As a sociologist my life is all about creating, taking and interpreting surveys of attitudes and opinions. So I sometimes feel a bit depressed at how knuckle-headed the media can be when reporting about research on same-sex marriage. Let’s look at a slogan which is being repeated over and over: Same-sex parents are just as good at parenting as heterosexuals. This looks simple — but its simplicity is deceptive. Let me unpack it for you.
What is meant by “same-sex”?
Two sisters living together to save money, raising children from former husbands who died at a young age? Two bisexual women with children from previous marriages to men? Two lesbians who have each conceived a child by sperm donation? Two gay men who have adopted a child jointly?
Different situations can impact children very differently; thus, it is risky to subsume them all under the one label of “same-sex parent”. Does it mean that one parent had some same-sex experience as a teenager but now is heterosexual? Does it mean that one parent identifies as heterosexual but engages in gay affairs just for the sex? Sexual orientation is defined by attraction, behavior, and identity, with all combinations in between. Does it mean a woman who was raped at age six and became lesbian out of a hatred for her rapist? Does it mean a woman who feels she can be a better mother with another woman at her side rather than a man? Or, are we talking about someone who identifies as a “gay” man because he has found he has no sexual attraction to women or to men?
What is meant by “good”?
Does it mean they are provided adequate nutrition? Does it mean they are growing up with no plans on having sex until they marry? Does it mean they plan on cohabiting before they marry? Are they being raised to believe that they can marry a man or a woman when they marry? To what extent do the children believe in and practice delayed gratification? Are their gender roles distinct from those of the opposite sex? Are they growing up to love and serve God, putting that before personal pleasure or satisfaction? Does it mean they are academically prepared to succeed at the university?
What is meant by “just as”?
Does it mean that in a comparison of two biased non-random convenience samples, small in size, that there was an effect size difference that was moderate in magnitude but not statistically significant? Does it mean that there was a national random sample from which groups were compared with adequate statistical power to detect even small effect sizes? Were appropriate statistics used to make the comparisons?
What is meant by “parenting”?
Does it mean the parent is biologically related to the child? Does it mean that the parent spends only one day every two weeks with the child because of custody disputes? Does it mean that the father is the child’s biological father but the father has long ago disappeared and has not seen the child in the past ten years? Does it mean that the parent is “around” but for all practical purposes the child is being raised by a nanny? Does it mean that the parent has so much money that paid employees are, for all practical purposes, raising the child?
What is meant by “heterosexuals”?
Are these folks legally married? Cohabiting? In a civil union? Is the parent heterosexual but parenting alone because of the death or separation from the other person? Are the parents heterosexuals with a per capita family income (two parents earning $40,000 a year with six children) of a tenth of what the per capita family income of the comparison group (eg, one lesbian parent earning $100,000 a year with one child) happens to be?
What does the research say?
What may look simple on the surface can be pretty complicated. Research has been very limited in the past but is getting better. So what do we know?
First, despite continued denials, it appears that children of gay-lesbian-bisexual (GLB) parents are more likely to grow up to engage in same-sex sexual behavior, at least on an experimental basis, or to identify as GLB, than children of heterosexual parents.
This may be related to the evidence that GLB parents are much more flexible about or tolerant of their children adopting a non-heterosexual orientation than are most heterosexual parents. There is some evidence that sexual behavior by heterosexual children of same-sex parents is less traditional (cohabit sooner, more likely to have sex before marriage).
Second, if same-sex parents have long-term stable relationships, their children may do as well in some areas (psychological adjustment, school success), at least as reported by the parent (we have less information in terms of child reports or independent observers). However, same-sex parents (in contrast to same-sex couples, whose relationships may be as stable) appear to have far less stable relationships than heterosexual married, even cohabiting couples. That is, instability may be a problem for children, for both same-sex and heterosexual families. But the risk is greater for the former and their children on average may be disadvantaged.
Third, there is growing evidence that the gender roles of the children of same-sex couples, including adoptive same-sex couples, are more “flexible”. What that means in practice is that among the children of heterosexuals, the most masculine girl scores well below the average score for boys while the most feminine of boys scores well above the average score for girls. Among the children of same-sex parents, it is not uncommon for the most masculine girls to score above the average for boys and for the most feminine of boys to score below the average for girls (ie, much greater overlap of the distributions, which are also closer to each other).
Fourth, there is growing evidence that the children of same-sex couples may be more likely to use or abuse illegal drugs. This may reflect greater such drug usage by homosexuals in general or may reflect less parental training in delayed gratification by same-sex parents. Evidence is mounting that same-sex persons are more likely to have a background of childhood sexual abuse, which might or might not play into how they parent, if they become parents.
Because of selective reporting by most media, it is likely that most readers have never heard of much of this information.
If parents have a DNA relationship to a child, they take better care of the child. (I am referring to research that live-in boyfriends tend to abuse their girlfriend’s children more than do biological fathers.) In the traditional marriage, both parents have a DNA relationship to all of their children. This creates a quandary in that while we want to be supportive of all families and may need to be more supportive of non-DNA families, we really want as a society overall to encourage parenting by stable-relationship parents who are the biological parents of the child.
Who is doing the heavy lifting?
From another angle, we want to reward those in society who do the most difficult “emotional work”. Anyone who has ever tried living with a member of the opposite sex knows that it is emotional work and that it is not always easy.
There are numerous ways in which gender makes for conflict in heterosexual relationships. In terms of happiness in heterosexual relationships, if there are differences, it is most often that the woman is less happy.
It is clear that one result of no-fault divorce has been the feminization of poverty in which women lose much of their socioeconomic status after a divorce, even though they are more often responsible for the care of the children. If we begin to treat same-sex lesbian marriages as the same as heterosexual ones, what are we really telling young women? Go ahead and marry a man because this is good for society (both of you will have a DNA relationship to the child and your relationship will be more stable, which is good for the child) but you will have to accept the risk of a greater likelihood of being unhappy and of being ruined financially if your unhappiness leads to divorce, not to mention all the gender-related or sexuality-related conflicts you will have to endure even if you do not divorce.
But, we will grant the same benefits and respect to other women who bypass all those risks and dangers by hooking up with another woman. Will not this make women who marry men look and feel a bit like fools?
And what about men?
Research is clear that gay men usually feel OK about sex outside a civil union or marriage, often by mutual consent. How often will a heterosexual married man get “mutual” consent from his wife to have an affair? Some recent research with lesbians has found that some of them look forward to marriage precisely because marriage would make having sex outside the marriage easier on the relationship. This is the exact opposite of what occurs for most heterosexual couples. That is, how many heterosexual women look forward to marriage so their husband can start having sex with other women or so they can start having sex with other men?
In other words, one cost of marriage for heterosexuals is sexual restriction, which may involve personal sacrifice. With same-sex marriage, that social norm will decline further in strength, in my estimation.
Thus, heterosexual men and women are doing what society calls for — but we will be punishing them for it. It’s like telling a soldier: we need you to go and fight the enemy face-to-face 24 hours a day and to risk maiming and death. But we, in order to be “fair”, are going to grant the same respect, rank, promotions, or veterans benefits and privileges to soldiers who stayed home and worked only eight hours a day out of air conditioned buildings.
The challenge of proving the “harm”
The evidence, including my own research, suggests that same-sex couples are happier than opposite-sex couples. And why not? Sociology can only capture part of the spectrum of human happiness. If a survey defines it as fewer hassles, less conflict over gender-related issues or sexuality issues, more disposable income and less fretting about children, what would you expect?
But if we grant same-sex couples equality, we will create a grander inequality for the far larger proportion of society who accept the “challenges” (ie, the greater risks and costs) of living heterosexually while providing society with greater benefits in terms of greater stability and care for their own biologically-related children.
If you say “prove the harm”, I say, OK, how would you prove harm if all combat pay and decorations were eliminated in order to be “fair” and to create equality for non-combat soldiers? After all, some soldiers may not feel they were “born for” combat, may not feel attracted to it, may feel unsuited for it, yet they are soldiers. Surely they deserve the same respect, honor, and compensation?
If all benefits were “equalized”, and the military found it more difficult to get volunteers for battle, it could always be blamed on something else. If re-enlistment rates went down, it would be blamed on inadequate retention pay. The military could demand that all soldiers face combat. If the soldiers who were forced into combat against their will didn’t perform well, it could be blamed on bad leadership at the unit level.
I am not sure you could ever prove harm to the satisfaction of those who demanded the elimination of all differential pay and benefits for combat veterans versus non-combat veterans.
Proving the “harm” of same-sex marriage is similar. No matter what you find in the research, it will be denigrated and dismissed by those in favor of same-sex marriage. The reality is that US states are aligned on a sexual freedom continuum that includes a number of matters (sex before marriage, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, acceptance of divorce, etc.) related to the so-called Second Demographic Transition. Trying to separate the effects of same-sex marriage from the entire cluster of changes is like asking which bee of the five that stung you did the most damage. No matter what, the other four bees can almost always be blamed more than the fifth bee.
It is my opinion that for a social system to work optimally, everyone should play by the same rules, with a few exceptions (eg, disabilities). Marriage has traditionally meant sexual fidelity, at least in principle. It has meant two people of different genders working through gender conflicts. It has meant two people committing themselves to each other for a lifetime. It has meant having children that are biologically related to both parents or being supportive of others who have such children. It has meant raising children who are not ashamed of being a boy or a girl.
If we are to begin saying that sexual fidelity is not really all that important, that having children is not all that important, that accepting gender role conflicts is something to bypass if possible, that gender roles are not all that important for children, or that long-term relationship stability is not all that important, we are really saying this: people can pick and choose which rules to play by with the right to reject any rules, restrictions, or limits that they don’t like.
Allowing everyone to make up their own rules may sound like a wonderful freedom, but consider what would happen if football was played with no rules or no referees? What if the Geneva Conventions for warfare were handled that way (it’s up to each soldier to follow or not follow them, with no consequences either way)? What if children could choose what homework assignments to do or not do? Even those who are pro-gay recognize this principle latently when they criticize how some places allow same-sex marriage and others do not (ie, the rules/laws change from place to place and are not the same for everybody).
If folks want the same benefits of marriage, they should be willing to play by the same rules. Research tells us that this is not the case at present and logic suggests it may never be. If the rules do not matter any longer or if everyone can make up their own rules as they go along, the meaning of marriage changes substantially from what it has been traditionally.
Dr Walter Schumm is Professor of Family Studies in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University.