their position that homosexuality is “a chosen lifestyle”. It wasn’t long before the dangerous implications of the study became evident. Chapter 36 tell us that opponents of the bill granting civil rights to same sex couples quoted Spitzer’s work in the Finnish Parliament as authoritative. He wrote to the parliament and explained that his report was “based on a very unique sample”, such results “are probably quite rare, even for highly motivated homosexuals”. He added in the letter, “it would be a serious mistake to conclude from his research that homosexuality is a choice”.

Reading this book brought many questions to mind. The one that comes up repeatedly though is “Why would an intelligent man like Spitzer have even done this study knowing how controversial it would be and that his methodology was lacking?” The answer finally comes in Chapter 35 “Political Science” from Wayne Besen’s book “Anything but Straight”. Wayne gives us a behind the scenes account of communications with Spitzer, from the moment, in 1999, he warns him of how such a study will be used politically, to Spitzer calling him after the release of the study crying “Wayne, help me get out of this mess”. Maybe the answer lies in Spitzer’s own words in the final chapter “And, I admit, there is something in me that is always looking for trouble or something to challenge the orthodoxy.”

Chapter 34, “An Analysis of the Media Response to the Spitzer Study” is a timeline of the events after the release of the paper that gives additional insight into the background of the entire saga.

Spitzer’s study does answer the question “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?”  The answer is “no”, but if you believe something strong enough and develop behaviours that reinforce that belief, it will be real for you. That doesn’t mean of course that it is reality……only the world of denial you’ve created to make you feel secure, loved and accepted.

In Jan 2007 Dr Spitzer himself responds to the false conclusions some Christians have come to and their   misrepresentation of his research.


Website: www.gayambassador.com   

Anthony Venn-Brown is the co-founder and former leader of Freedom 2 b[e], Australia’s largest network of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people from Christian backgrounds. He is also an educator and consultant on LGBT/faith issues and leader in deconstructing the ‘ex-gay’ myth. Anthony’s autobiography 'A Life of Unlearning', details his journey from married, high profile preacher in Australia’s mega-churches to living as an openly gay man. Anthony has been twice voted ‘One of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians’ (2007 & 2009) and this year was one of four finalists for the ACON Community Hero Award. He is also the founder and director of Ambassadors &  Bridge Builders International ( www.gayambassador.com

1 comment:

  1. So the Christians who use the information from Spitzer's study, and the material from his interview with James Dobson, do so in a way that totally lacks integrity... cherry-picking exactly what they want, as they do with verses from the Bible, and leaving out anything that might qualify or contradict their views. No matter what one's beliefs may be about homosexuality or gay marriage, presenting half-truths, lying by ommision, cherry picking verses instead of using the whole counsel of the Word of God is dishonest, lying, sinful, no way to win an argument, and not a worthy way to represent our Lord. It is not Christ-like to be so lacking in basic integrity.

    I respect everyone's right to hold their particular beliefs and point of view, on both sides of the debate, but that point of view MUST be informed, and presented with empathy, integrity and honesty. To twist the facts to support your platform... now THAT is an abomination!

    How distressing must it be for someone like Spitzer to have his work used in this way. I am a straight Christian. I didn't choose to be this way... I just am. I don't for a moment believe anyone chooses or can change their sexual orientation. Perhaps a VERY SMALL number of people, because of their very strong beliefs, are actually more content living a life of constant suppression of their orientation. But, unless they are open about it, whether they have chosen to be celibate, or with their straight partner's full knowledge and cooperation, is is incredibly deceitful to live a fascade... to the rest of the Body of Christ and humanity in general.

    And perhaps some of the "success" stories Spitzer encounterd belong to Christians who are genuinely bisexual... the choice is then simply to choose a straight partner and remain faithful to that partner for life. No different then to the choice faithful Christian heterosexual people make.

    No matter what one's personal beliefs I've never understood why Christians feel they have the right to impose those beliefs on the whole of society. Apparently I'm not the only Christian who thinks this... http://www.redletterchristians.org/it-is-time-for-the-american-christian-church-to-surrender-the-gay-marriage-fight-apologize-and-share-love/



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