New Zealand researcher reports correlation between sexual behavior and childhood abuse
July 22nd, 2010
The New Zealand Mental Health Survey was a project between 2002 and 2003 in which 13,000 New Zealand residents were given face to face interviews on a number of subjects involving mental health. Dr. Elisabeth Wells of the University of Otago reviewed the data collected and announced that there was a correlation between childhood trauma and homsexuality (Otago Daily Times)
Information extracted from 13,000 face-to-face interviews clearly showed those with same-sexual or bisexual orientation were more likely to have experienced negative events in childhood, Associate Prof Elisabeth Wells said yesterday.
People who had experienced sexual abuse as children were three times more likely to identity themselves as homosexual or bisexual than those who had not experienced abuse, she said. Also, the more adverse events someone experienced in childhood, the more likely they were to belong to one of the “non-exclusively heterosexual” groups.
We can expect anti-gay activists to immediately jump to Dr. Well’s conclusions and declare them evidence that sexual orientation is a product of environment (and therefore – by some strange logic – gay people are not worthy of civil equality).
I have not yet obtained Dr. Well’s study. But sight unseen there are glaring problems with this research.
First, we should consider the sample quality: (NZHerald)
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”.
Experiencing a same-sex encounter was more common than identifying as either homosexual or bisexual. Nearly 2 per cent reported they had been in a same-sex relationship, while another 3 per cent reported having experienced a same-sex encounter.
Either New Zealanders are unlike others samples of humanity or there is something wrong with the way in which the original study was conducted. By comparison, the US’ CDC report in 2005 found that 90.2% of US men identified as heterosexual, 2.3% as gay, 1.8% as bisexual, 3.9% as something else, and 1.8% didn’t answer the question.
Zero point eight percent is way outside the normal range of responses for sexual identity. This is such an outlier that it is difficult to give credibility to any conclusions drawn from this sample. Basically, of the 13,000 participants, only about 100 were homosexual and 75-80 we bisexual.
And even more oddly, it appears that more people have “been in a same-sex relationship” than the total combined homosexual and bisexual population. This seems peculiar and suggests that perhaps there is confusion either in the questions or in the way in which the survey was conducted.
Secondly, at least according to news reports Dr. Wells lumped anyone with any same-sex experience into one category regardless of identity or extent of sexual history.
The New Zealand Mental Health Survey by the University of Otago in Christchurch has found that people identifying themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or having had same-sex encounters are more likely to have experienced events such as sexual assault and violence in the home as children.
This seems to be a particularly poor way of identifying specific populations. Unless, of course, one is viewing any same-sex experience to be a troublesome act and you’re seeking to look for traits of sexual nonconformity.
Third, the study is based on face to face questioning. Researchers have long known that controversial or sensitive information is seldom accurately collected by this methodology. (Dominion Post)
Other researchers and gay rights advocates took issue with the study’s findings. Green MP Kevin Hague, who is gay and a former director of the Aids Foundation, said the research should be taken “with an enormous grain of salt”. “I think it’s pretty unlikely that there is any underlying real association.”
The more likely explanation was the way the study was done. “Respondents who are prepared to talk to interviewers about what may be the sensitive subject of their same-sex experience or attraction may also be the most likely to be prepared to talk to the interviewers about other sensitive subjects – in this case traumatic childhood experiences.”
Fourth, Dr. Well’s appears to have an understanding of sexual orientation that is non-conventional – one might even say that it closely mirrors that of another age, one which is seldom currently found outside of anti-gay activism.
“I suspect there might be some gay and lesbian people who will be indignant, but it is not my intention to anger them. You could say that if someone was sexually abused as a child, chooses to live as a homosexual and lives life well, then that is not a bad thing. But if they are living a homosexual life and regretting it, that is another matter.”
Dr. Wells may be speaking out of ignorance; she simply may not have read the literature on the subject before releasing her opinions. Or perhaps she is seeing her work as thwarting collected wisdom and research and instead justifying or advocating for reorientation therapy.
It’s hard to tell.
Finally, Dr. Wells appears to be taking leaps.
When a responsible researcher finds a correlation, they report a correlation. They may speculate as to the reasons, but they do not announce causation or linkage, association and they never conclude more than their study finds. Sadly not all researchers are responsible.
Again, we are going from news reports which may not be accurate:
She said there was no way of knowing from her study why there was a link between negative events in childhood and same-sex sexual orientation.
No. They was a correlation. Linkage assumes that the correlation is tied to causation, something that was not studied by Dr. Wells and about which she cannot speak.
People who either identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual, or have had a same-sex encounter or relationship, tend to come from more disturbed backgrounds,” Associate Professor Wells said.
That is simply not consistent with her findings. (stuff.nz)
Of those who reported sexual abuse or rape in childhood, about 15 per cent were non-heterosexual. Of those who had not had these experiences only five per cent were non-heterosexual.
Even if 15% of her sample came from a more disturbed background, the majority did not. It would not be truthful to say that gay/bi/encounter people “tend” to come from such a background when the majority did not.
I do not know if there is any validity to this study. I’ve requested the study and either Jim or myself will look it over. We will gladly give Dr. Wells any benefit of the doubt and should any of my presumptions based on news reports turn out to be hasty, we’ll gladly correct the situation. However, there are so many red flags all over the place that it seems unlikely.
But Dr. Wells did say something with which I agree.
Dr Wells said: “I don’t quite see how our findings feed into gay-bashing, although maybe I underestimate the ability of people to twist certain things.”
Yes, Dr. Wells, you have vastly underestimated the ability of anti-gay people to twist research to support what they wish to believe. And that was unfortunate.