Does Maltreatment in Childhood Affect Sexual Orientation in Adulthood?

Abstract

Epidemiological studies find a positive association between physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and witnessing violence in childhood and same-sex sexuality in adulthood, but studies directly assessing the association between these diverse types of maltreatment and sexuality cannot disentangle the causal direction because the sequencing of maltreatment and emerging sexuality is difficult to ascertain. Nascent same-sex orientation may increase risk of maltreatment; alternatively, maltreatment may shape sexual orientation. Our study used instrumental variable models based on family characteristics that predict maltreatment but are not plausibly influenced by sexual orientation (e.g., having a stepparent) as natural experiments to investigate whether maltreatment might increase the likelihood of same-sex sexuality in a nationally representative sample (n = 34,653). In instrumental variable models, history of sexual abuse predicted increased prevalence of same-sex attraction by 2.0 percentage points [95 % confidence interval (CI) = 1.4–2.5], any same-sex partners by 1.4 percentage points (95 % CI = 1.0–1.9), and same-sex identity by 0.7 percentage points (95 % CI = 0.4–0.9). Effects of sexual abuse on men’s sexual orientation were substantially larger than on women’s. Effects of non-sexual maltreatment were significant only for men and women’s sexual identity and women’s same-sex partners. While point estimates suggest much of the association between maltreatment and sexual orientation may be due to the effects of maltreatment on sexual orientation, confidence intervals were wide. Our results suggest that causal relationships driving the association between sexual orientation and childhood abuse may be bidirectional, may differ by type of abuse, and may differ by sex. Better understanding of this potentially complex causal structure is critical to developing targeted strategies to reduce sexual orientation disparities in exposure to abuse.

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Acknowledgments

Dr. Roberts is supported by the Harvard Training Program in Psychiatric Genetics and Translational Research (T32MH017119). Dr. Glymour is supported by the NIH (NIA 1R21 AG34385-01A1; 1R21AG037889-01), NIMH (1RC4MH092707-01), and NICHD (1R21HD066312-01), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program, the MacArthur Foundation Network on SES and Health, the Milton Fund for Harvard University Junior Faculty, and the American Heart Association (10SDG2640242). Dr. Koenen is supported by NIH (MH078928, DA022720, and MH086309) and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Correspondence to Andrea L. Roberts.

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Roberts, A.L., Glymour, M.M. & Koenen, K.C. Does Maltreatment in Childhood Affect Sexual Orientation in Adulthood?. Arch Sex Behav 42, 161–171 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-0021-9

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Keywords

  • Sexual behavior
  • Child abuse
  • Homosexuality
  • Instrumental variable models
  • Sexual orientation