It’s funny sometimes how much little things can remind you of just how far you’ve come. For example, I recently came upon this comment on an article decrying the possibility of having gay scout leaders in the Boy Scouts:
Would Obama himself allow a lesbian unsupervised and unrestricted access to his daughters? Is there a double standard here?
My immediate reaction was shock that someone would say something like this. My mind went immediately to my LGBTQ friends, including a man we’ve known since undergrad—we enjoy having him and his boyfriend over for dinner—and a woman who had a similar upbringing to mine and now lives with her partner and their son. I would have absolutely no qualms about letting either couple watch either of my children. I mean, why should I? The idea that Obama should worry about his daughters going somewhere unsupervised with a lesbian struck me as ludicrous.
And then I remembered.
Nearly a decade ago when I was a freshman in college, after growing up in an evangelical family with a sheltered homeschool education, I remember telling a friend that I didn’t think gays or lesbians should be allowed to teach in school or work in daycare centers because of the risk that they might sexually molest the children in their charge. I honestly don’t remember how I was taught this idea, but after eighteen years of attending an evangelical megachurch and studying from evangelical homeschool textbooks, I truly thought it was both scientific fact and common knowledge.
What a difference ten years can make.
All this is to introduce an email I recently received asking about evangelical conflations of homosexuality and pedophilia:
Hi Libby Anne, regular commenter Ibis3 here. I was wondering if you could answer a question for me, either via email or a post on the subject. Lately, I’ve noticed that many Christians arguing against homosexuality (especially in light of recent developments regarding the BSA), are insistent on equating homosexuality and paedophilia, even when it is pointed out they aren’t even close to being the same thing. Do they actually believe this, and if so, why, or is this just a tactic (i.e. conflating something *they* don’t like with something *everyone* disapproves of in the hope of fooling people)?
Do evangelicals actually believe that there is an association between homosexuality and paedophilia? If my intro didn’t clue you in already, the answer is yes, yes they do. Why? Let’s see if I can shed some light on that.
I’ll start, of course, with my “tale of two boxes.” While progressive sexual ethics generally hinge on whether or not something is consensual, conservative sexual ethics more frequently hinge on whether or not the Bible condemns an act. In other words, progressives would never treat rape and premarital sex as somehow comparable, but conservatives would, because both are forbidden by God. Thus while progressives would not compare consensual gay sex with child molestation, conservatives would, because they would see both as abominations in the sight of God. Sin is sin, and evangelicals generally don’t distinguish between sexual sins that are consensual and those that are not.
But while this helps, it does not entirely answer Ibis3′s question. But there is obviously something more going on here, because evangelicals don’t generally compare premarital sex to pedophilia, or assume that “fornicators” (i.e. those who have premarital sex) are all naturally disposed to pedophilia. So what else is going on here?
Well, let’s look at a bit of history for a moment. For years and years, homosexuality was considered a perversion and placed in the same class as paedophilia. And not just by evangelicals—this was the mainstream medical opinion. The basic idea was that the norm was for men to be sexually interested in women, and that any man who was instead sexually interested in other men or in children was twisted and perverted. Then after WWII the public image of gays took a turn for the truly sinister. Here is quote from George Chauncey’s award-winning book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890—1940, pp. 357-58:
Beginning in the late 1930s, the panics over sex crimes and the ”sex deviants” who committed them recast the dominant public images of homosexuals. The majority of cases of child “sex murderers” reported by the press involved men attacking girls. But the press used the murder of little boys to demonstrate the danger of unsuppressed homosexuality. Numerous articles warned that in breaking with social convention to the extent necessary to engage in homosexual behavior, a man had demonstrated the refusal to adjust to social norms that was the hallmark of the psychopath, and he could easily degenerate further. As an article in Coronet put it in the fall of 1950, “Once a man assumes the role of homosexual, he often throws off all moral restraints….Some male sex deviants do not stop with infecting their often-innocent partners: they descend through perversions to other forms of depravity, such as drug addiction, burglary, sadism, and even murder.” The press’s representation of gay men assumed special cultural authority in the postwar period because of the growing isolation of gay men from other social groups, making it even less likely that heterosexuals would know openly gay men whose complex lives and personalities might counter such images.
As a result of such press campaigns, the long-standing public image of the queer as an effeminate fairy whom one might ridicule but had no reason to fear was supplemented by the more ominous image of the queer as a psychopathic child molester capable of committing unspeakable crimes against children. The fact that homosexuals no longer seemed so easy to identify made them seem even more dangerous, since it meant that even the next-door neighbor could be one. The specter of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War America. The new image was invoked to justify a new wave of assaults on gay men in the postwar decade. As police efforts to control homosexual activity intensified, the number of reported “sex crimes” surged dramatically. This provoked yet greater public alarm and thus further escalation of police efforts.
It was this terrain onto which the gay rights movement stepped when it was born in 1969. In other words, it wasn’t evangelicals who dreamed up the homosexual/pedophile image. Rather, that image was born out of the Cold War. Evangelicals just grabbed onto it, given how convenient it was for the promotion of their agenda, and have refused to let go.
But back to history. In the 1970s, after the birth of the gay rights movement, the concern among straight people was not that gay people would ruin marriage but rather that they would prey on children. In fact, “in a 1970 national survey, more than 70% of respondents agreed 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.’”
When Dade County, Florida, passed an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1977 Anita Bryant started an organization called Save Our Children that managed to successfully oppose and repeal the ordinance. Why did they oppose banning discrimination against gays, etc.? For the children, of course. Daniel K. Williams had this to say of the incident in his book, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right: “Many evangelicals, including Bryant, considered homosexuals a threat to their children. Believing that male homosexuals were more likely than heterosexuals to molest children and try to ‘recruit’ young boys to their ‘perverted, unnatural, and ungodly lifestyle,’ Bryant thought it would be dangerous to allow them to teach in public schools.”
Of course, we now know that the idea that gay people are child molesters is false.
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).
For more, see this article.
While scientific data, the increased number of gay individuals coming out, and a greater presence of gay individuals in the media have had a lot of success dispelling the idea that homosexuals are likely to be child molesters, facts don’t always penetrate into the subculture that is evangelicalism. Instead, many evangelical leaders have been busy perpetuating the idea that there is a link between homosexuality and child molesting. And much like their opposition to evolution, they cobble together conspiracy theory laden facts and studies that purportedly support their position.
Do they actually believe what they are arguing? While I can’t speak for everyone, I suspect that the answer is generally yes. To suggest that they do not believe their argument is no different than to suggest that young earth creationists don’t actually believe that the earth was created less than ten thousand years ago. But the fact that many evangelicals do honestly believe the myth that there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia does not absolve them from the fact that what they are believing is blatantly false and counter-factual.
One reason that many evangelicals continue to believe that there is a connection between homosexuality and child molesting is that it is convenient. First of course is the desire to support the idea that homosexuality is an abomination by “scientifically” lumping it together with all manner of other “perversions,” but that’s no the sum of it. While mainstream science is starting to erode their conviction, evangelicals have long contended that people are not born gay, but are made gay, and also that gay people can become straight. One way they posit that gay people become gay is through childhood sexual abuse. In other words, the idea is that gay people became gay by being molested as children, and then they grow up and molest children themselves, thus turning them gay. With this narrative in mind, the argument that gay people “recruit” children takes on a whole new meaning.
There’s more, too.
Mainstream science generally distinguishes between adults who are sexually attracted to other adults and adults who are sexually attracted to children.
Typologies of offenders have often included a distinction between those with an enduring primary preference for children as sexual partners and those who have established age-appropriate relationships but become sexually involved with children under unusual circumstances of extreme stress. Perpetrators in the first category – those with a more or less exclusive interest in children – have been labeled fixated. 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). Many clinicians view fixated offenders as being “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.
In other words, we identify adults who are sexually interested in children and not in other adults as “pedophiles” and see them as distinct from being either straight or gay (or lesbian or bisexual or queer, etc.) regardless of their sex and the sex of the children they molest.
However, evangelicals don’t always make that distinction—meaning that when they hear about Penn State or rampant child molestation carried out by Catholic priests, their minds go straight to homosexuality. When the distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia is pointed out they may respond by arguing that the distinction only exists to get the gay community off the hook for male-on-male child molestation. For example, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association wrote an article about Sandusky called “A Homosexual Pedophile Who Deserves the Death Penalty,” in which he said the following:
The press has focused largely on Paterno and others in the Penn State hierarchy who covered up Sandusky’s pedophilia, some of whom even committed perjury to keep his dark and dirty secret from being exposed.
But perhaps some of that press focus is diversionary, to direct the attention of the public away from one of the darkest pathologies associated with homosexual behavior: homosexuals molest children at ten times the rate of heterosexuals.
Homosexual activists will of course lamely argue that since Sandusky is married, he is not a homosexual. Fine, call him bisexual if you will. But his sex crimes are same-sex crimes, and 10-year old boys whose bodies have been cruelly invaded could care less what label homosexual activists want to slap on their abuser.
Unfortunately, even those evangelicals who can be convinced that pedophilia is different from either homosexuality or heterosexuality will often respond by saying that if that’s the case the next step of the “homosexual agenda” will be to defend pedophiles as “born with” their pedophilia and thus undeserving of condemnation. And here I’ll remind you of what I said before—while, based on the central importance of consent, progressives see worlds of difference between homosexuality and pedophilia, evangelicals class them together, seeing both as abominations before God.
To sum this all up, the idea that gay men posed a predatory threat to children came to prominence during the height of the Cold War, and while science and changing attitudes about gay people have challenged this idea many evangelicals have latched onto it and refuse to let go. The conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia is convenient in perpetuating their homophobia and their religious belief that homosexuality is an abomination, and they use the same methods as young earth creationists as they pull together various pseudo-scientific studies to give their argument the allure of scientific confidence.
I’d like to finish on a positive note, but, unfortunately, as long as evangelicals believe that homosexuality is condemned by God they are going to have an incentive to continue believing in things like a connection between being gay and being a pedophile rather than questioning it. The more LGBTQ individuals who are “out” the better, but even then it’s not that difficult to draw a distinction between the one good gay person you know and the rest who serve as “the other.” The problem here is evangelicals’ conspiratorial view toward science and scientific data, their suspicion that mainstream scientists have an agenda and are twisting evidence because of their bias, and their intractable belief that God hates homosexuality.
If you’re interested in learning more about the evangelical mindset discussed here, I’d recommend looking at this brief from Focus on the Family called “What Causes Homosexuality” (Focus on the Family is fairly representative of conservative evangelicals), and if you’d like to know more about the history I briefly ran through in this post, I’d recommend looking at Gay Rights and Moral Panic by Fred Fejes.
Is there anything you would add to this analysis?