Exploding the Consensus

Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences

  • Lawrence S. Mayer & Paul R. McHugh
  • The New Atlantis, Fall 2016

Lawrence Mayer and Paul McHugh, authors of the new special report Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences published earlier this year by The New Atlantis, close their review with something of a challenge.

“We expect,” write the authors, “that this report may elicit spirited responses, and we welcome them.”

“Spirited” may perhaps be an understatement. The report’s critics have been vicious in their accusations, but The New Atlantis has remained courteous but firm in its response.

To understand this report in full, the reader must first understand the authors’ intended audience. In the Preface, Mayer begins by stating that the report “was written for the general public and for mental health professionals in order to draw attention to—and offer some scientific insight about—the mental health issues faced by LGBT populations.” One of the top criticisms of Sexuality and Gender has been that it appeared in The New Atlantis, which is not a peer-reviewed journal. In a Frequently Asked Questions page on the journal website devoted to the report, the editors attempt to answer just this criticism. Their response is thoughtful. Most academic papers, because of their place of publication, are not readily available to the general public. Subscriptions to academic journals are not cheap, but even more expensive are subscriptions to the academic databases that house them. Hence, most social science research is available only to a small, very select audience—universities.

The scholars authoring this report wanted their research to be available to the larger public, because it is in that sphere that policy decisions regarding these topics are being made—and at a furious pace. There is much about issues of sexuality and gender, the authors write, that is touted as scientific fact (the “born that way” hypothesis, to begin with), but which simply does not have much backing in actual research. Or, as they state, “some of the most frequently heard claims about sexuality and gender are not supported by scientific evidence.”

This report is divided into three sections: “sexual orientation”; “sexuality, mental health outcomes, and social stress”; and “gender identity.” One of the most useful parts of the review appears in Section I, in the authors’ discussion of the difficulty in defining such terms as “sexual orientation.” Is a man who calls himself heterosexual but who has occasional homosexual thoughts really heterosexual? How many “encounters” does it take to make one either heterosexual or homosexual? Are study respondents’ answers to questions on sexual orientation reliable? Is self-identification the key? The variety of sexual couplings is rather depressing to ponder for supporters of the natural family, but the exercise in formulating definitions is useful.

With so many studies using so many different definitions of terms like “heterosexual” and “homosexual,” it is no wonder that so much of social science makes very different claims. Nonetheless, among the findings for Section I are that the “born that way” hypothesis “is not supported by scientific evidence”; that although some biological factors do seem to be associated with sexual behavior, “there are no compelling causal biological explanations for human sexuality”; that “sexual orientation,” at least in some people, seems to be rather fluid throughout the life course; and that “[c]ompared to heterosexuals, non-heterosexuals are about two to three times as likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse.” These are remarkable findings, and highly controversial.

Section II, on the mental health of LGBT subpopulations, bears grim news. In short, members of these communities see much higher rates of depression and other mental health problems, substance use, domestic violence, and suicide attempt and completion than do their non-LGBT peers. One study finds that “[m]en who identified as gay had more than double the prevalence of lifetime mood disorders compared to men who identified as heterosexual.” A 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine “shows that, like LGB youth, LGB adults—and women in particular—appear to be likelier than heterosexuals to smoke, use or abuse alcohol, and abuse other drugs.” On suicide, Mayer and McHugh report that the “association between sexual orientation and suicide has strong scientific support.” One study, using U.S. data, finds that among US adolescents, “suicide attempts are two to seven times more likely in high school students who identify as LGB.” Another study, this one using data from New Zealand, finds “that LGB individuals were six times more likely to have attempted suicide.” Yet another, using data from Denmark, finds that “the age-adjusted suicide rate for same-sex RDP [registered domestic partnerships] men was nearly eight times the rate for men in heterosexual marriages, and nearly twice the rate for men who had never married” (emphasis added). These are horrifically high numbers.

The authors of Sexuality and Gender spend a significant portion of time in Section II on the “social stress model,” which posits that LGBT populations suffer increased rates of mental (and even physical) health problems because of social stressors—stigmatization, bullying, discrimination, etc. In their review, Mayer and McHugh find that although it certainly plays some role, the social stress model fails to fully explain the association between LGBT status and increased rates of mental health problems. In other words, something else is going on here.

Perhaps the most chilling findings, in light of recent political and media attention to the “transgender” issue, are contained in Section III. It should be noted here that Dr. McHugh is the man responsible for discontinuing sex reassignment surgery at Johns Hopkins University, an action for which he has earned much criticism. But the findings in this section make it clear why such an action was necessary. Mayer and McHugh find that the “hypothesis that gender identity is an innate, fixed property of human beings that is independent of biological sex—that a person might be ‘a man trapped in a woman’s body’ or ‘a woman trapped in a man’s body’—is not supported by scientific evidence.” The authors also fail to find any evidence for a neurological basis for such identities, and furthermore, find that adults who have undergone sex reassignment surgery continue to have mental health problems at a much, much higher rate than the general population.

Mayer and McHugh are the most vocal in urging extreme caution in the treatment of so-called gender dysphoria in children. The great majority of children, they write, will outgrow any tendency to identify as the opposite gender. And furthermore, why does playing with “boy toys” make a little girl a boy, and vice versa? In their closing, they give a chilling warning:

We read popular reports about plans for medical and surgical interventions for many prepubescent children, some as young as six, and other therapeutic approaches undertaken for children as young as two. We suggest that no one can determine the gender identity of a two-year-old. We have reservations about how well scientists understand what it even means for a child to have a developed sense of his or her gender, but notwithstanding that issue, we are deeply alarmed that these therapies, treatments, and surgeries seem disproportionate to the severity of the distress being experienced by these young people, and are at any rate premature since the majority of children who identify as the gender opposite their biological sex will not continue to do so as adults. Moreover, there is a lack of reliable studies on the long-term effects of these interventions. We strongly urge caution in this regard.

Such a warning is all too needed.

Overall, this review is invaluable to its intended audience. One small deficiency is the authors’ lack of systematic explanation when documenting which studies they chose to review and why. A charge against this review by the LGBT media has been that the authors “cherry picked” the studies that demonstrate what they wish to believe. Such a charge seems unfounded, given that quite a few studies discussed actually showed very different results from the overall trend. Nonetheless, except for the beginning section of Part II, the reader must search long and hard to find out what the parameters for inclusion are. Mayer and McHugh may not have “cherry picked,” and they do in fact acknowledge that theirs is not an exhaustive review, but more explanation of parameters would have been helpful and would perhaps have warded off at least a few such charges.

Nonetheless, Sexuality and Gender is a much-needed summary of timely and relevant research on topics that have, of late, been much in the news. As the authors write, “Popular understandings of scientific findings often presume deterministic causality when the findings do not warrant that presumption.” Policymakers have been too quick to use such popular understandings in drafting legislation that has long-lasting impact. If this report accomplishes nothing more than to put the brakes on some such policy, its impact will have been great.

Nicole M. King is Managing Editor of The Natural Family.