The role of child sexual abuse in sexual orientation has received some attention lately. In January of this year, a prospective study demonstrated that child sexual abuse was associated with ever engaging in adult homosexual behavior for males but not for females. The study by Widom and Wilson demonstrated that physical abuse or neglect did not associate with homosexuality, nor did sexual abuse predict same-sex cohabitation or current sexual partner. In other words, measures of behavior (living with a same-sex partner ever, or living with one in the last year) that would be more reflective of orientation were not associated with histories of child sexual abuse. For males, ever engaging in homosexual behavior, however, was associated with sexual abuse. Many observers are not surprised by this finding which indicates that sexual behavior is associated with past abuse but enduring orientation may not be.
Prospective studies are quite valuable since they help control for loss of memory, reconstructed memories, self-report issues relating to abuse and other sources of bias. This study used court records and followed up the abused persons 30 years after the fact.
In evangelical circles, sexual abuse is frequently offered as a major cause of homosexuality, if not the major cause. NARTH often points to the traumatic experience as an important factor. Recently, Focus on the Family promoted a paper by Jeff Johnston on the topic. Cited by Dean Byrd in that paper and often cited in this context is a study based on a 2000 doctoral dissertation by Marie Tomeo, titled “Sexual Orientation Development” and conducted at the California School of Professional Psychology. The journal article based on the dissertation was published by the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2001 with the following reference:
Tomeo, M. E., Templer, D. L., Anderson, S., & Kotler, D. (2001). Comparative data of childhood adolescence molestation in heterosexual and homosexual persons. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 30, 535–541.
The study compared people at a gay pride parade with a straight sample drawn primarily from a university. The abstract reports the highlights:
In research with 942 nonclinical adult participants, gay men and lesbian women reported a significantly higher rate of childhood molestation than did heterosexual men and women. Forty-six percent of the homosexual men in contrast to 7% of the heterosexual men reported homosexual molestation. Twenty-two percent of lesbian women in contrast to 1% of heterosexual women reported homosexual molestation. This research is apparently the first survey that has reported substantial homosexual molestation of girls. Suggestions for future research were offered.
Demonstrating a difference between gay and straight groups on sexual abuse is not novel. Numerous studies have reported at least some difference with only a few reporting no difference in abuse frequency between groups. However, Tomeo did something that was relevant to her overall dissertation topic. She was interested in exploring sexual abuse as a potential causal factor. Tomeo’s prime research hypothesis was that homosexuals would report more sexual abuse than heterosexuals. She also wanted to know when a person identified as gay and when the abuse occurred. This is an important question for studies which seek to attribute cause to abuse. With some people being aware of same-sex attraction at very early ages, one cannot say any subsequent abuse caused their SSA. Simply finding a significant difference between gay and straight groups cannot tell you anything definitive about cause. Here are the first nine questions Tomeo asked her participants:
1. Do you regard yourself as predominantly a heterosexual person or predominantly a gay/lesbian person?
2. If predominantly of heterosexual orientation, at what age did you begin to regard yourself as heterosexual?
3. If predominantly of homosexual orientation, at what age did you begin to regard yourself as homosexual?
4. Before you were 16 years old, did you ever have sexual contact with a woman or girl 5 or more years older than yourself and at least 16 years of age? (YES NO)
5. IF YES, at what age did this first occur?
6. What was your relationship to the person with whom this sexual contact occurred?
7. Before you were 16 years old, did you ever have sexual contact with a man or boy 5 or more years older than yourself and at least 16 years of age? (YES NO)
8. IF YES, at what age did this first occur?
9. What was your relationship to the person with whom this sexual contact occurred?
For a study of causation, these questions clearly have their limitations. For one thing, when one regards oneself as homosexual probably occurs later (sometimes much later) than awareness of same-sex attraction. Perhaps one could offer a theory of identity formation which includes sexual abuse but such a theory would not of necessity be a theory of how one’s attractions take the direction they do.
In Tomeo’s reporting of her study in both the dissertation and the journal article, however, there is a much larger concern. There are contradictions in the paper and the dissertation between the results sections and the discussion sections. A crucial problem is the inability to be certain about when the abuse occurred – before or after awareness of same-sex attraction. In the Archives of Sexual Behavior article, the following statement is made on pages 540-541 (this same statement is identical to her closing discussion in the dissertation):
Sixty-eight percent of the present homosexual male participants and 38% of the present homosexual female participants (68 and 36%, respectively, if including just the homosexual fair participants) did not identify as homosexual until after the molestation. This suggests that if molestation resulted in homosexuality, this phenomenon occurs in a greater proportion of male homosexuals. It may not, however, be a casual factor in either gender. Perhaps children or adolescents with a higher potential for homosexual behavior are more likely to enter a situation that leads to same-sex molestation. It must also be borne in mind that the present homosexual participants may not be representative of homosexual persons. The overwhelming preponderance of homosexual participants was in the gay pride group. There were only three homosexual men and seven homosexual women in the college group.
The clear implication in this discussion section is that the frequency of homosexual identification was a consequence of the abuse. However, in the table which reported the data regarding timing of identification, the authors report the same percentage of males who reported identification as gay before the abuse. Table II on page 538 reports (click the link for a clearer view):
Something is not right here. If the table is correct, then the case for causation from this study is somewhat compromised. The table indicates that 68% of men identified as homosexual before their molestation experience.
My colleague Gary Welton and I first discovered this discrepancy nearly three years ago while preparing a scholarly article on the effects sizes of various suggested correlates of homosexuality (one which will be published later this year or early next year). At that time, I contacted Donald Templer, one of the co-authors and advisor to first author Marie Tomeo. I then contacted him again recently in preparation for this post. He has been unable to locate Dr. Tomeo to get clarification. I hope Dr. Tomeo can at some point clarify these matters.
Recently, I ordered the dissertation to check the original study. However, there are discrepancies in this document as well. First, here are the relevant research questions with results.
From page 36 of Marie Tomeo’s dissertation:
The 10th research question addressed, of homosexual women who were molested, what percentage were molested before self-identification as a homosexual woman and what percentage were molested after self-identification as a homosexual woman? Of homosexual women who were molested, 62% were molested before self-identification as a homosexual woman, and 38% were molested after self-identification as a homosexual woman.
On page 37, the other relevant result relates to men.
The 13th research question addressed, of homosexual men who have been molested, what percentage were molested before self-identification as homosexual men, and what percentage were molested after self-identification as homosexual? Of homosexual men who were molested, 68% were molested before self-identification as homosexual, and 32% were molested after self-identification as homosexual.
These results are at odds with the discussion sections of the dissertation and the journal. They are also at odds with the Table from the journal article. For what its worth, Dr. Templer thinks the correct data are in the Table from the journal article.
The bottom line is that the study should not be cited until a follow up correction can be made. The main results — gays report more abuse than straights — may indeed be correct, given the similarity to past studies. However, I do not believe any inferences about causation should be made. Without the actual surveys, there is no way a reader can figure out the results from the journal article and/or the dissertation.
One final thought, the research on sexual abuse among GLBT populations is often misused to make inferences about causation. There are many reasons why this line of research is important but causation is not at the top. Sexual abuse is a profoundly disruptive experience for many people and may contribute to a variety of negative outcomes in adulthood. Finding appropriate clinical and ministry responses may be clouded by focusing on the trauma as a cause of same-sex attraction.