The Evangelical Blackout of Research on Sexual Orientation

Of late, I have given several talks to a variety of evangelical groups about the current research on sexual orientation. Along the way, I have been contacted by evangelicals who ask about the current status of sexual orientation research. After the conversations and speeches, many questions come up. One question I hear after almost all of these conversations is: Why haven’t we seen anything about these studies?

Many of the questioners read evangelical publications and consume evangelical media. However, they don’t know anything about the brain research of Ivanka Savic in Sweden (2005, 2006, 2008) or Adam Safron and colleagues at Northwestern University (since 2005). Their knowledge of research stops at Dean Hamer or Simon Levay (both published studies in the 1990s).  They know there is no gay gene but they don’t know about the significant brain, perceptual and cognitive differences reported within the past six years by various researchers around the world.

Many evangelicals believe homosexuality is due to abuse. Some will say with confidence that gays are more likely to be abused than straights but they are unaware of the actual magnitudes of difference. However, they are unaware of the 2009 study by Wilson and Widom which found no relationship between abuse and having a gay partner for men or women (men were more likely to have had at least one gay experience in their adult lives but not a recent partner). They are unaware of the 2010 work of Wells and colleagues in New Zealand that found 81.6% of gays reported no sexual abuse in their lives. Abuse is also higher among gender non-conforming children, whether gay or straight. Given that gays are more likely to be gender non-conforming in their histories, it seems likely that greater reports of abuse among gays relate in part to gender non-conformity, and have little, if anything, to do with cause of attractions for the majority of people who are same-sex attracted.

Many evangelicals I speak to think that change of orientation is pretty common and the evidence is being suppressed by the gay-friendly media. Some of them will point to the Jones and Yarhouse study of Exodus participants. Some will even say that over half of the participants changed orientation. When I explain to them what change means in the context of the study, they are surprised. Then I point out a study, also by Mark Yarhouse, that found no change in orientation for men and women in mixed orientation marriages. They wonder why that study was not reported in the media. I wonder the same thing.

I could be wrong but I don’t think any of the studies to which I have referred here have been reported in the Christian press. The Jones and Yarhouse study was reported widely, but the Yarhouse study showing no change among sexual minorities in mixed orientation couples – which is more recent – was not reported anywhere. NARTH – a group of mostly lay people but which claims to be a scientific group – has no information on the 2008 study by Savic and Lindstrom showing clear structural differences in the brain associated with sexual orientation differences. Shouldn’t a scientific organization which claims to be interested in the science of sexual orientation report information which is relevant to sexual orientation? That omission is only one of many.

Many evangelicals get their information from NARTH through groups like Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Exodus International, etc. Others get information from Christian media. However, these studies are not reported in these places. No wonder most evangelicals approach sexual orientation with a 1990s mindset. It is as if the evangelical world is in blackout mode when it comes to current studies on sexual orientation.

I suspect the culture war is to blame. It cannot be because sexual orientation is not news. The issue comes up in the Presidential campaigns and other news all the time. However, evangelicals are quite unprepared to discuss this very current topic with the most recent and best scholarship.

In my view, Christian media and organizations have a responsibility to provide this information to their readers and consumers. Given the backlog of unreported studies, there is plenty of material for their reporting.

How much change is enough?

At risk of raising blood pressure and snark readings to risky levels, I want to say a word about orientation change. I am this morning working on a journal article about the survey of same-sex attracted, heterosexually married people I conducted with the help of Gary Welton between 2008-2010.
We asked loads of questions about attractions, fantasies, behaviors and sexual identity with lots of interesting results. One of the most striking results was the rarity of dramatic orientation change. We asked about opposite sex and same sex sexual attraction at 18, time of first marriage and currently on a scale of 0 to 100. only 4/245 men and 2/59 women rated themselves less than 10/100 at age 18 and then 90+ currently on the opposite sex attraction scale.  The numbers did not increase dramatically as I examined a more relaxed assessment of change (e.g., less than 30 at 18 and more than 70 now). Overall, the sample shifted more toward the gay side of the spectrum from ratings of self at 18 and currently, although religious affiliation tended to mute that effect some.
One of the strengths of the survey is that I was able to connect with the largely hidden group of men and women who are SSA and married via word of mouth. I also suveyed people from the Exodus member ministries and the Straight Spouse Network. The sample, while convenience, was drawn from a very wide range of sources.
The title of the post relates to the fact that the marital satisfaction for the SSA partner was pretty high. This makes me think that even a little bit of change in one aspect of sexuality (behavior, fantasies and/or attractions) seems to be enough for a large number of people to redefine themselves in ways that give themselves permission to seek opposite sex relationships.
Stay tuned…
PS – Two men went from completely straight at 18 to completely gay currently.

J. Michael Bailey on twin research and sexual reorientation

Several new twin studies have been published over the past several months. A new one, just published on the Archives of Sexual Behavior website, deals with sexual orientation and neuroticism and psychoticism (more about that study in a future post). One of the co-authors of this new paper is J. Michael Bailey. Dr. Bailey is among the world’s top sexuality researchers and author of numerous publications involving twins and sexual orientation. Here he comments on the limitations of twin studies and sexual orientation change. This conversation was triggered in part by the recent NARTH report which stated that “homosexuality is not innate” without research supporting the statement.

In an email, I asked Michael to discuss how both the right and left misunderstand twin studies and their relationship to questions of innateness. His answers are indented and presented in full with some comments from me.

Both the left and the right conflate “genetic” with “inborn.” The debate over sexual orientation (and other traits) is more about inborn than genetic. As an example of the difference, it is common for identical twins to be discordant for homosexuality (i.e., given a gay identical twin, his twin is usually straight). It is a terrible mistake, though, to assume that this reflects the kind of social environment that can be manipulated. As you know, childhood gender nonconformity is very highly predictive of adult homosexual outcome. I’ve spoken to several mothers of identical twins discordant for

extreme childhood gender nonconformity (where one male twin wants to be a girl and the other is a typical boy). In each and every case, the mothers insist they did nothing–nothing–to differentiate the twins until well after the behavioral/emotional differences emerged. I

believe them.

On this point, some observers might not be quite as believing as Dr. Bailey. However, I lean in his direction on this, especially with extreme gender nonconformity. On this blog, we had an extensive conversation with a mother of twins, one quite non-conforming and the other not. In this context, it might be good to review those posts. (part 1, part 2). At the same time, I am aware of some parents who do indeed raise kids to prefer gender nonconformity. Extremes in childrearing may in some cases influence the trait of gender nonconformity in kids, but one does not need such parenting to get the same result.

The left often assumes some genetic influence means that social environment plays no role at the individual level. If some genetic factors operate for some, then they must operate for all. However, this cannot be assumed from twin studies. Neither can it be assumed that the differences between twins all relate to environmental factors which are alterable. On this point, Bailey says:

The main issue is nature-nurture. Heritability (which can be estimated from twin studies) generally is consistent with nature. But environmentality (the complement of heritability) DOES NOT MEAN nurture as it is typically assumed (i.e., social and reversible causation). MZ twins [monozygotic or identical] can differ (and I expect usually do) for biological reasons. At this point neither hypothesis (biological or social causation of MZ twin differences) has strong evidence to for it.

Note the last statement. We simply don’t know as yet. This is another reason why I think why I believe the NARTH paper is misleading. The paper uses weak therapy research to make a statement about innateness and immutability of sexual orientation. First we do not know whether twin differences occur for social or biological reasons. And then we do not know if any of the factors in any given case are alterable. Francis Collins made this same point when reacting to how Dean Byrd at NARTH quoted his book The Language of God:

The evidence we have at present strongly supports the proposition that there are hereditary factors in male homosexuality — the observation that an identical twin of a male homosexual has approximately a 20% likelihood of also being gay points to this conclusion, since that is 10 times the population incidence. But the fact that the answer is not 100% also suggests that other factors besides DNA must be involved. That certainly doesn’t imply, however, that those other undefined factors are inherently alterable.

The recent NARTH paper implies that studies demonstrating some shifts in sexual behavior disconfirm the view that homosexuality is innate. As Bailey notes above, we do not know. However, Bailey indicates a situation which provides a problem for environmental hypotheses.

Studies of the rare conditions of penile ablation and cloacal exstrophy (in which hormonally normal males are reassigned and reared as females from a very early age) show that such males grow up to be attracted to females, as per their biological, but not their social sex. To repeat something I’ve said many many times (and have never had a good answer), if you can’t make a male attracted to other males by cutting off his penis and rearing him as a female, how likely is any social hypothesis?

Bailey adds a bit of a challenge to his comments:

The folks who insist that (male) sexual orientation can be changed should put their money where their mouths are and fund you and me (and the researcher of their choice) to do a study with objective (i.e., penile and neural) pre-post measures.

We have discussed a study like this since 2006. I am aware of people who would participate but funding is an issue. Bailey and I both have sought such funding but no one has provided encouragement.

Anyone interested?

I will have more on the NARTH paper in future posts. Thanks to Michael for his comments and expertise.