Mom asks, does sexual abuse affect sexual orientation?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  August 7, 2012 06:00 AM

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Good afternoon,,,, my 6.5 year old son prefers to plays with girls' toys. I have a question: can someone become gay if at some point in life he was sexually molested?

From: Sandra, Manassas, VA

Dear Sandra,

No. No. No. Sexual molestation does not determine sexuality. Toy and play preferences don't either. And while we're at it, parenting doesn't "make" a child gay any more than therapy can "make" a child straight.

It sounds like you think -- or know -- that your child has been victimized. I can't tell you how sorry I am. Are you doing everything you can to keep your son safe and inaccessible to the person who abused him? I hope so! (Have you reported it to appropriate authorities?) I also hope you are getting your son professional help (start with your pediatrician) and that you get some help for yourself, as well. It's not easy to know how to talk to a child after something like this has happened.

Meanwhile, I think your real question isn't in your email. I think your real question is, OMG, I think my son might be gay. It's too soon to know one way or the other. What your child needs -- what any child needs -- is to know you love him unconditionally, no matter what or who he becomes. This question has been raised here many times and I hope these answers and readers' comments will be helpful to you.

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18 comments so far...
  1. I feel so sad when reading these letters, as though having a gay or lesbian child is the absolute worst thing in the world. It doesn't matter if the child is healthy, happy, or social... if it's because of the "wrong" toys, friends of the "wrong" gender, or whatever, it's a disaster! Be real. You made an important decision when you chose to be a parent, you still have to be the best parent to your kids no matter what. That includes being supportive of them throughout their journey, not being ashamed. I'd much rather have a kind, loving, happy, social, intelligent gay son than a straight one who is none of those things.

    Posted by Rach0 August 7, 12 02:10 PM
  1. No, it doesn't.

    And playing with "opposite gender" toys doesn't make someone gay either, nor indicate that someone may be gay (which is not a bad thing to be anyway). If it did, there would be many more people identifying themselves as gay.

    Posted by mm August 7, 12 03:16 PM
  1. Being sexually abused as a child does not affect gender sexuality, but it does very much affect one's sexuality in general, i.e. what arouses you, what (if anything) brings you to orgasm, whether you yourself will become an abuser,etc. etc. etc. Even years of therapy are not a guarantee for recovery from this life altering violation. The knowledge is that not every one who was abused abuses, but everyone who abuses was him- or herself abused.

    Posted by a.s. link August 7, 12 07:41 PM
  1. Can we lay off the "girls toys" and "boys toys" thing a bit? Do our rigid gender roles and expectations really have to get down to the toy level? If a toy is fun for a girl, what reason do you have that it can't also be fun for a boy? Boys and girls must have some things in common, after all, as about 90% of the time they grow up to be men and women who are interested in each other.

    And for what it is worth, being gay is not synonymous with being effeminate and liking "girl stuff." Just as being straight is not synonymous with being a football player (if a boy) or a cheerleader (if a girl).

    Let this poor little boy play with a toy without being made to feel like he is somehow less of a boy because of it.

    I am not sure if you are writing in because this child was molested, as Barbara thinks. If so - please please please get this child a therapist! I can't emphasize that enough. Molestation (which has nothing to do with sexual orientation either) is traumatic and damaging, and if he isn't getting real help with it now, I hope you get him that help soon. Good luck.

    Posted by jjlen August 7, 12 09:45 PM
  1. I agree that what you choose to play with doesn't have much of anything to do with sexual orientation. And the definitions of what are "girls toys" and "boys toys" are too narrow. I think. Look at all the male heterosexual fashion designers, for instance. Or the females winning Olympic medals with their "marksmanship."

    Perhaps the real question is something more negative: "my son is playing with dolls, should I assume he does this because he was abused and start looking around for possible molesters in his life?" The answer to that is no. Playing with Barbies and choosing to make cupcakes instead of wrestle or kick a football is not a sign of having been abused. If she is worried about signs of abuse but has no knowledge of such a situation she should get with her pediatrician and have him examined and get some idea of what behaviors might signal abuse.

    Posted by FavoriteAuntie August 8, 12 08:00 AM
  1. Reframe it: He's practicing to be an amazing dad!

    Posted by rachel August 8, 12 01:57 PM
  1. The correct answer, Barbara, is "We have no idea."

    Just spouting off whatever makes you feel better does no good at all.

    Posted by MervG August 8, 12 02:00 PM
  1. I have two family members - 1 male and 1 female - who were both sexually abused when they were 13 and 14 and both of them then became gay.
    Whether it was due to guilt, shame, anxiety or whatever, it did in fact happen.This is not my point of view or opinion. What I related is what they had told me. I was also told this by several others in college.One size does not fil all and there is such a political agenda nowadays when this and similar topics come up, whatever happens to someone is not always text book.

    Posted by manwithoutastar August 8, 12 02:55 PM
  1. Comment 3 is spot-on.

    Posted by Kayti August 8, 12 05:35 PM
  1. I think a quick survey might reveal that many more individuals than you might think grew up in an abusive situation whether it was physical, sexual, or psychological. I'd guess it's even more common among homosexuals. There's no good science to show that sexual orientation is inborn or acquired, though. I'd agree with the notion that you need to love your child unconditionally, but I'd stop short of saying that that means you need to encourage or allow any and all behaviors.

    Posted by democrat4life August 8, 12 05:41 PM
  1. "No. No. No. Sexual molestation does not determine sexuality."

    I'd very much like to know more about the research leading to that conclusion. This is especially true if it is as definitive as BFM's response suggests--such a strong and confident proclaimation. (I apologize for not knowing the proper honorifics to use in referrin to BFM: Dr., Rev., Rabbi, Iman, Chairperson, President, etc.) I did not think that the determinants of sexual orientation were well understood; and if there is solid analysis supporting the non-effect of molestation on sexual orientation I'd like to see the methodology and conclusions, as well as see the prior publications cited in the study.

    Why hasn't more been reported about these strong findings...if in fact there are such (it now occurs to me to wonder). Perhaps MervG's response (Aug 8, 2:00PM above) is on the mark. If in fact there is no legitimate basis for BFM's statement, then that would be good to know also. It means I may as well not follow here other work and columns, since I wouldn't be able to trust her other opinions and assertions. In fact, I'd start to wonder about the organization which provides her the forum.

    ...But I hope that there is legitimate research that can be cited. It would help me in my work.

    DMyers, Biostatistician working in medicine and public health.

    Posted by Dale Myers August 8, 12 08:20 PM
  1. If you have a gay child, that does not mean they were molested at some point.

    However, a molested child will indeed have a much higher likelihood of having many issues, including a higher likelihood of being gay.

    How can you write a column like this and not know and understand that basic fact?!?!?!

    Too many liberals latch on to politically-correct nonsense instead of the simple truth!

    Posted by TheSage August 9, 12 11:54 AM
  1. It's generally recognized that sexual orientation is biologically determine (there is extensive evidence for this now). However, sexual abuse certainly caused all kinds of psychological problems including confusion about sexual roles and identities. If you suspect abuse, get help for the child ASAP

    Posted by ~B August 9, 12 12:00 PM
  1. In an effort to clarify my answer, I asked Murray Strauss to weigh in. He's professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and co-director of the Family Research Lab there, which is well-known for its research on partner abuse and child abuse. Here's what he said:
    "Barbara's answer implies that only biology determines sexual orientation. It’s very likely that experiences in life also affect orientation, but there’s no definitive research on just what those experiences are."
    I hope that helps and I apologize for any confusion. The website for Strauss' lab is http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz August 9, 12 03:47 PM
  1. I'm finding these letters from the South repetitive. "My very young child isn't the very epitome of childish masculinity or femininity! Is he/she gay?"

    There was one a few weeks ago from Texas. This one's from Virginia. I think the South needs to loosen up a bit. Your hobbies and interests don't determine your sexual preference!

    Posted by AP August 9, 12 04:12 PM
  1. Consider the basis of the notion that sexual abuse will "make" someone gay. Since the vast majority of abusers are male, the assumption is that being sexually assaulted by a man will make boys desire sexual contact with men as adults, while being sexually assaulted by men will make girls avoid sexual contact with men as adults. Where's the sense in that?

    And ditto what others have said about the ridiculousness of assuming that because we've labeled certain toys as "for girls" and others as "for boys" that a child who likes playing with the ones we've labeled for the other sex has something "wrong" with him or her, which is exactly what is implied by all these questions about whether a young child's toy preference indicates that he or she is "gay."

    Posted by Finn August 10, 12 08:15 AM
  1. toys don't determine sexual orientation alone. just as one joints doesn't make you an addict. toys are toys meant as entertainment.are action figures not dolls i mean give me a break.the important thing is the child's health mental and physical.i'm a survivor of incest and i can tell you if the help isn't given now it will be harder when ther child is older.so please get him help now.

    Posted by lisa langdon September 12, 12 03:06 PM
  1. I personally believe that sexual abuse does play a major role in a persons sexual orientation, but being abused doesn't always mean that you will become gay. Experiencing sexual abuse may actually cause a person to act out in other ways for example girls tend to be very promiscuous and boys may grow up to be womanizers. In any case abuse hurts and it has to be dealt with, although the outcomes may not all be the same there will be a reaction to the act of abuse.

    Posted by janet July 2, 13 02:36 PM
 
18 comments so far...
  1. I feel so sad when reading these letters, as though having a gay or lesbian child is the absolute worst thing in the world. It doesn't matter if the child is healthy, happy, or social... if it's because of the "wrong" toys, friends of the "wrong" gender, or whatever, it's a disaster! Be real. You made an important decision when you chose to be a parent, you still have to be the best parent to your kids no matter what. That includes being supportive of them throughout their journey, not being ashamed. I'd much rather have a kind, loving, happy, social, intelligent gay son than a straight one who is none of those things.

    Posted by Rach0 August 7, 12 02:10 PM
  1. No, it doesn't.

    And playing with "opposite gender" toys doesn't make someone gay either, nor indicate that someone may be gay (which is not a bad thing to be anyway). If it did, there would be many more people identifying themselves as gay.

    Posted by mm August 7, 12 03:16 PM
  1. Being sexually abused as a child does not affect gender sexuality, but it does very much affect one's sexuality in general, i.e. what arouses you, what (if anything) brings you to orgasm, whether you yourself will become an abuser,etc. etc. etc. Even years of therapy are not a guarantee for recovery from this life altering violation. The knowledge is that not every one who was abused abuses, but everyone who abuses was him- or herself abused.

    Posted by a.s. link August 7, 12 07:41 PM
  1. Can we lay off the "girls toys" and "boys toys" thing a bit? Do our rigid gender roles and expectations really have to get down to the toy level? If a toy is fun for a girl, what reason do you have that it can't also be fun for a boy? Boys and girls must have some things in common, after all, as about 90% of the time they grow up to be men and women who are interested in each other.

    And for what it is worth, being gay is not synonymous with being effeminate and liking "girl stuff." Just as being straight is not synonymous with being a football player (if a boy) or a cheerleader (if a girl).

    Let this poor little boy play with a toy without being made to feel like he is somehow less of a boy because of it.

    I am not sure if you are writing in because this child was molested, as Barbara thinks. If so - please please please get this child a therapist! I can't emphasize that enough. Molestation (which has nothing to do with sexual orientation either) is traumatic and damaging, and if he isn't getting real help with it now, I hope you get him that help soon. Good luck.

    Posted by jjlen August 7, 12 09:45 PM
  1. I agree that what you choose to play with doesn't have much of anything to do with sexual orientation. And the definitions of what are "girls toys" and "boys toys" are too narrow. I think. Look at all the male heterosexual fashion designers, for instance. Or the females winning Olympic medals with their "marksmanship."

    Perhaps the real question is something more negative: "my son is playing with dolls, should I assume he does this because he was abused and start looking around for possible molesters in his life?" The answer to that is no. Playing with Barbies and choosing to make cupcakes instead of wrestle or kick a football is not a sign of having been abused. If she is worried about signs of abuse but has no knowledge of such a situation she should get with her pediatrician and have him examined and get some idea of what behaviors might signal abuse.

    Posted by FavoriteAuntie August 8, 12 08:00 AM
  1. Reframe it: He's practicing to be an amazing dad!

    Posted by rachel August 8, 12 01:57 PM
  1. The correct answer, Barbara, is "We have no idea."

    Just spouting off whatever makes you feel better does no good at all.

    Posted by MervG August 8, 12 02:00 PM
  1. I have two family members - 1 male and 1 female - who were both sexually abused when they were 13 and 14 and both of them then became gay.
    Whether it was due to guilt, shame, anxiety or whatever, it did in fact happen.This is not my point of view or opinion. What I related is what they had told me. I was also told this by several others in college.One size does not fil all and there is such a political agenda nowadays when this and similar topics come up, whatever happens to someone is not always text book.

    Posted by manwithoutastar August 8, 12 02:55 PM
  1. Comment 3 is spot-on.

    Posted by Kayti August 8, 12 05:35 PM
  1. I think a quick survey might reveal that many more individuals than you might think grew up in an abusive situation whether it was physical, sexual, or psychological. I'd guess it's even more common among homosexuals. There's no good science to show that sexual orientation is inborn or acquired, though. I'd agree with the notion that you need to love your child unconditionally, but I'd stop short of saying that that means you need to encourage or allow any and all behaviors.

    Posted by democrat4life August 8, 12 05:41 PM
  1. "No. No. No. Sexual molestation does not determine sexuality."

    I'd very much like to know more about the research leading to that conclusion. This is especially true if it is as definitive as BFM's response suggests--such a strong and confident proclaimation. (I apologize for not knowing the proper honorifics to use in referrin to BFM: Dr., Rev., Rabbi, Iman, Chairperson, President, etc.) I did not think that the determinants of sexual orientation were well understood; and if there is solid analysis supporting the non-effect of molestation on sexual orientation I'd like to see the methodology and conclusions, as well as see the prior publications cited in the study.

    Why hasn't more been reported about these strong findings...if in fact there are such (it now occurs to me to wonder). Perhaps MervG's response (Aug 8, 2:00PM above) is on the mark. If in fact there is no legitimate basis for BFM's statement, then that would be good to know also. It means I may as well not follow here other work and columns, since I wouldn't be able to trust her other opinions and assertions. In fact, I'd start to wonder about the organization which provides her the forum.

    ...But I hope that there is legitimate research that can be cited. It would help me in my work.

    DMyers, Biostatistician working in medicine and public health.

    Posted by Dale Myers August 8, 12 08:20 PM
  1. If you have a gay child, that does not mean they were molested at some point.

    However, a molested child will indeed have a much higher likelihood of having many issues, including a higher likelihood of being gay.

    How can you write a column like this and not know and understand that basic fact?!?!?!

    Too many liberals latch on to politically-correct nonsense instead of the simple truth!

    Posted by TheSage August 9, 12 11:54 AM
  1. It's generally recognized that sexual orientation is biologically determine (there is extensive evidence for this now). However, sexual abuse certainly caused all kinds of psychological problems including confusion about sexual roles and identities. If you suspect abuse, get help for the child ASAP

    Posted by ~B August 9, 12 12:00 PM
  1. In an effort to clarify my answer, I asked Murray Strauss to weigh in. He's professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and co-director of the Family Research Lab there, which is well-known for its research on partner abuse and child abuse. Here's what he said:
    "Barbara's answer implies that only biology determines sexual orientation. It’s very likely that experiences in life also affect orientation, but there’s no definitive research on just what those experiences are."
    I hope that helps and I apologize for any confusion. The website for Strauss' lab is http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz August 9, 12 03:47 PM
  1. I'm finding these letters from the South repetitive. "My very young child isn't the very epitome of childish masculinity or femininity! Is he/she gay?"

    There was one a few weeks ago from Texas. This one's from Virginia. I think the South needs to loosen up a bit. Your hobbies and interests don't determine your sexual preference!

    Posted by AP August 9, 12 04:12 PM
  1. Consider the basis of the notion that sexual abuse will "make" someone gay. Since the vast majority of abusers are male, the assumption is that being sexually assaulted by a man will make boys desire sexual contact with men as adults, while being sexually assaulted by men will make girls avoid sexual contact with men as adults. Where's the sense in that?

    And ditto what others have said about the ridiculousness of assuming that because we've labeled certain toys as "for girls" and others as "for boys" that a child who likes playing with the ones we've labeled for the other sex has something "wrong" with him or her, which is exactly what is implied by all these questions about whether a young child's toy preference indicates that he or she is "gay."

    Posted by Finn August 10, 12 08:15 AM
  1. toys don't determine sexual orientation alone. just as one joints doesn't make you an addict. toys are toys meant as entertainment.are action figures not dolls i mean give me a break.the important thing is the child's health mental and physical.i'm a survivor of incest and i can tell you if the help isn't given now it will be harder when ther child is older.so please get him help now.

    Posted by lisa langdon September 12, 12 03:06 PM
  1. I personally believe that sexual abuse does play a major role in a persons sexual orientation, but being abused doesn't always mean that you will become gay. Experiencing sexual abuse may actually cause a person to act out in other ways for example girls tend to be very promiscuous and boys may grow up to be womanizers. In any case abuse hurts and it has to be dealt with, although the outcomes may not all be the same there will be a reaction to the act of abuse.

    Posted by janet July 2, 13 02:36 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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