No Abuse Among Children of Lesbians in Long-Running Study

New results from the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), the longest-running and largest study of American lesbian families, has found that among the 78 17-year-old children of lesbian mothers in the study, none report having ever been physically or sexually abused by a parent or other caregiver. This contrasts with 26% of American adolescents who report parent or caregiver physical abuse and 8.3% who report sexual abuse.

The long-term, “longitudinal” study of the same group over many years offers a picture of lesbian families few other studies can match. The NLLFS began interviewing the mothers in 1986, when they were inseminating or pregnant, then again when the children were a year and a half to two years old, five, and ten. They directly questioned the 10-year-olds and the 17-year-olds.

Is the lesson from the new results that no lesbian parents ever abuse their children? Unfortunately, no. Drawing that conclusion would be bad science. The lesson is, however, that rates among the lesbian population are likely to be lower than that of the population as a whole. That’s still good news—but as LGBT family law expert Nancy Polikoff points out, most concerns about sexual abuse by LGBT people are directed at gay men, not lesbians. We still need an in-depth, academic study of gay male parents and their children before we can put those fears to rest.

The study also found that, compared with the general population of teens in the U.S. National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), teens in the NLLFS  were significantly older than their gender-matched peers in the NSFG at the time of their first heterosexual experience. The result that the ultra-right may try to play up, however, is that the NLLFS adolescent girls were more likely than their NSFG peers to have engaged in same-sex activity—about 15 percent versus 5 percent. The NLLFS boys were no more likely to have engaged in same-sex behavior than NSFG boys. As the study authors explain, previous researchers have theorized that adolescents with same-sex parents “may be more comfortable exploring homoerotic attractions than youth who grow up in heterosexual households because of the social environment created by their parents.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, I say. The more children who can grow up comfortable with their own identities, whatever they are, the better. And the NLLFS results don’t seem wildly out of whack with what one might expect if all children could grow up that way.
Another striking finding is that although children of divorced heterosexual parents have been shown to score lower on standardized measures of emotional, academic, social, and behavioral adjustment, no differences in adjustment were found between the 17-year-old NLLFS adolescents whose mothers had separated and those whose mothers were still together. One possible reason? Custody was shared in nearly three-quarters of the NLLFS separated-parent families, even though 65 percent of divorced American heterosexual mothers retain sole physical and legal custody. Studies have shown, the authors say, that “shared childrearing after parental relationship dissolution is associated with more favorable outcomes.”
See? And you thought the lesbian tendency of staying friends with our exes was just a strange cultural phenomenon, like our obsession with hummus and U-Hauls. Turns out it may have some practical use.
The authors note that their study is a non-random sample, and the results should be treated as such—but they also point out that because the study began so long ago, they had no idea how the kids would turn out. There is no bias such as one might find among a sample of families when the parents volunteer because their children are already functioning well.

Last spring, as I wrote here, results came out in the prestigious journal Pediatrics that showed the teens in the study “were rated higher than their peers in social, academic, and overall competence, and lower in aggressive behavior, rule-breaking, and social problems, on standardized assessments of psychological adjustment.” (Readers may also want to look back at my 2008 interview with principal investigator Dr. Nanette Gartrell of the University of California, San Francisco, and a 2010 Williams Distinguished Scholar at the UCLA School of Law. She talked about some of the preliminary results that have since been finalized and published.)

Add these results to the growing number showing our children are developing no better and no worse than any others. And yes, some studies could even be construed to indicate that lesbian parents are “better”—but as I’ve explained before, I think it is a waste of time to ponder the question, “Who makes better parents, LGBT or non-LGBT people”? It sets us up as competitors rather than seeing us as fellow travelers on this grand journey of parenting.

A better question might be, “Where are the strengths of different groups of parents, and what can we learn from each other?” That question, unlike the first, has the potential to benefit our children—and that’s really what it’s all about.