Can sexual abuse make you gay? The short answer according to new research is, no. Child sexual abuse is not a common cause of being gay. But, new research says that the opposite is true. There is something common in the childhood of homosexual men that makes them a target for pedophilia and sexual abuse — gender non-conformity.
Many homophobic religious institutions make unfounded claims about same-sex sexual child abuse causing homosexuality, like those coming from the pro-heterosexual, anti-gay activist group, Heterosexuals Organized for a Moral Environment (HOME):
We can see that sexual abuse can theoretically account for every case of homosexuality…
Under the lens of science these claims are considered ridiculous and laughable at best, often followed by outrageous and scientifically unfounded claims that being gay is the cause of pedophilia.
Nonetheless, non-heterosexuals with a history of same-sex sexual abuse as a child often ask if this made them desire the same-sex as an adult. Similarly, gay men and women who were sexually abused by the opposite sex as a child, ask if this caused a sexual fear and revulsion towards the opposite sex that ‘made’ them gay.
Whether the pedophile or child molester was gay or straight, gay victims tend to ask the same question at some point, “Did sexual abuse make me gay?”
Research indicates that this isn’t true of straight people abused as children, they are less likely to question if being abused made them straight. Thus it is often argued that it is the culturally ingrained negative views of gay people, particularly of gay men, or simply belonging to a minority group, that the question is even asked in the first place.
Even so, it is still a common view that sexual abuse can ‘turn’ a child gay despite no convincing or reliable evidence that premature sexual activity or child sexual abuse grossly changes sexual orientation.
The main withstanding argument in support of this view is that child sexual abuse is more common in the gay community than the straight community. In fact, meta-analysis indicates that sexual minority school children were on average almost 4 times more likely to experience sexual abuse than heterosexual children.
The latest research stands against this argument, providing the most convincing causal evidence yet that it is a common aspect of many gay men’s childhoods that is linked with higher rates of sexual abuse in boys who later identify as gay in adulthood — not sexual abuse ‘making’ a child gay.
Published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment the new research suggests that a child’s gender nonconformity, which is more common for non-heterosexuals, that may make them more desirable targets for pedophiles and child abusers.
To clarify, gender nonconformity you may also know as gender bending. Gender nonconformity is when people identify with or behave like what is culturally considered typical for the opposite sex, going against the gender grain if you will. For example, boys that like to play dress-up, or girls that prefer rough play.
In the study, 1753 participants filled out an online survey that regarding their sexual orientation, history of child abuse, and the degree of gender nonconformity they recall from childhood, including the activities and kinds of play and types of clothes they liked.
Although other research has suggested a link between gender nonconforming and sexual abuse in children, whether nonconforming caused abuse, or abuse caused nonconforming had not previously been assessed this directly. By using a special type of analysis called instrumental variable analysis, the new study was able to estimate causal relationships. It is therefore study able to more confidently address the complex question “Can sexual abuse make you gay?”
In line with other research, gay participants (being male or female homo and bisexuals) in the new study had greater odds (~45% greater) of being sexually abused in childhood than heterosexual participants.
They also found that heterosexual and non-heterosexual men who are more gender nonconforming (i.e. ‘feminine’) in childhood had higher chances of abuse than sexual orientation matched boys who are more gender conforming (i.e. ‘masculine’). In other words being gay or not had nothing to do with it. It was whether boys behaved like stereotypical boys or not that was key.
However, gender non-conforming girls were not at higher risk of sexual abuse than conforming girls in the present study. It is research supported factoid that gender nonconformity in girls, like being a ‘tomboy’, is generally more socially accepted, approved of and tolerated in Western cultures than gender nonconforming in boys, who are often considered as mama’s boys, sissies or brats.
The authors suggest that gender nonconforming boys are less generally approved of partly due to cultural femi-negativity. Cultural femi-negativity being where femininity is particularly devalued when it does not adhere to gender norms. The idea that abusers target children with feminine qualities as to make for more compliant and less socially valued abuse targets fits well with the study and the body of research as a whole considering more girls are targets of pedophilia and child molestation than boys, and that more gender non-conforming feminine boys are targeted more than masculine conforming ones, whether they are gay or not.
This also makes sense when considering research suggesting that most abusive pedophiles are generally aroused by youth, and that the child’s sex, at the core of their desires, is pretty immaterial. Whether they abuse mainly boys or girls, it’s about a child being a child, ease of access to that child and avoiding getting caught through ease of controlling the child.
Whereas adult child molesters, who can be a pedophiles (i.e. someone specifically attracted to children) but are not necessarily pedophiles, get a sexual kick out of domination, power and control, marking those with more feminine qualities as being easier and less risky targets.
Importantly, the research suggests that it is having feminine personality traits and behaviors more common to gay boys, i.e. gender nonconforming, that leads to such high rates of child abuse cases in gay men. There is no credible research as of yet that indicates that it is common that child sexual abuse is a cause of being gay.
It seems that there is something, or somethings, about gender-non-conforming in boys that puts them at an increased risk of sexual abuse. If research now focuses on exploring further what those somethings are we can better protect children from the traumas of sexual abuse.
Bailey, M. J., Vasey, P. L., Diamond, L. M., Breedlove, M. S., Vilain, E., & Epprecht, M. (2016). Sexual orientation, controversy, and science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(2), 45–101. doi:10.1177/1529100616637616
Coyle, E. F., Fulcher, M., & Trübutschek, D. (2016). Sissies, mama’s boys, and Tomboys: Is children’s gender Nonconformity more acceptable when Nonconforming traits are positive? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(7), 1827–1838. doi:10.1007/s10508-016-0695-5
Friedman, M. S., Marshal, M. P., Guadamuz, T. E., Wei, C., Wong, C. F., Saewyc, E. M., & Stall, R. (2011). A Meta-Analysis of disparities in childhood sexual abuse, parental physical abuse, and peer Victimization among sexual minority and sexual nonminority individuals. American Journal of Public Health, 101(8), 1481–1494. doi:10.2105/ajph.2009.190009
Xu, Y., & Zheng, Y. (2015). Does sexual orientation precede childhood sexual abuse? Childhood gender Nonconformity as a risk factor and instrumental variable analysis. Sex Abuse. doi:10.1177/1079063215618378