The past few years have given us several reports that suggest a pre-natal basis for sexual orientation. Such studies have included observations about gay people such as brain activity in response to possible pheromones, disproportionate incidence of left-handedness, and the elimination of social factors from the fraternal birth order effect. They have also included observations of others such as mothers of some gay men displaying rare single deactivated chromosomes and hypothalamus variances in the brains of same-sex attracted rams.
Viewed collectively, while there has not yet been determined any single “cause” which determines whether orientation will be towards the same or opposite sex, these studies all support the theory that much of that determination is made prior to birth.
It must be disheartening to hold to the notion that sexual orientation is developed after birth and can be directed. While nurture – that subset of environmental factors that can be controlled – cannot be ruled out of the equation at this time, there seems to be very little of late that supports this hypothesis.
What then can be done if one supports ex-gay efforts and feels that popular opinion is being swayed falsely into believing that gay people are “born that way”? One option could be to dredge up a study from 2001 and claim that it casts doubt on the Fraternal Birth Order Effect (FBOE) and suggest that media bias kept it from being widely reported.
This is what Dr. Warren Throckmorton and his associate Gary Welton have done in an op-ed published in the Washington Times. Throckmorton, a champion of ex-gay efforts, and Welton both are on the faculty of the socially conservative Grove City College and until recently Throckmorton was an advisor for PFOX, an organization that lobbies against including protections for gay kids in school anti-bullying programs. They discuss a paper by Drs. Bearman and Bruckner which found a correlation between adolescent declarations of romantic attraction and opposite sex twins.
Throckmorton and Welton’s article serves to make three points: 1) to claim that media bias was responsible for extensive coverage of FBOA and no coverage of Bearman and Bruckner’s paper, 2) to suggest that socialization vastly outweighs biological influences on sexual orientation, and 3) to use Bearman and Bruckner to discredit Bogaert’s observations about the FBOE. I will now discuss these three points.
Throckmorton may have some basis to support his claim that the media unfairly ignored the study. It may well be that reporters had little interest in a paper that seemed to disagree with the trend in observations or that did not reflect their personal viewpoints.
However, that does not explain why conservative news sources did not mention this paper. And surely no one would make the claim that even within the spectrum of mainstream media there are not those who would delight in a report that would reject support for “born gay” hypotheses. Perhaps a better explanation may be that the publication of the paper was ineffective.
B&B’s Study Supporting Socialization
Bearman and Bruckner are not without credentials in the world of social science. They were, after all, the same researchers who determined that teens who take virginity pledges were less likely to use protection or get tested for STDs when they broke those pledges (as 88% did). To be fair, this report was harshly criticized by conservative media and their methodology was brought into question.
But how did they do on the same-sex attraction study?
The study was based on results of questions asked of students in grades 7 through 12 in 1994-95 and 1996. For the study, same-sex romantic attraction was based on the question: “Have you ever had a romantic attraction to a female (male)?” The results were:
* 9.4% of males reported same-sex attraction
* 16.8% of males with a female twin reported same-sex attraction
They found that the only factor they observed which had any correlation with increased likelihood of same-sex attraction was a female twin. From this they decide that since the socialization of males who have a female twin that is distinct from the socialization of other males (a bold leap) therefore it is socialization that makes a young man’s heart go out to another.
But wait. Go back and look at the numbers.
Can that be right? Are Throckmorton and Welton championing a study that claims that 9.4% of teens are same-sex attracted?
And surely if 16.8% of guys with a female twin were gay, wouldn’t someone notice?
Well the answer could be ummm, no. A clue is found in the disclaimer about their methodology:
The proportion of adolescents reporting a same-sex relationship or homosexual activity is small in this sample (3.4% and 0.84% respectively). Consequently, we focus on same-sex romantic attraction.
If we take their statement at face value, we would have to believe that 3.4% of high-schoolers in the late 90’s had been in a same-sex relationship – but 75% of them had not had sex. This seems to me to be both too high and too low.
Considering that the CDC report suggests that only about 2.8% of 25 to 29 year old men identify as gay and only about 0.9% identify as bisexual in 2003, B&B would have us believe that 92% of them were in same-sex relationships in high school. I’m sure you will forgive me if I suggest that there may be a significant flaw in how B&B analyzed the data.
Perhaps I’m reading their results incorrectly. But it seems to me that either their samples were woefully unrepresentative, their methods of obtaining answers were seriously flawed, or their interpretation of their results completely missed the boat.
In all likelihood what was being reported by the kids was probably something much different than what you or I would identify as “same-sex attraction”.
Dismissing Dr. Bogaert’s Research
Dr. Anthony Bogaert reported in 1996 that the likelihood of homosexual orientation increases for each older brother a man has. Nurture advocates spun this to suggest that the presence of older brothers in the home resulted in an environment that contributed to the younger child being feminized.
Bogaert repeated his work, this time observing the presence of step-siblings or the absence of natural siblings. His conclusion was that the presence or absence of step or natural siblings was not correlative and that the only observance was with the number of previous male siblings to have passed through the mothers womb.
The B&B study took place between the two studies and purports to disprove the first. In fact, it goes so far as to claim the opposite.
Among male opposite-sex twins, the proportion reporting a same-sex romantic attraction is twice as high among those without older brothers (18.7%) than among those with older brothers (8.8%).
In other words, as Dr. Throckmorton indicates in his article,
In direct contradiction to the FBOE, Drs. Bearman and Bruckner found this caveat: The opposite-sex twin effect was eliminated by the presence of an older brother.
Bogaert’s findings and those of Bearman and Bruckner are contradictory. They cannot both be right. Bogaert says older brothers increase the likelihood of homosexuality. Bearman and Bruckner say older brothers decrease the likelihood.
But, then again, Bearman and Bruckner also say that one fifth of adolescent males with a female twin and no older brothers are same-sex attracted. And that would indeed make a great headline if it were true.
The problem with the B&B paper is that it requires suspension of disbelief. To accept that they showed support for socialization as an etiology for sexual orientation, you have also to accept that 10% of males are gay. To believe that it casts serious doubt on Bogaert, you also have to believe that 17% of guys with a female twin are gay.
As Bearman and Bruckner wrote in their own report,
The findings presented in this paper… stand in marked contrast to most previous research in a number of respects.
Sadly, that didn’t encourage them to question their results. Nor did is slow Throckmorton and Welton from suggesting that it had merit.
The gentlemen from Grove City end their op-ed with a question
Why does one study that finds a weak sibling relationship and speculates a biological effect get worldwide attention while another study that finds a weak sibling relationship but no evidence for a biological effect is completely ignored?
Perhaps the best answer to that is one that I’m to polite to write.