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Researchers Denounce Focus On the Family’s Linkage of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Male Homosexuality

Jim Burroway

June 12th, 2009

Focus On the Family is preparing to have their Love Won Out roadshow make its stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan this weekend. One of the principle arguments they are likely to spring on unsuspecting parents (if past history is any guide) is Melissa Fryrear’s assertion that she has never met a gay person who hadn’t been sexually abused, while drawing the insistent link that this abuse somehow is a major cause of homosexuality. (We saw Pat Robertson mine this same material earlier this week.) This damaging and abusive  claim — imagine the horror of parents of gay kids in that audience who will hear her say that — has been a very steady theme in Love Won Out’s arsenal.

To bolster that claim, Focus On the Family recently issued one of their “reports” by Jeff Johnston, who is touted as the “gender issues analyst” at Focus On the Family (his degree and qualifications are never mentioned). That report, “Childhood Sexual Abuse and Male Homosexuality,” is further intended to reinforce the claim that most gay men have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their childhoods, and that this is the reason they became gay. To back up his claims, he cites the book, Unequal Opportunity: Health Disparities Affecting Gay and Bisexual Men in the United States, edited by Richard J. Wolitsk, Ron Stall and Ronald O. Valdiserri. That book contains a large number of research papers on various topics related to men’s health, including child sexual abuse. Johnston claims:

In a chapter titled, “Childhood Sexual Abuse Experienced by Gay and Bisexual Men: Understanding the Disparities and Interventions to Help Eliminate Them,” from the book Unequal Opportunity, researchers analyze and report on data from 17 different studies from the past 15 years. They find the rates of childhood sexual abuse (which they abbreviate as CSA) for men who have sex with men range from 11.8% to 37.0%, and note that “the best-designed studies tend to converge on CSA prevalence of 15% to 25%.”

The authors in Unequal Opportunity are reluctant to say that childhood sexual abuse is one of the factors that leads to or contributes to the development of homosexuality, but they do speculate,

The fact that most childhood abusers of MSM were males suggests either an etiological link between CSA and adult sexual orientation, or the existence of childhood characteristics that are related to adult sexual orientation in men that increase vulnerability, or both.”

And later, they say that these early sexual experiences “can be considered a form of sexual learning, even if that learning is involuntary and the results dysfunctional.” They continue, “Sexual orientation and gender identity can be particularly confusing for men who experienced arousal during the abuse, and MSM who experienced abuse may continue to be aroused by circumstances that mirror the abusive situation.

Grove City College professor Warren Throckmorton contacted Ron Stall and Ron Valdiserri and asked them to comment on the Focus On the Family report. They responded with a statement condemning the report as “inaccurate and, in our opinion, a distortion of the scientific literature.” They go on:

Most basically, the Focus on the Family characterization of the literature on childhood sexual abuse among gay men represents a misunderstanding of scientific approaches to distinguishing between correlation and causation. The book chapter in question reports that gay men are more likely to report childhood sexual abuse by men than are heterosexual men. This correlation does not mean that the reported abuse caused the adult sexual orientation. If that were the case, then the fact that some heterosexual men report sexual abuse by women means that sexual abuse by women “causes” heterosexuality in men. It is also worth noting that the argument that childhood sexual abuse causes homosexuality in gay men is undermined by the fact that the vast majority of gay men are not sexually abused as children.

…[W]e want to state clearly that the published research does not support the claim that the development of a homosexual orientation is caused by childhood sexual abuse. Furthermore, adult homosexual orientation is no longer considered a pathology or a maladjustment. We urge those who are interested in trying to better understand some of these complex issues from a scientific perspective to read the discussions in our book, as well as the scientific literature on childhood sexual abuse, and not rely on second-hand interpretations.

You can see Stall and Valdiserri’s full statement at Dr. Throckmorton’s web site.

Update: What kind of qualifications does it take to be a “gender issues analyst” at Focus On the Family? Well in Jeff Johnston’s case, all you have to be is an English major! (PDF: 168 KB/1 page) He has also served on the board of directors of Exodus International and PFOX.



June 12th, 2009 | LINK

I was spanked as a child, thanks to Dobson’s book “Dare to discipline”. That’s the only “abuse” I received.. so if abuse made me a lesbian, than it is all Dobson’s fault… Dobson made me gay!

Richard W. Fitch
June 12th, 2009 | LINK

To the editorial staff: Don’t know whether you are aware (or perhaps responsible), but Dr. Throckmorton’s blog gives a link back to this BTB article. I feel it is worth noting since he has also given significant space on two consecutive days to the discussion of Lively’s “Pink Swastika”. Throckmorton may not be a staunch supporter but he still should not be underestimated as an ally when it comes to digging for the truth.

Ben in Oakland
June 13th, 2009 | LINK

Not only does this so-called study confuse correlation with causation, and ignore that the correlaiton isn’t all the strong to begin with, but it ignores a very simple possibility.

Gay children are targeted BECAUSE of their orientation non-conformity.

June 13th, 2009 | LINK

Johnston has a Bachelor’s degree in English. How that qualifies one to be a “gender issues analyst” I can’t say.

From his bio:

Jeff graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor’s in English and a Teaching
Credential from San Diego State University. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with his wife and three sons.

Jim Burroway
June 13th, 2009 | LINK

Hi Jake, Thanks for the update on Johnston’s credentials. Do you have a source for that info?

June 13th, 2009 | LINK


I found it through Google on the Christian radio website

It’s only in PDF format:

Jim Burroway
June 13th, 2009 | LINK


June 13th, 2009 | LINK

Dawn, that is gold.

This definitely ties in with the anti-scientific viewpoints that other fundamentalist/evangelical groups promote. I’m actually grateful that Dr. Throckmorton is trying so hard to buck that trend.

Also, this explains why my wife and I have both been asked about child sexual abuse. I’ve heard anti-gays seize upon all kinds of traumas as “causes,” though. My father’s death when I was seven has been “blamed” for my bisexuality, and a friend of mine, who succumbed a few years ago after her fourth dance with cancer, once punched an armchair psychologist who tried to blame her bisexuality on her childhood leukemia. (No, I’m not sure how that worked, either.) As a community, I think we need more of that kind of spirit.

Christopher Waldrop
June 13th, 2009 | LINK

Ben said, “Gay children are targeted BECAUSE of their orientation non-conformity.”

I was going to make a similar point. Gay children may be abused by parents, especially fathers, who recognize (even if only subconsciously) the tendencies in their children and feel they have to respond with violence. Perhaps this violence even comes from the parent having repressed feelings. If more gay children than straight children are abused (and that’s a big “if”) it’s not necessarily a cause.

Lynn David
June 13th, 2009 | LINK

Yes, according to Scott Lively, “Warren Throckmorton [has gone] to the Dark Side.” See:

June 14th, 2009 | LINK

Now… let’s compare this report with one that cites the percentage of males who were molested in their youth, but didn’t become gay! I suspect that this will blow apart the implied correlation…

Ben in Oakland
June 14th, 2009 | LINK

Christopher: I long ago postulated that the weak or absent father hypothesis was what I called the reverse Oedipus complex, for lack of a better word.

I was raised by my biological family. My family was (and is) not just a little bit strange– ironically, I think I am the only one of four children that did not come out damaged. My Dad was OK– a good man with strong values and a good mind. He raised me properly, and I think I turned out well. But something was missing with him– I suspect it was what I call the gay Oedipus thing. My Dad recognized that I was very different from him (or entirely too similar to–take your pick), and so we were perhaps not as close as we could have been, though we certainly had a decent relationship.

Imagine my surprise a feew years ago where a gay psychotherapist made basically the same proposal.

a. mcewen
June 15th, 2009 | LINK

It doesn’t surprise me about Johnston’s lack of credentials. The religious right usually create their own “experts” when it comes to lgbts.

June 15th, 2009 | LINK

Isn’t it funny how FoF can’t find anyone with even a psych pr sociology education? I know for a fact that even conservative, Christian colleges have these programs. What gives?

My theory is that anyone who goes thru these programs, even if they’re raging heterosexists, will end up doing decent research. For FoF et al, even decent research is too liberal.

June 15th, 2009 | LINK


FotF founder James Dobson has a doctorate in psychology. What these people can’t find, however, is a reputable researcher who supports their prejudices.

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