Sunday, December 12, 2004

Lesbian Pills: Sexuality, Science, and the Media

Journalism has a way of making a scientific mountain out of a virtual molehill. Sensationalism is most often seen in reporting on sexuality. If you look at the article below, you would think that scientists discovered that some pills make more lesbians:
Prof Lee Ellis and colleagues at Minot State University, North Dakota, traced the mothers of more than 5,000 American and Canadian students and members of gay and lesbian support groups, looking for links between prescription drugs taken during pregnancy and the sexual orientation of their children.

The researchers found that the mothers of homosexual women were at least five times more likely to have taken synthetic thyroid medications during pregnancy than mothers of heterosexual women, and eight times more likely to have used amphetamine-based diet pills such as Dexedrine and diethylpropion.

They also found evidence that some drugs have the opposite effect during pregnancy, reducing the probability of homosexual offspring. Mothers of heterosexual males were 70 per cent more likely to have taken drugs to combat nausea than those of male homosexuals. (Robert Matthews, "Pregnant Women Who Take Slimming Pills 'Are More Likely to Have Gay Children,'" Telegraph, December 5, 2004)
What's missing from the report (as well as others like it, for instance Beth Shapiro, "Study: Dieting Moms Likely To Have Lesbian Babies,", December 6, 2004) is the facts that correlation does not itself prove causation; that the researchers only controlled for "three maternal variables: maternal age, maternal education, and self-rated maternal recall" (Lee Ellis and Jill Hellberg, "Fetal Exposure to Prescription Drugs and Adult Sexual Orientation," Personality and Individual Differences 38.1, January 2005); and that the actual populations of the mothers of homosexual, bisexual, and heterosexual offsprings in the study who remember taking any of the nineteen pills whose effects the researchers investigated were minuscule segments of "the mothers of more than 5,000 American and Canadian students and members of gay and lesbian support groups" (Matthews, December 5, 2004).

How minuscule?

"Whereas seven out of 3241 (0.2%) of the mothers of female heterosexuals recalled having taken [amphetamine-based] diet medication [primarily Dexedrine and Tenuate Dospan] during pregnancy, two out of 144 (1.7%) of the mothers of homosexuals did so (p=0.033)"; and "Whereas 31 of the 3241 (1.0%) mothers of heterosexuals took these medications [synthetic thyroid medications, primarily Synthroid and Thyroxine] during pregnancy, six of the 144 (5.2%) mothers of homosexuals did so" (emphasis added, Ellis and Hellberg, January 2005). Even the researchers themselves offer this caviat: "It should be emphasized that because the sample sizes for most categories of drugs were often exceedingly small (especially in the case of mothers whose offspring were homosexual or bisexual), caution must be exercised in offering interpretations" (Ellis and Hellberg, January 2005).

Why the persistent temptation to search for biological causes of homosexuality and exaggerate skimpy findings? It must be because the dominant assumption is still that homosexuality, unlike heterosexuality which is simply assumed to be "normal," requires explanation. Even gay researchers are not immune to the temptation, though, as some of them understandably (though naively) hope that, once it is established that homosexuality is "biologically hardwired," they will be able to free gay men and lesbians (especially young ones) from execrable ex-gay "ministers" and "therapists" who pursue them for conversion to heterosexuality. It is much better to challenge the dominant assumption directly, however, by asking the public to consider a different question: since when and how has heterosexuality become the norm in the West?

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