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Response to David Blakeslee

 

 

November 7, 2006

 

Dear David Blakeslee,

 

Thanks for your thoughtful response. Allow me to respond to your response . . .

 

You wrote, quoting me:

>>”The truth about so-called homosexual promiscuity is that we don’t know the truth.” Tim seems to refute this later in his paper when he analyzes his own data (GSS): men having sex with men (MSM) approximately 20% could fit the promiscuous category. For MSW this number is approximately 6%. (greater than 20 partners).>>

 

No, I don’t refute this later in my paper. I stand by my statement. From my reading of the research, and considering the daunting difficulties of sampling for stigmatized sexual behavior, I find that we can only give very tentative answers. These tentative answers bring us short of being able to say we know the truth. I’m not saying we can’t say anything at all. But we have to be careful and we have to adequately nuance our answers. Glesne’s book doesn’t even come close.

 

By the way, if we look at the GSS figure for men of all marital statuses, we see that 54.4% of gay men have 10 or fewer partners in their adult lifetime. This figure for all straight men is 67.9%.

 

Aren’t statistics fun?  ;)


>>Tim argues: “Because some--even if it’s many, even if it’s most (which I don’t believe it is)---homosexual men are promiscuous by our standards (the church’s, this discussion’s) does not in any way support the idea that each individual homosexual is promiscuous”   This is quite an easy intellectual argument to agree with. It is the argument of individualism and exceptionalism and it has been used effectively to break down barriers to a number of taboos >>

 

One of the reasons it is easy to agree with is because it forms the basis of our legal justice system.

 

And some taboos are, of course, hurtful.

 

>>Fisher does not address my previous point that Bailey (2003) suggests that some homosexual men have a different definition of monogamy than heterosexual’s do: separating out sexual fidelity from emotional fidelity. Bailey does not cite extensive statistics in this regard…but he is certainly no right wing religious zealot. If this subset actually exists in meaningful numbers (I will demonstrate later that it does), it should be of concern to those who hypothesize that marriage will bring stability to gays. Extramarital relationships may make the marriage more at risk for this subset of gays.>>

 

Maybe. I await your statistics. My sense is that what will matter over the long run is how society treats gay/lesbian couples. If we accept gay/lesbian relationships on the very same grounds that we accept straight relationships--i.e. accord them with equal favor and expect equal levels of monogamy--then I believe the differences in attitudes between straight people and gay/lesbian people will eventually evolve toward parity (if they are not already there currently). This is of course speculation on my part, but no less so than on yours.

 

>>Fisher cites the Laumann et. al.study of 1993 which he says only demonstrates non-statistical differences between gays and straights in terms of monogamy. It is quoted elsewhere as follows:
‘In their nationally representative sample, Laumann and his colleagues found that on average gay men reported 432.8 lifetime sexual partners compared to 16.5 for heterosexual men…Lesibans reported almost exactly 100% more partners than the average heterosexual woman.’>>

 

As you acknowledge, the average figures can often be very misleading. In this case, the average is ridiculous. It does not bring us closer to understanding the truth about most gay/lesbian people. Median figures are much more appropriate in our context. (See below for more reports of medians.)

>>….Similarly, Deenen, Gijs and van Naerssen studied 156 gay couples and reported that the majority of partners in the study (62%) had had sexual encounters outside of the relationship in the year before the survey. The average number of extrarelational sexual partners for each member of the gay couples in the year before the survey was 7.1 (From: Homosexuality: the Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate, Stanton L. Jones and mark A Yarhouse, pp 110).>>

 

I am not very familiar with this study, so I can’t comment on it meaningfully.[See Addendum below for an update.] Among other things, I would want to look closely at how the sample was gathered (e.g. was it randomly sampled?). Judging from the way this study has been cited by others, it seems to be an “interview” type of study, were participants are encouraged to speak at length about their lives. Therefore, this sounds to me like a convenience sample. But I don’t know for sure.

>> “Having many sexual partners is associated with higher risk of contracting AIDS.” This is a bit of a dodge, perhaps unwittingly by Fisher. Aids is not just associated with higher rates of promiscuity, it is associated with certain types of sexual behaviors more likely to be practiced by gays than heterosexuals. I mention this because I think this is where Glesne’s “science” highlights problematic behavior within some parts of the gay community.>>

 

I am fully aware that anal sex is associated more highly with AIDS than other sexual behaviors. I am also aware that anal sex is not limited to gay men. Keenly, I am also aware that AIDS in Africa seems all too easily spread via heterosexual sexual behavior. So I don’t know where your point above really gets us. On this question, the differences between behaviors seem trivial, given the gravity of the largely heterosexual situation in Africa.

>>Finally, Fishers use of the GSS is enlightening, but his de-selection of married heterosexual males in his sample comparisons skews the results. I understand why he did this, he thought it would give him a more representative sample to compare gays and straights based upon a lack of institutional support by marriage. But this calculus means that the gay population in his comparison gets the benefit of including monogamous gays (those who would marry if they could) while the heterosexual population is deprived of that representative sample (married heterosexuals are excluded; those less interested in long term commitments and monogamy are over-represented in Fisher’s comparison).>>

 

This is a helpful comment. However, this leads me to ask the question: “Does marriage make the man, or does the man make the marriage? (We’ve been talking almost exclusively of men here. Sorry, gals!)  In other words, do men marry **because** they want to be monogamous, or does marriage help them remain so? Probably some of both.

 

Your point is well taken, but so (I think) should be mine: if we believe that one of the benefits of  the institution of marriage (one of the ways that it is good for society) is that it helps to maintain relationship stability and reduce promiscuity, then my analysis should be a telling one.

 

The better comparison would result if we were able to de-select for social stigma. Social stigma is known to destabilize relationships, and so it skews the gay/lesbian numbers toward higher levels of promiscuity. But we can’t control for social stigma using the GSS or any other study that I know of.

 

>>I would encourage Fisher to redo the calculations to include marriage and maybe we can overlap the two comparisons and split the difference. :-).>>

 

Laumann et al have already done this work, and I have reported it as it pertains to our topic. That report does not support Glesne’s claims.

 

 

Now, let’s look at some further medians from the GSS:

 

 

Category

Sex of Partners during last 5 years

Median # of sex partners since age 18

(Weighted with non-response adjustment)

Median # of sex partners since age 18

Un-weighted

 

 

 

 

All men

Exclusively male

8

10

 

Exclusively female

6

6

 

 

 

 

Black men

Exclusively male

10

 

 

 

 

 

Unmarried straight men

Exclusively female

9

 

 

 

 

 

All women

Exclusively male

3

 

 

Exclusively female

7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note here that I list two sets of medians for men, “weighted” and “non-weighted.” The latter is what is reported here: http://volokh.com/2003_05_18_volokh_archive.html#200329266 (this link was provided to the blog by our old friend, Anonymous.) But I find that the more appropriate median figure is derived from the “weighted” figures. This idea of “weighting” has to do with the fact that those who are not very sexually active (i.e. not having sex at all, or having very little sex, or having not had sex in a long time) are more apt to not answer questions about sexuality. Thus, they end up not being represented adequately in the tables. The “weighting” function aims  to help correct this. (My rationale for applying the weighted figures in our case is derived from the report, “A Methodological Analysis of the Sexual Behavior, Questions on the GSS, “ by Tom W. Smith, NORC, University of Chicago, February, 1992.)

 

I have previously reported, via the work of Jeramy Townsley, that the median for straight men was 5 and for gay men, 6. I don’t know exactly how Townsley arrived at his figures, so I can’t comment on the discrepancy between his figures and my own.

 

Anyhow, the medians seem to indicate that there is not a huge difference between gay and straight men in terms of number of sex partners since age 18. The difference between them is 2, which is certainly statistically significant. But I wouldn’t call it a difference large enough to define our response to the issues of 1) the ordination of partnered same-sex pastors or 2) the blessing of  loving, monogamous, committed same-sex relationships.

 

Note that the median figure for black straight men is 10, which equals even the “un-weighted” median for gay men. Note also that this figure covers ALL marital statuses. Should the church discourage the ordination of black men, since the GSS seems to suggest they are just as promiscuous as gay men, if not more so? Should the church avoid blessing the relationships of black men for the same reason? If our answer is that the levels of promiscuity are higher for black men because of the social stigma that black men experience (thus creating more social and relational instability)--well then we should argue the same way for gay men. Instead, when the category is gay men, we treat them as a mere category. When the category is black men, we treat them as . . . . well, human beings, praise be to God. Which is to say we don’t measure the sinfulness of their behavior via general, categorical statistics. We look at the individual.

 

And, to speak again to my earlier analysis comparing unmarried straight men with gay men, I note that the median for unmarried straight men is 9.

 

Grace and peace,

 

Tim Fisher

Minneapolis, MN

 

-----------------------

 

Addendum   –    November 8, 2006

I’ve now had the opportunity to read the Deenen, Gijs, and van Naerssen study. (Thanks, Jim Burroway!) It is clear that this study cannot be taken to be statistically representative of gay men overall. The researchers write: 

"Subjects responded to appeals in two national and two provincial papers, three gay magazines of national Dutch political parties, and one national gay magazine."

Obviously, this is a convenience sample. Simply put, this sample is self-selected. Only those who took the initiative to respond to the ads were included in the study. Further, opportunities to take part were limited to those who subscribed to these particular periodicals.

 

This does not mean that the study is useless. I, for one, am worried by the relationship attitudes and assumptions expressed by some gay men and some lesbian women. I don’t think sex outside a marriage (union, partnership, et…) is good for anyone. And, by the way, I am also worried by the attitudes and assumptions of some straight men and women. But clearly this study doesn’t tell us what gay men characteristically think. Statistically and scientifically speaking, the information it provides doesn’t really help much at all in answering the questions we are dealing with here (e.g. Are gay men--in some inherent, definitive, or even empirical sense--more promiscuous than straight men?)

 

Let’s take a look at what didn’t get reported (aside from the obviously non-random sampling method) by David Blakeslee’s source, Jones and Yarhouse:

 

“We found the older men to have the most sexual partners.”  (429)

 

Hmmm. Now this little sentence seems to fly in the face of claims made by many social conservatives. Have we not been told time and time again that increasing social support for gay relationships will result in more promiscuity? That by ordaining partnered gay men, for instance, we are actually supporting promiscuity? If supporting gay relationships is effectively to support the promiscuity that is (supposedly) its hallmark, then shouldn’t the younger men, who have experienced a more supportive environment, have had the more partners? Such is not what Deenen et al observed. Instead, those who have grown up in a relatively more supportive environment have had fewer partners. Why would this be? The authors write,

"Because young[er] men are brought up in a less gender-stereotyped society, they may have different ideas about homosexuality and masculinity (Bem 1983, Franklin 1984).  . . .  A comparison [of other studies] indicates that the cohort that grew up in the 1960s has the most sexual partners.  [One] explanation for the older men having the most sexual encounters is that this cohort learned to value homosexuality in another way. Men who grew up in a period where AIDS is a threat and where gay relationships are becoming formally recognized may have new ways of dealing with intimate relations." (429)

Referring to the Deenen study and two others, all of which utilize convenience samples, Jones and Yarhouse write: 

 

“If one presupposes that the capacity to form and maintain exclusive monogamous erotic relationships is an essential adaptive capacity [i.e. psychologically healthy], then real difficulties for male homosexuals are suggested by this research.” (p. 24) [www.wheaton.edu/CACE/resources/onlinearticles/sciencehomosexualitydebate.pdf]

 

Well, yes, real difficulties are suggested. I agree. But also suggested are potential avenues of improvement. I share Jones and Yarhouse’s concern

 

If the psychological community de-emphasizes relational stability among its criteria of adaptiveness or healthy emotional adjustment . . .  then promiscuity in the male homosexual community does not constitute maladjustment” (24)

 

but I don’t share their implied response to that concern, which is to censure gay/lesbian relationships categorically. That response, it seems to me, is neither good policy nor a good reading of the very study (in the Deenen case) they are responding to.

 

What seems to matter here (in addition to the very real AIDS scare), according to these authors, is how men are supported as partners who love another. Where relationships have been formally recognized, men have increasingly found emotional intimacy. The ideas that NARTH and others have proposed—e.g. where men are supposedly trying to repair broken or missing aspects of their relationships with their fathers—seem to not get much support from this study. To follow the NARTH theory, we would expect that these gay men would have found themselves ever more emotionally troubled and dissatisfied in their (homosexual) relationships, since what they were supposedly really pursuing (i.e. a better relationship with Dad) is forever out of reach. 

 

But that’s not what we see here. Instead, what is suggested (no, I won’t say proven) is that encouraging the best aspects of what sexual relationships are all about for heterosexuals—i.e. emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, mutual care—also seems to lead to better relationships for homosexuals.

“Gay men value emotional aspects of their relationships above sexual satisfaction. Emotional intimacy remains the criterion, irrespective of relationship duration.” (429

Again, I’m not arguing that this study demonstrates anything in a statistically representative way. My point in commenting on what some of the rest of the study says is to show how complex and nuanced real social science is. One cannot say he/she has studied the social sciences relating to sexuality and miss this fact. Just as one cannot be acquainted with very many real gay and lesbian people without noticing the vast difference between Glesne’s picture of our brothers and sisters and the church community’s actual experience of them and with them.

 

Tim Fisher

Minneapolis, MN