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Jun 14 2012

Regnerus deconstructed: How a new study misrepresents same-sex parents

A recently published study by sociology professor Mark Regnerus purports to show that children of same-sex parents experience a significant degree of negative outcomes, contrary to numerous earlier studies on LGBT parenting. Most notably, the new study alleges that the children of lesbian mothers are more likely to be on public assistance, more likely to be unemployed, less likely to be employed full-time, more likely to be cohabitating, less likely to be married, more likely to have had an affair, more likely to have had an STI, more likely to have been in therapy recently, more likely to have recently thought about suicide, more likely to have been raped, and more likely to have been molested by an adult.

These findings would certainly be surprising – if they were supported by the evidence. While these results have been widely reported as representative of the parenting skills of same-sex parents, the study itself can tell us almost nothing about this. The shortcomings of its design make this impossible.

The study was conducted by surveying a representative sample of nearly 3,000 young adults aged 18 to 39, who were sorted into 8 categories of family structures: an intact biological family of a married mother and father, lesbian mothers, gay fathers, adoptive families, biological parents who divorced after their children were grown, stepfamilies, single parents, and all other kinds of families.

However, the groups designated as “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” are actually defined by whether one of the respondent’s biological parents ever had a same-sex relationship during the respondent’s childhood. Little information is given about the nature and duration of these relationships, and the set of people whose parents once had any kind of same-sex relationship is not identical to the set of people who were raised in a household with same-sex parents. Same-sex relationships aren’t limited to committed same-sex couples raising children. This definition could also encompass a same-sex affair outside of an opposite-sex marriage, a parent who services clients of the same sex in the course of sex work, or same-sex activity within the context of an open relationship. For the purposes of this study, these situations are all lumped in with committed same-sex partners raising children.

The labels of “lesbian mothers” or “gay fathers” also ignore the fact that having had at least one same-sex relationship does not necessarily make someone gay, any more than one opposite-sex relationship makes someone straight. In an article in Slate Magazine, Regnerus says, “our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior.” But the study says nothing about the nature or extent of that behavior aside from whether it was ever present to the slightest degree, or completely absent as far as the respondents were aware.

What little data the study does provide in this area mostly pertains to the length of time the respondents spent in a household with same-sex partners, which turns out to be… not much. Of the respondents in the so-called “lesbian mothers” group, who numbered 163, only 57% reported living with their biological mother and her same-sex partner for at least 4 months, and 23% lived with them for at least 3 years. In the “gay fathers” group, numbering 73 people, 23% said they lived with their biological father and his same-sex partner for at least 4 months, and less than 2% lived with them for at least 3 years.

There are two flaws in comparing these respondents to those in the “intact biological families” group as a measure of the effects of same-sex parenting. First, this suggests that while the 18 years spent with one’s married heterosexual parents are responsible for these positive outcomes, the mere months that many respondents spent in a household with same-sex parents must be responsible for their negative outcomes. This completely ignores the effects of whatever other family structures they were a part of during the many years that they did not spend with their same-sex parents. And in the case of those who spent no time living with a parent’s same-sex partner, how could any of their outcomes possibly be attributed to same-sex parenting?

Second, Regnerus’ 8 categories of family structures are not mutually exclusive. A respondent with a parent who had at least one same-sex relationship could also have lived with their married biological parents for their entire childhood, or had a stepfamily, an adoptive family, a single parent, or some other kind of family. Regnerus acknowledges this, and states that he “forced their mutual exclusivity” for the sake of “maximizing the sample size” of the “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” groups. Unfortunately, this makes any comparison between the “intact biological families” group and either of the “gay” parent groups practically useless.

Regnerus has filtered the other six groups – biological parents, stepfamilies, adoptive families, later divorced parents, single parents, and all others - so that they consist only of parents who are believed to be exclusively heterosexual. But he’s constructed the two “gay” parent groups so that they consist of a hodgepodge of these family structures. Every other group contains only one type of family. The “gay” parent groups contain potentially all of them.

Regnerus’ treatment of these groups thus fails to separate the possible effects of having a stepfamily, a single parent, divorced parents, married biological parents, or being adopted, from the effects of a parent having at least one same-sex relationship. As a result, the outcomes that he attributes to same-sex parenting could just as well be due to family instability. He isn’t comparing married heterosexual parents whose children lived with them for 18 years to committed same-sex couples whose children lived with them for 18 years. He’s packed the “gay” groups with divorces, remarriages, adoptions and single parenthood, and then compared them to intact heterosexual families. Of course the results would reflect unfavorably on the groups he’s designated as gay. But they don’t tell us anything about the outcomes for children who were raised by committed same-sex parents for a substantial portion of their childhood.

Regnerus himself has admitted to these shortcomings, but claims that there was no way to overcome these limitations. On his blog, he wrote:

One of the key methodological criticisms circulating is that-basically-in a population-based sample, I haven’t really evaluated how the adult children of stably-intact coupled self-identified lesbians have fared. [...] And I’m telling you that it cannot be feasibly accomplished. It is a methodological (practical) impossibility at present, for reasons I describe: they really didn’t exist in numbers that could be amply obtained *randomly*. It may well be a flaw-a limitation, I think-but it is unavoidable. We maxxed Knowledge Networks’ ability, and no firm is positioned to do better. It would have cost untold millions of dollars, and still may not generate the number of cases needed for statistical analyses.

Considering how many inaccurate stories about same-sex parents have been published because of what his study falsely claims to show, this is an especially weak excuse. If the data aren’t there, then the data just aren’t there. This doesn’t mean you can misrepresent committed same-sex parents by grouping them with all kinds of disrupted families and different living situations. It means your study simply isn’t capable of examining the competence of same-sex parents. And Regnerus should have admitted that in the first place.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    Lonely Panda, e.s.l.

    In the “gay fathers” group, numbering 73 people, 23% said they lived with their biological father and his same-sex partner for at least 4 months, and less than 2% lived with them for at least 3 years.

    It’s a bit obscured by the use of percentages, but less than 2% of 73 would imply exactly 1 person (under the assumption 0 people would be reported as 0% of 73). To me, this particularly underscores how useless this study is to saying anything meaningful about long-term same-sex parenting.

  2. 2
    msm16

    He should be ashamed of publish such a study. As an educated individual he should have realized at this time his goal was unattainable and moved on. Instead he has published a half baked and useless study that will be fodder for bigotry for years.

    Instead of increasing the collective knowledge of humanity though this study he has DECREASED it. Quite frankly, for an intellectual, it is embarrassing.

  3. 3
    hall-of-rage

    Wow. Very comprehensive, and I may need that in future conversations; thank you.

    In case anyone is interested, I just read another useful take on this earlier today. I guess it must be really going around, then, since I don’t read that many blogs.

  4. 4
    Paul Durrant

    He also doesn’t give any data on the average age of the groups he’s sorted people into. For many of the measures, this could also affect the results.

    Really, the problems with this study make it completely useless. Except for the bigots.

  5. 5
    roggg

    This is an excellent analysis, and shows very clearly how a lack of controls in a badly designed experiment invalidates the conclusions.

  6. 6
    James Sweet

    Very nice depiction with the various colored boxes there; the problem was immediately apparent to me upon your description of the categories, but I would have had trouble explaining it to someone who was less familiar with this type of reasoning. The diagram is fantastic.

    Regnerus says, “our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior.”

    If they really wanted to study this, they could have, by breaking the gay fathers/mothers groups down into subgroups corresponding to the type of relationship they are in now. For instance, you could compared fathers in a heterosexual marriage who had never had a homosexual experience to fathers in a heterosexual marriage who had. (Of course, even then you run a risk of artificially selecting for fathers who have had an affair, for what I’m sure are obvious reasons, but that could be controlled for if the researchers really wanted to study that)

    It’s plainly obvious Regnerus has an agenda here. What a dick.

  7. 7
    Alyson Miers

    So, basically, he had no study because he couldn’t find the people, but he’s going to share his “results” anyway. What a dishonest piece of work.

  8. 8
    Eclectic

    The study design really seems to be predicated on the assumption that homosexuality is some sort of contagious disease, or demonic posession, or something.

    All the straights get reasonably classified, but if there’s any hint of Teh Gay anywhere: ring the bell, leper! Unclean! Unclean!

  9. 9
    thztds

    When I read about this I expected the author to be at Liberty University or some similar school. Instead he’s at UT Austin, which generally has a rather good reputation. I think the Sociology department there should issue a statement rejecting his conclusions on this paper in an attempt to salvage their name. Honestly, the methodology in this study is so poor, that in my opinion it borders on academic fraud.

  10. 10
    Timberwoof

    On what basis does he make the claim that if a guy sucks cock just one time, he’s gay?

    This business of trying to maximize the samples in the “gay” group by including practically anyone makes it seem as though he’s trying awfully hard to be mistaken for an idiot.

  11. 11
    The Lorax

    Excellent review.

    I was honestly shocked when I read that he “forced their mutual exclusivity” for the sake of “maximizing the sample size”. I mean, isn’t that tacitly admitting that the experiment was not double-blind? Also, it seems the point of this study was to show the lack of capability of homosexual parents; well, does he ever define “parent”? Because I’d like to think a “parent” is someone who raises a child for more than three years; and by that extremely loose criteria alone, he had less than 40 people in a sample size of 3,000.

    My mother was married to a drunkard for 8 years, most of which was when I was younger than 18; he taught me nothing, I gained nothing from him. He was not my “parent” by any meaningful measure, so how could a homosexual couple be “parents” for a mere 4 months? Even just 3 years?

    If anything, let us consider what is really going on here: over 200 people in this study are admitting that one or both of their parents have had a relationship lasting less than 3 years, and that they were technically raised by those two individuals. Haven’t studies shown, time and again, that children raised by parents in unstable relationships develop worse than parents in stable relationships? And, if anything, doesn’t that mean that homosexual couples should be tolerated, legally and socially, for the sake of the children? Doesn’t this study present data which completely disagrees with the conclusion?!

    This study is simply disgusting, and everyone involved should be ashamed of it.

    1. 11.1
      hall-of-rage

      You gotta feel for the guy. It’s really HARD to prove that gay people are bad! What’s a little cheating here and there for the cause?

      (in case it’s not obvious, this comment is entirely facetious; but I really do get the idea that this is the feeling he wants, from the tone in which he wrote his excuses.)

      1. The Lorax

        Don’t worry, we get an awful lot of snark on this blog. It’s hard to avoid; some arguments for some things are just so hilariously stupid, it would hurt too much to respond with a facepalm, and you know they won’t listen to reason.

        Snark is the only way to vent that frustration.

        Vent away, my friend~

  12. 12
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    IOW, he’ got nuthin’. Wasn’t there another study recently, of decent design, which showed the exact opposite?

  13. 13
    baal

    Mark Regnerus having gotten the +1 to his publication count should now go publish the retraction for another +1.

  14. 14
    LordOberon

    Excellent review/write-up of the “study”. Of course this study is absolute garbage to anyone who looks through it with a skeptical eye. However, its been on many of the faux-news sites and reported as an absolute fact. I think there needs to be billboards and advertise across the country explaining to people that just because its in a “study” it is not automatically true. Also, the they should consider the source of the study and its purpose.

    Of course that is me with my rose colored contacts on for thinking most people are looking for the truth and not just for things that prove what their religion says is true.

    1. 14.1
      YOB - Ye Olde Blacksmith is a Spocktopus cuddler

      Of course that is me with my rose colored contacts on for thinking most people are looking for the truth and not just for things that prove what their religion says is true.

      Well, there’s your problem.

  15. 15
    thomwatson

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the right is correct in their assumptions that this study proves that same-sex parents provide a sub-optimal environment for raising kids (they don’t, but for the sake of argument…)….. so what? We know that the other groups he studied — divorced households, stepfamilies, single parents, etc., also provide a sub-optimal environment for raising kids. But we don’t prohibit people with kids from divorcing or from remarrying and blending their families, we don’t (in most states) prevent single people from adopting, we don’t prevent people from having children out of wedlock, we don’t make it illegal for deadbeat dads to remarry and have more children they won’t support, or for prisoners on death row to marry. We don’t require any other group of people forming families to justify their right to marry, adopt, or have and raise children. There’s no “fitness” test for anyone else. Yet we gay Americans are supposed to be denied access to adoption and to marriage, according to the people who have lapped up Regenerus’ supposed result showing that we’re just not as “fit” for childraising or marrying. Equality isn’t something that some people “deserve” and others don’t because of some subjective measure of fitness; we’re all supposed to be guaranteed equality.

  16. 16
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Well, first he’d have to explain to me why “co-habitating and unmarried” are negative outcomes…
    Shows the agenda right there.

    1. 16.1
      The Lorax

      My mom married two guys; one was jealous and controlling, the other was an immature drunk. She’s now living with a third guy, in a stable relationship, and she has no plans to marry him. The third guy, incidentally, married two women who used him, took drugs, and then dumped him.

      Four failed marriages and one successful co-habitation. I punch those numbers into my calculator and they make a happy face.

    2. 16.2
      Jadehawk

      dude is probably still relying on those 1980′s studies that show that cohabitation correlates with higher rates of divorce later on

      1. John Horstman

        The presumption being that marriage is somehow intrinsically good – cohabitation only has a ‘negative’ outcome in that case if one views not being married as a negative.

  17. 17
    John Horstman

    If the data aren’t there, then the data just aren’t there. This doesn’t mean you can misrepresent committed same-sex parents by grouping them with all kinds of disrupted families and different living situations. It means your study simply isn’t capable of examining the competence of same-sex parents. And Regnerus should have admitted that in the first place.

    This is what a responsible scientist interested in evidence-based results and minimizing research biases would do.

    Regnerus is also conflating sampling bias and studying the experimental population you purport to be studying. If you think you’re going to find differences in same-sex parenting, you’re already assuming same-sex parents aren’t like the population at large. The concern over a biased sample cannot be anything other than disingenuous when one is already expecting the sample to be somehow biased. Looking for correlations of other social factors with same-sex parenting is exactly what the study purports to be doing. Most of your possible samples of stable same-sex parents are e.g. upper-middle-income White people? That’s a feature, not a bug. That itself is a finding of your study.

    If the only variable you want to change is the sexes of the parents, you start with a random sampling within the group ‘stable same-sex-parent families’, then filter your much larger ‘stable different-sex-parent families’ sample population so that your subjects match on other demographic features (income, geography, race/ethnicity, religious affiliation, etc.), AND YOU NOTE THE SAMPLING PROBLEMS THAT LED YOU TO THAT PARTICULAR METHODOLOGY, acknowledging the fact that the results are only generalizable to the populations sampled. This is standard practice in this sort of social science research for those who aren’t intentionally misconstructing data for the sake of either confirming an ideological position irrespective of the actual data or chasing grant money at the expense of actual science. Regnerus’s sampling methodology makes sense if one isn’t specifically looking at sex-of-parents as the independent variable, but in that case, with so few actual data points, one should simply state that the findings were that there were not many stable same-sex-parent families and that the sample of them was too small to draw significant results of any other kind. The institution(s) that granted Regnerus’s degree(s) need to have its/their program accreditation(s) reviewed…

  1. 18
    Heritage Foundation baffled by criticism of flawed “same-sex parenting” study | Zinnia Jones

    [...] homophobic right-wing seems genuinely taken aback at how poorly received their precious Regnerus study has been. Clearly, being widely and loudly called out on shoddy science with a hateful agenda [...]

  2. 19
    Catholic bishop pulls a “think of the children” | Zinnia Jones

    [...] Agency, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of the Oakland Diocese cited the flawed and widely criticized Regnerus study as evidence that “Children do best with a mother and a father.” Not content with [...]

  3. 20
    Well, isn’t that embarrassing | Zinnia Jones

    [...] days ago, an op-ed in support of the fatally flawed Regnerus “gay parenting” study appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Breathlessly describing the response to the [...]

  4. 21
    After Regnerus debacle, where are the apologies? | Zinnia Jones

    [...] in social science – I certainly don’t. But the mistakes of the Regnerus study are easily understandable by the layperson, and those in the media whose job it is to report on this have an obligation to [...]

  5. 22
    Gay Parenting: After The Regnerus Debacle, Where Are The Apologies? | The New Civil Rights Movement

    [...] an education in social science – I certainly don’t. But the mistakes of the Regnerus study are easily understandable by the layperson, and those in the media whose job it is to report on this have an obligation to [...]

  6. 23
    Further confirmation that Mark Regnerus is an asshole | Zinnia Jones

    [...] Mark Regnerus didn’t just misrepresent his flawed study as being about same-sex parents when barely any same-sex couples were present in his sample. He [...]

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