The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Study links homosexuality and childhood abuse


A recent University of Otago study has indicated that people who suffered sexual abuse or rape as children are more likely than others to later identify as either homosexual or bisexual.

Otago University researcher associate professor Elisabeth Wells has looked at the connection between adverse childhood events and sexuality and found those who experienced trauma were significantly more likely to be non-heterosexual. The study used results from the New Zealand Mental Health Survey, which surveyed almost 13,000 people aged over 16 between 2003 and 2004. Participants were asked whether they thought of themselves as bisexual, heterosexual or homosexual and if they had same-sex sexual experiences or relationships.

Less than one per cent of people identified themselves as homosexual, but three per cent had a same-sex encounter. Wells said the more “adverse events” experienced in childhood – including sexual assault, rape and domestic violence – the more likely the person identified with one of the non-exclusively heterosexual groups. She said most people from disturbed backgrounds were heterosexual. After all, by far most people are heterosexual. However, the study showed a clear relationship between negative events in childhood and homosexual or bisexual relationships later in life. SOURCE

What has struck me most is not the study itself which, as far as I am aware, had a fairly unremarkable method and reported on the facts as they are. What I’ve found interesting is the reaction of some people in the “gay community.” I dislike that term somewhat because it suggests that homosexuals all think alike when clearly they don’t. But when I use it, I have in mind the more outspoken and often politically involved or politically motivated self-appointed spokespeople for non-heterosexuals. That’s a pretty wordy description, so I use the less than ideal phrase “gay community” instead.

Tony Simpson of “Rainbow Wellington” for example reacted by saying that most of the research he had seen (but he didn’t drop any hints on what this research was) “suggests that you are, in fact, born into a particular orientation.” (SOURCE: New Zealand Herald)  Now of course, the study didn’t technically dispute this, it merely offered an indication of one possible cause, not the only cause, of a person’s sexual orientation. But the message was basically that we should ignore this scientific research, because somewhere (but I’m not going to tell you where), there’s research suggesting a different conclusion.

Other elements within the “gay community” (as I explained that term earlier) however are suggesting just the opposite. From the first link:

New Zealand Aids Foundation (NZAF) community engagement co-ordinator Hamish Milne and Canterbury gay youth group Q-topia administrator Anne Nicholson said they did not look for “events” that made them gay just like they did not look for events that made straight friends straight.
“I know people who have been abused and are gay and haven’t been abused and are gay; it’s not something a study can say that it’s why a certain group of society is gay,” said Nicholson.
Sexuality was “fluid” and she could not be sure she would still be a lesbian in 20 years time.

Unlike Rainbow Wellington, the message from the New Zealand Aids Foundation was that there’s nothing fixed about sexual orientation (as there is about, say, right handedness or eye colour), you’re not born into it for life, it’s just one of those things like taste in movies or music that may come and go over time. But again, the bottom line is that you should not listen to this scientific research.

Also from the NZAF (see the same link above), Hamish Milne drew from this research the concern that “It was possible that gay people were also at higher risk of suffering abuse or rape as children, which would be a concern, he said.” So instead of the abuse early in life leading to non-heterosexual inclinations as adults and young adults, Milne implies that non-heterosexual orientation could be a factor in making people a target of sexual abuse early in life! It’s rather like suggesting that a man’s obesity at age 20 could cause him to stuff his face with doughnuts when he is 8 years old! But again, regardless of the anecdotal claims, the bottom line is that you shouldn’t believe what this study indicates.

As I step back and look at these responses, it’s as though those vocal people in lobbying positions (and out of fairness, who, for the record, I strongly suspect do not represent non-heterosexuals) have reacted to this research like one reacts to a bomb blast: Scramble in any direction, it doesn’t matter where, just distance yourself from it on any grounds at all, no matter how strange.

I have to wonder just what they think they would be sacrificing by just accepting what the research appears to indicate: that a non-heterosexual inclination can in some cases be contributed to by a negative sexual encounter in childhood. If this is a fact, then what good could it possibly do to label the facts as being in poor taste? Do they think that the study provides good grounds for discrimination or unfair treatment, harassment, or abuse? If so, I just don’t see how. Why is the research being shunned? I thought that organisations like these were interested in curing ignorance and bigotry with good research and education so that we can all have a fully informed, enlightened view of sexual orientation. Reactions like the ones we’re seeing are, to put it gently, not going to encourage this perception of their mission.

For the record (from the New Zealand Herald link):

The study questioned 13,000 people aged 16 and over on mental health issues. Ninety-eight per cent of the respondents identified themselves as heterosexual, compared to 0.8 per cent identifying themselves as homosexual, 0.6 per cent as bisexual and 0.3 per cent as “something else”.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. Andrew

    Agreed that the gay community is reacting badly to the research. However, I do think that that bad reaction is in some sense understandable given that the gay community predict that this research is going to be misused by ‘conservatives’ (also an annoying catch-all term, but will do for now). Doesn’t exuse the reaction, just explains it to some extent. And I think that you yourself *may* be misusing the research.

    You said:

    “I have to wonder just what they think they would be sacrificing by just accepting what the research appears to indicate: that a non-heterosexual inclination can in some cases be contributed to by a negative sexual encounter in childhood.”

    I haven’t looked at the study, but the information you describe does not appear to indicate what you claim it does. All it says is that there is a statistical correlation between being abused and identifying as non-hetero. That correlation claim does not show that the abuse *contributed* to that identification. The abuse may well have contributed to it…but the evidence you describe does not imply that.

  2. Well if I’ve failed understand what the researchers have said, so has the “gay community.” In fact, where you quoted me, Andrew, I was referring to the interpretation offered by that community and asking why they found it so offensive. So it’s not really fair to say I’m misusing the research.

    I’m mildly interested however, on what the relationship between childhood abuse and adult homosexual orientation might be if it’s not causal in any sense at all. Surely they couldn’t have a common cause, and the claim made by the NZAF that suggests a kind of reverse causation is just absurd.

  3. Pat

    Does this mean that the Catholic Church produces the most homosexuals out of any organisation (due to the behaviour of its priests)?

  4. Actually Pat, although the rate of child abuse by Catholic clergy is too high, it’s not higher than the rate outside the clergy or the Church. It’s just more scandalous – and understandably so.

  5. Yeah in fact school teachers abuse children at a higher rate than Catholic Priests, funnily enough you don’t see skeptics attacking state schools the way they attack the RC Church.

  6. Very interesting stuff, what is even more interesting is the .8% who identify as homosexual from the study, i’m sure i had it drummed in to me growing up that 1 in 10 people were homosexual. where have they all gone?

  7. Pat

    I am aware of that. From what I have heard the madrassas (Muslims schools) in Pakistan and other such countries are meant to be pretty bad as well. At least in state schools we can go through democractic means to change the situation.

  8. Jonathan, yes, that’s another interesting find here. I’ve heard the 10% figure referred to a lot, and always thought that it seemed way too high. Now we know that it was over ten times higher than reality! Maybe thats another reason why some in the “gay community” are trying to get people to ignore the science.

  9. The 10% figure is an overestimate. Last I checked, it’s thought to hover around 2%. But obviously the proportion is morally irrelevant.

    So too is the study, at least on its face. Ignore any worries about casual links: suppose that childhood abuse does (among other things) have a tendency to push people away from heterosexuality. What does it matter? I likewise just can’t see the relevance. If homosexuality or bisexuality are on a moral par with heterosexuality, that one of the influences towards homosexuality is childhood abuse has no bearing. If they aren’t, then again, it has no bearing.

    The real worry, I suppose, is that this work can be (mis)appropriated under some story of ‘homosexuality as pathology’. Given how childhood sexual abuse isn’t renowned for producing healthy sexual adjustment, to include it as part of the etiology of homosexuality can tar it by association to the other maladjustment child abuse tends to lead to. That argument is flawed for a multitude of reasons, but I guess the worry is even though it is bad, it will be taken as convincing by people who are bad at ethical reflection. If you’re already a marginalized and stigmatized group you will be sensitive to this sort of thing, and I guess that explains the (not very productive) ‘say-it-ain’t-so’ responses.

  10. “suppose that childhood abuse does (among other things) have a tendency to push people away from heterosexuality. What does it matter?”

    Exactly. It doesn’t say anything morally one way or the other about homosexuality. The “Say-it-aint-so” group, in my humble estimate, are being morally unreflective. What they should be saying is: “This just shows that people don’t choose to be gay. You shouldn’t blame people for what has happened to them.”

    As for the old chestnut of being marginalised and stigmatised, I am quite certain the pendulum swings the other way – at least in terms of how public institutions operate. They are a unique protected and encouraged group, as I see it, in spite of the real difficulties they face in some quarters. Those who would say anything that could be construed (rightly or otherwise) as “anti gay” are the ones who have to worry about keeping their job.

  11. Glenn:

    Cheekily, I don’t think they should be saying ‘they don’t choose to be gay’ either. Because choice seems barely relevant: the preponderance of evidence from personal testimony, genetics and stuff suggests that sexual identity isn’t volitional, but, again, so what if it isn’t? If gay sex is fine and positive, being able to opt to ‘turn gay’ seems irrelevant. Likewise, if it’s bad or self-destructive, that people are driven to it by circumstances out of their control just makes those circumstances regrettable.

    I don’t see how you can see the pendulum has gone the other way. If NZ is anything like the UK, it is true that liberal elites are strongly behind gay liberation – if you have a problem with homosexuality, they’ll have a problem with you. In the UK (and western Europe) there has also been a sea-change in public attitudes: the Conservative Party over here made pains to be gay-friendly, as to do otherwise was seen as an electoral liability, also a cabinet minister was taken to task for her past history of voting against liberalization legislation, and public ally expressed her regret on her voting record. Yet the UK still doesn’t have civil marriage for gay couples.

    For gay groups elsewhere the picture is far less rosy: California is the topical example. Regardless of how the court battle turns out, Californians have gone to the ballot box twice to stop homosexual couples having civil marriage – and this is one of the most ‘liberal’ states around. To my knowledge, the US and NZ don’t allow gay couples to adopt jointly. So legally they lack equal protection (let alone equal esteem). They may have more champions in wider society than they once did, but to call LGBT a protected or encouraged group seems incongruous with the social and legal ‘facts on the ground’ across most of the western world, the (recent, ongoing) history of the stigma attached to the group and, last but not least, the testimony of LGBT people themselves.

  12. “To call LGBT a protected or encouraged group seems incongruous with the social and legal ‘facts on the ground’ across most of the western world”

    Well, the preponderance of facts in my part of the world strongly support my description. We do have civil unions here and we have intentional, overt positive social messages from state sponsored agencies targetted at openness towards non-heterosexual relationships and orientation.

    Adoption may be the sole exception here in NZ. Other than that, however, the pendulum has very obviously swung the other way, to the point where those who express moral reservations about same sex unions – any at all, no matter how polite or reasonable – are publicly classed as not just mistaken, but mentally unwell, hateful and in need of re-education and rehabilitation.

  13. steve

    Glenn I’d agree.

    Homosexuals, based on political ( not scientific ) undertakings, have been declared a “protected species” by the powers that be, and are being used against many conservative groups through making them look like victims by using specific victim language.
    The fact that we cant identify any gene that creates homosexuals nor can we rule out the role of sexual abuse of some children who later turn out homosexual ( or are confused about their gender identity as a result ) seems to be ignored.

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