Nancy Polikoff

Lesbian family study: No sexual or physical abuse

Filed By Nancy Polikoff | November 10, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: children of lesbian mothers, Nanette Gartrell, National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study

Earlier this year, I wrote about the well-being of the 17 year old children of lesbians in the US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS). Now there's more data on these children, this time published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The current article examines the sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and sexual risk exposure of seventy-eight 17 year olds whose mothers enrolled in the NLLFS before their birth.

2252555_125x125.jpgPsychiatrist Nanette Gartrell and her colleagues have been studying these children and their families beginning in 1986. Their research findings are the response to all the naysayers who argue that there is no longitudinal research on the children raised in planned lesbian families. Turns out there is.

Here are the punchlines on the data in this report.

None of the children had been physically or sexually abused. They were less likely (and for the boys much less likely) than an age- and gender-matched group from the US National Study of Family Growth (NSFG) to be sexually active. And those who were sexually active were older at first contact than the NSFG group.

Those findings, on a general level, rebut assertions that our families are highly sexualized and expose children to a heightened risk of sexual abuse. On this latter point, the researchers note that the children grew up in homes without adult males, and adult heterosexual males are largely the perpetrators of sexual abuse in the home. (Utah law professor Clifford Rosky has argued the importance of acknowledging the gender of sexual abuse and of responding to arguments about gay fathers with the research showing that gay men are no more likely than straight men, in proportion to their numbers, to sexually abuse children. The NLLFS includes only children of lesbian mothers.)

As for the sexual orientation and sexual behavior of the children, the researchers asked them to self-rate on the Kinsey scale (0-6, with 0 exclusively heterosexual and 6 exclusively homosexual). Grouping 0-1 as essentially/predominantly heterosexual, 2-4 as on a bisexual spectrum, and 5-6 as essentially/predominantly homosexual, researchers found that about 81% of the girls and 91% of the boys were heterosexual, about 19% of the girls and 3% of the boys were bisexual, and no girls and about 5% of the boys were homosexual. The girls, but not the boys, were more likely than the age matched NSFG group to have engaged in same-sex activity.

Sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz wrote in 2001 that one would expect the children of same-sex couples to be more open to exploration of same-sex relationships. They criticized advocates for LGBT parents for insisting there were no differences between children raised by gay parents and children raised by straight parents. Rather, Stacey and Biblarz asserted that there were no differences that should count as deficits and no differences that should cause judges and child welfare agencies to discriminate against gay parents.

For years, opponents of same-sex couples raising children have engaged in a sleight of hand when discussing research on the well-being of children. When a study supports their point of view, they use it without critique of its methodology; when a study does not support their point of view, they trash it for methodological weakness. What will they do with this study? They will certainly want to use the finding on the same-sex sexual activity of the girls, but they won't want to mention that the children were less likely to be sexually active at all, and were older on first sexual contact, then the comparison group.

But advocates for our families need to watch out also. I've already seen a headline that "Study finds 0% abuse in lesbian-headed households." As far as I know, no one has ever claimed that children with gay parents are more at risk for non-sexual physical abuse; the alleged concern is always sexual abuse. Well, women commit very little sexual abuse period. In fact, if we were using general data on sexual abuse in making child placement decisions we would always pick single or coupled women as custodial, foster, and adoptive parents.

We ought to admit, as Clifford Rosky has argued, that the concerns about sexual abuse are directed at gay men, not at gay and lesbian parents lumped together. Then we can fight back with the data that gay men are not more likely than straight men to sexually abuse children. There is such data. Just not in this research.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin has done an extensive review of the literature concerning sexual abuse of children by gay men:,002.htm

Interestingly enough, in spite of what you hear from the anti-gay right, gay men appear to be significantly less likely to engage in sexual abuse of minors than heterosexual men.

cliffordrosky | November 10, 2010 10:05 PM

Thanks for the cite, Nancy! And thanks to rmhunter for posting that link to Jim Burroway's analysis. If you're willing to indulge me in a long comment, I'd love to respond to rmthunter's claim -- based on Jim's analysis -- that “gay men appear to be significantly less likely to engage in sexual abuse of minors than heterosexual men.” I have two reservations about drawing this conclusion from Jim’s analysis.

First, and most importantly, this is not what Jim said. In his article, he referred to sexual attraction, not sexual abuse. Specifically, he said that “gays are less attracted to young boys than straights,” by which he (presumably) meant that gay men are less likely to be attracted to young boys. It’s not clear, however, that sexual *attraction* is a good predictor of sexual *abuse* -- especially among men who identify as gay or heterosexual, and thus, are generally attracted to adults. As Jim explains, when such people sexually abuse children, they are known as “regressed” offenders, and the abuse is usually triggered by “stressful conditions” that have nothing to do with the particular child. In these offenses, as Jim says, “the gender of the child is often irrelevant — it’s the easy access and vulnerability that makes the child a target.”

Second, I’m not even sure that Jim’s claim is correct: There is very little data suggesting that gay men are *less* likely than heterosexual men to be attracted to young boys, or less likely to abuse them. As he admits, this conclusion is not supported by the studies conducted by Jenny et al. and Groth & Birbaum. Both of these studies show that gay men are not *more* likely to sexually abuse minors than heterosexual men, but they do not show that gay men are *less* likely to do so.

Importantly, however, the former claim is enough to rebut the stereotype of the child molester. If an offender’s sexual orientation is irrelevant, then gay men pose no special threat, and sexual orientation should not be a relevant factor in adoption, custody, or visitation proceedings. QED.

As far as I can tell, Jim’s claim that gay men are *less* likely to be attracted to young boys than heterosexual men is based solely on his analysis of the plethysmography studies by Freund et al. In my article, I discussed both the Jenny et al. and Groth & Birnbaum studies because they were the studies most often cited by both advocates and opponents of gay and lesbian parenthood, especially in court cases and law review articles. I stayed away from Freund et al’s plethysmography studies because they are so rarely cited — perhaps because, as Jim admits, plethysmography is a controversial method. Among other things, plethysmography studies have purported to show that there is no such thing as “true bisexuality” in males — a questionable claim, in my view. In one of these studies, more than one-third (35%) of the male subjects did not respond to plethysmography at all. Any method that fails to identify any arousal in one-third of subjects seems like a pretty dubious way of measuring arousal -- let alone orientation, which is far more complex.

I find Jim’s analysis of the plethysmography studies fascinating and provocative — especially his hypothesis that gay men are less likely to be attracted to young boys because such boys exhibit feminine traits, such as a lack of body hair. It's an intriguing idea, but I’m worried that it may be too simplistic.

After all, many gay men are attracted to femininity in other males, including a lack of body hair — and predictably, many gay men display feminine traits, including a lack of body hair. Moreover, many heterosexual men are attracted to women who exhibit masculine traits -- and moreover still, many heterosexual men are repulsed by men who exhibit feminine traits. In short, sexual attraction and sexual orientation are a lot more complicated than plethysmograph results.

It's worth repeating, however, that Jim's most important conclusion holds true: Studies of sexual abuse have repeatedly shown that gay men are not any *more* likely to sexually abuse minors than heterosexual men -- and thus, they have rebutted the stereotype that gay men are child molesters.

While I believe that the findings of this study are correct, as far as I know, the statistic numbers of violence in gay, lesbian and straight couples are more or less the same (there have been several studies). I have heard about so much violence and rapes in relationships of lesbian friends and aquantainces that I find it a bit naive and also dangeorus to perpetuate the myth of the harmless, asexual woman. Also the numbers of women who physically (not sexually) abuse and kill children are much higher than for men.
Plus sexual abuse and rape by women is still very much underreported, but the numbers are constantly rising, together with the awareness of the problem.
So, while I agree that gay couples make just as good or as bad parents as straight couples, and they should be allowed to raise children obviously, I find it problematic to prove that by doing the men = perps, women = victims routine, especially as gay men have already the stigma of being child molesters. And hey, there are two men in a gay couple, meaning twice the danger, right?

I understand the political point of this text and laud it, but I think the method is ill advised, and in the end will harm us. What if children by gay couples actually are abused? Should they keep their mouths shut, so they don't harm the movement? This has often been the case with lesbian victims of lesbian rape and abuse.

I've been wondering on the same lines (re: points made by ShipofFools).

I have to wonder about the costs of defining abuse only in terms of sexual or physical abuse.

As for the number: none? I find that hard to believe - but then this was a control group of 78.

Overall, narratives about gay and lesbian exceptionalism - which is what this seems to be a part of - are dangerous ones to live by.

PhoenixRising | November 11, 2010 11:36 AM

The reason this study is unusual, and that we can safely draw some conclusions from it, is that it was a prospective study. Meaning that the moms opted in before the kids were born, not during adolescence when the particular teens were already thriving.

The kids may not know what is being studied, and they have not been selected by their parents to reflect well on the family or the movement.

Beyond that, though, why would anyone assume that our kids have the same motives for making lesbian parents look good that you're suggesting here? That doesn't make sense.

I'm not clear on why the fact that this was a prospective study makes it more believable. How could the kids not know what was being studied, when they were asked questions?

As for: "why would anyone assume that our kids have the same motives for making lesbian parents look good that you're suggesting here?" No, I'm not talking about the children - I'm talking about the larger politics of exceptionalism to which the lesbian and gay community is especially prone.

I don't have a hard time believing that there was no physical or sexual abuse of these 78 children. There's no matched group of children for comparison purposes. And how could there be? In addition to matching for the usual, such as socioeconomic status, race, age of parents, etc, I think there would need to be a match for "planned" pregnancies, which I have never seen.

But I agree with you that we shouldn't be trying to garner support for our families through claiming exceptionalism.

Finally, I think we need to repeat that men are responsibility for the vast majority of sexual abuse. Not all of it, but the vast majority. In the name of the equality of men and women, this fact gets overlooked. Single mothers are pathologized as a group. Keeping fathers involved in the lives of children is reported as a universal good thing. These are both ideological claims, but no one will admit it.

That still leaves the issue of how we define abuse, and why we focus on physical and sexual abuse. And abused children tend to remain silent about their abuse, often taking their silence into adulthood. I'm wary of a study that seems to ignore that basic fact. What's the abused kid of a lesbian family gong to say, especially one that's the subject of a long-term study like this? What safeguards did they have in place in case one of them did come out and admit to being abused? And, again, how does a kid who's being emotionally abused talk about it under these circumstances?

This is definitely worth a much closer look.

I don't want to derail this thread. I understand how important it and the study discussed in it is.

I just want to say I became interested in this post for the primary reason that the further I get into it the more alarms go off. Alarm number one is the fact that the data from the study done on these children appears in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Alarm number two is that when the subject of gay male parenting is brought up, the work of Kurt Freund and his Rube Goldberg invention are mentioned in defense of gay male parenting in an article linked to by someone who replied to this post. This is way too complicated a matter to go into right here. I am not about to go into a long narrative, either.

There is a huge elephant in this room, however, that one might only be able to see if one is intersex or transsexual. Riding on top of that elephant is Richard Green and spouse Sally Hines along with Kurt Freund's ghost and his disciples, Ray Blanchard and Ken Zucker. I am glad the existence of bi-sexuality was brought up in this thread, even if the matter is much more complicated if one is transsexual or intersex. Conspicuously absent in this discussion is how transsexual and intersex people have been abused by many of those explicitly or implicitly involved in what is being discussed in this thread and how we are characterized in relation to what is being discussed based on half baked concepts of the "mutual exclusiveness" of male and female sexuality.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the sexology journal the data from this study appeared in, which many people believe only exists to rubber stamp the theories put forth by the inbred group of people on the ASB editorial board. Too bad the authors of this study couldn't find another place to publish their research.

The people at ASB may not have concepts which are the source of abuse to gay and lesbian people, although that is very debatable. I have two very well adjusted children who would have been taken away from me if I hadn't remained closeted for so long. I don't think they would have been so well adjusted if they had been taken away from me. The theories that many of the people involved with the ASB promote could have greatly harmed my children by providing a false justification for anyone who wanted to separate me from them.

I don't want to give the impression that I don't understand the significance of the US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study. I just want to point out how much further people have to go to understand how far out of the woods we still have to travel where destructive mischaracterizations are involved. There is a lot of sexism inherent in the research people associated with ASB do which is considered pseudoscientific by many thoughtful people:

And in "other" news..."Police arrest lesbians for 'torturing' boy, 5
Forced him to put his hands on hot stove, burned his body, genitals with cigarettes" Go here forthe link:

I guess the study failed to include children that were actually TORTURED by lesbians. Then they (the lesbians) took a neighbor's child into a mandatory meeting with CPS. Nope...nothing to see here...move along.

While the headline of this post is open to interpretation, the study itself didn't say that no lesbians anywhere ever abused their children. Rather, it said that, of the children in the sample, none of them were abused. The article you cite, while horrific, is one instance that happened two years ago. How many lesbian couples with children are there? Just as one cannot generalize to every lesbian couple out there from one study, and say that no lesbians ever abuse their kids, one cannot generalize from one case of abuse by a lesbian couple, however horrific.

There is a base level of child abuse in our society of about 1%, which means over 700,000 children a year are subjected to abuse. It crosses all social lines, including the line of sexual orientation.

The point of the study is not that no lesbians ever committed child abuse, but that assertions that our families are highly sexualized and expose children to a heightened risk of sexual abuse are incorrect.