Asexuality

Amid all the rancor these days over who’s sexually attracted to whom—and what public policymakers ought to do about it, if anything—comes news of the emergence of another sexuality category, that of asexuality, or the state of not being sexually interested in men or women. It’s not really new news; acknowledgement of it has been around since Kinsey, if not before. It is thought to characterize around one percent of the population. I can imagine a good slogan about the one percent thing, should anyone wish to make something of it.

Some consider it a sexual orientation, while others think it’s the lack thereof. Some are pressing a case for the former because they’re concerned that asexuality might be considered a disorder, with all the politics pertaining thereunto. Thus the attempt to normalize asexuality. Except that it’s not really normal. It may not be a bad thing. In my mind, it’s neither here nor there. Why must we always assign normality a positive value and abnormality a negative one? I presume it’s because we’re hopelessly social creatures constituted in part by our perception of others’ impressions of us. (Ergo, we want to be normal, average.) If you are pursuing celibacy, then asexuality is probably pretty convenient. And it shouldn’t be mistaken for a low libido or diminishing testosterone during the aging process, but certainly could be confused with such. Apparently it’s even a legally “protected class” in Vermont and New York. Given that asexuality concerns an absence or invisibility, the protection of it is interesting.

A Canadian professor and supposed expert on the matter asserts that “asexuality has not been investigated enough.” He’s certainly right about that, and I am all for empirical investigation in this area, so long as the science isn’t beholden to pre-packaged answers. I know I have not investigated it much.

Alas, here’s to starting. In the NFSS, I asked 18-39-year-olds a question that should get at it pretty well. Respondents were asked to “choose the description that best fits how you think about yourself,” after which they were shown answer categories like “100% heterosexual (straight),” bisexual, “100% homosexual (gay), and a pair of categories in between those that I didn’t feel like typing out but you can look up in the survey instrument if you wish. The final category listed there, however, is “not sexually attracted to either males or females.”

So how many NFSS respondents selected that category? Well, wouldn’t you know it: one percent. Technically, six-tenths of one percent, but close enough.

What are they like? That is, who’s more or less likely to so identify? In the NFSS, gender does not appear to distinguish them (that is, men and women self-report comparable percentages of asexuality). Nor does race or age or religiosity or education, or experience with sexual abuse.

But as noted in my July Social Science Research article, 4.1 percent of women whose mothers have had a same-sex relationship reported asexuality, well above the 0.5 percent of women who came from stably-intact biological families. The figure is even higher among male children in such a situation: 7 percent of them report asexuality. Statistical coincidence? It’s possible; we’re dealing with a pretty small N of cases in the first place—only 23 people in the entire dataset indicated asexuality—so we shouldn’t read too much into this. But it’s one of the few variables I’ve seen elevate the level of asexuality among respondents to anything above 2 percent. As with lots of datasets, small numbers prevent us from making too much of this.

Nevertheless, the one percent figure is reassuring–the NFSS continues to display characteristics that suggest its validity and reliability vis-à-vis other nationally-representative datasets.

That’s all for now. It’s good to be back blogging a bit, following my self-imposed silence. (Only civil comments will be accepted…)

Part 2: More Info about the Study on Adult Children of Parents who have Same-Sex Relationships

Part 2 in a series on the New Family Structures Study I conducted.

Just a few links, as well as the answer to some common criticisms of the study…

The study itself is free and publicly available, beginning today, at this site, together with another study on the matter by Loren Marks (LSU professor), and three comments on the studies, including one by Paul Amato, Penn State sociologist and current president of the National Council on Family Relations.

My short summary piece on the study is up at Slate.com, here, as is William Saletan’s take.

In response to a common criticism about the fact that there are few respondents who reported growing up in stably-coupled lesbian families, I had this to say:

“One of the key methodological criticisms circulating is that–basically–in a population-based sample, I haven’t really evaluated how the adult children of stably-intact coupled self-identified lesbians have fared. Right? Right. And I’m telling you that it cannot be feasibly accomplished. It is a methodological (practical) impossibility at present, for reasons I describe: they really didn’t exist in numbers that could be amply obtained *randomly*. It may well be a flaw–a limitation, I think–but it is unavoidable. We maxxed Knowledge Networks’ ability, and no firm is positioned to do better. It would have cost untold millions of dollars, and still may not generate the number of cases needed for statistical analyses. If randomness wasn’t the key priority, then we could’ve done it. And we’d have had a nonrandom sample that was no better than anything before it. So, while critics are taking potshots, they should remember that there’s a (low) ceiling to what’s possible here. My team of consultants elected to go with the screener questions (including the one about same-sex relationships) that we did, anticipating–accurately, too–that there would be no way of generating ample sample size if we narrowed the criteria (for who counts as a lesbian parent) to the sort that critics are calling for. We figured that, with the household roster/calendar offering the opportunity to identify who you lived with, we’d comfortably get enough cases wherein the respondent reported living with mom and her partner for many consecutive years. But few did.”

Q & A with Mark Regnerus about the background of his new study

Part 1 in a series on the New Family Structures Study I conducted.

Figured it was worth answering some basic background questions about the new study, me, etc., given all the hubbub it’s receiving.

Q: Why did you undertake the study about adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?

A: Two reasons. First, because I thought I could pull together a diverse group of people to figure out how best to test the “no differences” hypothesis. And second, because it’s an interesting research question, and I don’t mind navigating controversy a bit. I’m at a point in my career where I’m less concerned about making my professional peers happy and more about studying interesting things. In particular, the “no differences” hypothesis seemed quirky to me. I wondered if it was really true.

Q: You realize the Witherspoon Institute is a pretty conservative organization, politically.

A: Yes. And the Ford Foundation is a pretty liberal one. Every academic study is paid for by someone. I’ve seen excellent studies funded by all sorts of interest groups. I don’t waste too much time worrying about the sources of funding, so long as the research questions are compelling and the data collection methods solid. Funding is hard to get these days. Witherspoon had nothing to do with the study design, or with the data analyses, or interpretations, or the publication of the study. To me, I treated it the same as if the funding came from NICHD or NSF.

Q: So why didn’t you go to NICHD or NSF for funding?

A: For two reasons. First, because in informal conversation about it, Witherspoon expressed openness to funding it. I was between book projects and it sounded like
an interesting thing to pursue. I informed Witherspoon that if I were to run the study, I would report the results, whatever they may be. And honestly my bet was that it would be a far more mixed set of results, with many null findings. Second, I actually don’t think a study like this would fly at NICHD or NSF. In the wider social science community, the matter of “no differences” is considered either settled or too politicized. Of course, why it would be considered settled is beyond me. What issues get settled in a decade?

Q: Have other studies used the same methodological approach you did?

A: Most have not, as I elaborate in the literature review section of the study. That’s what’s unique about this study. Only Michael Rosenfeld’s 2010 article in Demography utilized a large population-based sample to compare one outcome among same-sex and other types of households. Others have worked with existing population-based samples, but rather small ones. But apart from Rosenfeld’s study, this is the largest nationally-representative sample of same-sex households, and I looked at 40 different outcomes, not just one or two.

Q: Why did you use Knowledge Networks as the firm to carry out the data collection?

A: I investigated several firms’ ability to collect random data from small populations, and their reputation and track record in academic research kept popping up. The fact that they actively maintain a large random panel of respondents was a big plus. Other family scholars have used them. Major data collection projects—funded by federal agencies, private entities, and even condom manufacturers—have used them. They’re very good.

Q: I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “correlation does not equal causation.” Is that the case here?

A: For sure. This is an overview piece that explores statistical associations, and explores what happens when I control for a variety of other variables. But an assessment of causation is not possible here. I explored a likely suspect—household instability—but apart from longitudinal data, I’d be in a tough spot to claim causation.

Q: So besides the results, what makes this study any different from previous ones?

A: In a nutshell, it’s primarily the sampling strategy, the sample size, and method variance: we employed a random, population-based sample, and a large one at that, so people can generalize to the broader population of young adults in America. And we talked to independent adults, not to parents or kids still in the home. Nobody did that before.

Q: Is there a political take-home message in the study?

A: No. As I stated in the article, “this study cannot answer political questions about same-sex relationships…”

Q: Come on. You can’t surmise what people will make of this study politically?

A: You know, I don’t think it easily lends itself to one particular answer to any of the politicized questions that are circulating about gay marriage, or parental rights, etc. What it comprises is significant, new, high-quality information on the long reach of household structure in the lives of American young people. And more information is always a plus, I would think.

Q: Some might say this study reveals evidence that gay and lesbian parents would benefit from access to the relative security of marriage. What are your thoughts on that?

A: It’s possible. How gay marriages would function for children is an empirical question, but it’s only answerable in the future, after ample numbers of cases have accrued, after considerable time has expired, and when the respondents are old enough to speak and reflect about it, as the respondents in my study have.

Q: What did you think of President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage?

A: I’m a researcher. It doesn’t alter how I approach the academic study of sexual behavior or family formation.

Q: From a Google search of your previous work, it appears that you’ve talked with a variety of religious groups. Are you personally religious, and if so doesn’t that compromise this study?

A: I’m Catholic, for the record, and politically haven’t yet voted for a Republican presidential candidate. Religious organizations have historically been interested in the sorts of subject matter I’ve studied. But there’s no “Christian” approach to sampling or “Catholic” way of crunching numbers. Any trained methodologist, data manager, and statistician can locate the same patterns I reported. Others may ask different questions, or follow different decision rules on measures. But that’s normal science.

Q: So are gay parents worse than traditional parents?

A: The study is not about parenting per se. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible straight parents. The study is, among other things, about outcome differences between young adults raised in households in which a parent had a same-sex relationship and those raised by their own parents in intact families. It’s not about sexual orientation, at least not overtly. There are many significant differences, but the study does not ascribe any causes for the differences. This can only be assessed with additional research. What is evident in the data, however, is above-average instability among households in which mom or dad had a same-sex relationship. For example, among the former only two respondents total said they lived with their mother and her partner nonstop from birth to age 18. Two more said they did so for 15 years, and two more for 13 years. To be sure, these 10 fared better on more outcomes than did their less-stable peers. They’re just uncommon, and too small a group to detect statistically-significant differences, for sure. Future studies would ideally include more children from “planned” gay or lesbian families, but their relative scarcity in the NFSS data suggests that their appearance in even much larger probability samples may remain infrequent for the foreseeable future.

Q: Will you conduct more research on this subject?

A: There will not be additional data collection efforts with the NFSS. While I am working on several studies using the data, I intend to return to the study of heterosexual behavior soon.

Liking the Quotes more than the Books

I read, for the first time, Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to my family the other day. Seemed like a better idea than yet another iteration of “International House Hunters” on the television. I’ve been a fan of Flannery O’Connor for a few years, but upon reflection my interest in her may be less literary than biographical. I think she lived an interesting, and unusual, life.

A year or two ago my former graduate school advisor sent around some of his favorite O’Connor quotes, many of which are fantastic, provocative, humorous, etc. (a few of which I repeat below).

But it struck me the other day as I was reading aloud what turned out to be a rather strange, dramatic, and grim story that I may in fact like Flannery for her numerous, witty retorts rather than for the content of her actual writing. As I grimly concluded “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I found myself wanting to defend what I just read.

And I think it’s not just her. I find plenty of impressive quotations among authors whom I otherwise can’t seem to bear reading in their entirety. From The Confessions of Augustine to Plato’s Republic—two books I recently attempted, briefly, to read—I think I have “Classics envy.” I want to like that which I cannot seem to. There are some fine ones in Mere Christianity, but I found the book largely flat. Finally after 40 years, I’m actually making my way slowly through the Lord of the Rings, which—while not page-turners—can retain the attention span.

For an academic like me, this is all somewhat embarrassing to admit, not being attracted to the Classics and much great literature and all that. I want my kids to read them, and they indeed are reading more of them than I did at their age (or at any age, for that matter).

It’s not that I’m drawn to the NYT bestseller list, or to crime dramas. I haven’t read about hornets’ nests or wizardry, either. What do I read? Too much news, that’s for
sure. Classics envy, I tell ya.

So to conclude this dull blog day—next Monday will be more interesting, I promise—here are five nice Flannery quotes, though I can’t vouch for the totality of their originating sources:

“I’m blessed with Total Non-Retention, which means I have not been harmed by a sorry education.”

“On the subject of the feminist business, I just never think…of qualities which are specifically feminine or masculine. I suppose I divide people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome without regard to sex. Yes and there are the Medium Irksome and the Rare Irksome.”

“Don’t let People and their Opinions affect you so much. I always count on a big percentage of Those Who Will Have None of It and do not let myself be concerned about remarks within that circle.”

“One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend upon feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention…. I find it reasonable to believe [orthodox Christianity], even
though these beliefs are beyond reason.”

“My cousin’s husband who also teaches at Auburn came into the Church last week. He had been going to Mass with them but never showed any interest. We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come.”


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