Sexual abuse and sexual orientation: A prospective study

Online now ahead of publication is a report from H. Wilson and C. Widom of a prospective study of the relationship between sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect and sexual orientation in men and women. Published to subscribers January 7, 2009 on the Archives of Sexual Behavior website, the abstract provides a glimpse into the many findings reported here.

Existing cross-sectional research suggests associations between physical and sexual abuse in childhood and same-sex sexual orientation in adulthood. This study prospectively examined whether abuse and/or neglect in childhood were associated with increased likelihood of same-sex partnerships in adulthood. The sample included physically abused (N = 85), sexually abused (N = 72), and neglected (N = 429) children (ages 0-11) with documented cases during 1967-1971 who were matched with non-maltreated children (N = 415) and followed into adulthood. At approximately age 40, participants (483 women and 461 men) were asked about romantic cohabitation and sexual partners, in the context of in-person interviews covering a range of topics. Group (abuse/neglect versus control) differences were assessed with cross-tabulations and logistic regression. A total of 8% of the overall sample reported any same-sex relationship (cohabitation or sexual partners). Childhood physical abuse and neglect were not significantly associated with same-sex cohabitation or sexual partners. Individuals with documented histories of childhood sexual abuse were significantly more likely than controls to report ever having had same-sex sexual partners (OR = 2.81, 95% CI = 1.16-6.80, p = .05); however, only men with histories of childhood sexual abuse were significantly more likely than controls to report same-sex sexual partners (OR = 6.75, 95% CI = 1.53-29.86, p = .01). These prospective findings provide tentative evidence of a link between childhood sexual abuse and same-sex sexual partnerships among men, although further research is needed to explore this relationship and to examine potential underlying mechanisms.

Beyond the result reported above there is much of interest here. I want to describe some how sexuality was measured and then make some general observations. This study will get more than one post.

One of the weaknesses of research on sexual orientation and social factors has been the lack of long term prospective studies. Most research into abuse and sexual orientation is based on retrospective self-report. This study is a significant improvement in that the authors had documentation of childhood sexual and physical abuse and neglect regarding 908 children from juvenile and family courts in a midwestern metropolitan area. The cases were reported and processed between 1967 and 1971. The authors then interviewed as many of these individuals as possible and included interviews with a matched set of control participants. The control group was matched with the abuse group on age, sex, race/ethnicity, and approximate social class at the time of the abuse. The average age of participant reports for all cases was 6.3 years.

At follow up, when the participants were in their late 30s and early 40s, they were asked if they lived (at the time of the interview) with a person of the same sex in a sexual relationship, whether the person had ever cohabited in a same-sex relationship, had ever had a same-sex sexual partner and whether the person had such a partner with the past year. Attraction was not directly assessed which is an unfortunate aspect of the study. Primarily the authors were interested in sames-sex sexual behavior, which may or may not indicate enduring attractions.

Among males, 2.9% reported a same-sex partner within the last year and 6.4% saying they had such a partner at some time in the past. Percentages were similar for women (2.1% and 6.8% respectively). Similar differences were reported for cohabitation and any prior same-sex relationships. Nearly all participants reported sexual partners of both sexes. Only five men (1.3%) and one woman (.24%) reported exclusively same-sex relations. It is highly likely that some of these individuals would identify as straight but had engaged in same-sex relations at some point in their past.

The main significant finding was reported in the abstract: “men with histories of childhood sexual abuse were significantly more likely than controls to report same-sex sexual partners.” There was no relationship between child sexual abuse and sexual behavior for women. Also, “child physical abuse and neglect were not significantly associated with increased likelihood of same-sex cohabitation or sexual partnerships” (from paper, pg 7). While sexual abuse is associated with an increased likelihood of same-sex behavior, this is not a study that shows homosexuality is caused by sexual abuse. Also, the study does not indicate that sexual abuse leads to homosexuality. In the control group, 5.3% said they had engaged in same-sex relationships, whereas in the sexual abuse group, 27.3% did. More on this in the next post.

This study is a significant challenge to reparative drive theory. Reparative theory, on display recently on the Dr. Phil Show, proposes that gender disturbances are caused by a poor relationship with the same-sex parent. Although this study does not directly test a specific set of family dynamics, it is plausible based on reparative concepts to predict that abuse and neglect might be more frequent in homes where dad is uninvolved or hostile to the children. Dr. Nicolosi frequently says he has never met a gay man who had a good relationship with his father. One would expect a significant elevation in these circumstances but none shows up here. Regarding parenting and sexual orientation, Wilson and Widom write:

These results were consistent for men and women and support the conclusions of Bell et al (1981) that early parenting experiences, positive or negative, play little direct role in the development of sexual orientation. Among women, we also found no associations between childhood sexual abuse and same-sex relationships.

This study, along with the recent work from Andrew Francis casts more doubt on reparative drive theory as a general theory of same-sex attraction. In a future post, I want to address additional implications of this study, especially regarding the complex question of how sexual orientation may be related to sexual abuse. The pattern of findings in the Wilson and Widom study can be interpreted in several ways. More about that soon.


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