October 15, 2006

Scapegoating Sexual Minorities: An Opinion Essay

Posted at 3:44 pm (Pacific Time)

In the wake of Rep. Mark Foley’s resignation from the US House of Representatives, antigay activists and their supporters seized on the scandal to revive the tired old stereotype of gay men as child molesters.

The Family Research Council, for example, complained that neither political party “seems likely to address the real issue, which is the link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse.” Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, was quoted by ABC News on the subject of gay men: “The reality is that many of them are interested in little boys. Not all of them, of course. But many of them.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial suggested the Foley scandal should increase liberals’ support for the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scoutmasters. It portrayed the Republican leadership (who previously have shown no reluctance to exploit the public’s unease about same-sex couples for their political ends) as fearful of offending gay people “in today’s politically correct culture.”

Although promoters of the child molester myth claim their arguments are based in fact, a careful reading of the scientific research shows otherwise. Relatively few studies have systematically assessed how many pedophiles and molesters can be considered gay, straight, bisexual, or none of the above. Those addressing this question, however, haven’t found any inherent connection between an adult’s sexual orientation and his or her propensity for molesting children. The ranks of sexual predators include straight and gay adults, but neither group is disproportionately likely to spawn molesters.

In fact, many child molesters fit the “none of the above” category. They lack the capacity for a mature relationship with another adult. Instead of being straight or gay, they are attracted mainly or exclusively to children — boys, girls, or both. Conservative activists are quick to label such men gay when they molest young boys (and sometimes even young girls). But this simplistic (and politically expedient) assumption doesn’t fit with the facts about human sexuality and pedophilia.

The lack of a linkage between homosexuality and child molestation is widely recognized by clinicians and child welfare advocates. This is why relatively little research has directly addressed the issue — proving something we already know simply isn’t a priority. Indeed, a commentary that accompanied publication of a 1994 study in the journal Pediatrics (which found no link between homosexuality and child molestation) noted that debates about gay people as molesters “have little to do with everyday child abuse” and lamented that they distract lawmakers and the public from dealing with the real problem of children’s sexual mistreatment.

Of course, congressional pages aren’t prepubescent children. They are 16 or older, which is the age of majority in some jurisdictions. Regardless of whether they’ve reached the legal age of consent, teens in the workplace need to be free from sexual harassment and coercion by their supervisors and superiors. Here again, sexual orientation isn’t a predictor of perpetrating abuse. Neither straight nor gay people are disproportionately likely to molest teenagers, use their positions of authority to abuse their subordinates, or engage in other reprehensible acts.

The gay-men-as-pedophiles stereotype is part of a long tradition of portraying disliked minority groups as a threat to the majority’s most vulnerable members. In times past, Jews were accused of murdering Christian babies and black men were regarded as a threat to white women. Society’s out-groups make convenient scapegoats, and mustering public outrage against them is often disconcertingly easy.

Predictably the gays-are-pedophiles canard is now being touted by some conservatives. This move should be seen for what it is — an effort to shift the national discussion from questions about the congressional leadership to more comfortable turf, namely, gay-bashing and scapegoating sexual minorities.

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