I really don’t like this topic. I don’t enjoy offending whatever gay friends I may have left. I don’t enjoy highlighting the dark side of male sexuality. I don’t enjoy potentially casting suspicion on loving people. It’s probably inevitable that some will take the following comments to be anti-gay. I’m not anti-gay, anymore than I’m anti-male, but in the “marriage equality” debate, the fact is there is more than one party to consider when we are deciding what is the most compassionate course to take. The gay community is one party. The other party is the nation’s children who will have to live with whatever the State decides regarding gay marriage. I think it’s pretty clear which is the more vulnerable party.
Perhaps I should give a bit more of my background. I’ve worked with kids for most of my life. I taught elementary school for two years right out of art school. My wife and I raised 5 kids in a pretty rough inner city neighborhood. I’ve worked in church children’s and youth ministry for a couple of decades. We’ve supported friends who’ve had to deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. Most notably for the topic of this post, a few years ago I partnered with a police officer friend to produce a book designed to teach kids to protect themselves against inappropriate touch and sexual abuse. This friend, Jon Holsten, had worked as a detective in the sex crimes unit in Ft. Collins, CO, during which time he saw some very disturbing things. He tells me that the youngest victim of sexual abuse that he saw was an 18 month old girl. That is vulnerability. I’m certainly no authority, but I am sensitized to the issue of sexual abuse.
My limited knowledge of the research on child sexual abuse has affected the way my wife and I have raised our children. For example, whenever my daughters were invited to sleepovers growing up, I made it my business to find out who the men were in the house. This made for a couple of pretty awkward front doorstep conversations. If I learned that a mom was cohabiting with a guy, I would (privately) refuse my daughter permission to sleep over. The girls’ friends were always welcome to sleep over at our house instead.
One time I actually went back over to a house to pick up my daughter when I learned that a mom’s boyfriend, who wasn’t supposed to be there, had showed up. I know – isn’t that discrimination? Yes. Super awkward and probably offensive? Yep. I wasn’t judging anyone, or getting all hateful and violent – for all I knew, these guys were saints. But I didn’t know them, and I simply wasn’t willing to knowingly put my young children in a situation that would statistically put them at risk. (I would be interested to hear from readers as to whether or not you think my position was extreme, and if so, why.)
What does the issue of child sexual abuse have to do with “marriage equality”?
Possibly nothing. I want to say straight up that I am not equating homosexuality with pedophilia or child sexual abuse. There is absolutely no verifiable reason to believe that gay men are more likely to perp on a child than are straight men. But neither do we have reason to assume they are less likely. Some of what we do know about situations that put children at higher risk for sexual abuse has to do with family structure. Again, I must underline that the concern here is not about gays per se, but about guys. The most commonly cited statistics on child sexual abuse that I’ve seen are as follows:
> In most cases, the perpetrator is male regardless of whether the victim is a boy or girl. http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/child-sexual-abuse.aspx
> Family members commit 39% of the reported sexual assaults on children. 56% of those that sexually abuse a child are acquaintances of either the child or the family. Only 5% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by a stranger (Snyder, 2000).
> Family structure is the most important risk factor in child sexual abuse.
- Children who live with two married biological parents are at low risk for abuse.
- The risk increases when children live with step-parents or a single parent.
- Children living without either parent (foster children) are 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than children that live with both biological parents.
- Children who live with a single parent that has a live-in partner are at the highest risk: they are 20 times more likely to be victims of child sexual abuse than children living with both biological parents (Sedlack, et. al., 2010). Source
Which of the above four scenarios most closely resembles the household of a committed gay couple? Clearly, none of them fit perfectly. The only thing we can say with certainty at this point is that it can never be #1.
But again, the issue isn’t about gays per se, but about male sexual proclivities. We could come up with a heterosexual scenario. Let’s say a hetero guy has a kid with his wife and then gets a divorce with custody of his child. Let’s say he gets a male roommate – his brother – who agrees to help out with the child rearing. I’m sure this goes on. It’s a caring, reasonable alternative arrangement, even though it’s not optimum. If the stats are any indication, it’s probably not something we’d want to institutionalize and encourage on a wide scale though.
The difference between such heterosexual examples and the gay marriage example is that there is a powerful and aggressive political and media movement pushing State recognition of gay “marriage,” and seeking to enforce it as an equivalent alternative to heterosexual marriage and child rearing. But is it an equivalent alternative? A mom and a dad each bring something unique and irreplaceable to parenting, and no gay marriage will have a mom and a dad.
I hasten to say that gays as individual human beings are of equal value to everyone else and are deserving of the same rights, as individuals. That’s not the issue. The question in the “marriage equality” debate is whether gays have a right to belong to a societal institution that is heterosexual by definition.
Of course gay parents can be just as loving and caring as any straight parents – we are all human beings bearing the image of God. And certainly two committed parents, gay or straight, have an advantage over a single parent. Thus “marriage equality” proponents argue that what matters is two loving parents; not the complementary gender of loving parents. But marriage and family is an innately heterosexual institution that plays a unique and indispensable role in society. Complementary gender in marriage and parenting does matter beyond procreation: no matter how loving two dads are, neither of them will ever be a mom, or a female role model to a child. Nor can 2 moms initiate a boy into manhood. Not because they’re incompetent or unloving, but because they’re female. This is simply the shape of reality.
What exactly do we know about family research?
Pro-heterosexual marriage people can legitimately cite a mountain of research showing that children of married biological parents are much less at risk than are children of foster families, step-families, adoptive families, and single-parent families. But a direct comparison of large, long-term samplings of children raised by stable, gay couples doesn’t exist.
Pro-gay marriage people claim that children raised by same-sex parents show no significant outcome differences. But a direct comparison of large, long-term samplings of children raised by stable, gay couples doesn’t exist for them either. We simply don’t know if their claim is true.
Maybe they are right. Maybe married same sex households (many of which will be nonmonogamous) will turn out to be just as safe for children as an intact biological family. Regarding sexual abuse, maybe a biological dad and his male partner will turn out to be just as safe for children as a married biological dad and biological mom. I’m open to being surprised. But maybe we should accumulate some sound research before we break out the party hats and plunge ahead in radically changing the course of Western Civilization. Maybe we should find out how deep the water is before we swan dive into it.
If the welfare of children were not part of the picture, I would keep my questions to myself and out of the secular forum. Like other reasonable people, I have no desire to be mean or unfair to gay people. But neither do I want to be mean or unfair to future generations of vulnerable children. Children are part of the picture, and that makes “marriage equality” a matter of public concern.
All of this is just another way of saying that children are unavoidably, necessarily dependent upon adults, and that reality is exactly why the institution of marriage exists. Marriage is not primarily a self-esteem program for adults, or a scheme for getting government benefits. Marriage is the formation of a new, independent family unit, entailing a lifelong commitment to another person and to whatever new persons may emerge from that sexual union. Whoever you are, gay or straight, if that’s not what you want, please don’t get married. You don’t need marriage. You are already FREE to form loving relationships, exclusively monogamous or otherwise, as you choose. Redefining marriage will subject children to the slippery slope, intentionally “monogamish” parenting, and will deprive more children of the natural right and possibility of being raised by a mom and a dad within our already broken system.
Finally, I shouldn’t have to say this, but no one is advocating the removal of children from family situations just because they are less than ideal. I’m certainly not. The world is broken. Nobody’s situation is perfect. Nonetheless, we’re all still wired for loving relationship, and we all work out the pursuit of those relationships as best we can. I wish everyone, gay or straight, success and joy in that pursuit. But “marriage equality” will change the institution of marriage, as well as the difficult enterprise of parenting, for the worse.