Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Female Homosexual Behavior" Misinformation

Recently, I came across a rather odd "education" piece put out by a group called the Catholic Education Resource Group. Written by a doctor, who claims that "when something is harmful, such as smoking, overeating, alcohol or drug abuse, and homosexual sex, it is my duty to discourage it," I have to admit the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Oh boy, I thought, another public health "ally."

Let's dive right into the (mis)information, shall we?

As so many anti-gays merely discuss the eveelness of gay male sex, I have to at least give this site props for remembering that lesbians are gay people too. Unfortunately, the good doctor acknowledges lesbos by presenting a laundry list of deceiving claims about lesbian health. (Yes, the entire article is a hot mess of misinformation about gay men too, but for purposes of this article I'm going to focus on lesbian health.)

See, this article is odd because while the general tone of the article is that being a lesbian is bad because of the whole having sex with women bit, the article also states that "study after study documents that the overwhelming majority of self-described lesbians have had sex with men." That should be a good thing, right? Not so much. You see, when lesbians have sex with men, they're sort of slutty about it. For, "not only did lesbians commonly have sex with men, but with lots of men. They were 4.5 times as likely as exclusively heterosexual controls to have had more than 50 lifetime male sex partners."

Alrighteeee then.

That's certainly a surprising claim! Thus, curiosity got the best of me and I delved into the referenced study that supposedly found that lesbians were more likely than heterosexual women to have lots of man sex, and I found some interesting tidbits. Tidbits like the following that interestingly, yet not surprisingly, went unmentioned in the Catholic Education [sic] piece:

1. The study compared all women with any history of ever having had sex with another women to women who reported never having had sex with a woman.

Rather than asking women in the study if they were lesbians, bisexual, heterosexual or other, the study asked the women if they have ever had sex with another woman in their life. Such a comparison is not the same as a comparison between lesbians and heterosexual women. For, any woman who has ever had sex with a woman in her life is not automatically a "lesbian." I mean, if we're just looking at sexual behavior, we could just as easily label the women in this study who've had sex with a woman before as "bisexual" or "heterosexual" if she also has had sex with a man. Yet, for purposes of his article, the doctor here "reports" that women who have had sex with women are "lesbians."

But perhaps more problematic than this issue, is the matter of where these "lesbians" and "heterosexuals" were found...

2. All participants were taken from a public sexually-transmitted-disease/HIV clinic.

Yes, that's right. A public health STD/HIV clinic in which all patients present with symptoms of STDs. Such a sample is, of course, hardly representative. I mean, do I even have to say why? Yes? Okay. Many lesbians do not receive care at public health clinics nor do all lesbians receive care at STD/HIV clinics. In fact, as I'm sure the public health "ally" who wrote this article is well-aware, the risk of female-female transmission of STDs/HIV is considerably lower than that of male-female or male-male transmission.

Yet, he discusses finding after finding from this study making claims like "[l]esbians [sic] were three to four times more likely than heterosexual women to have sex with men who were high-risk for HIV disease-homosexual, bisexual, or IV drug-abusing men." Such a statement distorts the original study- which made no claims about "lesbian" women in general. Considering the very non-representative sample from this study, an honest and accurate statement about the findings should always include clear language that its findings do not apply to "lesbians" as a group but rather STD/HIV clinic patients who have had sex with a woman at some point in their lives.

3. The study also noted that 7% of women had sex with women "exclusively."

Considering the fact that only 7% of women presenting for treatment at an STD/HIV clinic exclusively had sex with lesbians speaks to the fact that female-female sexual behavior is much less risky in terms of STD/HIV transmission than is female-male or male-male sexual behavior. Yet, in his analysis, the author did not separate sexually exclusive women ("lesbians"?) from women who had sex with men and women ("bisexuals"?). It would be extremely interesting to tease out the differences in STD rate and other variables among "exclusive" and "non-exclusive" women.

Thus, when the author of this Catholic Education Resource Center piece states that "lesbians" are more likely than heterosexual women to have had more than 50 male sex partners what he really means is that a study found that women who presented at a public STD/HIV clinic with one or more STDs who have also had sex with women at any point in their lives were more likely to have had sex with lots of men than were women who have never had sex with women.

Neat. But that is a far cry from the claim that the class of people who are "lesbians" are more likely to have had many male sex partners. In fact, it should definitely be noted that the researchers in this study never attempt to define "lesbian" and, in fact, only once in the text of the study do the authors mention "lesbians" at all (and yes, "lesbian" is in quotes if that tells you anything at all).

What do I think this study "means"?

People who have lots of sex are more likely not to discriminate on the basis of gender when it comes to who they have sex with. And, pretty much all this study is telling us in any real sense is that people who present at STD clinics have lots of risk factors for STDs. Hmm, ya think?

If there's one thing I have little patience for, it's public health misinformation used to promote political agendas. This study has severe limitations that have already been used to spread anti-lesbian health misinformation under the guise of "education" and public health concern.

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