Thoughts on the 0% abuse rate in American lesbian families

November 18 | Guest post by Lynzie Anne
I Heart My Moms
Photo by Danny Hammontree, used with Creative Commons license.

A few days ago, I came across an article boasting this glorious statistic: the Child Abuse Rate is at zero percent in lesbian households.

Why is this not surprising?

The National Lesbian Longitudinal Family Study (NLLFS) has, for the past twenty-four years, conducted the longest-running case study ever on American Lesbian Families. Their findings, announced yesterday via the Williams Institute, a research center out of UCLA Law dedicated to Sexual Orientation and Public Policy, say that among the 78 adolescents of lesbian families polled, none of them report having ever been either physically or sexually abused by either parent or caregiver. This contrasts greatly with the fact that 26 percent of American adolescents report physical abuse and nearly nine percent report sexual abuse.

I am neither lesbian, nor an abusive parent. I am, however, the victim of child abuse. And while I can’t support the following statement with any clinical research, I can say that in my own experience, women tend to be more compassionate and much less angry. Which is funny coming from me, considering the fact that I was abused by my mother. But that is not what this is about.

I have two children, ages 4 and 7. I was married to their father until a little over a year ago, when I could no longer tolerate the anger he brought into the home. His energy was explosive, frightening even to me, and I found over time that I would get angry at the kids before he had a chance to, almost as a way to protect them, knowing that with me the situation would only escalate so far.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: obviously that isn’t a working relationship. And I would agree, hence the dissolution of that relationship. Which brings me to my point: one hundred percent of the lesbian families polled reported no instances of abuse, either physical or sexual, and therefore, one hundred percent of the lesbian families polled are existing in high functioning, cooperative relationships.

I find this of particular interest as the topic of same-sex marriage is so heated, especially in my home state of California. With the notion that homosexual unions directly contradict traditional American family values, I am forced to ask exactly which of these values are being contradicted when over a quarter of American adolescents report abuse?

Regardless of the fact that one is hard pressed these days to define “traditional”, there is still an enormous amount of fear attached to the idea of same-sex marriages. And, with one hundred percent of lesbian households being classified as entirely non-violent, it seems to me the only thing we have to fear are those “traditional” households.

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  1. I am a lesbian, so I suppose I'm biased, but my thoughts on this are: I would imagine the vast majority of children parented by lesbians are very wanted kids. Not that heterosexual couples don't love their unexpected offspring, but lesbians have to be very conscious of getting pregnant or adopting and so every child is a wanted, planned for, hard-won child.

    I know that not ever lesbian relationship is high-functioning and that lesbians definitely can be abusive. I am divorced from a woman who was emotionally abusive, but because reproduction is so difficult for queer families, it seems to me from my anecdotal research among my community that you tend not to go through with having the kids together if things aren't going well. Not that that's true in every instance, but I was delighted to read about this study, because, hey, we need some good press!

    30 agree
    • "…lesbians have to be very conscious of getting pregnant or adopting and so every child is a wanted, planned for, hard-won child."

      I am not a lesbian but I am an adoptive parent and I think you made a very valid point here. There are those who will never believe anything short of a mother and a father will constitute a family, but any couple who has to work harder on the road to parenthood is probably statistically much less likely to abuse their children.

      12 agree
  2. When I first read about that study, my initial reaction was JOY, however – I feel odd about the ZERO percent figure, and I think people need to be careful how they "use" that study.

    Surely there are social workers here who could tell you that there are, in fact, cases of domestic abuse in same-sex households. (I'm not trying to be a downer at all, I'm just saying, let's be real here).

    I think this study needs to be replicated a few times over a broader range of couples. The statistic might not stay at ZERO percent, but if we take this study as representative of the whole, it would appear that there is Much LESS abuse in lesbian households, which is very refreshing to hear.

    It's just that as the data is presented now, I can just hear Fox News saying "WELL I KNOW ONE GAY PERSON WHO WAS ABUSIVE SO THAT STATISTIC IS WRONG AND WE SHOULD COMPLETELY DISCOUNT THE SURVEY." Know what I mean?

    15 agree
    • I agree. Especially since i think the number it said was something like "78 adolescents polled"
      That being said, still an awesome article and an enlightening study

      • I agree. These 78 families didn't report abuse, but to compare that to the 26% of *ALL AMERICAN* families is highly misleading. However, I do agree that people who want kids tend to be less abusive, and by default same-sex couples who have kids have to fight for them.

        • Having 78 participants is low if this was a simple one time survey. However, this was a qualitative study that followed the families over 24 years. To still have 78 youth/young adult participants after 24 years of repeated surveying is a large number for that type of study.

          • They definately do need a larger group for such a study butthe results of this study are still encouraging are will hopefully encourage bigger studies in the near future.

  3. I love this because it proves a point – queer families really can be loving and functional! – but I'm also concerned that it doesn't present an accurate portrayal of domestic violence in the US, which is a problem for both queer and hetero couples. and have some statistics and resources that offer a bit of balance to the study reported here.

    Domestic violence is devastating regardless of where the partners fall on the Kinsey scale or what they look like without their clothes on, but victims in queer relationships face additional challenges when they seek help.

    5 agree
  4. While I can't deny that it's good press, I do wonder about the numbers there. Nothing is ever 0%…

    5 agree
    • 78 adolescents is a TINY sample in social science research. And my guess is that MANY of those kids are part of sibling groups. So this may be a study of only 40-50 households.

      Update: I just read the original study and there were, in fact, 77 households (one with twins), so that second point doesn't apply. However, the sample is not representative as all respondents conceived via IVF (vs. adoption or from previous relationship) and the sample is heavily northeastern and western…. only 9% in the south, and the south is well-known for higher levels of corporal punishment. Just saying!

      7 agree
      • But 77 families over 24 years–I'm amazed they kept the number so large over such a span of time. If they'd included adoption and kids from previous relationships then that would make their sample weaker not stronger/more representative. The subsets would make the group less alike and the researchers would be less able to make conclusive statements. Also, I'm not surprised that the NE & western US is over represented: in the mid-80's where were lesbian couples "easily" able to attain IVF treatment?

  5. I think it's an interesting idea, and that the idea that children parented by lesbian and gay parents are planned and hard-won may play in as a factor, however a sample size of 78 just really isn't big enough to be conclusive.

    4 agree
  6. The idea that reproduction is a very conscious decision for lesbian couples, and, therefore, is less likely to lead to negative environments for children is really interesting. And it brings up a particularly interesting direction for a research study: prior to the 1990s, most children of lesbian couples were conceived within male-female relationships, typically previous marriages that ended when the woman came out as a lesbian. Since then, many more children of lesbian couples are conceived (via IVF) or adopted within the couple (although there are still plenty of children from previous relationships with male partners). The hypothesis that those whose children are "hard-won" could be tested by comparing these two groups of children (those conceived with male partners vs. those conceived through IVF or adopted). If there is no difference, that would suggest that there is something specific to a lesbian relationships or female-run households that leads to low levels of violence. It's interesting!

    2 agree
    • I think that would be very interesting and would love to see a study like that. I would guess, however, that income level would become a secondary component of that test. Poverty and abuse often (but not always) go hand in hand, and "hard won" children often (but not always) require a higher level of income to achieve, whether through in vitro or adoption.

      3 agree
  7. while I'm not surprised that child abuse in this study came back at 0% there are a couple qualifiers that are important before one jumps from this to broad statements about how women are more compassionate or less violent.

    first – these were self reports. the zero percent is zero percent of children reported being abused. Anyone in child welfare research will tell you that self reported rates of abuse and actual rates of abuse are usually different from each other.

    second – more than one study has shown that partner on partner violence in lesbian relationship happens at similar levels as it does in hetero relationships. So it isn't that all lesbian households are violence-free. It does seem like the ones with kids are better at it, though.

    I think this study is awesome, and provides needed validation for how awesome same-sex parents can be. But it needs to be viewed in perspective as well.

    7 agree
    • "…more than one study has shown that partner on partner violence in lesbian relationship happens at similar levels as it does in hetero relationships." From what I understand, the overall picture from studies is that same-sex, committed relationships and families are, wow, just like other families in good and bad. I get a little wary of studies and press that put same-sex families above others. Hooray for good press and putting away any ammo for bigots. However, this seems to me to be another way of saying "these families are different" or "one family style is better than others."

      I also think it is very interesting that women are far more likely to abuse children than men overall, (if anyone is interested I will find those exact numbers) so I wonder how gender differences play out in same-sex couples.

      2 agree
  8. I think that it's interesting how they specify physical and/or sexual abuse, but completely leave out what is probably the most prevalent form of abuse out there- Emotional Abuse.

    4 agree
  9. As most people have already pointed out 78 seems like a really low number of people who have taken part of the study, however, it is a 24 year old study, so I would assume that more people have been apart of the study, and not just the 78.
    I think 0% is unlikely, however, if it's true, than its amazing! Either way its a great message for those who think that homosexuals shouldn't be parents; from this study it looks like they are more fit than anyone.
    I'm not sure if its just because I didn't read the whole article well enough but it would of been nice if it had more information about where the adolescents where from and if they were adopted from lesbian couples, IVF, or if one of the women in the relationship had the child from a previous relationship, etc.
    Also, what about gay parents [two-fathers]? Would it still be zero percent. I know someone on here has said that it made sense because women are more compassionate – would that mean that children of gay parents would get abused more because they have two fathers? It would be interesting to see a research done for gay parents of all sorts and not just lesbians.
    Also, the study was just physical and sexual abuse – however there is also mental and emotional abuse.

    It may be true that children of lesbian parents experience less abuse but I can't see it being at zero percent.

  10. The study is flawed for sure, but as a queer parent, I'm willing to bet that the incidence of abuse is lover in queer-parented households partly b/c of the intentionality necessary to become parents but also because a lot of queer parents are "Super Parents." We know everyone is looking at us and judging us so we overachieve to compensate. Not that *not* being abusive is an over-achievement but increased scrutiny leads queer parents to be more self-reflective and intentional about our parenting.

    By the way, IVF is not the way *most* lesbians get pregnant. That would be IUI. Waaaay less expensive per attempt, though still not cheap.

    4 agree
    • I wonder if that possible overachievement might end up with kids reporting emotional abuse as they become adults?

      That said, I would assume two lesbian parents are just more nurturing. I know that is stereotypical to say about women versus men (I know some non-nurturing women and very nurturing men), but overall, you find that trait more in women. Double that up and you have one nurturing household!

      But yea, it would be cool to have a larger sample size and people reporting on emotional abuse too. I know in the therapy groups I have observed (and participated in lol!) emotional abuse can be much more scarring than physical abuse. It might be harder to quantify though for statistical purposes.

      1 agrees
    • THANK you for clearing that up. It amazes me that people always go straight to IVF when talking about the way lesbians conceive.

      2 agree
      • Hell, you can even bypass the clinic if you can find a friend who is willing to lend you some sperm. (It's not with a turkey baster, but a needleless syringe…)

        • Some women go the known donor route but most queer moms I know have gone with bank donor sperm because of all the legal issues associated with known donors. In most, if not all states, known donors can claim parental rights until after the baby is born when they go to court and formally rescind their parental responsibilities. Because my partner and I wanted to be the sole legal parents of our children, the uncertainty of whether or not a known donor would really want to give up those rights after meeting his progeny was enough to send us straight to the sperm bank.

          We could have tried inseminating at home, which would have been an intracervical insemination (or ICI), if it wasn't a FELONY in Georgia to inseminate oneself. We'd have ignored that law of course had there not been a step in the second parent adoption process for my partner where we had to either produce a known donor to give up his rights OR a letter from our doctor stating that she inseminated me with bank donor sperm. But that's a topic for another day…

  11. I found this really interesting and saddening. "I found over time that I would get angry at the kids before he had a chance to, almost as a way to protect them, knowing that with me the situation would only escalate so far." Growing up in an abusive home, I understand this first hand, and for me this was the worse part of it all. It was like, yeah Dad's really mean, but Mom comes off neurotic trying to make us perfect so He wouldn't get angry at us.
    I've never heard anyone actually address that issue, so thank you for being so honest!
    And just as a note, I love my Mama and her neurosis! ^-^

    2 agree
  12. This study, while it could be considered a pilot study, gels well with that other study that shows that children of lesbian couples come out more well rounded than any other kids. Let me dig it up to make sure I am not paraphrasing that last study's conclusion incorrectly.

  13. I say that after several days of news of horrific child murder cases where I live the statistic of 77 households where there was no violence against children makes my heart warm, whether the parents were hetro, gay, man, woman or martian. If only every child could say the same the world would be a much better place to live.

  14. I'm happy those households reported no abuse, but I can't see how this study was done, which makes me dubious of its usefulness. Part of the zero percent result could be a selection bias, or response bias. They didn't provide the standard error, but I guess news articles don't do that.
    Are they comparing a study of 78 to a national average?

  15. comment on your statement "one hundred percent of the lesbian families polled reported no instances of abuse, either physical or sexual, and therefore, one hundred percent of the lesbian families polled are existing in high functioning, cooperative relationships."
    Just because there is a 0 percent abuse rate does NOT indicate that they are all in high functioning relationships. I'm sure there are plenty of single lesbian moms and divorced lesbian couples who still make great parents.

    2 agree
  16. This was an interesting study to read. I agree with the point that many commenters have made in that it is a very very small sample, which can hardly be truly representative of the larger population, although I think it's interesting that it was over a span of 25 years.

    I find this especially interesting being that my mom, who is a lesbian, is abusive. She was abusive to my sister and I, and was arrested only last month for domestic violence involving a minor. Also, I am a trained Domestic Violence advocate.

    My reason for posting is not to rain on everybody's parade. I merely find it intriguing that we (people who support marriage equality and work in our communities to support queer youth in particular) are in some ways forced to engage in this type of hyper-perfection, where we are subjected to higher standards than the status-quo. Rather than seeing this as a true reflection of this particular population, I see it as a rhetorical strategy in a larger political framework. Statistically, we know for a fact that lesbians do abuse. So what does it say that we are in a position to tout something that isn't representative of that population? I believe that it points out how far we have to go, that we have to engage in this type of rhetorical game. The ultimate goal, in my opinion, would be to have the freedom to promote studies that are reflective of a population without fear of judgment.

    2 agree

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