Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Regnerus New Family Structure Study (NFSS)

I have a few comments about the recently-released Mark Regnerus New Family Structure Study (NFSS).

For some background, the study randomly sampled almost 3,000 individuals aged 18-39, with the goal of comparing "how the young-adult children of a parent who has had a same-sex romantic relationship fare on 40 different social, emotional, and relational outcome variables when compared with six other family-of-origin types." (Emphasis added- let's remember that specific wording).

The study is generating a lot of press right now because Regenerus asserts that his study demonstrates that "numerous, consistent differences [exist] among young adults who reported maternal lesbian behavior (and to a lesser extent, paternal gay behavior) prior to age 18." And that, therefore, "the empirical claim that no notable differences exist" in child development "in lesbian and gay families" compared to male-female-headed, intact families "must go."

1) On "Gay," "Lesbian," and "Same-Sex Households"

The first critique, which others on Internet have pointed out as well, is Regnerus' categorization of what constitutes a "gay"/"lesbian" person and a "same-sex household." The screening tool used to identify children of "gay and lesbian parents," for instance, asked respondents the following question:
“'From when you were born until age 18 (or until you left home to be on your own), did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?' Response choices were 'Yes, my mother had a romantic relationship with another woman,' 'Yes, my father had a romantic relationship with another man,' or 'no.' (Respondents were also able to select both of the first two choices.) If they selected either of the first two, they were asked about whether they had ever lived with that parent while they were in a same-sex romantic relationship."
Note that the question is not something along the lines of, "Were you raised by two people of the same sex?"

The question, instead, focused on whether or not a parent had ever dated, for any amount of time, a person of the same sex while the respondent was under the age of 18. If yes, the parent was categorized as "gay" or "lesbian"- never bisexual, never "experimenting," never "my mom had a brief same-sex relationship, but eventually got back together with my dad," never "gay until graduation," or never "sexually fluid." Parents are categorized as flat-out 100% gay or lesbian, with their family structure being labeled "same-sex households," based upon the parent having ever had even just one same-sex relationship no matter how brief in duration.

Using this inapt categorization method, Regnerus makes claims throughout his paper, including a literature review and critiques of previous studies about "gay and lesbian parents." And, he suggests that not only is his study about "gay and lesbian parents" but that it's better than all of the previous studies about "gay and lesbian parents."

In reality, his paper is actually about parents who have ever had a same-sex relationship while their child was under the age of 18. While these categories will have some overlap, I hope it is obvious (but... apparently it's not) that the second category will include at least some people who are not, actually, "gay and lesbian parents" and who do not, actually, live in "same-sex households."

In explaining his chosen screening process, Regnerus notes the difficulty in obtaining an adequate sample size of "same-sex households." Indeed, it's a legitimate point. However, the screening question he chose to use to boost his numbers boosted his numbers by including people who weren't in "same-sex households" at all.

When people pore over methodology in a study that's making as bold a claim as this one is, the conflation between, say, (a) a dad who might have had an affair with a man and (b) two men who adopt a child together is not something people are going to overlook.

The nuance, unfortunately, is not likely to be picked up on by anti-LGBT advocacy groups.

See also, John Corvino's criticisms with respect to this point.

2) The Play on the Lesbian Predator Narrative

[TW: Discussion of child abuse and sexual abuse]

All respondents were asked if “a parent or other adult caregiver ever touched you in a sexual way, forced you to touch him or her in a sexual way, or forced you to have sexual relations?”  A statistically significant difference was found for respondents with a "lesbian mother." I use scare quotes here to indicate Regnerus' sketchy definition of a "lesbian mother"- because, per the analysis above and for the sake of accuracy, it would have been more apt for the study to state that a statistically significant difference was found for respondents reporting that their mother had ever had a romantic relationship with another woman.

I highlight this one because it's a finding that undoubtedly is going to be picked up by anti-LGBT groups to "prove" that "homosexuals" are sexual predators and unfit for parenthood. But, notice how the question doesn't ask which parent or "adult caregiver" engaged in the abuse- leaving readers to wonder who did it- A babysitter? A daycare worker? A previous boyfriend or husband of the parent? A "lesbian" partner? A Boy Scout master? A priest?)

Nor does the question ask in what context the abuse occurred. Did a lesbian couple adopt a child who had been abused by his or her biological parents? Did the biological father abuse the child, prior to the "lesbian mother" having her same-sex relationship?

To his credit, Regnerus acknowledges that point:
"It is entirely plausible, however, that sexual victimization could have been at the hands of the LM respondents’ biological father, prompting the mother to leave the union and—at some point in the future—commence a same-sex relationship. Ancillary (unweighted) analyses of the NFSS, which asked respondents how old they were when the first incident occurred (and can be compared to the household structure calendar, which documents who lived in their household each year up until age 18) reveal this possibility, up to a point: 33% of those LM respondents who said they had been sexually victimized by a parent or adult caregiver reported that they were also living with their biological father in the year that the first incident occurred. Another 29% of victimized LMs reported never having lived with their biological father at all. Just under 34% of LM respondents who said they had at some point lived with their mother’s same-sex partner reported a first-time incident at an age that was equal to or higher than when they first lived with their mother’s partner."
The study design and commentary sheds little clarity about what's really going on with this finding, and that's really unfortunate. Anti-LGBT groups are going to have a field day with that one in their zeal to demonize gays and lesbian, and a more careful analysis and questioning process by the researcher would have been appreciated. Yes, yes, I know Regnerus can claim that this study is just a "foundation for future research" in this area, but LGBT people have been on the receiving end of mis-used research for far too long to think such a disclaimer is going to stop virulent anti-LGBT groups from mis-using and misinterpreting research findings like these anyway.

In addition, the study reported a similar finding with respect to the question of whether the respondent had ever been forced to have sex against his or her will, and I would make the same points about that question as well.

3) You Say That Like It's a Bad Thing

Another significant finding was that children of "lesbian mothers" (there's that phrase again) were more likely to identify as not entirely heterosexual. Forgive me for not seeing that as a bad thing.

Unfortunately, and without elaboration as though the sub-par status of being not 100% heterosexual is some sort of self-evident truth, Regnerus includes this finding in his discussion of significant findings in which children of "lesbian mothers" have sub-optimal outcomes.

Related to that point, some may find Regenerus' discussion regarding his sexual orientation categorization interesting:
"The Kinsey scale of sexual behavior was employed, but modified to allow respondents to select the best description of their sexual orientation (rather than behavior). Respondents were asked to choose the description that best fits how they think about themselves: 100% heterosexual, mostly heterosexual but somewhat attracted to people of your own sex, bisexual (that is, attracted to men and women equally), mostly homosexual but somewhat attracted to people of the opposite sex, 100% homosexual, or not sexually attracted to either males or females. For simplicity of presentation, I create a dichotomous measure indicating 100% heterosexual (vs. anything else)."(emphasis added)
"Anything else."


That really sums up the biggest flaw of this study for me, and note here, that I'm not ascribing Regnerus with having evil or malicious intent here. Rather, that his sketchy categorization of sexual orientation groups center one group of people as the Normal People. The so-called "microcosms of society"-- a man who has only ever had sex with women, a woman who has only ever had sex with men- and the children they are raising together while married.

And then, apparently, there's Everyone Else. The distinctions among these Everyone Else's don't matter within this study. So, despite all of the nuance in family structure and circumstances that exist in the real world, suddenly the narrative is that any parent who's ever had a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex is a "gay or lesbian parent" living in a "same-sex household."

(Note: Regenerus' study was funded by the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, two socially-conservative funders. I wanted to put that tidbit of information last, so as to not prejudice readers regarding my substantive criticisms.)

Cross-posted: Family Scholars Blog

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