Children in Lesbian Families Less Likely to be Abused by Parent, Other Caregiver

Deborah Brauser

November 18, 2010

November 18, 2010 — Adolescents raised in lesbian families are less likely than their peers to be abused by a parental figure, according to new findings from the US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS).

In fact, researchers found that none of the 78 adolescents evaluated reported any physical or sexual victimization by a parent or other caregiver. This contrasts with past research that reports that 26% of all American adolescents report caregiver physical abuse and 8.3% report sexual abuse (US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, Finkelhor et al, 2009).

Dr. Nanette Gartrell

"It is noteworthy how sharply [our] findings contrast with same-age adolescents in the American population," NLLFS principal investigator Nanette K. Gartrell, MD, Williams Distinguished Scholar at UCLA School of Law and associate clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Center of Excellence in Women's Health at the University of California–San Francisco, told Medscape Medical News.

The investigators note that most of the NLLFS adolescents did not grow up in households with any adult males present. Since "sexual abuse of children that occurs within the home is largely perpetrated by adult heterosexual males," this could be 1 reason for the difference in findings.

The analysis also found that although almost 20% of the NLLFS girls reported identifying as bisexual and were more likely to have engaged in same-sex activity than female peers, none of them identified as predominantly homosexual.

The study was published online November 6 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Past Data Limited

Past research "has established that there are no significant differences in psychological well-being between the children of lesbian and heterosexual parents, but there are very limited data on the sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and sexual risk exposure of adolescents reared since birth in what are known as planned lesbian families," the investigators write.

"For decades, same-sex parenting has been a major topic in the debates over equality in marriage, foster care, and adoption," added Dr. Gartrell. "Lesbian and gay parents have been denied custody of their children or denied the opportunity to adopt/foster based on allegations that they, as parents, would abuse their children or their children would grow up to be lesbian or gay themselves."

The NLLFS was started in 1986 to assess a cohort of 84 lesbian families from children's conception until adulthood. It is "the longest-running prospective study of same-sex parented families, with a 93% retention rate to date."

Earlier findings from this study showed that the children in these families were well adjusted and related well to peers at the age of 5 years and had no more psychological or developmental problems at the ages of 10 and 17 years than did their age-matched peers. When the children were 10, the mothers also reported that none has been physically or sexually abused by a parent or other caregiver.

For this analysis, the investigators evaluated lifetime sexual experiences through confidential online questionnaires by 78 of the adolescent offspring (39 girls and 39 boys, all 17 years old) of these lesbian mothers. All were conceived through donor insemination and 47% resided in the Northeast region of the United States, 43% in the West, 9% in the South, and 1% in the Midwest.

In the questionnaire, adolescents were asked about any past abuse, including type and by whom.

"They were also asked to specify their sexual identity on the Kinsey Scale, between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual. Lifetime sexual behavior was assessed through questions about heterosexual and same-sex contact, age of first sexual experience, contraception use, and pregnancy," write the researchers.

The study group was also compared with matched adolescents (235 girls and 199 boys) pulled from the sixth cycle of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).

Important Implications

Results showed that, among the NLLFS sample, "18.9% of the adolescent girls and 2.7% of the adolescent boys self-rated in the bisexual spectrum [P = .034], and 0% of girls and 5.4% of boys self-rated as predominantly-to-exclusively homosexual," report the investigators.

Although the overall NLFFS group was significantly older than the NSFG controls at the time of their first heterosexual contact, the NLFFS boys were also significantly less likely to have been heterosexually active than the NSFG boys.

Although the NLFFS girls were significantly more likely to have had same-sex contact than the NSFG girls, there was no significant difference for this factor between the NLFFS and NSFG boys.

"We were not surprised to find that nearly 1 in 5 daughters identify as bisexual because other research shows more sexual fluidity in young women," explained Dr. Gartrell.

Overall, the researchers write that this study "contributes a unique dimension to the literature" on same-sex parented families.

In addition, "these data have implication for healthcare professionals, policymakers, social service agencies, child protection workers, and domestic violence advocates who seek family models in which violence does not occur," they write.

"Of course any single finding needs replication by other researchers, but ours are one step toward disconfirming allegations of abuse," added Dr. Gartrell.

The next scheduled follow-up to the NLLFS is when the offspring are 25 years of age, which will "assess the stability of their sexual behavior and orientation" over time.

Dr. Gartrell added, "My research collaborators are much younger than I, so we may even try to follow this cohort into future generations."

"Zero Abuse"

Dr. Ellen Perrin

"It's a remarkable study in that Dr. Gartrell has had such a long-term view of these families, which is extremely rare both in this subject area and in general," Ellen C. Perrin, MD, professor of pediatrics and director of research in the Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, told Medscape Medical News.

Dr. Perrin, who was not involved in this research, said that "the most interesting finding that hasn't been reported before" is the absence of any kind of physical or sexual victimization in these families.

"As a pediatrician I'm certainly aware of abuse in children all the time. So the fact that it's zero in this particular population is good news, although I can't say it's terribly surprising," she explained. "These are families that have worked hard to become families. They didn't just fall together."

She noted that she looks forward to the investigators assessing quality of life and experience of stigmatization in the upcoming follow-ups with these offspring.

"I think that's one of the concerns that people have always raised: that it's all well and good for them to be fine in their own house. But when they get into school and into the big bad world, are they going to experience some ostracism, bullying, and so forth related to their family constellation? It will also be interesting to see how successful these children are in their educational, vocational, and relationship pathways as they get older."

Dr. Perrin said that the overall takeaway is that "children growing up in lesbian households certainly don’t seem to be any worse off than children growing up in heterosexual households and may in some ways be advantaged. All children should experience zero abuse."

The NLLFS has been funded in part by grants from The Gill Foundation, the Lesbian Health Fund of the Gay Lesbian Medical Association, Horizons Foundation, The Roy Scrivner Fund of the American Psychological Foundation, and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. The study authors and Dr. Perrin have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Arch Sex Behav. Published online November 6, 2010.

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