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New Zealand researcher reports correlation between sexual behavior and childhood abuse

Timothy Kincaid

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.

Conclusion:

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.

Comments

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Manawolf
July 22nd, 2010 | LINK

Perhaps GLBT children are more likely to BE abused, because they do not conform to gender roles.

But given how terribly skewed the samples appear to be (They want to draw conclusions from a sample of less than 200 GLBT people? REALLY??), I would be reluctant to draw even that conclusion. The data’s bad, end story.

Varburg
July 22nd, 2010 | LINK

The number of reported sex abuse cases that are same-sex is disproportionate to the number of adults who identify as homosexual (this doesn’t imply that the abusers are gay, there is a good article here that goes into a lot of detail).

People who have “had a same-sex experience” (which this study lumps into the “gay” category) probably includes straight people who were abused.

Darren
July 22nd, 2010 | LINK

Wait a minute. I don’t know if I’m misreading this or not, but if “of those reporting sexual abuse/rape, 15% were non-heterosexual”, does that mean 85% WERE heterosexual?? And if so, would that mean that people who are sexually abused are significantly more likely to become heterosexuals?? Gosh, we could twist this tale in all sorts of ways!

Facetiousness aside, are there any statisticians out there? Was her study sufficiently powered to detect a difference b/w heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals?

Emily K
July 22nd, 2010 | LINK

Is it catty and shallow to say she makes my gaydar go off? She just does. Maybe it’s the specific photo.

Jimmy
July 22nd, 2010 | LINK

so can we also expect that all the gay fruit flies and giraffes were sexually abused as well?

grantdale
July 22nd, 2010 | LINK

Timothy/Jim — I’ll try and locate what I can (if you beat me to it, feel free to send it to my way instead). Wells has published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour.

You’ve picked up “something” looks odd, and you’re correct on that score. However, I’ll need to go to the raw data sources to check if it has influenced this report.

The NZMHS heavily oversampled Maori (2x) and Pacific peoples (4x) deliberately. The results as reported by Wells may be picking up a cultural artefact rather than a true correlation. I don’t know if Wells has analysed for these groups separately etc.

eg: there may be a higher ability in the survey to find adverse childhoods than a public declaration of non-heterosexuality. (Maori and PP do have much higher rates of adverse childhoods than the general NZ population and, particularly for PP, often very conservative religious backgrounds.)

And agree, Wells’ language is … archaic.

grantdale
July 22nd, 2010 | LINK

Timothy: I’m flat out today but I can start you off.

The NZMHS is often referred to as Te Rau Hinengaro, a search string that probably wouldn’t come immediately to mind for you :)

http://www.moh.govt.nz/moh.nsf/pagesmh/5223

grantdale
July 22nd, 2010 | LINK

That’s damned annoying — I forgot I’d lost my free access to that journal.

https://springerlink.metapress.com/content/05635071r2005863/resource-secured/?target=fulltext.pdf&sid=zmn3vvf3x5fky255vg2redvt&sh=www.springerlink.com

Timothy Kincaid
July 23rd, 2010 | LINK

grantdale,

ALWAYS happy to have your eyes on a survey or study.

Lymis
July 23rd, 2010 | LINK

I haven’t read anything about this study, but one thing jumped out at me – beyond all the suspicious thing you’ve already noted.

And that is that all this is based on self-reporting.

How much of the data is skewed by people feeling or not feeling that reporting childhood sexual abuse is a safe thing to do?

I wasn’t abused as a child, but I know that once I got over the hurdle of coming out and telling people I’m gay, there were a lot of other things about me that I could care less or not that people knew about me. My big secret was out, all the little ones were trivial. I had several friends remark about how open I am about things they don’t talk about.

I wonder if the study isn’t showing that people who have already processed for themselves a sexual identity that is at odds with society (LGBT or in any other non-standard straight sexual lifestyle) are more willing to admit childhood sexual abuse, while people who are in more socially approved sexual lifestyles see admitting it as a higher risk?

And of course, it completely ignores the possibilities that children who are already learning to be ashamed of themselves and hide things from their parents and peers might be in some ways more likely to be attractive to sexual predators. In other words, that gay kids might attract predators more than straight kids, not that the abuse turned them gay.

Patrick
July 23rd, 2010 | LINK

grantdale mentioned a possible cultural artifact. This combined with the numbers could also help explain the extremely low percentage of homosexuals in NZ (an assertion which I find odd given the time I spent at the University of Otago). We must remember that in Polynesia it is common for some males to change their gender and become known as fa’afafine (Samoa), fakaleiti (Tonga), mahu (Hawai’i and Tahiti), etc. These individuals are often attracted to and have sex with straight males. However, they do not consider themselves homosexual.

Thus, there is an inherent flaw if the researcher is using Western categories in a study of sexual orientation that includes Polynesians.

Priya Lynn
July 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Well done analysis Timothy.

Regan DuCasse
July 23rd, 2010 | LINK

This site and XGW has the most comprehensive analysis of this subject. You really work hard at being complete, fair and deeply detailed.
You get to the heart of the subject, without being dense.

Lymis, your last paragraph says a lot in a nutshell too. And the prevailing studies like this one, leave out that very serious detail that predators ARE attracted to who and what they consider weaker, and more importantly, unable to report the assault.
Same sex assault, because of anti gay sentiment, carries another level of stigma and shame that a predator obviously will exploit.
This woman’s sample is very small.
And, these sample tend to already have questions that enable or set up the researcher’s own bias.
When you’re not asking the right questions, or are entering a study with already entrenched expectations, you’ll frame your questions around presumptions.

At any rate, it’s getting old, all these studies and gay people being scrutinized like some alien that dropped out of the sky.

Research and tests like this, have in the past, required ISOLATION of the test subject and the response based on the legacy of that isolation, rather than being a broader and more random sample.
Personally, I think full integration of the gay community in the mainstream would reveal a lot more, and inform a lot better than samples like this.
Especially because they seem to fail to make comparisons with a SIMILAR sample from heterosexuals.

The link to subsequent dysfunction if any, isn’t orientation, but the abuse itself and it’s imprint. And for how long the abused were unable to unpack it.

I’m so over this preoccupation with gay lives for every reason BUT full acceptance and leaving well enough alone.

ricky
July 23rd, 2010 | LINK

i was never sexually abused. does hitting count? my parents knew i was gay by the time i was three. they just liked to beat their kids.

grantdale
July 23rd, 2010 | LINK

I’ll keep at it, still waiting on the paper, but we’ve run into a Horrid Sample problem almost immediately.

(You know something’s awry when only 0.25% of your men announce they are bisexual.)

The survey is detailed, and nuanced, when it comes to questions about mental health and family histories but is rather bald regarding questions about adult sexual identity and previous sexual experience.

Firstly, the survey data could well suffer from an internal bias, as Lymis mentioned — those responders prepared to honestly answer touchy questions will probably also be prepared to honesty answer other touchy questions. (After admitting your father used to beat the bejeebus out of your mother every other day, how much would you feel a need to hide the fact that you once got drunk and blew your best mate?)

This is always a problem for such surveys and becomes highly relevant in this case because at least two-thirds of the ‘homosexuals’ were self-declared heterosexuals with same-sex behavioural experience.

There is no context for this behavioural experience, nor a clue to it’s frequency, among these heterosexuals. I think this is going to be critical to understanding what Wells et al are reporting.

For all anyone knows, some?/much? could have occurred in coerced circumstances; prison, rape, survival sex on the streets, CSA. Or was some experimentation not repeated. The ‘homosexual experience’ they are referring to may in fact be one and the same childhood abuse that it’s being correlated against. The violence against the child may well be parental violence against the gay child. (Oh wow look… one-to-one relationships for these, amazing!)

And… adults with poor childhood histories often report any number of out of sync sexual experiences, including coerced ones. Is that what is really being picked up here?

I suspect we’re going to run into the same interpretive silliness as happened with the “2 million Danish people” study — lots of numbers being crunched and tabulated, but inadequate contextual analysis of what the stats software spits out.

(Potential lesson from the Danish study: if you want to help ensure your child doesn’t marry someone of the same sex… you need to surround them with cows while they are growing up. Death by Correlation.)

Time will tell.

Christine
July 24th, 2010 | LINK

Any research that claims to be representative of LGBT people is problematic from the start. There simply is no way to get a random sample of a stigmatized group that can then be generalied to the larger population of that group.

ebohlman
July 24th, 2010 | LINK

Just pure speculation, but I can see a couple possible causal mechanisms:

1) Gay kids kicked out of the home, live on the streets and get abused.

2) Bisexual women abused by men deciding, at least temporarily, not to pursue sexual relationships with men.

This really reminds me of some of those studies that are ballyhooed as showing that vaccination causes autism; in many of them, it turns out that the control group (unvaccinated or non-autistic) has all kinds of statistically unlikely properties.

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