7 février 2009

Human sexual natures simply aren't simple


I have spent much of my life translating research findings from science-speak into a language that ordinary people can understand, but I don’t think I ever truly understood the perils of mistranslation before attempting to unravel the widespread confusion wrought by B.C. teenagers and their sexual activities.

A paper published late last year by researchers at the University of British Columbia reported on a survey of 30,000 school children. It found that when British Columbia boys in grades 7 to 12 were surveyed in classrooms in 2003, those who said they were homosexual were, statistically speaking, 3.56 times more likely to get a girl pregnant, while bisexuals were 3.61 times more likely to than heterosexuals.

Among girls of the same age groups, the study reported that bisexuals had pregnancy rates 1.81 times higher than heterosexual girls, and lesbians had rates 2.63 times higher.

These numbers were greeted with a reaction that, in many circles, ricocheted between doubt and derision.

The exemplar for the scorn were the pandering pundits of conservative negativism found on the American FOXNews channel. "That is why I didn’t become a lesbian," quipped writer S.E. Cupp on the program Red Eye. "I didn’t want to become pregnant."

The kids were just playing with the adult testers, opined Joe Francis, founder of Girls Gone Wild. And if it were him, he said, "I would start checking boxes for fun; I would Christmas-tree this frigging thing, and that is what happened here, obviously."

But program moderator Greg Gutfeld concluded with the most damning remark. "I think this is the most bogus sex study of all; it makes no sense at all … I have a problem with the math." Ordinarily, one might have just sloughed this off as the studied dismissal by FOXNews of any finding that contradicts its political philosophy. But in fact, every ordinary Canadian I have spoken to about the story has reflected a similar gush of disbelief, and, even more pointedly, done so with similar arguments.

A question of language discord
The reality is this: reproductive biology logically tells us that, artificial insemination aside, the number of pregnancies produced by true gays and true lesbians should be exactly 0.00 per cent.

So if by definition it shouldn’t happen biologically, what is causing gay/lesbian teen pregnancy in B.C.?

The kids understood the language of the survey to mean one thing. Many adults in the wider world understood it to mean yet another.

Well, after some discussion with Elizabeth Saewyc of the UBC School of Nursing, and lead author of the paper, I can report back to you that what I believe we are looking at in many ways is a question of language discord. The kids understood the language of the survey to mean one thing. Many adults in the wider world understood it to mean yet another. And furthermore — and this may be most significant — the researchers didn’t appreciate the mental mess this linguistic disconnect was going to produce.

What the written survey — which was administered by nurses to the students during one class period asked was: How do you rate your sexual orientation based on who you are attracted to? In terms of attraction are you 100 per cent heterosexual, mostly heterosexual, bisexual, mostly homosexual, and 100 per cent homosexual, or [and this is significant] are you "not sure."

The students weren’t required to make their definition of sexual orientation coincident with their behaviour. This allowed students to say they were gay or lesbian, when in fact they often had sex with members of the opposite sex. A lot of sex, according to the responses.

In the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health, the B.C. researchers reported on the teenagers sexual partners in the previous year. In 2003, 3.9 per cent of the self-defined lesbian teenagers reported they had only had sex with boys, as opposed to 7.3 per cent who indicated they had only had sex with girls. Some 14.1 per cent reported sex with both genders, and, most (74.7 per cent) of the girls didn’t have any sex at all.

For girls who reported that they were bisexual, things were even more confusing: 31.5 per cent reported having sex with boys the past year, 2.8 per cent only with girls and 16.8 per cent with both.

Amongst the self-defined gays, 8.3 per cent said that in the past year only had sex with girls, 17.9 per cent only had sex with other guys, and 6.2 per cent said they had sex with both genders. By way of comparison — and this really is very striking — less than 0.1 per cent of self-declared heterosexual boys and girls reported that they had a same-sex partner the previous year.

Clearly the deep discordance between who you say you are and what you do reflects the reality that the kids don’t define their sexual behaviors by the generally accepted meanings of the words gay and straight and even bisexual.

6% of students removed from study
Another proof that the phrasing of the sexual-preference question was confusing was that about six per cent of the students in 2003 checked the "not sure" box when it came to sexual orientation, and as a consequence were removed from the study. The reason they were excluded, wrote the researchers in the December paper, was "it is unclear how they were answering, e.g. whether they are not sure of their sexual orientation, or not sure what the question was asking."

On one level one can understand the basis of the confusion.

"You have to remember that in adolescence, sexual orientation is in the process of being developed," says Saewyc. "A lot of kids, especially for the younger teens, may not know precisely what their orientation is. So they may identify one particular way at one stage and they may identify another way later in life."

There is also the truth that being gay or lesbian means that you have to go out with the "out" crowd.

"It is one of the real things that we as adults have a difficulty getting our heads around … that we think in sexual orientation that our attraction and behavior are going to be concordant, and we forget about all of circumstances where sex might happen, not because of your inclination but because it is the socially appropriate thing to do," Saewyc says.

"A number of kids … have gotten the message, rightly or wrongly, that ‘I think I am gay but I don’t know because I haven’t had sex, so maybe if I have sex with enough people of the opposite gender that will change my orientation.’"

And for some who are confused about their true sexuality or who are seeking to camouflage their feelings from others, how much less gay and less lesbian can you appear than to become a mother or a father?

It also appears true that, for one reason or another, gays and lesbians find themselves in situations where they are more likely to be preyed upon by others, and in so doing may be forced into sexual acts that go against what they will learn later is their sexual preference.

I listen sympathetically to Saewyc and then I have to point out the obvious.

However you explain reasons why a self-defined lesbian gets pregnant and a self-defined gay becomes a father, the terms "gay" and "lesbian" and "higher likelihoods of pregnancy" create cognitive dissonance for the average person. The teenagers’ actions and self-definitions conflict with the basic meaning of the language used to describe adult human sexual natures.

I have a simple linguistic suggestion: add to the survey’s sexual orientation possibilities the words "sexually searching" and "formerly sexually unsure" or just "other."
And if the social scientists don’t have more nuanced and more accurate terms to describe the teenagers’ orientations — both to themselves and to the world — then ordinary people are going to become very FOXNewsy. They are going to sneer at what all future B.C. surveys tell us about the complications of teenage sexual identity. And worse, far worse, they won’t care about addressing the problems that sexually uncertain kids have.

And in the vein of language precision, I have a simple linguistic suggestion: add to the survey’s sexual orientation possibilities the words "sexually searching" and "formerly sexually unsure" or just "other."

Let kids tell us how confused they really are, in order to lessen our own confusion.