On "Hate Groups" and the SPLC

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has a proud enough history that its current misbehavior needs to be condemned with some care. Even today, it still does good work a fair part of the time: for example, it was the SPLC that had tracked the White Supremacist who ended up attacking the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. When we see them doing something overboard, then, we want to condemn them just that far: not the whole organization or its mission, but just their particular overreach.

I mean, of course, their insistence on painting groups like the Family Research Council as "hate groups" because of opposition to what is sometimes called the gay rights movement. I am linking to the SPLC's latest statement justifying the practice, not to their critics, so as to examine it.
As the SPLC made clear at the time and in hundreds of subsequent statements and press interviews, we criticize the FRC for claiming, in Perkins’ words, that pedophilia is “a homosexual problem” — an utter falsehood, as every relevant scientific authority has stated. An FRC official has said he wanted to “export homosexuals from the United States.” The same official advocated the criminalizing of homosexuality.
Criminalizing homosexuality is off the table thanks to Lawrence v. Texas, but remember that was only decided in 2003. The SCOTUS had as recently as 1986 upheld similar statutes, which means that applying the SPLC's standard of outrage suggests that the United States Federal government was a 'hate group' within the lifetimes of most Americans. The Supreme Court certainly was one in 1986, was it not? And thirteen states met this radical standard in 2003 -- as did the United States military until last year.

Are these all hate groups? The military as recently as last year?

The other justification is apparently the FRC's research paper, a thorough critique of which has been published on the UC Davis website. Let's look at some of the criticisms of the FRC paper, one at a time.
Freund et al. (1989). Heterosexuality, homosexuality, and erotic age preference. Journal of Sex Research, 26, 107-117.

This article is discussed above in the "Other Approaches" section. As the FRC concedes, it contradicts their argument.
Well, conceding that opposing research exists is a good sign, right? That's appropriate.

The next objection is the longest, so let's look at it in full.
Silverthorne & Quinsey. (2000). Sexual partner age preferences of homosexual and heterosexual men and women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 29, 67-76.
The FRC cites this study to challenge the Freund et al. data (see the previous paper above). However, the methodologies were quite different. Freund and his colleagues used a sample that included sex offenders and they assessed sexual arousal with a physiological measure similar to that described below for the 1988 Marshall et al. study. Silverthorne and Quinsey used a sample of community volunteers who were asked to view pictures of human faces and use a 7-point scale to rate their sexual attractiveness. The apparent ages of the people portrayed in the pictures was originally estimated by Dr. Silverthorne to range from 15 to 50. However, a group of independent raters perceived the male faces to range in age from 18 to 58, and the female faces to range from 19 to 60.

The article doesn't report the data in great detail (e.g., average ratings are depicted only in a graphic; the actual numbers aren't reported) and the authors provide contradictory information about the rating scale (they describe it as a 7-point scale but also say it ranged from 0 to 7, which constitutes an 8-point scale). In either case, it appears that none of the pictures was rated as "very sexually attractive" (a rating of 7). Rather, the highest average ratings were approximately 5.

On average, gay men rated the 18-year old male faces the most attractive (average rating = about 5), with attractiveness ratings declining steadily for older faces. They rated the 58-year old male faces 2, on average. By contrast, heterosexual men rated the 25-year old female faces the most attractive (about 5), with the 18- and 28-year old female faces rated lower (between 2 and 3) and the 60-year old female faces rated the least attractive (about 1).

A serious problem with this study is that the researchers didn't control for the possibility that some of the faces pictured in the photos might simply have been more or less physically attractive than the others, independent of their age or gender. The researchers explicitly acknowledged this shortcoming, speculating that the women's faces in the 25-year old group might have been more attractive than women's faces in the other age groups. But they didn't address the possibility that the attractiveness of the male and female faces may not have been comparable.

This issue could have been addressed in various ways. For example, prior to collecting data, the researchers could have started with a large number of photographs and asked a group of independent raters to evaluate the general physical attractiveness of the face in each photo; these ratings could have been used to select photos for the experiment that were equivalent in attractiveness. Getting independent ratings of experimental stimuli in this way is a common procedure in social psychological research.

Thus, even if one accepts the questionable assumption that this study is relevant, it doesn't support the FRC's contention that gay men are more likely than heterosexual men to be child molesters for several reasons:

the researchers failed to control for the varying attractiveness of the different photos;
all of the faces portrayed in the photos were perceived to be at least 18; and
the study merely assessed judgments of sexual attractiveness rather than the research participants' sexual arousal.
The problems in comparing cases with very different methodologies are real enough, although it's worth noting that there is a general problem about causal arguments here. Even in the strongest cases, empiricists often resist causal arguments: for example, A. J. Ayer criticizes 'water boils at 100 degrees centigrade' as a law of nature because it doesn't hold at higher altitudes. He argues that ultimately every statement we make of the type 'such-and-such is a law of nature' is merely a statement of our attitudes about things, rather than a correct formulation of anything like an actual law.

To some degree, then, we have little choice but to concede that it is possible to raise methodological objections of this type; and we should take note of them. But it isn't clear that there is a level of similarity that would satisfy, especially once we move away from boiling water and into the realm of human experience. We can reject the comparison, but it isn't clear why we don't reject the rest of the associated discipline. Every study in psychology is rife with objections of this type, and every academic comparison of two studies in psychology employing different methodologies would need to be set aside by this standard. It's not clear that standard of rigor prevails in the academy, to say the least that might be said. To say a little more than that, it's clear that the UC Davis paper does not apply the same level of critical rigor to the study with which it agrees.
Blanchard et al. (2000). Fraternal birth order and sexual orientation in pedophiles. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 29, 463-478.

This study categorized convicted sex offenders according to whether they molested or reported sexual attraction to boys only, girls only, or both boys and girls. These groups were labeled, respectively, homosexual pedophiles, heterosexual pedophiles, and bisexual pedophiles. This classification referred to their attractions to children. Adult sexual orientation (or even whether the men had an adult sexual orientation) wasn't assessed.
Here the objection is formal, and it's one that I find bothersome. The question the FRC is interested in is whether homosexual males are more likely to prey on boys than non-homosexual males. The psychological community would like to define homosexuality exclusively in terms of attraction to adults. (This is made explicit on the UC Davis page: "The distinction between a victim's gender and a perpetrator's sexual orientation is important because many child molesters don't really have an adult sexual orientation. They have never developed the capacity for mature sexual relationships with other adults, either men or women. Instead, their sexual attractions focus on children – boys, girls, or children of both sexes.")

This strikes me as the core of the question of whether the FRC's study is right or wrong. I am sure that the FRC is thinking that the term "homosexual" includes "men who are sexually attracted to boys" as well as "adult men." Those who are on the other side of the debate what to carefully separate the two groups (although there will be some overlap among the relatively few men who are sexually attracted to boys and also adult men).

In other words, whether the FRC is a 'hate group' spreading lies, or a mainstream organization with a social science study that backs up its claim, really comes down to the definition of the phrase "homosexual male." If we give the FRC the right to define its own terms, their evidence is not easy to dismiss; if we insist on the right to define the terms for them, their study does not hold.

That may be an interesting point, but it's pretty clearly not adequate to establish that the FRC is a hate group, or that it is spreading falsehoods. The strongest claim justified here is that you disagree, for reasons you think valid, with their definitions.

The next footnote also relies on this point, so we will skip it. The footnote following that also relies on the same point, but in an interesting way:

"...the authors were discussing published papers that used a classification system focusing entirely on the sex of victims (not whether the perpetrator is straight or gay)."

Again, this is really a question of definition. If intentionally seeking out opportunities to have sex with boys is evidence of a man's homosexuality, then the FRC is right. If it is irrelevant to the question of homosexuality, they might be wrong.

It strikes me, though, that probably the average American would accept the FRC's standard here. It's not obvious that a man who seeks opportunities to have sex with boys is free of homosexual desire, just because he doesn't feel the same way about adult men.

Of the two remaining footnotes, one excludes the evidence of a work on the grounds that it was a work of journalism and not science; OK, that's fair enough. The other one, though, has this:
Erickson et al. (1988). Behavior patterns of child molesters. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 17, 77-86.

This study was based on a retrospective review of the medical records of male sex offenders admitted to the Minnesota Security Hospital between 1975 and 1984. Apparently, 70% of the men abused girls, 26% abused boys, and 4% abused children of both sexes. (The paper is unclear in that it doesn't explain how perpetrators with multiple victims were counted.) The paper asserts in passing that "Eighty-six percent of offenders against males described themselves as homosexual or bisexual" (p. 83). However, no details are provided about how this information was ascertained, making it difficult to interpret. Nor did the authors report the number of homosexual versus bisexual offenders, a distinction that the Groth and Birnbaum study (described above) indicates is relevant.
Eighty six percent is a pretty striking figure; the objection to it is methodological, but how serious does the methodological error have to be to exclude a percentage approaching nine in ten from being considered as evidence of correlation? In order to discredit the FRC's thesis here, you have to set aside the claim as evidence entirely. That's an admirably rigorous standard, provided that it's evenly applied; but it's not really evidence that the FRC is engaged in knowingly spreading falsehoods. What it is spreading is an actual study whose methodology may be questioned.

In other words, all the evidence that the FRC is a 'hate group' comes down to formal objections to either methodology or study definitions. I have here cited none of the FRC's defenders, nor the FRC itself, but only the SPLC and UC Davis. I also think it shows that the FRC's position is largely defensible if we understand them to think that "homosexual" as a term expressly includes men who sexually prey on boys. That's probably a viable plain-language reading of the term. The academic insistence that it is an unreasonable slander on homosexuals is well-intentioned, but it should surely be fought on other grounds than by labeling anyone who adopts the plain-language standard as hateful.

For example, there are good grounds to make the exclusion from pragmatism. The purpose of the inquiry is to protect children from predators; that may be easier to do if we can break out the larger, FRC-style category into two smaller categories only one of which is problematic. If we can more precisely target the dangerous group, we can more precisely exclude them while also giving greater liberty to a group that isn't actually dangerous to children.

You can make a moral argument here as well, as to the rights of the non-dangerous group to be free from slander. I think that's the argument driving the SPLC's desire to issue labels of 'hate,' but it's gotten there much too early. We don't really even have a good plain-language term for the group they want us to see as separate from 'homosexuality.' That strikes me as evidence that the person who makes the FRC-type argument is probably doing it honestly, and defensibly given the set of categories they understand to apply. Until you have persuaded most people that these categories don't apply -- which will be in evidence once there is another commonly-used word that denotes only the one category and not the other -- it's too soon to be waving the bloody flag of "hate group" wherever you find your opponents.


Texan99 said...

If you're in doubt about what constitutes a hate group, that's because you're mired in the past, when the definition involved some kind of active incitement to so violence to members of a group. Now it just means a group that disapproves of something you approve of. So, yes, of course, the Armed Services qualify.

Grim said...

"Mired in the past." I'd prefer a different phrasing, but I suppose I must admit to being possessed of that quality to some degree. (Some of you might prefer to say that I was possessed by it, but that would just be being unnecessarily mean to your host.)

The problem is that I really do respect a lot of what the SPLC does. I'm not sure how much I agree with the FRC's opinions, either. But clearly the SPLC is wrong here; the FRC may also be wrong, but the UC Davis paper doesn't make it clear that they're wrong. It makes it clear that they (UC Davis) have some reservations about methodology -- some of which are quite respectable -- and a serious dispute about the definition of terms.

But if the FRC is allowed to define their own terms, what they're saying is a simple tautology. If it is a mark of 'homosexuality' that a male is attracted to boys, then of course most male child molesters of boys would be either homosexual or bisexual. You don't even need a study to prove that; it's analytic in the philosophical sense of the term, i.e., the conclusion is contained within the definition.

Texan99 said...

Although I think it's far from a "hate group" issue, I do agree that pedophilia is not a homosexual problem. It's not a mark of homosexuality that men are sexually attracted to little boys any more than it's a mark of heterosexuality that men are sexually attracted to little girls. That's an equal-opportunity perversion. The problem is not the inappropriate gender of the object of desire, but his or her extreme youth.

Grim said...

I don't have a problem with that idea. It's just not obvious from the meaning of the terms 'homosexuality' or 'heterosexuality.' If you want to make the distinction -- especially given that there is some overlap -- you need to take the trouble to make the argument at length. If the general society accepts it, then someday it may be proper to write off those who refuse the argument as standing by some sort of primordial hate.

But as long as we don't even have a good word for 'homosexual, but only as pertains to boys,' we aren't quite there yet. 'Pederast' is such a term, but I don't remember seeing it in use in anything written since the 1800s. Before we start painting dissidents as hate groups, I'd like to see us get to some common agreement on how we sort this out.

E Hines said...

'Pederast' is such a term, but I don't remember seeing it in use in anything written since the 1800s.

Allow me to enlighten you, Sir: here is a current use of the term in close conjunction with the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D, NV). Of course it's tongue in cheek and in response to Reid's own charge that Mitt Romney is a serial tax...non-payer...and to Reid's (and Axelrod's) own theory that they only have to make the allegations; it's on their targets to prove the allegations false.

Closer to the original topic, I'm not sure we're ready to apply a name to the condition; we don't have a clear articulation of what the condition is. While there are clear situations that can be legitimately termed hetero- or homosexual conditions, I think the grey area between is too broad for an identifying term, beyond purely clinical--and clinicians have broad areas of disagreement among them in this area, too.

That's a general failing with naming something--the names are summaries, and summaries, by their nature, are lossy condensations.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

The definition of pederasty is men who have sexual relations with young boys, so by definition it is a (perverted) subset of homosexuality. Pedophilia is a more general term, referring to an adult's inappropriate sexual orientation toward children, whether or not of the opposite sex. Pederasty is therefore a problem that presents itself only with homosexual men, though it does not afflict most homosexual men. Pedophilia a problem that potentially can arise with any sexually active adult, though again it does not afflict most adults, homo- or hetero-. Roman Polanski is a pedophile but not, as far as I know, a pederast.

To say that pederasty is a problem with homosexuals is somewhat like saying that white supremacy is a problem with white people, or testicular cancer is a problem with men -- true in a limited way, but misleading. (Though certainly not a hate crime.)

I must be old-fashioned. I thought "pederasty" was still in general use!

Tom said...

Whether or not homosexuality and pedophilia are linked is an important issue. I'm afraid, though, that I have little faith in the research on it.

The sociologists and psychologists likely to have done such research are also likely to be deeply biased on the topic. In addition, if a study was done that suggested there was a strong correlation, I doubt it could get past peer review or the journal editors.

If we look back at historical cultures that embraced male homosexuality, pederasty was always a significant part of the culture. We see this in ancient Greece as well as medieval and early modern Japan.

I'm not saying the two are linked in any significant way, but history can be suggestive, and the current state of social science research isn't friendly to results the left doesn't like.

Texan99 said...

It's true that where you find homosexuality you'll find pederasty, but it's also true that where you find sexuality you'll find pedophilia. For whatever reason, there will always be some people whose sexual preference lands on very young members of the sex they happen to favor. Or, at least, that appears to be true of men. It's pretty uncommon for grown women to prey on guys younger than, say, 16, and I've never heard of lesbians abusing very young girls at all. The power trip seems less eroticized for most women, I guess.

I agree that anyone who came up with solid data for same-sex pedophilia being more common than opposite-sex pedophilia would have a heck of a time getting published. It's such a hot-button issue that I'd look at evidence on either side of that debate with great skepticism until it was repeated often and by multiple groups without evident axes to grind. It's a field rife with confirmation bias.

I do wonder if homosexual men, having had already to transgress important social conventions, are more likely to lose their way and transgress others -- reasoning, perhaps, that their guilty consciences are not a reliable guide in sexual matters, and are instead an unfair condition foisted on them by a benighted society. Could that be how we get spectacles like the Man-Boy Love Association?

Grim said...

Well, bias in the researchers is a problem, yes. It's not just the FRC that has chosen a definition that makes their proposition analytic and tautological: so have the psychologists that UC Davis describes as "mainstream."

If 'homosexuality' and 'heterosexuality' only point to sexual desire for adults, and not children, then it is merely analytic to say that the question of pedophilia is not related to the question of adult sexual orientation. This is what Tex is saying; but the thing is, here we're just as much dealing with a "by definition" issue as we were with the FRC.

I think you have a point about ancient cultures, though I'd take it a little farther. It does seem to be the case that pederasty in ancient Greece, Medieval Islamic Spain, and Japan were learned behaviors (i.e., they were inculturated). It seems to be true that contemporary American pederasts likewise were inculcated: unlike other kinds of homosexuals (if this is correctly described as a 'kind of' homosexual, which is really the point of the debate) this sort is usually associated with having been similarly sexually abused as a child.

That suggests to me that the FRC is wrong in terms of how to structure the definition -- there really do seem to be two different things going on between pederasts and homosexuals attracted to adults of the same sex. The one seems to be related to having been a subject of such a relationship as a youth; the other seems to be in-born. That difference in causality suggests we aren't really talking about a single phenomenon.

Texan99 said...

I'm not saying that "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" only point to sexual desire for adults, and not children. Both terms are neutral on the question of whether an adult inappropriately desires children for sexual partners. A rather small minority of all adults suffer from that inappropriate urge, and I'm not aware of any data that show the percentage who do suffer from it is higher for homosexuals than for heterosexuals.

The only definitional point I've made is that pederasty is defined as pedophilia in the homosexual context. Pedophilia is the more general term, and can afflict both homo- and heterosexuals.

Grim said...

The only definitional point I've made is that pederasty is defined as pedophilia in the homosexual context.

That's a third position, then. UC Davis says that pederasty has nothing to do with the homosexual context, because 'homosexual' points only to adult-to-adult desires. FRC would agree with you that it's within the homosexual context, but appears to believe that homosexual males are at special risk for attraction to young adults and children.

Texan99 said...

UC Davis's position is just making up new meanings for words for political purposes. As for the FRC's position, do you know whether they have any evidence for it? There's a strong temptation to ascribe additional crimes (or at least a criminal tendency) to people of whom we disapprove for other reasons. It couldn't be less true of any of the gays I know -- unless by young adults FRC means people in their late teens or early 20s, in which case it's a net that would catch a very large percentage of all men, gay and straight.

Grim said...

I think the paper that UC Davis is objecting to is FRC's attempt to provide evidence of the type you're asking for. You can evaluate the quality of it independently; it is located here.

Grim said...

I mean "independently" in the sense of comparing your thoughts to the UC Davis critique already linked. I don't mean to provide it uncritically.

Texan99 said...

Blech. That was kind of a depressing way to spend the morning: reading the FRC and UC Davis pieces, and trying to find some other sources, including the reliably PC Wikipedia entry on the subject. Here's my verdict: the FRC article presents a pretty good argument that, among the very, very small percentage of men who abuse children, homosexuals are over-represented in relation to their occurrence in the population. Probably something like 3% of all men are homosexual, but something like 1/3 of child molestations are male-male. (Women figure so minutely in this picture that I'm just leaving them out.) The UC Davis article turns backflips trying not to acknowledge this pattern, especially by trying to argue that there is a bright line between the population that has a stable adult sexual orientation and the population that molests children -- but its effort is not persuasive.

On the other hand, a very small percentage of adults engages in child-molestation. Wiki suggests that the incidence of even a passive sexual arousal by children afflicts only about 5% of men, and the incidence of overt acts against children obviously is much smaller than that. Addressing a pathologyin such a tiny sliver of the population, it's easy to over-emphasize the impact of the offenders' membership in a broad category of humanity and attribute causation to that membership. I'd like to see more careful statistical work on correlations. Wikipedia has links to all kinds of studies about things like left-handedness, history of head injuries, low IQ, and even adult height of the offender that researchers have claimed are predictive of adult behavior as child molesters. (Predictably, it doesn't even mention any studies about possible links to homosexuality -- I'm sure any attempts to link research of that type would be relentlessly edited out.) There is no information about whether one or more of these categories has greater or lesser correlation than any of the others.

A common estimate is that about 10% of people are left-handed. Apparently more than 1/9 of child molesters are left-handed, which argues that it is dangerous to leave children alone with southpaws. But I don't think we'd react the same way to the suggestion as we do to the idea that homosexuals are unusually dangerous to children. Someone would rightly point out that the data are fragmentary, the causation is not well understood, and the vast majority of left-handers obviously are not pedophiles. In other words, I think the strong emotional response to homosexuality is clouding the issue (on both sides of the debate).

Still, it disturbs my previous assumptions to see that homosexuals (or as the UC Davis PC types would prefer to say, "male-male offenders") are significantly overrepresented among child molesters. It's certainly something to consider.

Grim said...

The UC Davis article turns backflips trying not to acknowledge this pattern... but its effort is not persuasive.

Maybe not, but I think they may really be right on the point even if they have argued for it badly.

My reasons for thinking so have to do with the historical examples mentioned above. Think again about the numbers: the percentage of men who are homosexual appears to be somewhere around 1% to 3% depending on the study; if you include bisexuals it goes higher, but not a whole lot higher. The percentage of men who are possessed of paedophilic desire is also low, around 5% if these studies are right.

How do we get to the 1 in 3 rate of offense you cite? Either talking about a subset of men in which there is tremendous overlap (i.e., the 1-3% of homosexuals overlaps almost perfectly with the 5% who are paedophiles), or we're talking about an unrelated phenomenon.

Now, in ancient Athens and in Medieval Islamic Spain, the entire leadership class advocated and celebrated boy-love. The numbers as a percentage of the population are small, but not small on the order of what we'd expect from naturally-occurring homosexuality. Furthermore, given that membership in these leadership classes was not self-selecting but rather related to family lines, it is impossible that the 1-3% of natural homosexuals should just happen to have made up the leadership class.

What that suggests is that boy-love can be inculcated under the right circumstances. The right circumstances in these cultures seem to include an exclusion of women from public life: a lot of the reason to idolize boys as love objects is that they lack secondary sex characteristics to a large degree (i.e., they're the closest thing to women available). In Medieval Spain, where sometimes there were female slaves in the palaces, we see the same kind of love poetry written about them as about the boys.

I suspect it is likely that being molested as a youth may serve as a similar inculcation mechanism. That means that we get to the 1 in 3 rate without having to look to the original minority population (i.e., the 1-3% of natural homosexuals). This might also line up with UC Davis' claim that most child molesters are incapable of a proper sexual orientation toward adults; the damage done by being molested may be responsible for deforming their sexuality.

That means we still need to find a way to identify them and keep them away from children; but that they are more properly objects of pity than of wrath (at least, if we can catch them before they molest young people on their own). Also, it's a phenomenon unrelated to the gays you happen to know yourself, of whom you were speaking so kindly a few posts ago. UC Davis would end up being right about all that, even if they've argued for it badly; and the FRC would be wrong on causality, even if they were right on the numbers.