Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Study trouble

There are times something gets in the world news, and I just know that I’ll end up being asked about it by friends and family overseas. Very often, those stories aren’t particularly flattering toward New Zealand, leading some people to get the wrong idea about this country, and I find myself defending New Zealand as much as explaining the story.

Another story that will inevitably fall into that sort of classification has come along: A researcher at the University of Otago, Associate Professor Elisabeth Wells, published a study in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour claiming that gay, lesbian or bisexual New Zealanders were abused as children.

I rolled my eyes when I read that and thought, “Here we go again!” I believe that the study is fundamentally flawed and invalid. There are two main problems with it: Methodology and bias.


The study is based on face-to-face interviews of 13,000 people aged 16 and over on mental health issues. Of them: 98% said they were heterosexual, 0.8 % identified as gay, 0.6 % said they were bisexual and 0.3 % were "something else".

Green Party Member of Parliament Kevin Hague (who is a former executive director of the NZ AIDS Foundation, which is the closest New Zealand has to a national GLBT organisation), pointed out the inherent flaw with the face-to-face interview technique where people may not disclose same-sex orientation or activity to a researcher. He said to GayNZ.com:
"Those who in that situation choose to disclose [their sexual orientation] to the interviewer are also those who are more likely to disclose other sensitive information about themselves, such as being abused as a child or witnessing domestic violence, those type of thing, that the researchers try and draw this concern around."

Dr Mark Henrickson, a senior lecturer in social work at Massey University's School of Social and Cultural Studies at their Albany campus, criticised the study for its “heteronormative bias”. GayNZ.com quoted him as saying,
"This can lead to the unfortunate and erroneous conclusion that sexual minorities are 'that way' because they are broken. The research and social discourse has moved beyond this over the last 10 years."
This is an important criticism: Essentially, the study assumes that if someone isn’t heterosexual, something’s “gone wrong” and must’ve “caused” it. This is what far right christianists have always said, and even Professor Wells seemed to understand that, and also the reaction of gay people. She told the Otago Daily Times:
"I suspect there might be some gay and lesbian people who will be indignant, but it is not my intention to anger them. You could say that if someone was sexually abused as a child, chooses to live as a homosexual and lives life well, then that is not a bad thing. But if they are living a homosexual life and regretting it, that is another matter." [emphasis added]
That’s the same sort of thing a “caring” and “loving” fundamentalist might say before sticking the boot in, or offering to “cure” us. Why would gay people be angry about that?

Speaking to the ODT, she also admitted the fundamental—and, I believe, fatal—flaw in her conclusions:
"We took a life-course approach, looking at where people had come from and where they have got to. But there was no opportunity to ask people why they [identified as homosexual or bisexual] and whether they thought that was linked to their childhood experiences."
So, Professor Wells apparently just assumed that whatever bad things happened in childhood is what made them gay—she assumed, with no apparent justification from the evidence.

Ninety-eight percent of the people said they were heterosexual: What made them straight? Oh, that’s right, Well’s “heteronormative bias” means she didn’t bother to even consider the question, much less look for an answer. Like so many researchers before her, she’s not interested in what causes heterosexuality because no one wants to “fix” that.

Wells claims that her study “provides information for policymakers on the prevalence of homosexual and bisexual identity. Researchers will in future use the information to better understand the relative risks of suicide and mental disorder amongst people from different sexual orientations.” That’s nonsense: for information to be useful to policymakers, it has to be valid and reliable, and this study is not.

Still, it’s already proved its usefulness: The head of New Zealand’s leading far-right christianist political group told the New Zealand Herald that “there should always be concerns around the possible outcomes of childhood abuse”. One of the leading far right christianist “news” sites in the US has also picked up the story, which means it will spread throughout the fundamentalist political groups in the US: Expect to see it quoted frequently in political attempts to deny us our human rights on the grounds we’re “mentally ill” people who have “chosen” to be gay because of some childhood trauma.

Personally, I don’t care if we’re born or made: Either way we ought to be treated like everyone else, and not as second-class (or worse) citizens. Deeply flawed research like that of Elisabeth Wells helps our opponents keep that from happening. You don’t need a university study to see that.

1 comment:

d said...

Yeah, I saw the story on either the NZ Herald or Stuff website. The story did not have a link to the published study (so that I could read up on the bias/details), and summed things up in a way that were slanted.

I actually wrote to the person who had written the story and stated that the article was misleading and dangerous (and pointed out the lack of link to the study). Of course I didn't hear back. :-P