A common misconception about why people are gay is that they have been molested, but the numbers don’t add up.
Terrance must have thought I’d lost my mind as I grilled him about his childhood experiences. “Think back,” I told him. “Something terrible must have happened to you to make you gay.” We stood outside the back door of the office building where we worked. It was long past closing time and I’m sure he wanted nothing more than to get to his car and go home. But I was on a mission to “fix” him.
I’d just spent a year in conversion therapy myself, learning what made me gay, at least according to my leaders. It all made sense at the time. So I was out to evangelize Terrance, a semi-closeted gay man at work.
“Were you molested as a child, maybe?” I asked him in a barrage of questions.
“No. Nothing happened to me. I’ve always been gay. I had a great relationship with my dad until the day he died.” Terrance left me baffled. I knew something must have happened, or he wouldn’t be gay.
As we parted ways that night I’d finally decided that he had probably been sexually abused and simply didn’t remember. Strangely, or probably not, I never spoke with Terrance again after that day.
The odd thing about our exchange is that I knew I was never molested as a child. Yet, I struggled with same sex attraction. I chalked up my own gayness to a poor relationship with my dad. As I’ve written before, I was wrong about that one, too.
A common misconception about why people are gay is that they have been molested. The once popular correlation was put to rest years ago after decades of study. The simple truth of it all is that the numbers just don’t add up.
According to the most recent, albeit controversial study by the CDC, only 1.6% of the population identified as gay or lesbian and .7% identified as bisexual. An additional .2% identified as “something else” and .4% said, “I don’t know.” These were some of the lowest numbers reported. A Gallup poll from 2012 showed the gay and lesbian population at 3.4%. Other studies put the range between 1.2% and 6.8%. The numbers tend to be a bit higher when polls are taken online. Regardless, the number of people who identify as gay or lesbian doesn’t come close to the number of people who report sexual abuse.
In 2012, 62,939 cases of child sexual abuse were reported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Criminal Victimization survey found there were 346,830 cases of rapes or sexual assaults on people 12 and over in that same year. The Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, Sex Offenses and Offenders, said 15% of sexual assault victims are under age 12. 29% are ages 12-17 and 44% are under age 18.
According to the Parents for Megan’s Law website, “It is estimated that there are 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America today.” Additionally, the Department of Justice states, only 30% of sexual assault cases are reported to authorities. So while we may not know the exact number gay, lesbian or bisexuals in the United States, we can quickly surmise that those numbers don’t equate even close to the number of victims of sexual assault.
The other side of the coin is the number of heterosexual individuals who have been sexually abused and yet identify as straight. Sadly, I know many straight people who have been sexually abused. Nevertheless, our personal experiences are little more than anecdotal when it comes to this issue. And, unfortunately, these anecdotal sound bytes permeate the conservative Christian media.
Anne Paulk, executive director of the anti-gay group Restored Hope Network stated in an interview that “66%” of the lesbians in her “personal study” had “incurred sexual abuse.”
Jeff Johnston, of the religious “pro-family” group CitizenLink, sites more “personal study” statistics from conversion therapy groups. “I would estimate that in three-fourths of the cases, there was some sort of sexual abuse or misconduct that formed a powerful memory which contributed to the struggle,” he quotes Rev. Purdue. Purdue was on the board of the ex-gay” organization and Baltimore based, Regeneration Ministries.
Richard Land, formerly with the Southern Baptist Convention, stated on the radio show, Washington Watch, “I know that the dirty little secret that nobody wants to talk about is that a high percentage of adult male homosexuals in America were sexually molested when they were children.”
If you say something long enough and with enough conviction, particularly to people who want to hear it, it becomes the truth. This was the tactic of the religious right long before I became a part of it in 1990. Anita Bryant became famous in the 1970s for her “Save the Children” campaign, which proliferated the idea that if gay people were allowed to teach, children would be molested and even recruited into the “gay lifestyle.”
The rhetoric among Christian fundamentalists over the last 40 years has escalated, despite the lack of scientific evidence. And in fact, if you Google this topic, about the only “evidence” that supports the theory that homosexuality is caused by sexual abuse, is found on copious anti-gay, religious sites. Many of these organizations quote discredited reparative therapists and the writings of debunked psychologist Paul Cameron.
The religious ideology that homosexuality is sinful, keeps followers looking for a way to explain it. If it can be caused, it can be cured. It is the same ideology to which Josh Duggar subscribes, that anything outside of the Christian fundamentalist view of sexual relations between a married man and woman can and should be fixed with prayer, belief and submission. Those who don’t change simply don’t have enough faith.
The problem with the “you were molested and that’s why you’re gay” line of thinking – besides that it isn’t true – is that it dismisses people and their experiences. It neatly wraps up a version of people, labels them, and puts them in a category. There they can be filed away and forgotten. Otherwise, we might need to spend more time with them to find out that their lives are nothing like we thought they were.
I never stopped long enough to listen to Terrance’s story. Once I had him figured out, I decided that if he wasn’t going to listen to me then he would just end up imploding because of his immoral lifestyle.
Though I never spoke to him again, I did see him one day many years later. Our lives had traveled completely different paths and it was a chance encounter that we entered an elevator at the same time. It took me a minute to remember who he was. From the conversation he was having with his friends, he sounded quite happy and content. He looked well.
It was an ironic moment for me. I was just beginning to come to terms with the fact that sexual orientation couldn’t be changed after all. Now, all those years later, it wasn’t Terrance’s life I was trying to fix, it was mine.
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Photo – Flickr/ Mike Chaput