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Almost Everything the Media Tell You About Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Is Wrong

A major new report, published today in the journal The New Atlantis, challenges the leading narratives that the media has pushed regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.

Co-authored by two of the nation’s leading scholars on mental health and sexuality, the 143-page report discusses over 200 peer-reviewed studies in the biological, psychological, and social sciences, painstakingly documenting what scientific research shows and does not show about sexuality and gender.

The major takeaway, as the editor of the journal explains, is that “some of the most frequently heard claims about sexuality and gender are not supported by scientific evidence.”

Here are four of the report’s most important conclusions:

The belief that sexual orientation is an innate, biologically fixed human property—that people are ‘born that way’—is not supported by scientific evidence.

Likewise, the belief that gender identity is an innate, fixed human property independent of biological sex—so that a person might be a ‘man trapped in a woman’s body’ or ‘a woman trapped in a man’s body’—is not supported by scientific evidence.

Only a minority of children who express gender-atypical thoughts or behavior will continue to do so into adolescence or adulthood. There is no evidence that all such children should be encouraged to become transgender, much less subjected to hormone treatments or surgery.

Non-heterosexual and transgender people have higher rates of mental health problems (anxiety, depression, suicide), as well as behavioral and social problems (substance abuse, intimate partner violence), than the general population. Discrimination alone does not account for the entire disparity.

The report, “Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences,” is co-authored by Dr. Lawrence Mayer and Dr. Paul McHugh. Mayer is a scholar-in-residence in the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and a professor of statistics and biostatistics at Arizona State University.

McHugh, whom the editor of The New Atlantis describes as “arguably the most important American psychiatrist of the last half-century,” is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was for 25 years the psychiatrist-in-chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was during his tenure as psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins that he put an end to sex reassignment surgery there, after a study launched at Hopkins revealed that it didn’t have the benefits for which doctors and patients had long hoped.

Implications for Policy

The report focuses exclusively on what scientific research shows and does not show. But this science can have implications for public policy.

The report reviews rigorous research showing that ‘only a minority of children who experience cross-gender identification will continue to do so into adolescence or adulthood.’

Take, for example, our nation’s recent debates over transgender policies in schools. One of the consistent themes of the report is that science does not support the claim that “gender identity” is a fixed property independent of biological sex, but rather that a combination of biological, environmental, and experiential factors likely shape how individuals experience and express themselves when it comes to sex and gender.

The report also discusses the reality of neuroplasticity: that all of our brains can and do change throughout our lives (especially, but not only, in childhood) in response to our behavior and experiences. These changes in the brain can, in turn, influence future behavior.

This provides more reason for concern over the Obama administration’s recent transgender school policies. Beyond the privacy and safety concerns, there is thus also the potential that such policies will result in prolonged identification as transgender for students who otherwise would have naturally grown out of it.

The report reviews rigorous research showing that “only a minority of children who experience cross-gender identification will continue to do so into adolescence or adulthood.” Policymakers should be concerned with how misguided school policies might encourage students to identify as girls when they are boys, and vice versa, and might result in prolonged difficulties. As the report notes, “There is no evidence that all children who express gender-atypical thoughts or behavior should be encouraged to become transgender.”

Beyond school policies, the report raises concerns about proposed medical intervention in children. Mayer and McHugh write: “We are disturbed and alarmed by the severity and irreversibility of some interventions being publicly discussed and employed for children.”

They continue: “We are concerned by the increasing tendency toward encouraging children with gender identity issues to transition to their preferred gender through medical and then surgical procedures.” But as they note, “There is little scientific evidence for the therapeutic value of interventions that delay puberty or modify the secondary sex characteristics of adolescents.”

Findings on Transgender Issues

The same goes for social or surgical gender transitions in general. Mayer and McHugh note that the “scientific evidence summarized suggests we take a skeptical view toward the claim that sex reassignment procedures provide the hoped for benefits or resolve the underlying issues that contribute to elevated mental health risks among the transgender population.” Even after sex reassignment surgery, patients with gender dysphoria still experience poor outcomes:

Compared to the general population, adults who have undergone sex reassignment surgery continue to have a higher risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes. One study found that, compared to controls, sex-reassigned individuals were about five times more likely to attempt suicide and about 19 times more likely to die by suicide.

Mayer and McHugh urge researchers and physicians to work to better “understand whatever factors may contribute to the high rates of suicide and other psychological and behavioral health problems among the transgender population, and to think more clearly about the treatment options that are available.” They continue:

In reviewing the scientific literature, we find that almost nothing is well understood when we seek biological explanations for what causes some individuals to state that their gender does not match their biological sex. … Better research is needed, both to identify ways by which we can help to lower the rates of poor mental health outcomes and to make possible more informed discussion about some of the nuances present in this field.

Policymakers should take these findings very seriously. For example, the Obama administration recently finalized a new Department of Health and Human Services mandate that requires all health insurance plans under Obamacare to cover sex reassignment treatments and all relevant physicians to perform them. The regulations will force many physicians, hospitals, and other health care providers to participate in sex reassignment surgeries and treatments, even if doing so violates their moral and religious beliefs or their best medical judgment.

Rather than respect the diversity of opinions on sensitive and controversial health care issues, the regulations endorse and enforce one highly contested and scientifically unsupported view. As Mayer and McHugh urge, more research is needed, and physicians need to be free to practice the best medicine.

Stigma, Prejudice Don’t Explain Tragic Outcomes

The report also highlights that people who identify as LGBT face higher risks of adverse physical and mental health outcomes, such as “depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and most alarmingly, suicide.” The report summarizes some of those findings:

Members of the non-heterosexual population are estimated to have about 1.5 times higher risk of experiencing anxiety disorders than members of the heterosexual population, as well as roughly double the risk of depression, 1.5 times the risk of substance abuse, and nearly 2.5 times the risk of suicide.

Members of the transgender population are also at higher risk of a variety of mental health problems compared to members of the non-transgender population. Especially alarmingly, the rate of lifetime suicide attempts across all ages of transgender individuals is estimated at 41 percent, compared to under 5 percent in the overall U.S. population.

What accounts for these tragic outcomes? Mayer and McHugh investigate the leading theory—the “social stress model”—which proposes that “stressors like stigma and prejudice account for much of the additional suffering observed in these subpopulations.”

But they argue that the evidence suggests that this theory “does not seem to offer a complete explanation for the disparities in the outcomes.” It appears that social stigma and stress alone cannot account for the poor physical and mental health outcomes that LGBT-identified people face.

One study found that, compared to controls, sex-reassigned individuals were about five times more likely to attempt suicide and about 19 times more likely to die by suicide.

As a result, they conclude that “More research is needed to uncover the causes of the increased rates of mental health problems in the LGBT subpopulations.” And they call on all of us work to “alleviate suffering and promote human health and flourishing.”

Findings Contradict Claims in Supreme Court’s Gay Marriage Ruling

Finally, the report notes that scientific evidence does not support the claim that people are “born that way” with respect to sexual orientation. The narrative pushed by Lady Gaga and others is not supported by the science. A combination of biological, environmental, and experiential factors likely account for an individual’s sexual attractions, desires, and identity, and “there are no compelling causal biological explanations for human sexual orientation.”

Furthermore, the scientific research shows that sexual orientation is more fluid than the media suggests. The report notes that “Longitudinal studies of adolescents suggest that sexual orientation may be quite fluid over the life course for some people, with one study estimating that as many as 80 percent of male adolescents who report same-sex attractions no longer do so as adults.”

These findings—that scientific research does not support the claim that sexual orientation is innate and immutable—directly contradict claims made by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in last year’s Obergefell ruling. Kennedy wrote, “their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment” and “in more recent years have psychiatrists and others recognized that sexual orientation is both a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable.”

But the science does not show this.

While the marriage debate was about the nature of what marriage is, incorrect scientific claims about sexual orientation were consistently used in the campaign to redefine marriage.

In the end, Mayer and McHugh observe that much about sexuality and gender remains unknown. They call for honest, rigorous, and dispassionate research to help better inform public discourse and, more importantly, sound medical practice.

As this research continues, it’s important that public policy not declare scientific debates over, or rush to legally enforce and impose contested scientific theories. As Mayer and McHugh note, “Everyone—scientists and physicians, parents and teachers, lawmakers and activists—deserves access to accurate information about sexual orientation and gender identity.”

We all must work to foster a culture where such information can be rigorously pursued and everyone—whatever their convictions, and whatever their personal situation—is treated with the civility, respect, and generosity that each of us deserves.

COMMENTARY BY

Ryan T. Anderson

Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow in American Principles and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation, where he researches and writes about marriage, bioethics, religious liberty and political philosophy. Anderson is the author of several books and his research has been cited by two U.S. Supreme Court justices in two separate cases. Read his Heritage research.

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Harvard Study: Media coverage of Trump’s first 100 days ‘set a new standard for negativity’

“The press is your enemy. Enemies. Understand that? . . . Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.” – President Donald J. Trump.

A new report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzed news coverage of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office. The report is based on an analysis of news reports in the print editions of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, the main newscasts of CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC, and three European news outlets (The UK’s Financial Times and BBC, and Germany’s ARD).

Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press,  in the Introduction and Methodology section of the report writes:

Trump’s dislike of the press was slow in coming. When he announced his presidential candidacy, journalists embraced him, and he returned the favor.  Trump received far more coverage, and far more positive coverage, than did his Republican rivals. Only after he had secured the Republican nomination did the press sharpen its scrutiny and, as his news coverage turned negative, Trump turned on the press.

[ … ]

The media have been fascinated by Trump since the first days of his presidential candidacy. Our studies of 2016 presidential election coverage found that Trump received more news coverage than rival candidates during virtually every week of the campaign. The reason is clear enough. Trump is a journalist’s dream. Reporters are tuned to what’s new and different, better yet if it’s laced with controversy. Trump delivers that type of material by the shovel full. Trump is also good for business. News ratings were slumping until Trump entered the arena.  Said one network executive, “[Trump] may not be good for America, but [he’s] damn good for [us].”

Read the full report of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office

The report found:

  1. Although journalists are accused of having a liberal bias, their real bias is a preference for the negative.
  2. Once upon a time, the “honeymoon” period for a newly inaugurated president included favorable press coverage. That era is now decades in the past. Today’s presidents can expect rough treatment at the hands of the press, and Donald Trump is no exception (see Figure 4 below). Of the past four presidents, only Barack Obama received favorable coverage during his first 100 days, after which the press reverted to form.
  3. Trump’s coverage during his first 100 days set a new standard for negativity. Of news reports with a clear tone, negative reports outpaced positive ones by 80 percent to 20 percent.
  4. Trump’s coverage was unsparing. In no week did the coverage drop below 70 percent negative and it reached 90 percent negative at its peak (see Figure 5 below).
  5. Trump’s attacks on the press have been aimed at what he calls the “mainstream media.” Six of the seven U.S. outlets in our study—CBS, CNN, NBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post—are among those he’s attacked by name. All six portrayed Trump’s first 100 days in highly unfavorable terms (see Figure 6 below).
  6. CNN and NBC’s coverage was the most unrelenting—negative stories about Trump outpaced positive ones by 13-to-1 on the two networks. Trump’s coverage on CBS also exceeded the 90 percent mark.
  7. Trump’s coverage exceeded the 80 percent level in The New York Times (87 percent negative) and The Washington Post (83 percent negative). The Wall Street Journal came in below that level (70 percent negative), a difference largely attributable to the Journal’s more frequent and more favorable economic coverage.
  8. Trump’s coverage during his first 100 days was not merely negative in overall terms. It was unfavorable on every dimension. There was not a single major topic where Trump’s coverage was more positive than negative (see Figure 7 below).
  9. Immigration was, at once, both the most heavily covered topic in U.S. news outlets and the topic that drew the most negative coverage. The proportion of negative news reports to positive ones exceeded 30-to-1.
  10. Health care reform and Russia’s election involvement were also subject to starkly negative coverage—in each case, the breakdown was 87 percent negative to 13 percent positive.

Figure 4. Tone of President’s News Coverage during First 100 Days. Sources: Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter, The Mediated President (2006), p. 37 for Clinton and Bush; Center for Media & Public Affairs for Obama; Media Tenor for Trump. Percentages exclude news reports that were neutral in tone, which accounted for about a third of the reports.

Figure 5. Weekly Tone of Trump’s Coverage. Source: Media Tenor. Sunday through Saturday was the coding period for each week. Percentages exclude news reports that were neutral in tone, which accounted for about a third of the reports.

Figure 6. Tone of Trump’s Coverage by News Outlet. Source: Media Tenor, January 20-April 29, 2017. Percentages exclude news reports that were neutral in tone, which accounted for about a third of the reports.

Figure 7. Tone of Trump’s U.S. Coverage by Topic. Source: Media Tenor, January 20-April 29, 2017. Percentages exclude news reports that were neutral in tone, which accounted for about a third of the reports.

Research Findings a Blow to Anti-gun Academics

For decades, anti-gun academics have attacked firearms and firearm owners by conducting “research” that purportedly offers insight into the psyche of gun owners. The dubious findings of these psychology studies typically portray gun owners in a negative light, and are frequently published in uncritical academic journals, and then touted by gun control activists and the mainstream media as legitimate science. However, as a study published this week in the journal Science reveals, the entire field of psychology research warrants severe skepticism; and consequently the field’s frivolous attacks on gun ownership.

Perhaps the most famous item on this topic that has long been heralded by gun control activists is Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage’s, already largely debunked, “Weapons as Aggression-Eliciting Stimuli,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1967. This research popularized the notion of a “weapons effect,” where supposedly the mere presence of a firearm elicits aggression in an individual.

More recently, in 2012, researchers James R. Brockmole and Jessica K. Witt’s article “Action Alters Object Identification: Wielding a Gun Increases The Bias to See Guns,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. This paper contended that when individuals are armed with a gun, they are more likely to perceive others as being armed. Gun control advocates were quick to seize on the findings to promote the idea that gun owners are paranoid and prone to react with outsize responses to potential threats.

Some recent psychology studies have attacked gun owners more personally. A 2013 item published in PLS One titled, “Racism, Gun Ownership and Gun Control: Biased Attitudes in US Whites May Influence Policy Decisions,” tried to link gun ownership to racism. The researchers concluded “Symbolic racism was related to having a gun in the home and opposition to gun control policies in US whites.” Anti-gun publications, such as the New York Daily News, Huffington Post, and Salon.com were all-too-willing to parrot the findings.

The study recently published in Science is the result of a four-year effort to improve the accuracy of psychological science. A team of 270 scientists led by University of Virginia Professor Brian Nosek attempted to replicate 98 studies published in some of psychology’s most prestigious journals by conducting 100 attempts at replication. In the end, according to a Science article accompanying the study, “only 39% [of the studies] could be replicated unambiguously.”

In the same article, University of Missouri Psychologist and Editor at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (which published the Berkowitz and LePage study) Lynne Cooper, was quoted as saying of the findings, “Their data are sobering and present a clear challenge to the field.” She went on to note that the journal is working on reforms that will push “authors, editors, and reviewers… to reexamine and recalibrate basic notions about what constitutes good scholarship.”

The scale of the problem could be even greater than the recent study reveals. In an article on the team’s findings, the journal Nature noted, “John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University in California, says that the true replication-failure rate could exceed 80%, even higher than Nosek’s study suggests.

Further, psychology isn’t the only field to suffer these problems. In reporting on this matter, the New York Times noted, “The report appears at a time when the number of retractions of published papers is rising sharply in a wide variety of disciplines. Scientists have pointed to a hypercompetitive culture across science that favors novel, sexy results and provides little incentive for researchers to replicate the findings of others, or for journals to publish studies that fail to find a splashy result.” For better, or worse, results involving guns might accurately be described as “sexy,” and the editors of the nation’s major newspapers appear willing to splash any gun control supporting findings all over their publications.

These findings and the accompanying comments by those in scientific research community encourage a healthy dose of skepticism when examining studies; regardless of how prestigious the journal, or the schools the authors hail from. The problems outlined in this study, along with pre-existing knowledge of the political bias in some portions of academia, should embolden gun rights supporters to further confront the findings of anti-gun studies, while hopefully also causing those who report on these topics to question research findings more critically.

Peer-Reviewed Study Affirms the Reality of Porn Addiction

Contrary to recent claims, pornography addiction is no illusion. A recent peer-reviewed study that appeared in the journal “Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity” affirms the reality of porn addiction, and supports the addiction model. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation contends that this information is of vital importance for both medical professionals and those affected by porn addiction in order to facilitate accurate treatment and healing.

Years ago, those who struggled with alcohol and drug addictions were belittled as having a weak character instead of a disease that necessitated treatment and rehabilitation. Now those who face addictions to sex and pornography are being similarly maligned by recent studies that allege that their enslavement to sexual stimuli is not true addiction. The study “Sex Addiction as a Disease: Evidence for Assessment, Diagnosis, and Response to Critics” exposes the truth that sex addiction follows the same patterns as drug and alcohol addiction.

This study states that, “the realities of addiction in our country and in the world must be faced. One of these realities includes accepting natural or process aspects of addiction, such as sex, food, and gambling as integral to the disease processes just as chemicals, such as alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.”

Instead of isolating those who struggle with porn or sex addiction, it is time to begin focusing on offering them the resources they need. To learn more about the research related to the harms of pornography, visit PornHarmsResearch.com.

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