New Findings on the Children of Lesbian Moms

BlogHer Original Post

Earlier this year, I wrote about the well-being of the 17-year-old children of lesbians in the US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS). Now there's more data on these children, this time published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The current article examines the sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and sexual risk exposure of seventy-eight 17-year-olds whose mothers enrolled in the NLLFS before their birth. Psychiatrist Nanette Gartrell and her colleagues have been studying these children and their families beginning in 1986. Their research findings are the response to all the naysayers who argue that there is no longitudinal research on the children raised in planned lesbian families. Turns out there is.

Here are the punchlines on the data in this report:

None of the children had been physically or sexually abused. They were less likely (and for the boys much less likely) than an age- and gender-matched group from the US National Study of Family Growth (NSFG) to be sexually active. And those who were sexually active were older at first contact than the NSFG group.

Those findings, on a general level, rebut assertions that our families are highly sexualized and expose children to a heightened risk of sexual abuse. On this latter point, the researchers note that the children grew up in homes without adult males, and adult heterosexual males are largely the perpetrators of sexual abuse in the home. (Utah law professor Clifford Rosky has argued the importance of acknowledging the gender of sexual abuse and of responding to arguments about gay fathers with the research showing that gay men are no more likely than straight men, in proportion to their numbers, to sexually abuse children. The NLLFS includes only children of lesbian mothers.)

As for the sexual orientation and sexual behavior of the children, the researchers asked them to self-rate on the Kinsey scale (0-6, with 0 exclusively heterosexual and 6 exclusively homosexual). Grouping 0-1 as essentially/predominantly heterosexual, 2-4 as on a bisexual spectrum, and 5-6 as essentially/predominantly homosexual, researchers found that about 81% of the girls and 91% of the boys were heterosexual, about 19% of the girls and 3% of the boys were bisexual, and no girls and about 5% of the boys were homosexual. The girls, but not the boys, were more likely than the age matched NSFG group to have engaged in same-sex activity.

Sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz wrote in 2001 that one would expect the children of same-sex couples to be more open to exploration of same-sex relationships. They criticized advocates for LGBT parents for insisting there were no differences between children raised by gay parents and children raised by straight parents. Rather, Stacey and Biblarz asserted that there were no differences that should count as deficits and no differences that should cause judges and child welfare agencies to discriminate against gay parents.

For years, opponents of same-sex couples raising children have engaged in a sleight of hand when discussing research on the well-being of children. When a study supports their point of view, they use it without critique of its methodology; when a study does not support their point of view, they trash it for methodological weakness. What will they do with this study? They will certainly want to use the finding on the same-sex sexual activity of the girls, but they won't want to mention that the children were less likely to be sexually active at all, and were older on first sexual contact, than the comparison group.

But advocates for our families need to watch out also. I've already seen a headline that "study finds 0% abuse in lesbian-headed households." As far as I know, no one has ever claimed that children with gay parents are more at risk for non-sexual physical abuse; the alleged concern is always sexual abuse. Women commit very little sexual abuse period. In fact, if we were using general data on sexual abuse in making child placement decisions we would always pick single or coupled women as custodial, foster, and adoptive parents. We ought to admit, as Clifford Rosky has argued, that the concerns about sexual abuse are directed at gay men, not at gay and lesbian parents lumped together. Then we can fight back with the data that gay men are not more likely than straight men to sexually abuse children. There is such data. Just not in this research.

Nancy Polikoff

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