September 30, 2006

This Post Isn’t About Mark Foley

Posted at 11:14 am (Pacific Time)

A few years ago, when the Catholic Church was rocked by the scandal about priests’ sexual abuse of boys, some of the Vatican hierarchy sought to focus attention on the “problem” of gay priests and seminarians (rather than the real problem of the church’s failure to protect children from predators). The Pope signed a policy in 2005 to ban ordinations of gay men, and a recently-completed probe sought evidence of homosexuality in Catholic seminaries. The fact that pedophile priests and gay priests are two distinct groups with little overlap was largely ignored.

Here we go again?

In the wake of Rep. Mark Foley’s resignation from the US House of Representatives, the Web has been full of commentary about it, including suggestions that being gay is equivalent to being a pedophile.

Although most people no longer accept the stereotype of gay men as child molesters, this old canard gains temporary currency whenever a sensationalistic story breaks. Without wading into a discussion of the specifics about Rep. Foley, I’d like to note an important fact:

There is no inherent linkage between an adult’s sexual orientation and her or his propensity for sexual attraction to children or molestation of children. The ranks of those who engage in sexually inappropriate behavior with children or underage teens include gay, straight, and bisexual adults. But none of these groups are disproportionately likely to be molesters or predators.

My web site includes an extensive discussion of this issue.

The Mark Foley story undoubtedly will generate considerable buzz in the days ahead. But it shouldn’t foster scapegoating of sexual minorities.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 29, 2006

Hidden Minorities

Posted at 12:46 pm (Pacific Time)

Researchers have long known it’s difficult to count and classify men and women on the basis of their sexual orientation. Because homosexuality is stigmatized, many people are reluctant to disclose that they’re attracted to others of their same sex, or that they’ve had homosexual sex.

Two recently published studies offer interesting data relevant to this problem.

In a study conducted by Preeti Pathela and colleagues (reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine) nearly 4200 New York City men were interviewed by telephone and asked 130 questions about health-related matters. Embedded in the demographic questions midway through the survey was a question about the man’s sexual orientation. Later, at the end of the survey, each man was asked about the number of men and women with whom he’d had sex during the previous 12 months.

Of the men who labeled their sexual orientation and reported having sex in the past year:

  • 85.8% identified as straight and reported sex only with women
  • 3.3% identified as gay and reported sex only with men
  • 1.1% identified as bisexual and reported sex with men, women, or both.


  • 8.9% identified as straight and reported sex only with men
  • 0.7% identified as straight and reported sex with women and men.

Combining the last two groups, nearly 10% of the men identified themselves as straight but had at least one male sexual partner in the previous 12 months. About 70% of these men were married. Nearly all reported having sex with only one partner in the past year.

In their published report Dr. Pathela et al. acknowledge various ways in which the phrasing or ordering of the questions might have affected the results. Nevertheless, their data underscore the fact that the labels people use for their sexual orientation, such as gay and straight, don’t always fit neatly with their actual sexual behavior. A significant minority of self-identified straight men in New York engage in sex with other men.

Based on another recently published paper, the New York data might actually understate the case.

In Public Opinion Quarterly, Maria Villarroel, Charles Turner, and their colleagues report data from a large-scale telephone survey conducted with a national sample and a Baltimore (MD) sample. The participants (age 18-45 years) were asked questions about their sexual behavior and attractions.

The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Either they were interviewed by a “live” person or they completed most of the survey using a computer-automated system in which they responded to questions by using the buttons on their touch-tone telephone. The researchers expected people to be more candid in reporting about their sexuality when they didn’t have to speak to a live person.

Sure enough, those who were “interviewed” by the computer were significantly more likely to say they were attracted to people of their same sex (17.8% vs 12.8% of those interviewed by a live person). They also were more likely to report having sex with a person of their same sex (14.2% vs 9.1%).

Follow-up analyses revealed that the computerized interview was especially likely to get more reports of homosexual behavior in less tolerant locales — outside large cities and outside the Northeast and Pacific Coast. The computer also elicited more reports of same-sex behavior from people who might be particularly cautious about revealing such information — those who were currently married and had children in their home.

Together, these studies underscore the difficulties inherent in obtaining reliable data about stigmatized sexual behavior. Many people are reluctant to disclose information about their same-sex attractions and behavior, and many men (and probably women too) who call themselves straight have nevertheless had same-sex sexual partners.

For the full reports, see:

  • Pathela et al. (2006). Discordance Between Sexual Behavior and Self-Reported Sexual Identity: A Population-Based Survey of New York City Men. Annals of Internal Medicine, v. 145, pp. 416-425 .
  • Villarroel et al. (2006). Same-Gender Sex in the United States: Impact of T-ACASI on Prevalence Etimates. Public Opinion Quarterly, v. 70, pp. 166-196.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 27, 2006

Call The Cops? Many Don’t

Posted at 7:10 am (Pacific Time)

On Monday, three men convicted of brutally attacking 6 gay men last July during San Diego’s gay pride festival were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 32 months to 11 years. A fourth participant in the attacks pled guilty and will be sentenced next month, according to a report.

The San Diego attacks resembled many other antigay hate crimes in various ways. They were perpetrated by a gang of young males, targeted isolated victims, and included antigay epithets.

But they were not so typical in an important respect: They were reported to the police.

There are many reasons why victims, regardless of their sexual orientation, don’t report a crime. For example, they don’t expect the police to catch the perpetrator or they simply want to put the whole experience behind them.

Sexual minority victims have those same reasons and others as well. For example, they are often afraid their sexual orientation will be publicly revealed (which can result in ostracism and discrimination) or they expect abuse when the police find out they’re not heterosexual.

Data collected by the US Census Bureau and published in November of 2005 reveal that nearly half of antigay hate crimes go completely unreported. In my own research in the Sacramento (CA) area, I found that sexual minority adults were substantially more likely to report a “routine” crime to the police than a hate crime.

Thus, the convictions in San Diego are important, not only because they punish the men responsible for that specific rampage, but also because they send a general message that reporting an antigay hate crime can lead to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators. Nevertheless, many sexual minority victims will remain reluctant to report a crime to the police so long as they fear discrimination, ostracism, and further victimization as a consequence of doing so.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 26, 2006

The Race Card in Marriage Politics

Posted at 1:01 pm (Pacific Time)

On Monday, Senator George Allen (R-VA) publicly denied allegations that he frequently used racially offensive language back in his days as a University of Virginia football player. It was the most recent in a series of accusations of racial insensitivity made against Sen. Allen during his current reelection campaign.

The senator made the denial after holding a press conference with a group of pastors, most of whom were Black.

Buried in most reporting about the event was the main purpose of the press conference: to promote Virginia’s November ballot measure that would create a constitutional ban on legal recognition of same-sex couples.

Some observers will find it ironic that Sen. Allen piggy-backed his assertions that he’s not racially prejudiced onto an event whose focus was to promote discrimination against sexual minorities. Others won’t see any irony at all because they don’t put sexual prejudice on a par with racial prejudice.

Irony aside, Sen. Allen’s joint appearance with black clergy was politically shrewd. Not only might it help to counteract some of his own image problems, it also is likely to reinforce support for the constitutional amendment among black heterosexual Virginians.

While most of the US public opposes marriage equality for same-sex couples, opposition is stronger among African Americans than among Hispanics and non-Hispanic Whites. My own research suggests that the source of many black heterosexuals’ opposition to marriage equality is their moral condemnation of homosexual behavior: They are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to regard same-sex sexuality and relationships as sinful, and this attitude strongly informs their opinions about marriage.

Capitalizing on this pattern, opponents of gay rights have targeted African American communities in their campaigns against marriage equality. Members of the clergy have often been enlisted to make salient the moral dimension of heterosexual Blacks’ attitudes, as was the case at Sen. Allen’s press conference.

The tactic may well be successful this year in Virginia, where a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month showed the ballot measure was supported by 54% of likely voters, versus 40% who opposed it.

Advocates for sexual minority rights shouldn’t write off the African American community, however. Although most heterosexual Blacks don’t favor marriage equality, many support gay rights in other arenas. For example, strong majorities favor outlawing job discrimination based on sexual orientation and support hate crimes legislation.

One explanation for this seeming inconsistency is that marriage is closely linked with religion in the minds of many Americans, black and non-black alike, whereas job rights and hate crimes aren’t. Thus, attitudes toward the latter aren’t based on religious beliefs to the same extent as opinions about marriage. Given their history and their own experiences with prejudice and discrimination, many African Americans are strong supporters of antidiscrimination laws. However, that support currently doesn’t translate into support for marriage equality.

Sen. Allen’s press conference with black pastors may not help him avoid the political fallout from his recent campaign stumbles. But it exemplifies conservative Republicans’ potent strategy of appealing to heterosexual African Americans in their fight against marriage equality.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 25, 2006

AIDS Stigma and HIV Testing Policies

Posted at 6:07 am (Pacific Time)

As a footnote to my September 22 posting on the CDC’s proposal for routine HIV testing, here are some interesting findings from an experiment I embedded in my 1999 national survey on public opinion about HIV/AIDS.

The survey included a question about reporting HIV test results to government authorities. Poll respondents were randomly assigned to be asked one of three versions of the question. One version described the CDC’s preferred policy of compiling the names of people who test positive; the other two versions described anonymous reporting procedures.

While the public supported anonymous reporting to the government by about a 2-to-1 margin, they opposed name-based reporting 3-to-1. Regardless of which version of the question they were asked, more than one third of all respondents reported that concerns about AIDS stigma would affect their own decision to be tested for HIV in the future.

One characteristic of those who endorsed name-based reporting was especially interesting. Compared to other respondents, they expressed significantly more hostile feelings toward people with AIDS, gay men, lesbians, and injecting drug users. Thus, support for name-based reporting was strongly linked with AIDS-related stigma, so much so that the former appeared to be a proxy for the latter.

Thus, two key patterns emerged: (1) AIDS stigma plays a role in shaping attitudes about HIV-testing policies, and (2) many people’s concern about such stigma affects their own willingness to be tested.

These findings have implications that are relevant today as the CDC moves to implement its new guidelines for universal HIV testing. They underscore the importance of working actively to allay public concerns about stigma and suspicions about HIV testing and reporting policies.

To be effective, testing programs should not only include stringent confidentiality safeguards but should also make the public aware of those safeguards and of public health professionals’ ongoing commitment to eradicating AIDS stigma and discrimination. This commitment could be demonstrated through highly visible anti-stigma campaigns at the national, state, and local levels.

The study described here was published in the journal Health Psychology in 2003. More details about the study are available on my website.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 24, 2006

Eradicating Sexual Prejudice #2: Allies

Posted at 12:56 pm (Pacific Time)

Last week, I argued we should base campaigns to eradicate sexual prejudice on methods we know will work. In that entry, my first on this topic, I focused on the importance of heterosexuals not only knowing someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, but also talking directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority. Thus, the goal of getting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to speak with loved ones about their experiences — making the connection between what happens to “gay people” in the abstract and what happens in one’s own life — should be the foundation of any anti-prejudice campaign.

In today’s entry, I’ll discuss a second building block in such a campaign: enlisting sympathetic and supportive heterosexuals, often called “allies,” to influence the attitudes of other heterosexuals.

Allies come from many demographic groups, but the largest and most consistently supportive segment of the population is heterosexual women. In study after study, heterosexual women — especially Latinas and non-Hispanic White women — express substantially less prejudice against sexual minorities than their male counterparts.

There are many reasons for the gender gap in sexual prejudice. For example, all else being equal, gay men and lesbians are more likely to come out to heterosexual women than to men, which fosters more favorable attitudes among females. (There is also a cyclical effect: heterosexual women’s more positive attitudes, in turn, make sexual minority individuals more likely to come out to them.) And many heterosexual males, feeling pressured to prove they’re “real men,” often do so by attacking what they perceive to be the antithesis of masculinity, namely, gay men.

Regardless of its underlying sources, the gender gap is real and anti-prejudice campaigns should use it. We can expect a dramatic reduction in discrimination, violence, and hostility toward sexual minorities if large numbers of heterosexual women effectively communicate a simple message to their straight husbands, boyfriends, sons, and fathers: “Sexual prejudice is wrong and I won’t tolerate it.”

What about male allies? Here are two strategies for locating heterosexual men to communicate the anti-prejudice message (especially to their straight male friends). First, recruit heterosexual men with gay friends and family members. Second, reach out to men in demographic groups that tend to have lower levels of sexual prejudice. These include men with college degrees, younger men, urban dwellers, political liberals, members of liberal religious denominations, and the nonreligious.

As with women allies, the men’s message to their friends and relatives should be that sexual prejudice is wrong and they won’t tolerate expressions of it.

To sum up thus far, a campaign to eradicate sexual prejudice should harness the power of two key groups to change the attitudes of the people close to them: sexual minority individuals and heterosexual allies, especially women. I’ll expand further on these ideas in a future entry.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 23, 2006

The Kids Are Alright

Posted at 3:17 pm (Pacific Time)

Debates about parenting by sexual minorities often include disputes about whether the children of gay, lesbian, and bisexual parents differ from the children of heterosexual parents in their psychological or social adjustment. To date, empirical research has overwelmingly failed to detect such differences.

A newly published study contributes to scientific knowledge in this area by comparing the functioning of adolescents raised by same-sex female couples to that of adolescents raised by heterosexual couples. The study is especially noteworthy because it reports data from a large, nationally representative sample recruited for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Drs. Jennifer Wainright and Charlotte Patterson, developmental psychologists at the University of Virginia, compared two groups: (a) 23 adolescent girls and 21 adolescent boys who were living with two female parents, and (b) 44 adolescents living with a male and female parent. The two groups were matched on relevant demographic characteristics, including sex, age, ethnicity, family income, and adoption status.

In their paper, which was just published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the researchers highlighted three main findings.

  1. All of the adolescents were generally functioning well.
  2. Whether an adolescent’s parents were a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple didn’t affect her or his functioning. The researchers found no significant differences between the two groups in a diverse array of assessments, including measures of delinquent behavior, alcohol and drug use, and qualities of family relationships.
  3. Although the parents’ gender didn’t matter, the quality of the adolescent-parent relationship did. Regardless of whether they were being raised by a same-sex or heterosexual couple, adolescents whose parents described closer relationships with them reported less delinquent behavior and substance use.

These findings add to the growing body of research demonstrating that sexual orientation doesn’t affect parenting ability. What children need is a warm, close, supportive relationship with their parents, regardless of whether the latter are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight.

For the full report, see: Wainright & Patterson. (2006). Delinquency, Victimization, and Substance Use Among Adolescents With Female Same-Sex Parents. Journal of Family Studies, v. 20, pp. 526-530.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


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