October 7, 2006

Child Abuse and Christian (Right) Science

Posted at 3:54 pm (Pacific Time)

Although Christian Right groups are highly suspicious of science in matters such as evolution and the origins of the universe, they like to argue that scientific research strongly supports their claims that homosexuality and pedophilia are linked.

The Family Research Council has produced what is perhaps the most extensive attempt to document this claim. It is an article by Timothy J. Dailey titled Homosexuality and Child Abuse.

With 76 footnotes, many of them referring to papers in scientific journals, this screed’s facade of scholarly rigor gives it some degree of truthiness. A careful check on what the sources actually say, however, belies this impression. Specifically, its central argument — that “the evidence indicates that homosexual men molest boys at rates grossly disproportionate to the rates at which heterosexual men molest girls” — doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

I’ve recently updated and expanded the section of my web site devoted to Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation. It now includes a detailed review of the main sources cited by Dailey and the FRC to support their claim. Some of the new material is summarized below. For more background and context for interpreting the studies, please see my web site.

In brief, the scientific sources cited by the FRC report don’t support their argument. Most of the studies they cited did not even assess the sexual orientation of abusers. Two of the studies explicitly concluded that sexual orientation and child molestation are unrelated. Only one study (Erickson et al., 1988) might be interpreted as supporting the FRC argument, and it failed to detail its measurement procedures and did not differentiate bisexual from homosexual offenders.

Here are my comments on the 9 main sources cited in the 2004 version of the FRC article.

1. Freund et al. (1989). Heterosexuality, homosexuality, and erotic age preference. Journal of Sex Research, 26, 107-117. As the FRC concedes, the findings from this study contradict their argument.Its abstract summarizes the authors’ conclusion: “Findings indicate that homosexual males who preferred mature partners responded no more to male children than heterosexual males who preferred mature partners responded to female children.”

2. Silverthorne & Quinsey. (2000). Sexual partner age preferences of homosexual and heterosexual men and women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 29, 67-76. The FRC cites this study to challenge the Freund et al. data (see the previous paper above). However, the methodologies were quite different.

Freund and his colleagues used a sample that included sex offenders and they assessed sexual arousal with a physiological measure similar to that described below for the 1988 Marshall et al. study. Silverthorne and Quinsey used a sample of community volunteers who were asked to view pictures of human faces and use a 7-point scale to rate their sexual attractiveness. The apparent ages of the people portrayed in the pictures was originally estimated by Dr. Silverthorne to range from 15 to 50. However, a group of independent raters perceived the male faces to range in age from 18 to 58, and the female faces to range from 19 to 60.

The article doesn’t report the data in great detail (e.g., average ratings are depicted only in a graphic; the actual numbers aren’t reported) and the authors provide contradictory information about the rating scale (they describe it as a 7-point scale but also say it ranged from 0 to 7, which constitutes an 8-point scale). In either case, it appears that none of the pictures was rated as “very sexually attractive” (a rating of 7). Rather, the highest average ratings were approximately 5.

On average, gay men rated the 18-year old male faces the most attractive (average rating = about 5), with attractiveness ratings declining steadily for older faces. They rated the 58-year old male faces 2, on average. By contrast, heterosexual men rated the 25-year old female faces the most attractive (about 5), with the 18- and 28-year old female faces rated lower (between 2 and 3) and the 60-year old female faces rated the least attractive (about 1).

A serious problem with this study is that the researchers didn’t control for the possibility that some of the faces pictured in the photos might simply have been more or less physically attractive than the others, independent of their age or gender. The researchers explicitly acknowledged this shortcoming, speculating that the women’s faces in the 25-year old group might have been more attractive than women’s faces in the other age groups. But they didn’t address the possibility that the attractiveness of the male and female faces may not have been comparable.

This issue could have been addressed in various ways. For example, prior to collecting data, the researchers could have started with a large number of photographs and asked a group of independent raters to evaluate the general physical attractiveness of the face in each photo; these ratings could have been used to select photos for the experiment that were equivalent in attractiveness. Getting independent ratings of experimental stimuli in this way is a common procedure in social psychological research.

Thus, even if one accepts the questionable assumption that this study is relevant, it doesn’t support the FRC’s contention that gay men are more likely than heterosexual men to be child molesters for several reasons: (a) the researchers failed to control for the varying attractiveness of the different photos; (b) all of the faces portrayed in the photos were perceived to be at least 18; and (c) the study merely assessed judgments of sexual attractiveness rather than the research participants’ sexual arousal.

3. Blanchard et al. (2000). Fraternal birth order and sexual orientation in pedophiles. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 29, 463-478. This study categorized convicted sex offenders according to whether they molested or reported sexual attraction to boys only, girls only, or both boys and girls.These groups were labeled, respectively, homosexual pedophiles, heterosexual pedophiles, and bisexual pedophiles.This classification referred to their attractions to children. Their adult sexual orientation (or even whether the men had an adult sexual orientation) wasn’t assessed.

4. Elliott et al. (1995). Child sexual abuse prevention: What offenders tell us. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19, 579-594. In this study, child sex offenders were interviewed. Their sexual orientation (gay, heterosexual, bisexual) wasn’t assessed. The authors drew from their findings to suggest strategies for how parents and children can prevent sexual victimization. It is noteworthy that none of those strategies involved avoiding gay men.

5. Jenny et al. (1994). Are children at risk for sexual abuse by homosexuals? Pediatrics, 94, 41-44. The findings of this study contradict the FRC’s argument. The FRC faults the study because the researchers didn’t directly interview perpetrators but instead relied on the victims’ medical charts for information about the offender’s sexual orientation. However, other studies cited favorably by the FRC (and summarized in this post) similarly relied on chart data (Erickson et al., 1988) or did not directly assess the sexual orientation of perpetrators (Blanchard et al. 2000; Elliott et al. 1995; Marshall et al., 1988). Thus, the FRC apparently considers this method a weakness only when it leads to results they dislike.

6. Marshall et al. (1988). Sexual offenders against male children: Sexual preference. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 26, 383-391. In this study, the researchers compared 21 men who had sexually molested a male under 16 years (and at least 5 years younger than themselves) to 18 unemployed men who were not known to have molested a child.

Over a series of sessions, each man watched color slides of nude males and females of various ages and listened to audiotaped descriptions of both coercive and consensual sexual interactions between a man and a boy. During the sessions, each man sat in a private booth, where he was instructed to lower his trousers and underwear and attach a rubber tube to his penis. The tube detected any changes in penis circumference, with increases interpreted as indicating sexual arousal.

The FRC cites this study as showing that “a homosexual and a heterosexual subgroup can be delineated among these offenders.” This is true but hardly relevant to their claims. The researchers categorized 7 offenders who were more aroused overall by the male nudes than the female nudes as the homosexual subgroup. They categorized 14 offenders who were more aroused overall by the female nudes as the heterosexual subgroup.

The offenders were not asked their sexual orientation (gay, straight, bisexual) and the paper does not report any information about the nature of the offenders’ adult sexual relationships, or even if they had any such relationships.

7. Bickley & Beech. (2001). Classifying child abusers: Its relevance to theory and clinical practice. International Journal Of Offender Therapy And Comparative Criminology, 45, 51-69. This is a literature review and theoretical paper that discusses the strengths and weaknesses of various systems for classifying child molesters. In citing this study, the FRC says it:

refers to homosexual pedophiles as a “distinct group.” The victims of homosexual pedophiles “were more likely to be strangers, that they were more likely to have engaged in paraphiliac behavior separate from that involved in the offence, and that they were more likely to have past convictions for sexual offences…. Other studies [showed a] greater risk of reoffending than those who had offended against girls” and that the “recidivism rate for male-victim offenders is approximately twice that for female-victim offenders.”

In reality, however, the paper was summarizing the findings of other studies, not reporting new data. In the passage excerpted by the FRC, the authors were discussing published papers that used a classification system focusing entirely on the sex of victims (not whether the perpetrator is straight or gay). Here is the complete text (the passages that FRC omitted are highlighted):

“Grubin and Kennedy (1991) reported that when dividing sex offenders based simply on the sex of their victims, offenders against boys stood out as a distinct group. They noted that their victims were more likely to be strangers, that they were more likely to have engaged in paraphiliac behavior separate from that involved in the offence, and they were more likely to have past convictions for sexual offences. Other studies have employed the sex-of-victim approach in the prediction of future risk, with offenders who have sexually abused boys or both boys and girls reported as having more victims and being at greater risk of reoffending than those who had offended against girls only [bibliographic references omitted]. In the nondiagnostic remarks, DSM-IV (APA, 1994) claims that the recidivism rate for male-victim offenders is approximately twice that for female-victim offenders, and although not demonstrating such a marked difference, Furby, Weinrott, and Blackshaw (1989), in an extensive review of recidivism rates, found that reoffending was higher for male victim offenders. [para.] However, the sex-of-victim distinction has not been consistently found, and contrasting findings have been reported in studies that have demonstrated no differences in recidivism rates between the groups [bibliographic references omitted]. Furthermore, Abel, Becker, Murphy, and Flanagan (1981) found that those child molesters who offended against girls reported more than twice as many victims as those who had offended against boys, a finding contrary to the hypothesized outcome.” (p. 56)

8. Jay & Young. (1977). The gay report: Lesbians and gay men speak out about sexual experiences and lifestyles. New York: Summit. This book, published nearly 30 years ago by a team of writer-activists, is not a scientific study.The authors’ survey methodology is not reported in detail and, because it was a journalistic work, the survey was never subjected to scientific peer review.

9. Erickson et al. (1988). Behavior patterns of child molesters. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 17, 77-86. This study was based on a retrospective review of the medical records of male sex offenders admitted to the Minnesota Security Hospital between 1975 and 1984. Apparently, 70% of the men abused girls, 26% abused boys, and 4% abused children of both sexes. (The paper is unclear in that it doesn’t explain how perpetrators with multiple victims were counted.)

The paper asserts in passing that “Eighty-six percent of offenders against males described themselves as homosexual or bisexual” (p. 83). However, no details are provided about how this information was ascertained, making it difficult to interpret. Nor did the authors report the number of homosexual versus bisexual offenders, a distinction that other research indicates is relevant (see my web site for a description of a 1978 study by Groth and Birnbaum, which the FRC didn’t cite).

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.