The Evangelical Blackout of Research on Sexual Orientation
Of late, I have spoken to a variety of evangelical audiences about current research studies on sexual orientation. These presentations often lead to follow up conversations. One question I hear frequently is: Why haven't we seen anything about these studies?
Many of the questioners read evangelical publications and consume evangelical media. However, they don't know anything about the brain research of Ivanka Savic in Sweden (2005, 2006, 2008) or Adam Safron and colleagues at Northwestern University (since 2005). Their knowledge of biological research stops at Dean Hamer or Simon Levay (both published studies in the 1990s). They are confident that there is no gay gene but they are unaware of the significant brain, perceptual and cognitive differences reported within the past six years by various researchers around the world.
Many evangelicals believe homosexuality is due to abuse. Some will say with confidence that gays are more likely to be abused than straights but they are unaware of the actual magnitudes of difference or of related factors that make abuse an unlikely factor in the cause of orientation. They have not heard of the 2009 study by Wilson and Widom which found no relationship between abuse and having a gay partner for men or women (men were more likely to have had at least one gay experience in their adult lives but not a recent partner). They are unaware of the 2010 work of Wells and colleagues in New Zealand that found 81.6% of gays reported no sexual abuse in their lives. On point, abuse is also higher among gender non-conforming children, whether gay or straight. Given that gays are more likely to be gender non-conforming in their histories, it seems likely that greater reports of abuse among gays relate in part to gender non-conformity, and have little, if anything, to do with cause of attractions for the majority of people who are same-sex attracted.
Many evangelicals I speak to think that change of orientation is pretty common and the evidence is being suppressed by the gay-friendly media. Some of them will point to the 2009 study of Exodus participants by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse. Some will even say that over half of their participants changed orientation. When I explain to them what change means in the context of the study (most retained attractions to the same-sex, even as they avoided same-sex behavior), they are surprised. Then I point out a study, also by Mark Yarhouse, which found no change in orientation for men and women in mixed orientation marriages. Some ask why that study was not reported in the media. I wonder the same thing.
I could be wrong but I don't think any of the studies to which I have referred here have been reported in the Christian press (other than some of my blog posts here on Crosswalk). The Jones and Yarhouse study was reported widely, but the Yarhouse study showing no change among sexual minorities in mixed orientation couples - which is more recent - was not reported anywhere.
Many evangelicals get their information about sexual orientation from the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) through groups like Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Exodus International, etc. They also get information from Christian media. However, the most recent and significant studies on sexual orientation are not reported in these places. No wonder most evangelicals approach sexual orientation with a 1990s mindset. It is as if the evangelical world is in blackout mode when it comes to current studies on sexual orientation.
NARTH - a group of mostly lay people but which claims to be a scientific group - has no information on the 2008 study by Ivanka Savic and Per Lindstrom showing clear structural differences in the brain associated with sexual orientation differences. Shouldn't a scientific organization which claims to be interested in the science of sexual orientation report information which is relevant to sexual orientation? That omission is only one of many.
I suspect the culture war is to blame. It cannot be because sexual orientation is not news. The issue comes up in the Presidential campaigns and other news all the time. However, evangelicals are quite unprepared to discuss this very current topic with the most recent and best scholarship.
In my view, Christian media and organizations have a responsibility to provide this information to their readers and consumers. At issue is credibility and integrity, not doctrine. Christian teaching rests on theological research rather than social science. I am not suggesting that evangelicals should abandon their sexual ethics due to studies, but I am advocating that evangelicals be informed in order to understand the implications of their teaching in the real world. When politicians call homosexuality "a lifestyle" (as Rick Perry did recently), they are approaching the subject with a 1960s mindset. Evangelicals often earn their stereotype of being unscientific and uninformed.
Christian media need to report studies that might seem like inconvenient truths. Given the backlog of unreported studies, there is plenty of material for their reporting.