Can gay men and women become heterosexual?
A controversial new study says yes — if they really want to. Critics, though, say the study's subjects may be deluding themselves and that the subject group was scientifically invalid because many of them were referred by anti-gay religious groups.
Dr. Robert Spitzer, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University, said he began his study as a skeptic — believing, as major mental health organizations do, that sexual orientation cannot be changed, and attempts to do so can even cause harm.
But Spitzer's study, which has not yet been published or reviewed, seems to indicate otherwise. Spitzer says he spoke to 143 men and 57 women who say they changed their orientation from gay to straight, and concluded that 66 percent of the men and 44 percent of women reached what he called good heterosexual functioning — a sustained, loving heterosexual relationship within the past year and getting enough emotional satisfaction to rate at least a seven on a 10-point scale.
He said those who changed their orientation had satisfying heterosexual sex at least monthly and never or rarely thought of someone of the same sex during intercourse.
He also found that 89 percent of men and 95 percent of women were bothered not at all or only slightly by unwanted homosexual feelings. However, only 11 percent of men and 37 percent of women reported a complete absence of homosexual indicators.
"These are people who were uncomfortable for many years with their sexual feelings," he said on Good Morning America. But they managed to change those feelings, he added.
The study reopens the debate over "reparative therapy," or treatment to change sexual preference. Spitzer argues that highly motivated gays can in fact change that preference — with a lot of effort.
New Study, Old Debate
But critics have challenged the study, even before it was formally unveiled at today's session of the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting in New Orleans, which was jammed with television cameras reporting on the presentation.
Another study presented today even contradicted the finding. Ariel Shidlo and Michael Shroeder, two psychologists in private practice in New York City, found that of 215 homosexual subjects who received therapy to change their sexual orientation, the majority failed to do so.
A small subset reported feeling helped.
That study has also not been published or reviewed.
Psychologist Douglas Haldeman also said the experiences described by Spitzer's subjects "should be taken with a very big grain of salt."
The people in Spitzer's sample, he said, may be fooling themselves.
"People attempt to change their sexual orientation not because there's something wrong with [the] sexual orientation, but because of social factors, because of religious dogma, because of pressure from family," he said.
"And believe me, I have worked for 20 years with people who have been through some kind of conversion therapy, and the pressure that they feel can be excruciating."
Hurt by Therapy
Spitzer doesn't question that many gay people have been hurt by therapy.
"There's no doubt that many homosexuals who have been unsuccessful and, attempting to change, become depressed and their life becomes worse," he said. "I'm not disputing that. What I am disputing is that is invariably the outcome."