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Reorientation Redux

Warren Throckmorton, PhD

Without intending it, I have become involved in an occasional dialogue with C. Richard Carlson regarding sexual reorientation therapy. The “conversation” has taken the form of an article from Mr. Carlson titled “Sexual Reparative (Conversion) Therapy Revisited” followed by a response from me (“Sexual Reorientation Therapy Reconsidered”). Recently, he answered me back in print with an article on the website of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, so I guess it is my turn.

Mr. Carlson has five quarrels with my reconsideration of reorientation therapy. About my views he says: “First, Dr. Throckmorton minimizes the harm done by reparative therapists.” I disagree. I noted in my article the study done by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder that documented harm experienced by some people who sought reorientation counseling. The truth is we do not know how often harm is experienced by people seeking sexual reorientation. I do agree however, that there are harmful things done in the name of reorientation counseling. Mr. Carlson seems to take my support for the availability of reorientation type interventions as a denial that harm occurs. I did not do that and have never denied that some people have bad experiences in counseling. My research program seeks to determine what those practices are and discourage them.

Second, Mr. Carlson asks: “Where is the evidence for sustained change?” He recruits psychiatrist Jack Drescher to comment about the research of fellow psychiatrist Robert Spitzer. Basically if you read both of Mr. Carlson’s articles, you will find that discrediting Dr. Spitzer’s findings is at the core of his efforts.

At Mr. Carlson’s behest, Dr. Drescher said: “Dr. Throckmorton neglects to mention that despite the claims of people like himself of innumerable people being helped by sexual conversion therapists, that it was quite difficult for Dr. Spitzer to even find 200 subjects.”

I have reviewed my writings on this subject and looked for any claims that “innumerable people” have been helped by reorientation efforts. I did not find such a statement. I do not know how many people have benefited just as Dr. Drescher does not know how many people have been harmed. I do know that Dr. Spitzer reported 42% of men and 46% of women were clinically depressed before they entered sexual reorientation and afterwards, only one percent of men and four percent of women reported depression to that degree. All we can say is that some people reported benefit from reorientation counseling, unless of course, they were all lying.

Mr. Carlson and Dr. Drescher cannot logically dismiss Dr. Spitzer’s study unless they are prepared to dismiss the Shidlo and Schroeder study of people harmed by reorientation therapy. Essentially, they are similar studies but with different groups of people. Drs. Shidlo and Schroeder used no control groups and stated publicly that they were looking for people to document the damage of “homophobic therapies.” Dr. Spitzer deliberately looked for people who said they were helped and had changed. Furthermore, the Shidlo and Schroeder study took five years to find 176 people who were willing to say that they were harmed; it took Dr. Spitzer two years to find his 200 participants.

If one is concerned about objectivity, one could make a case that Dr. Spitzer’s study has an advantage. Dr. Spitzer is historically associated with the American Psychiatric Association’s action to discontinue seeing homosexuality as a mental disorder. He favors gay civil rights. He had no ideological rationale to distort his perceptions or his findings. Drs. Shidlo and Schroeder are gay psychologists who set out to find what they found. Even so, I do not dispute the potential for certain practices to cause harm. Why do opponents of reorientation continue to dispute the word of people who say they have been helped by seeking change?

Third, Mr. Carlson again calls on Dr. Drescher to scold me for suggesting that the American Psychiatric Association has been influenced by its gay and lesbian constituents. My response is twofold. One, in my article reconsidering reorientation therapy, I referred to statements of Dr. Spitzer regarding the APA. I have no first hand knowledge of the inner workings of the APA but given Dr. Spitzer’s long history with that organization, he is qualified to opine. Second, as an outside observer, I have to wonder why the APA made policy regarding reorientation therapy in the absence of data. If one doubts that the APA acted in this manner, consider what Drs Shidlo and Schroeder said in their 2002 Professional Psychology article about the APA’s position regarding reorientation therapy: “This position [the APA position on reorientation therapy] is consistent with theoretical and clinical arguments echoed in the writings of several clinicians [Dr. Drescher among them]…but lacks the support of a systematic base of empirical data. No large-scale study has been made with the specific goal of looking at the harmfulness of conversion therapies. The current investigation seeks to remedy that.” The position came first, the data thereafter.

Fourth, Mr. Carlson finds fault with my call for client self-determination. I do not understand the point of this section because neither of us propose to coerce people into any form of therapy. Although, Mr. Carlson again brings Dr. Drescher in to say reorientation counseling is of necessity coercive, the Shidlo and Schroeder study conflicts with that characterization. They found that only 26% of their participants reported therapist initiated discussion of reorientation. The evidence we have does not portray widespread efforts to coerce clients into reorientation.

Finally, Mr. Carlson accuses me of politicizing the issue of reorientation therapy although he does not say how. I cannot really defend myself against a charge that is simply leveled without a reference. On the other hand, Mr. Carlson connects “the political and religious right” to his complaints about reorientation. These are political statements. In contrast to Carlson’s claim, Dr. Spitzer is neither politically nor religiously conservative so it is hard to see what political motivation Dr. Spitzer could have for his work.

Clearly, this topic creates much heat. While I doubt I will have won Mr. Carlson to my point of view, I appreciate the opportunity to have this kind of public discussion. I do hope he continues it.


Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology, Grove City College and a Fellow with the Center for Vision and Values. He maintains a website at


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