A study showing that it may be possible to change the sexual orientation of gays and lesbians has reopened the debate over whether people are born homosexual or straight.
Research that demonstrates some homosexual men and women were capable of becoming "predominantly" heterosexual through psychotherapy has created a furore within academia.
The study was based on interviews with 200 men and women who claimed to have had their gay preferences changed in therapy - often provided by religious organisations that believe homosexuality is a developmental abnormality.
Critics believe the study is flawed but supporters argue that it exposes the myth that homosexuality is "hard-wired" at birth, which would mean that nothing can be done to alter a person's preordained sexuality. The findings are being taken seriously because the study - published in the current issue of Archives of Sexual Behaviour - was conducted by Robert Spitzer, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York.
Professor Spitzer is an eminent authority on sexual orientation and, in 1973, was instrumental in having homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental illnesses.
Most homosexuals are happy with their sexual preferences but a small minority are not and would like to adopt a more heterosexual lifestyle, Professor Spitzer said. "It's better not to consider homosexuality as a mental disorder. But I do believe that people who are bothered by their homosexuality have a right to have this therapy," he said.
"The current, politically correct view is that this therapy never works. I think it doesn't work a lot of the time but in some people it does," he said.
"In some of the subjects, the reports of change in sexual orientation were substantial, credible and believable."
The 200 homosexual participants in the study - 143 men and 57 women - came mostly from the US and Canada but a few came from Europe. All claimed that therapy had altered to some extent the way they looked upon the same sex.
The therapy involved a range of psychological techniques, mostly of the "self control" variety, such as avoiding tempting situations, stopping erotic thoughts from developing or mixing socially with straight men and women in non-sexual situations.
Critics of "reparative therapy" argue that it is only effective in getting people to resist their instinctive feelings, simply making them believe that they no longer feel sexually attracted to the same sex.
But Professor Spitzer said the findings show that to be untrue: "This study provides evidence that some gay men and lesbians are able to also change the core features of sexual orientation. Almost all of the participants reported substantial changes in the core aspects of sexual orientation, not merely overt behaviour," he said.
Estimates of how many people are gay vary from about 3 per cent of the population to 10 per cent or slightly higher. Professor Spitzer said he does not know how many of these men and women could be able to change their sexual orientation if they wanted to.
"I suspect it's quite unusual and quite rare. It also depends on what is meant by change. Some may not be able to go as far as experiencing heterosexual arousal," he said.
John Bancroft, an eminent sexologist at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, said that the Spitzer study's principle strength is that it has been conducted on a relatively large number of people, but he nevertheless has serious reservations.
"First and foremost, the sample consists of men and women who principally sought treatment because of their religious beliefs and who were presenting themselves as evidence that such change was both possible and desirable," Professor Bancroft said.
"Secondly, it is very difficult to discern from this study just what 'reparative therapy' had involved. At best, it has been a long process, with a substantial minority still continuing in ongoing therapy after many years," he said.Reuse content