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article is on Dr. Gregory Herek's website at http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/facts_molestation.html

Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation

Open bibliography in a separate window Members of disliked minority groups are often stereotyped as representing a danger to the majority society's most vulnerable members. Historically, Black men in the United States were often falsely accused of raping White women, and commonly lynched as a result. Jews in the Middle Ages were accused of murdering Christian babies in ritual sacrifices. In a similar fashion, gay people have often been portrayed as a threat to children. When Anita Bryant campaigned successfully in 1977 to repeal a Dade County (FL) ordinance prohibiting anti-gay discrimination, she named her organization "Save Our Children," and warned that "a particularly deviant-minded [gay] teacher could sexually molest children" (Bryant, 1977, p. 114). [ Bibliographic references are on a different web page] In recent years, antigay activists have routinely asserted that gay people are child molesters. This argument has often been raised in debates about the Boy Scouts of America's policy to exclude gay scouts and scoutmasters. It has also been raised in connection with recent scandals about the Catholic church's attempts to cover up the abuse of young males by priests. Indeed, the Vatican's early response to the 2002 revelations of widespread Church cover-ups of sexual abuse by priests was to declare that gay men should not be ordained.

Public belief in the stereotype The number of Americans who believe the myth that gay people are child molesters appears to be decreasing. In a 1970 national survey, more than 70% of respondents agreed (either strongly or somewhat) with the assertions that "Homosexuals are dangerous as teachers or youth leaders because they try to get sexually involved with children" or that "Homosexuals try to play sexually with children if they cannot get an adult partner."1 By contrast, in a 1999 national poll, the belief that most gay men are likely to molest or abuse children was endorsed by only 19% of heterosexual men and 10% of heterosexual women. Even fewer 9% of men and 6% of women regarded most lesbians as child molesters. Consistent with these findings, G allup polls have found that an increasing number of Americans would allow gay people to be elementary school teachers. For example, the proportion was 54% in 1999, compared to 27% in 1977.

Examining the Research Even though most Americans don't regard gay people as child molesters, confusion remains widespread in this area. To understand the facts, it is important to examine the results of scientific research. However, when we evaluate research on child molestation, our task is complicated by several problems. One problem is that we do not know to what extent the samples used in research studies are representative of all child molesters. Most studies in this area have been conducted only with convicted perpetrators or with pedophiles who sought professional help. Consequently, they may not accurately describe child molesters who have never been caught or have not sought treatment.

Terminology A second problem is that the terminology used in this area is often confusing and can even be misleading. We can begin to address that problem by defining some basic terms. Pedophilia and child molestation are used in a variety of ways, even by professionals. Pedophilia usually refers to an adult psychosexual disorder characterized by a preference for prepubescent children as sexual partners; this preference may or may not be acted upon. The term hebephilia is sometimes used to describe adult sexual attractions to adolescents and children who have reached puberty. Whereas pedophilia and hebephilia refer to psychological propensities, child molestation and child sexual abuse are used to describe actual sexual contact between an adult and someone who has not reached the legal age of consent. In this context, someone who has not reached the age of consent is referred to as a child, even though he or she may be a teenager. Although the terms are not always used consistently, it is useful to distinguish between pedophiles/hebephiles and child molesters/abusers. Pedophilia and hebephilia are diagnostic labels. Not all pedophiles and hebephiles actually molest children; an adult can be attracted to children or adolescents without ever actually engaging in sexual contact with them. Child molestation and child sexual abuse refer to actions, and don't imply a particular psychological makeup or motive on the part of the perpetrator. Not all incidents of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by pedophiles or hebephiles; in some cases, the perpetrator has other motives for his or her actions and does not manifest an ongoing pattern of sexual attraction to children. Thus, not all child sexual abuse is perpetrated by pedophiles (or hebephiles) and not all pedophiles and hebephiles actually commit abuse. Consequently, it is important to choose one's terms carefully. Another problem related to terminology arises because sexual abuse of male children by adult men2 is often referred to as "homosexual molestation." The adjective "homosexual" (or "heterosexual" when a man abuses a female child) refers to the victim's gender in relation to that of the perpetrator. Unfortunately, people sometimes mistakenly interpret it as referring to the perpetrator's sexual orientation. To avoid this confusion, it is preferable to refer to men's sexual abuse of boys with the more accurate label of male-male molestation. Similarly, it is preferable to refer to men's abuse of girls as male-female molestation. These labels are more accurate because they describe the sex of the individuals involved but don't convey implicit assumptions about the perpetrator's sexual orientation.

"Fixated" and "Regressed" Offenders The distinction between gender of victim and sexual orientation of perpetrator is important because many child molesters don't really have an adult sexual orientation. They have never developed the capacity for mature sexual relationships with other adults, either men or women. Recognizing this fact, Finkelhor and Araji (1986) proposed that discussions of the sexual attractions of perpetrators should be conceptualized along a continuum ranging in degrees from exclusive interest in children to exclusive interest in adult partners. Perpetrators with an exclusive interest in children are labeled fixated by some researchers. Fixation means "a temporary or permanent arrestment of psychological maturation resulting from unresolved formative issues which persist and underlie the organization of subsequent phases of development" (Groth & Birnbaum, 1978, p. 176). Put in simple terms, fixated offenders are "stuck" at an early stage of psychological development. By contrast, other molesters are described as regressed. Regression is "a temporary or permanent appearance of primitive behavior after more mature forms of expression had been attained, regardless of whether the immature behavior was actually manifested earlier in the individual's development" (Groth & Birnbaum, 1978, p. 177). Regressed offenders have developed an adult sexual orientation but under certain conditions (such as extreme stress) they return to an earlier, less mature psychological state and engage in sexual contact with children. Fixated offenders never developed an adult sexual orientation of any sort, whereas regressed molesters have done so. Thus, regressed molesters can be adult homosexuals, heterosexuals, or bisexuals. But it is meaningless to speak of fixated molesters in these terms they are attracted to children, not to men or women. Using this distinction, Groth and Birnbaum (1978) found that none of the 175 adult males in their sample all of whom were convicted in Massachusetts of sexual assault against a child had an exclusively homosexual adult sexual orientation. 83 of the men (47%) were classified as "fixated;" 70 others (40%) were classified as regressed adult heterosexuals; the remaining 22 (13%) were classified as regressed adult bisexuals. Of the last group, Groth and Birnbaum observed that "in their adult relationships they engaged in sex on occasion with men as well as with women. However, in no case did this attraction to men exceed their preference for women....There were no men who were primarily sexually attracted to other adult males..." (p.180). Another researcher took a different approach. Dr. Carole Jenny reviewed 352 medical charts, representing all of the sexually abused children seen in the emergency room or child abuse clinic of a Denver children's hospital during a one-year period (from July 1, 1991 to June 30, 1992). The molester was a gay or lesbian adult in only 2 of the 269 cases in which an adult molester could be identified fewer than 1% (Jenny et al., 1994). In yet another approach to studying adult sexual attraction to children, some Canadian researchers observed how homosexual and heterosexual adult men responded to slides of males and females of various ages (child, pubescent, and mature adult). All of the research subjects were first screened to ensure that they preferred physically mature sexual partners. In some of the slides shown to subjects, the model was clothed; in others, he or she was nude. The slides were accompanied by audio recordings. The recordings paired with the nude models described an imaginary sexual interaction between the model and the subject. The recordings paired with the pictures of clothed models described the model engaging in neutral activities (e.g., swimming). To measure sexual arousal, changes in the subjects' penis volume were monitored while they watched the slides and listened to the audiotapes. The researchers found that homosexual males responded no more to male children than heterosexual males responded to female children (Freund et al., 1989). Science cannot prove a negative. Thus, these studies do not prove that homosexual or bisexual males are no more likely than heterosexual males to molest children. However, each of them failed to prove the alternative hypothesis that homosexual males are more likely than heterosexual men to molest children or to be sexually attracted to children or adolescents.

The Mainstream View Reflecting the results of these and other studies, the mainstream view among researchers and professionals who work in the area of child sexual abuse is that homosexual and bisexual men do not pose any special threat to children. For example, in one review of the scientific literature, noted authority Dr. A. Nicholas Groth wrote: Are homosexual adults in general sexually attracted to children and are preadolescent children at greater risk of molestation from homosexual adults than from heterosexual adults? There is no reason to believe so. The research to date all points to there being no significant relationship between a homosexual lifestyle and child molestation. There appears to be practically no reportage of sexual molestation of girls by lesbian adults, and the adult male who sexually molests young boys is not likely to be homosexual (Groth & Gary, 1982, p. 147). In a more recent literature review, Dr. Nathaniel McConaghy (1998) similarly cautioned against confusing homosexuality with pedophilia. He noted, "The man who offends against prepubertal or immediately postpubertal boys is typically not sexually interested in older men or in women" (p. 259).

Other Sexual Abuse In the recent scandal involving the Catholic church, some Church officials have tried to link sexual abuse with gay priests, arguing that the victims were often adolescent boys rather than small children. Here is an example where the term pedophilia referring as it does to attractions to prepubescent children can cause confusion. More broadly, such accusations against gay priests raise the question of whether gay men or lesbians should not be trusted in positions of authority where there is any possibility of sexual abuse or harassment. Scientific research provides no evidence that homosexual people are less likely than heterosexuals to exercise good judgment and appropriate discretion in their employment settings. There are no data, for example, showing that gay men and lesbians are more likely than heterosexual men and women to sexually harass their subordinates in the workplace. Data from studies using a variety of psychological measures do not indicate that gay people are more likely than heterosexuals to possess any psychological characteristics that would make them less capable of controlling their sexual urges, refraining from the abuse of power, obeying rules and laws, interacting effectively with others, or exercising good judgment in handling authority. As explained elsewhere on this site, sexual orientation is not a mental illness nor is it inherently associated with impaired psychological functioning. Gay men and lesbians function effectively in a wide variety of employment settings. No differences have been reported between heterosexuals, bisexuals, and homosexuals in job performance or ability to properly exercise authority in supervisory roles. As indicated by workplace policies around the United States, a large and growing number of private and public employers do not perceive a problem with hiring gay and bisexual people as employees or managers. A large number of corporations, educational institutions, and local governments have adopted policies that prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. In many cases, those organizations give employee benefits such as health insurance to employees' same-sex partners. Indeed, one reason often cited for providing such benefits is that they enable a company to remain competitive by attracting high quality employees who happen to be homosexual or bisexual. Thus, the scientific literature does not provide any basis for organizations to avoid hiring homosexual or bisexual people, simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, for positions that involve responsibility for or supervision of others, whether children, adolescents, or adults.

Do Any Studies Claim To Show That Homosexuals Are More Likely To Molest Children? One individual has claimed to have data that prove homosexuals to be child molesters at a higher rate than heterosexuals. That person is Paul Cameron. As detailed elsewhere on this site, Cameron's survey data are subject to so many methodological flaws as to be virtually meaningless. Even so, his assertions are often quoted by antigay organizations in their attempts to link homosexuality with child sexual abuse. In a 1985 article published in Psychological Reports, Paul Cameron purported to review published data to answer the question, "Do those who commit homosexual acts disproportionately incorporate children into their sexual practices?" (p. 1227). He concluded that "at least one-third of the sexual attacks upon youth are homosexual" (p. 1228) and that "those who are bi- to homosexual are proportionately much more apt to molest youth" than are heterosexuals (p. 1231). Cameron's findings are based on his assumption that all male-male molestations were committed by homosexuals. Moreover, a careful reading of Cameron's paper reveals several false statements about the literature he claimed to have reviewed. For example, he cited the Groth and Birnbaum (1978) study mentioned previously as evidencing a 3:2 ratio of "heterosexual" (i.e., female victim) to "homosexual" (i.e., male victim) molestations, and he noted that "54% of all the molestations in this study were performed by bisexual or homosexual practitioners" (p. 1231). However, Groth and Birnbaum reported that none of the men in their sample had an exclusively homosexual adult sexual orientation, and that none of the 22 bisexual men were more attracted to adult males than to adult females. Cameron's 54% statistic does not appear anywhere in the Groth and Birnbaum (1978) article, nor does Cameron explain its derivation. It also is noteworthy that, although Cameron assumed that all male-male molestations were committed by homosexuals, he assumed that not all male-female molestations were committed by heterosexuals. He incorporated a "bisexual correction" into his data manipulations to increase further his estimate of the risk posed to children by homosexual/bisexual men. In the latter half of his paper, Cameron considered whether "homosexual teachers have more frequent sexual interaction with their pupils" (p. 1231). Based on 30 instances of sexual contact between a teacher and pupil reported in ten different sources published between 1920 and 1982, Cameron concluded that "a pupil would appear about 90 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a homosexual practitioner" (p. 1232); the ratio rose to 100 times when Cameron added his bisexual correction. This ratio is meaningless because no data were obtained concerning the actual sexual orientation of the teachers involved; as before, Cameron assumed that male-male contacts were perpetrated by homosexuals. Furthermore, Cameron's rationale for selecting particular sources appears to have been completely arbitrary. He described no systematic method for reviewing the literature, and apparently never reviewed the voluminous literature on the sexual development of children and adolescents. His final choice of sources appears to have slanted his findings toward what Cameron described as "the relative absence in the scientific literature of heterosexual teacher-pupil sexual events coupled with persistent, albeit infrequent, homosexual teacher-pupil sexual interactions" (p. 1232). A subsequent paper by Cameron and others (Cameron, Proctor, Coburn, Forde, Larson, & Cameron, 1986) described data collected in a door-to-door survey in seven U.S. cities and towns, and generally repeated the conclusions reached in Cameron (1985). As before, male-male sexual assaults were referred to as "homosexual" molestations (e.g., Abstract, p.327) and the perpetrators' sexual orientation apparently was not assessed. This study also suffers from severe methodological problems (Brown & Cole, 1985). These problems are discussed in detail elsewhere on this site. In summary, the findings reported in the papers by Cameron et al. cannot be considered valid. The work is too methodologically flawed.

Conclusion The empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children. This is not to argue that homosexual and bisexual men never molest children. But there is no scientific basis for asserting that they are more likely than heterosexual men to do so. And, as explained above, many child molesters cannot be characterized as having an adult sexual orientation at all; they are fixated on children. Notes

1. The survey was conducted under the auspices of the Kinsey Institute (Klassen, Williams, & Levitt, 1989). (return to text)

2. Sexual abuse by women occurs but has not been well documented. It has most often been documented in cases of a female accomplice assisting a male perpetrator in procuring victims, or an adult woman seducing a young male (Erickson, Walbek, & Seely, 1988; Finkelhor, 1984; Johnson & Shrier, 1987). Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the child molester stereotype is applied more often to gay men than to lesbians. (return to text)

Facts About Homosexuality and Mental Health

Facts About Changing Sexual Orientation

Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation

Bibliography for Facts About Sexual Orientation



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