December 27, 2006

Relationship Science

Posted at 10:33 am (Pacific Time)

An early episode of the old TV sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, was titled “Love Is A Science.” In it, Zelda Gilroy introduced Dobie to the concept of propinquity as a source of romantic attraction.

Propinquity refers to physical proximity. Because of their last names, Dobie and Zelda regularly experienced it, thanks to Central High School’s alphabetically arranged student seating charts.

As it happens, social scientists who study relationships have indeed found that propinquity is often a precursor to attraction. In fact, researchers have learned quite a bit about romantic relationships during the decades since Dobie and Zelda’s first on-camera meeting in 1959.

For years, that research focused on heterosexual couples. In the late 1970s, however, Dr. Anne Peplau, a respected social psychologist and relationship researcher, began to study the intimate relationships of same-sex couples with the goal of broadening scientific understanding of all close relationships.

Three decades later, Prof. Peplau is still a leading scholar in relationship science. With new challenges to state marriage laws now proceeding through the Maryland, Connecticut, and Iowa courts, the recent publication of her newest review of the scientific literature on same-sex couples is especially timely.

The article, by Dr. Peplau and her UCLA graduate student, Adam Fingerhut, appears in the 2007 volume of the Annual Review of Psychology, a widely-cited source of authoritative and analytic reviews of current research on a variety of topics.

Titled “TheClose Relationships of Lesbians and Gay Men,” the article summarizes the current state of scientific knowledge about same-sex relationships. It also highlights recent research trends and discusses how the growing body of research on same-sex couples has contributed to scientific understanding of close relationships in general.

Here are some of the main research findings discussed by Peplau and Fingerhut:

  • Lesbians, gay men, and heterosexuals seek similar qualities in their romantic partners. “Regardless of sexual orientation, most individuals value affection, dependability, shared interests, and similarity of religious beliefs. Men, regardless of sexual orientation, are more likely to emphasize a partner’s physical attractiveness; women, regardless of sexual orientation, give greater emphasis to personality characteristics.”
  • Traditional heterosexual marriages are organized around a gender-based division of labor and a norm of greater power and decision-making authority for the man. By contrast, same-sex couples appear to place greater value on achieving a fair distribution of household labor that is not linked to traditional roles and they often strive for power equality. However, like many heterosexual couples that espouse equality, not all same-sex couples actually achieve equal sharing of day-to-day household responsibilities or power equality.
  • Heterosexual and same-sex couples display “striking similarities” in their reports of love and relationship satisfaction. “Like their heterosexual counterparts, gay and lesbian couples generally benefit when partners are similar in background, attitudes, and values” and when they both “perceive many rewards and few costs from their relationship.”
  • “Among same-sex and heterosexual couples, there is wide variability in sexual frequency and a general decline in frequency as relationships continue over time. In the early stages of a relationship, gay male couples have sex more often than do other couples…. Lesbian couples report having sex less often than either heterosexual or gay male couples.”
  • While having a sexually exclusive relationship tends to be associated with satisfaction in lesbian and heterosexual couples, this pattern is less common among gay male couples. Gay men are less likely than lesbians or heterosexuals to believe sexual exclusivity is important for their relationship, and are more likely to engage in sex with someone other than their partner. Gay male couples often explicitly negotiate the extent to which they will or won’t be sexually exclusive.
  • “Lesbian, gay male, and heterosexual couples report a similar frequency of arguments and tend to disagree about similar topics, with finances, affection, sex, criticism, and household tasks heading the list.” The problem-solving skills of lesbian and gay couples appear to be at least as good as those of heterosexual couples. “As with heterosexual couples, happy lesbian and gay male couples are more likely than are unhappy couples to use constructive problem-solving approaches.”
  • As with heterosexual couples, three main factors affect gay and lesbian partners’ psychological commitment to each other and the longevity of their relationship: (1) positive attraction forces, such as love and satisfaction, that make partners want to stay together; (2) the availability of alternatives to the current relationship, such as a more desirable partner; and (3) barriers that make it difficult for a person to leave the relationship, including investments that increase the psychological, emotional, or financial costs of ending a relationship, as well as moral or religious feelings of obligation or duty to one’s partner.

Of course, these conclusions are based on aggregate data and refer to general patterns in the population at large. Every couple — gay, lesbian, or heterosexual — is unique and doesn’t necessarily conform to all of the patterns described here.

As for Zelda and Dobie, propinquity apparently was important after all. They appeared as a married couple in the 1987 reunion movie Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis.

In real life, however, events took a different turn. The role of Zelda was played by Sheila James, now the Honorable Sheila James Kuehl, state senator for California’s 23rd District. When she joined the California Assembly in 1994, Sen. Kuehl became the first openly gay person elected to the California legislature. She has been a leading advocate for children, civil rights, the environment, and women’s issues.

* * * * *

Peplau and Fingerhut’s Annual Review of Psychology article has been published on-line (access is restricted to subscribers) and will be available in print in January.

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


December 20, 2006

New Survey: DADT Isn’t Supported By Troops

Posted at 11:17 am (Pacific Time)

In an interview with the Washington Post yesterday, President Bush disclosed his plans to increase the US military’s troop strength “to meet the challenges of a long-term global struggle against terrorists.”

In light of this proposal, it’s appropriate to ask (yet again) whether excluding sexual minorities from the US armed forces makes any sense.

The Pentagon has repeatedly predicted that the presence of openly gay and lesbian personnel would reduce the military’s morale and effectiveness and would deter heterosexuals from enlisting. As I’ve detailed in previous postings, empirical support for those claims has always been lacking. Now data from a new survey cast fresh doubts on their validity.

The survey was conducted by Zogby International for the Michael D. Palm Center (formerly the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military), located at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It measured the opinions of 545 current and former military personnel, all of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan or in combat support roles directly related to those operations.

A detailed report of the survey results can be downloaded from the Michael D. Palm Center. Here are four key findings.

1. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is not strongly supported by combat personnel and veterans.

Only a minority (37%) supported DADT, saying they disagree “with allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.” The remainder agreed with allowing openly gay service members (26%), were neutral (32%), or weren’t sure (5%).

2. Many military personnel know or suspect that their unit includes gay or lesbian members.

Nearly one fourth (23%) of the respondents knew for certain that at least one member of their unit was gay or lesbian. A larger proportion (45%) suspected their unit included a gay or lesbian member. Of those who knew for certain, 55% said the presence of homosexual personnel in the unit was well known by others. Most of them (59%) had been told directly by the gay or lesbian individual.

3. Personnel who know their unit includes gay or lesbian members generally don’t perceive damage to morale.

About two thirds of those who knew for certain that their unit included one or more gay members did not believe that the latter’s presence affected either the respondent’s personal morale (66%) or the morale of the unit (64%). Only 28% believed it had a negative effect on their own morale, and 27% perceived a negative effect on their unit’s morale. By contrast, among respondents who neither knew nor suspected that a member of their unit was gay or lesbian, 58% expected that an openly gay or lesbian member would have a negative impact on their unit’s morale.

4. Allowing openly gay and lesbian personnel to serve is unlikely to reduce reenlistment or impair future recruitment.

The vast majority of respondents (78%) said their decision to join the military was based on their sense of duty and a desire to serve their country. A substantial proportion also said their decision was influenced by non-wage benefits, such as retirement or health care (62%), and by the prospect of receiving funds for college tuition (54%). Only 2% acknowledged “knowing that gays are not allowed to serve openly” as a factor in their decision. In a separate question, only 10% of respondents said they would not have joined the military if gay and lesbian personnel were allowed to serve openly.

* * * * *

In recent years, opinion polls of US civilian samples have shown strong support for allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. The new Palm Center poll indicates that DADT isn’t strongly supported by combat personnel and doesn’t appear to play a significant role in enlistment decisions. Moreover, fears that the presence of openly gay personnel will damage morale are much greater among those who haven’t actually had any lesbians or gay men in their unit (insofar as they know) than among those who knew their unit included at least one sexual minority member.

In response to the survey, Congressman Marty Meehan (D-MA) said, “It is long past time to strike down ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and create a new policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve openly.”

Let’s hope the new Congress will consider data such as these and follow Mr. Meehan’s lead.

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


December 15, 2006

Dobson Does Time

Posted at 12:01 pm (Pacific Time)

The Christian Right responded predictably to the recent news of Mary Cheney’s pregnancy. As James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, summed it up in an opinion article in this week’s Time Magazine, “Two mommies is one too many.”

Although the prospect of having a lesbian-parented grandchild in the Republican Vice-President’s family may be particularly unpalatable to antigay activists, it hasn’t led them to change their basic rhetoric. (However, the tone of Dobson’s Time article was unusually civil.)

Like most conservative arguments against sexual minority families, Dobson’s piece invoked scientific authority. And like most conservative diatribes in this arena, it misrepresented the research findings, suggesting the data show that children are damaged by having lesbian mothers or gay fathers.

However, the nature of that misrepresentation is a bit subtle and warrants comment.

In her rebuttal to Dobson, Jennifer Chrisler, Executive Director of Family Pride, assumed that Dobson’s assertions about “30 years of social science evidence” referred — albeit untruthfully — to studies of families headed by lesbian and gay parents. That is certainly a reasonable inference. When someone cites data to support a point, after all, the data usually have something to do with the argument.

Not so in this case.

When Dobson and other Christian Right activists claim that research shows “children do best on every measure of well-being when raised by their married mother and father,” they are not talking about research comparing gay versus straight parents.

Instead, they are trying to apply the findings from studies comparing children from two-parent (heterosexual) homes and children raised by a single parent, often in poverty. Many of the single-parented kids in those studies had endured divorce, the death of a parent, or other types of family disruption now known to have negative effects on children’s well-being.

Those studies show that, all else being equal, children generally do better with two parents than with one. However, they don’t address the question of whether the parents’ gender or sexual orientation makes a difference.

As I’ve discussed in previous postings, the research that has actually looked at families headed by sexual minority adults has consistently found no inherent deficits among gay parents. Moreover, their kids have proved to be as well adjusted as children with heterosexual parents.

Refreshingly, Dobson has been publicly called to task by the two researchers he cited by name in his article. As detailed on Wayne Besen’s Website, both wrote letters to Dobson criticizing his misuse of their work.

Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center, accused Dobson of “cherry-picking” from his book and wrote:

“…There is nothing in my longitudinal research or any of my writings to support such conclusions [opposing lesbian and gay parenthood]. On page 134 of the book you cite in your piece, I wrote, ‘What we do know is that there is no reason for concern about the development or psychological competence of children living with gay fathers. It is love that binds relationships, not sex.’ “

Prof. Carol Gilligan, a University Professor at NYU, asked Dobson to refrain from ever quoting her again and demanded an apology for “twisting” her work. She continued:

“[T]here is nothing in my research that would lead you to draw the stated conclusions you did in the Time article. My work in no way suggests same-gender families are harmful to children or can’t raise these children to be as healthy and well adjusted as those brought up in traditional households.”

The fact that Dobson and his allies feel compelled to buttress their opposition to sexual minority families with misleading and false claims about scientific data may reveal the inherently limited appeal of their religious and political arguments. I suspect that most Americans intuitively understand the conclusion that Dr. Charlotte Patterson reached after reviewing the relevant scientific research:

“More important to youth than the gender of their parent’s partner is the quality of daily interaction and the strength of relationships with the parents they have.”

Or, as Dr. Pruett tried to explain to James Dobson, “It is love that binds relationships, not sex.”

Mary Cheney’s parents seem to get this. On December 7, the New York Times quoted a spokesperson as saying the Vice-President and his wife are “looking forward with eager anticipation” to their new grandchild’s birth.

* * * * *

Update (December 18, 2006). Wayne Besen has posted a video interview on YouTube in which Dr. Carol Gilligan discusses her reaction to Dobson’s Time article.

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


December 1, 2006

On World AIDS Day, Stop AIDS Stigma

Posted at 12:14 am (Pacific Time)

Since AIDS was first detected in the United States in 1981, the HIV pandemic has been shadowed by an epidemic of stigma.

In the early years, it wasn’t uncommon for people with AIDS (and those simply suspected of being sick) to lose their jobs and homes and to be shunned by their family members and former friends.

These manifestations of stigma were first directed mainly at gay men, but they soon extended to all people with HIV. Children with AIDS, like Ryan White in Kokomo (IN), were barred from school. The Ray family in Florida, whose three hemophiliac sons were infected with HIV, was burned out of its home.

Those who took care of people with AIDS and HIV — partners and spouses, family members, health care workers, volunteers — experienced what social scientists call a courtesy stigma, a kind of guilt by association.

Entire communities were subjected to stigma. In the epidemic’s early years, Haitians routinely faced HIV-related discrimination in the United States, regardless of their health status. Many gay men feared being quarantined, a concern not as outlandish as it might seem today: Whether or not to separate people with AIDS and members of so-called “risk groups” from the “general population” was a topic of public debate.

Even in 1991, ten years after the first AIDS case was documented in the United States, one third of the respondents to my national telephone survey of American adults believed that people with AIDS should be legally separated from others to protect the public health.

There was even talk of branding people with AIDS. In a 1986 New York Times OP/ED piece, William F. Buckley, Jr., proposed that “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”

AIDS stigma has declined in important ways since the 1980s. By 1999, my national surveys showed that only about one American in ten supported quarantine for people with AIDS.

But that same year, one fourth of the public believed that people who got AIDS through sex or drug use have gotten what they deserve. One person in five felt afraid of people with AIDS, and more than one in four felt uncomfortable at the prospect of being around someone with AIDS.

AIDS stigma remains a reality today. If we hope to eradicate it, we must understand how it operates in individuals and in society as a whole.

First, the individual level. Stereotypes and prejudices against people with HIV have two main psychological sources. One source is fear — fear of disease, of contagion, and ultimately, of death. Fear motivates many people to avoid those who have (or are suspected of having) HIV. It makes them willing to support laws and policies that would separate people with AIDS from the rest of the population. It makes them unwilling simply to be around people with HIV, to share a drinking glass with them, to hug them.

The ignorance that propels fear-based prejudice remains surprisingly widespread in the United States. In my 1999 national survey, one third of the respondents incorrectly believed they could get HIV from donating blood, 41% believed they could be infected from being coughed on or sneezed on by someone with the virus, and half believed it was possible to become infected by sharing a drinking glass with a person with AIDS. A 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation national survey found that more than one third of Americans still don’t know that HIV isn’t spread through kissing, and nearly one fourth don’t know it can’t be spread by sharing a drinking glass.

The second main source of individual prejudices surrounding HIV and AIDS is preexisting prejudice against the groups linked to AIDS in popular perceptions. AIDS-related prejudice has always been a vehicle for expressing hostility toward the members of those groups — injecting drug users, Haitians and other immigrants, and especially gay and bisexual men. These linkages remain strong. Even as the face of AIDS has changed, much of the US public still thinks of it as a gay disease, and public opinion about HIV continues to be strongly influenced by prejudice against the gay community.

The good news is we can deal with individuals’ prejudices. We can combat fear with information. In the 1980s, AIDS education programs routinely addressed misapprehensions about casual social contact by explaining how AIDS cannot be spread. There is a clear need to restore that component to our AIDS information campaigns.

Eliminating the prejudices that predate AIDS — based on sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, drug use, and poverty — poses a greater challenge. But confronting those prejudices is something we can and must do.

It’s also necessary to recognize how AIDS stigma operates at the societal level.

Stigma is not simply an individual expression of prejudice. Anyone can feel prejudice against another individual or group, but that is not necessarily stigma. Stigma is the endorsement and legitimation of a particular prejudice by society as a whole. Stigma persists because it is woven into the fabric of society. It is part of society’s infrastructure.

Thus, we cannot end AIDS stigma until we exorcise prejudice and discrimination from the institutions of our culture. We must attack not only institutional antipathy and discrimination against people with AIDS, but also against gay people, African Americans, Latinos, women, the poor, and all of the other groups who are targeted by AIDS stigma.

We all look forward to the time when HIV is eradicated and World AIDS Day is simply an historical commemoration of a long-ago epidemic. But we can’t wait until then to eliminate AIDS-related stigma.

Today, on World AIDS Day 2006, we must renew our resolve to marshal our energies, our resources, and our political will to fight the stigma and discrimination associated with AIDS and the groups it most affects. We must resolve that it will soon be unnecessary for AIDS prevention campaigns to deal with stigma. We must resolve to make the epidemic of AIDS stigma just a distant memory, a phenomenon whose vanquishing offers lessons for how to respond to future epidemics with wisdom and compassion.

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