Reparative therapy and the power of an explanation

Yesterday, I posted a link to an article titled “My So-called Ex-gay Life” from the website of the American Prospect and written by Gabriel Arana. In that post, I focused on psychiatrist Robert Spitzer’s desire to retract his 2001 study of ex-gays. I also reported on my brief exchange with Bob about his study and his current views on sexual orientation.

Today, I want to comment about Arana’s description of Narth co-founder Joseph Nicolosi. Arana summarizes his three year therapy episode with Nicolosi which ended with Nicolosi’s prognosis to Arana’s parents that their son would never enter the gay lifestyle:

Late into my last year of high school, Nicolosi had a final conversation with my parents and told them that the treatment had been a success. “Your son will never enter the gay lifestyle,” he assured them.

I once had an experience with Nicolosi which is similar to what happened with Arana and his parents. I was in a meeting with several psychologists, including Nicolosi, debating the merits of his theory of paternal deficit as the sole cause for adult male homosexuality. I presented the basics of a clinical case involving a young adult who consulted me about his distress over his same-sex attractions. The young man told me that he came out to his father because he was closer to his father than to his mother. In addition, there were other indications of paternal warmth and closeness that I mentioned in the presentation. In the midst of some discussion over the case, Nicolosi abruptly interrupted me and said, “He’ll be fine. He’s not gay.” Nicolosi then explained that a boy like that who has such a close relationship with his father could not possibly remain attracted to the same sex. In fact, the young man did remain attracted to the same sex, although he did not come out as gay at that point. The only follow up I ever heard was that he had determined to live a celibate life. That case was presented as an illustration of other cases with the same basic narrative — gay men with close warm relationships with their fathers.

Nicolosi’s theoretical statements reveal the most obvious confirmation bias. Despite the fact that Nicolosi has been exposed to evidence which would invalidate his narrow theory, he persists in holding on. Witness what he said to Arana:

What about people who don’t fit his model? “After almost 30 years of work, I can say to you that I’ve never met a single homosexual who’s had a loving and respectful relationship with his father,” he says. I had heard it all before.

He said the same thing in the meeting where I introduced cases of gay males who had a loving and respectful relationship with their fathers. However, in the face of the disconfirming evidence, he simply changed the rules – those men weren’t gay, they couldn’t be because they were close to their dads. Even though the clients were attracted to the same sex; according to Nicolosi, they would not continue with those attractions because of their closeness to their dads.

Arana articulates well how different explanatory narratives can become inculcated into an identity. Arana describes how he perceived the therapeutic narrative:

Continue reading “Reparative therapy and the power of an explanation”

Robert Spitzer Retracts 2001 Ex-gay Study

Psychiatrist Bob Spitzer, author of a 2001 ex-gay study, told American Prospect journalist, Gabriel Arana, that he wants to retract his study:

Spitzer was growing tired and asked how many more questions I had. Nothing, I responded, unless you have something to add.

He did. Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”?

Knowing this article was coming, I talked last evening with Bob and asked him what he would like to do about his study. He confirmed to me that he has regret for what he now considers to be errant interpretations of the reports of his study participants. He told me that he had “second thoughts about his study” and he now believes “his conclusions don’t hold water.” He added that he now believes that the criticisms of the study expressed in the 2003 Archives of Sexual Behavior issue are “more true to the data” than his conclusions were.

He told me that he had expressed these thoughts to Ken Zucker, editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior several months ago. He wondered aloud to Dr. Zucker if there was some obligation to say the critics were right and that the study should be withdrawn. Although Spitzer said he did not recall Zucker’s exact reply, he did not feel encouraged to withdraw the paper. The Prospect article also references the issue of a formal retraction:

I asked about the criticisms leveled at him. “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” he said. “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.” He said he spoke with the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior about writing a retraction, but the editor declined. (Repeated attempts to contact the journal went unanswered.)

However, when I asked Zucker via email about his stance, he told me that Bob had not submitted anything for review, but he is free to submit a letter to the Editor or other communication expressing regret and his current views. The ball is in Bob’s court. My guess is that Bob will take him up on that offer.

There is much else to consider in this article which I will get to later today.  The material and personal experience with Joseph Nicolosi is well worth reading.