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Praying the gay away: when religion hijacks science

Religious groups claim “ex-gay” therapies have scientific merit. flickr/michael keith photography

It’s been decades since electroshock therapy or other psychiatric interventions were routinely employed to “treat” homosexuality. These days, reparative therapy is more popular. It involves a combination of therapy and prayer to “cure” homosexuality – praying away the gay, as they say.

A number of high-profile organisations advocate and provide reparative therapy, most notably the (American) National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which argues that the therapy rests on scientific merit.

Science has long been a battleground for religious and political debate. Abortion debates are a classic example of this. The moral divide between pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners is so immutable that the debate is increasingly contested on scientific grounds.

Often anti-abortion campaigners will argue their case on the “evidence” that abortion psychologically or physically harms women (rather than on their moral position on abortion). This obscures the religious agenda behind a veneer of scientific objectivity.

Of course, when it comes to homosexuality, religious campaigners similarly accuse gay and lesbian rights campaigners of hiding their agenda behind science.

Evidence demonstrating the success of reparative therapy is valuable to conservative religion. If sexuality is changeable, an argument can be made that homosexuals are made, not born. This allows religious groups to create a scientific platform for resisting the argument that homosexuality is a normal and natural part of humanity, and should not be a point of discrimination. Focus on this point locks debate about homosexuality further into a scientific realm, concentrated on the nature of homosexual attraction rather than the morality of endorsing discrimination.


There’s very little evidence for the efficacy of reparative therapy. In 2009, the American Psychological Association released a statement renouncing reparative therapy. It cited a dearth of scientific evidence supporting its efficacy and the likelihood that it may cause harm.

The Spitzer study

The main piece of research regularly cited by the so-called “ex-gay movement” is a 2001 paper by Columbia University Professor Robert Spitzer. He interviewed more than 200 people who all self-identified as having increased heterosexual attraction following reparative therapy. But most of the study’s participants were referred by groups running reparative therapy and were presumably highly religious, holding a deep desire to be considered heterosexual.

Despite knowing this, Spitzer concluded that “change in sexual orientation following some forms of reparative therapy does occur in some gay men and lesbians.”

Reparative therapy groups lauded the findings. Spitzer is a high-profile psychiatrist who was instrumental in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-II). This placed him clearly on the public record for his belief that homosexuality is “normal.”

Spitzer’s distance from religious groups made him a perfect, if not unwitting, spokesperson for reparative therapy. But this was never his intention – people didn’t interpret Spitzer’s research in the way he thought they would.

According to Spitzer, the goal of his study had been to investigate the truth of the claim that no-one had ever changed sexual orientation through therapy. He wasn’t seeking to evaluate the efficacy of ex-gay programs for all people. Rather, given the dominant view was that sexuality couldn’t be altered, he was curious about whether reparative therapy had worked for some people.

But Spitzer was naïve to assume his personal “objective” scientific curiosity would be understood and allow him to remain at a distance from the religious and political agenda in which his research was situated. Essentially, he tried to ignore the key role that scientific research plays in religious debate.

Once in the public domain…

Sptizer publicly denounced his research in a recent interview with web editor for The American Prospect, Gabriel Arana, who himself had experienced reparative therapy.

“In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct. The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more,” he said. Spitzer also acknowledged that failed attempts to rid oneself of homosexual attraction “can be quite harmful.”

But the Archives of Sexual Behaviour hasn’t published a formal retraction of Spitzer’s paper, arguing that a retraction is not appropriate given Spitzer is not claiming he made an error or his data was flawed.

It remains to be seen whether Spitzer’s new stance makes any difference to the role his research plays as an advocacy tool for reparative therapy. Critiques of Spitzer’s method have been widely available for years and there was nothing deceptive or fraudulent about his work that renders it untrustworthy. It’s likely that reparative therapy groups will continue to claim it as evidence.

Scientific and psychological research is a major area in which religious, moral and political debate is contested. It goes without saying that demonstration of rigour in this context holds an added level of importance. But researchers lose control of how their work is interpreted once published. No matter how much a researcher tries to distance herself from this, her work is still part of the game.

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