For many years now, and often inadvertently, secular as well as religious researchers have been amassing facts that, properly understood, bolster the case for the traditional family and against its adversaries and would-be imitators. Some of that evidence, such as the harm to children of the fatherless household, is already widely acknowledged by mainstream writers and readers. Some of it, particularly evidence pertaining to the dark side of homosexuality, remains virtually taboo. When all of it is put together, however, this evidence shows that empirical fact is on the side of the traditional family.
First, a clarification of terms. There are in fact a variety of nontraditional households. I will limit my comments to that subset now posing the most immediate public challenge: the household self-consciously created in contradistinction to the natural family; the household in which the natural family can only be imitated rather than created; the household now demanding not only recognition of some sort from society at large, but also the guarantee of moral equivalence. I suggest that we call this the “antitraditional” household, both to distinguish it from what has gone before and to capture something of its defiant essence. And since such households can further be divided into two variants, heterosexual and homosexual, I propose that we proceed by examining them in turn.
What this distinction immediately makes clear is something interesting and pretty much unnoticed in today’s furor over gay marriage: that intellectually speaking, at least, the heterosexual variation of the antitraditional household has been steadily losing ground for years now.
I do not mean that heterosexual family formation, as practiced, is healthy. Far from it. Abortion, divorce, illegitimacy, pornography, sterilization—these and other plagues on the natural family continue apace. Underlying and sustaining all these separate attacks on the natural family is the fact that contraceptive sex, the deliberate plan to thwart participation in the natural family, is not only widespread but also almost universally accepted in the United States and elsewhere. Considered phenomenologically, the present and future of the natural family in America—for that matter, in much of the world—looks grim indeed.
At the same time, the news isn’t all bad. We should recognize one real and important victory for the traditionalist side: there has been a sea change in the way our secular cultural elites now write and talk about nontraditional heterosexual households. Members of this elite may live in such households; they may personally feel such households to be morally equivalent, perhaps even superior, to traditional households; but as a rule they no longer offer full-throated public endorsements of the broken hearth.
That is a major transformation in public life. Only twenty-five years ago, not only the acceptance but the active ideological defense of such households was the intellectual norm among secular educated people. Divorce, it was commonly argued then, is not only a human right but actually better for the child. One parent was said to be at least as good as two. Certain extreme instantiations of the antitraditional household, such as communes and “swinging,” were actively defended by mainstream voices and celebrated in stylish mainstream books and magazines. Just two-and-a-half decades ago, in other words, arguments for experimental family life were all on the offensive. Today, by contrast, they are all playing defense. Whether they like it or not, whether they begrudge the fact or not, most people in the public square today have been brought around to recognizing the truth of this proposition: the traditional family, despite its problems, is nonetheless the best arrangement yet contrived for raising children—if only by default.
How did this remarkable shift in secular opinion come about? The answer, in large part, is that the change has been caused by the steady—and ultimately unavoidable—accumulation of empirical evidence testifying to the connections between broken homes and child problems. To cite just a few examples, it was due to the groundbreaking work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1964 on the Negro family; the critical research of psychologist Judith Wallerstein over several decades on the deleterious effects of divorce on children; Barbara Defoe Whitehead’s famous 1993 Atlantic Monthly piece (followed by a book) entitled “Dan Quayle was Right”; David Blankenhorn’s 1994 book, Fatherless America; James Q. Wilson’s The Marriage Problem; Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage; and many other revisionist articles and books that have followed their lead. These and other writers made the case for the traditional family on largely secular grounds; and in so doing, they have remade the way secular people think about it.
I do not mean that this view has now “won”; manifestly it has not. What I do mean is that it cannot now be ignored. This brings us to an apparent paradox: even as advocates of the heterosexual antitraditional household have been forced into some measure of intellectual retreat, advocates of the homosexual antitraditional household have meanwhile gone from strength to strength.
On inspection, of course, this is not really a paradox at all. The reasons for the success of the homosexual antitraditionalists are plain enough. First, the more deformed heterosexual unions have become, the more they have begun to resemble homosexual unions (and vice versa). It is hard to fault homosexuals for thwarting the plan of creation at a time when so many heterosexuals busy themselves with exactly that. Allow me to quote Patrick Fagan, who distills the argument into a single sentence: “If one no longer considers childbearing part of the nature of the sexual act, and if married heterosexuals claim childless sex as a ‘right’—they have and the Supreme Court long ago upheld it—then it is difficult to deny this ‘right’ to those whose sexual acts always preclude children—that is, homosexuals.” This is, of course, exactly what has happened, as some gay rights activists themselves acutely understand.
Second, homosexual antitraditionalists have also benefited from another moral catastrophe—the ongoing priest scandal in the Catholic Church. It is hard to make the case for the sanctity of marriage, at least with a straight face, when a fair number of priests are caught prowling for teenage boys. The entire institution of the Church, and not only the offenders, has suffered from this dissonance. A demoralized clergy, like a demoralized laity, has little with which to fight claims of homosexual moral equivalence—or anything else.
And here is where facts enter the picture. For even as the celebrations of gay rights roar on, reality glowers in the corner like an unwanted guest. For the argument that homosexuality is “virtually normal”—the argument, that is, on which the gay rights and gay marriage activists have so far won—is a hypothesis that is not only wrong on theological grounds but also as a matter of established fact. By “fact” I mean by the most secular sources imaginable: social science, medical science, psychological studies, and more—including sources overtly friendly to the normalization of gay rights.
None of that evidence, of course, will surprise those who actually minister to homosexual persons from a traditionalist perspective. But this same evidence is almost entirely unknown, because culturally verboten, throughout the secular world, and particularly among our secular elites; it is as studiously ignored in our own time as, say, evidence about family breakdown was in the early 1960s.
One problem from which homosexuals suffer in disproportionate numbers is chemical addiction—alcoholism and the related abuse of licit or illicit drugs. This propensity to addiction, while endemic to all of modern society, is ubiquitously documented to be worse among lesbians and gays. Virtually every study one can find on the subject confirms it. As the Gay Community News notes, “The statistics do point to the gay community, particularly gay men, as being most at risk of becoming alcoholics.” Their observation is confirmed by numerous other sources, including a prominent gay website (glbthealth.org), which admits the fact that “alcohol, drug, and tobacco use all occur at significantly higher rates in the GLBT community than in the general population.” Gay Alcoholics Anonymous groups abound in many localities—an interesting detail, given the numerically small proportion represented by the gay population. Numerous sources also report higher levels of illicit drug use and addiction among gays. Consider as emblematic the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy, which devoted an entire recent issue to the subject of addictions in the gay and lesbian community.
Another problem also widespread in modern society, and also afflicting gay men and women disproportionately, is the cluster of mental disorders known generally as “depression.” These problems also appear at significantly higher rates in the homosexual than the heterosexual population. Here is a representative quote from a recent article in Archives of Sexual Behavior—no socially conservative rag, that—summarizing what other studies also conclude: “The levels of depression and anxiety in our homosexual subjects, whether HIV positive or HIV negative, are substantially higher than those found in representative general population samples.”
These higher rates of mental affliction correlate with another widely agreed upon fact: that suicide is far more likely among homosexuals than among heterosexuals. In a famous study published in 1978, for example, researchers Alan Bell and Martin Weinberg found that 18 percent of white homosexual males reported at least one suicide attempt (as opposed to three percent of white heterosexual males). Remember that Bell and Weinberg, like the other sources I quote, were overtly sympathetic to the normalization of homosexuality. Here as elsewhere in the pro-gay literature, however, the facts about gay suicide quietly contradict the “virtually normal” polemics that typically accompany them.
More recently, attention to the population of underage boys self-identifying as “gay” has produced evidence of the same tragic pattern. Allow me to quote from a recent letter in the Wall Street Journal: “Nearly one-third of gay teens drop out of school annually, three times the national average. Gay and lesbian youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth.” The authors of this letter, incidentally, do not work for the Family Research Council; they are founders of the Harvey Milk School for gay teenagers in New York City.
Another distinguishing characteristic of homosexuality that emerges from nearly all the literature on the subject, and what I believe to be the most underexamined fact of all, is this: homosexual men are significantly more likely—some researchers would say, much more likely—than heterosexual men to have been sexually abused or exploited as children and adolescents. According to a 1998 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Abused adolescents, particularly those victimized by males, were up to seven times more likely to self-identify as gay or bisexual than peers who have not been abused.”
The gay activist response to such problematic evidence is familiar enough: that what “drives” gay men and boys to such behaviors is “homophobia,” or the refusal of society to accept them as they are. And herein, I believe, lies the hidden weakness of gay activism today, and by extension the eventual fate of the gay antitraditional household. For the closer society moves to the moral-equivalent view of homosexuality, the harder it becomes to blame the endemic problems of gay men on the “homophobic” rest of the world.
Sooner or later, someone is going to ask why, if being gay is cause for celebration, gay boys and men continue to kill themselves at significantly higher rates than do heterosexuals. Sooner or later, someone is going to wonder why, despite society’s open arms, virtually every study of gay mental health shows higher rates of depression, alcoholism, sexual addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, and the rest.
This is the evidence ignored by, for example, judges who place children in gay-headed households. It is also the evidence ignored by everyone who argues that homosexuality has nothing to do with sex scandals involving young boys. It is also the evidence that will not go away. The empirical reality of much of gay life contradicts the rhetoric of virtual normality; and eventually, it seems safe to predict, the twain shall meet.
When that happens, the advocates of the homosexual antitraditional household will find themselves on the intellectual defensive—as the advocates of the heterosexual antitraditional household are today. This does not mean that gay men and women will wear lavender letters on their sleeves and be thrust from the public square back into the closet, any more than divorced or unwed people are ostracized today. But it does mean that today’s euphoria over the antitraditional homosexual household will someday seem as antiquated, and as problematic for the children of those households, as does the hippie bliss of yesterday.
Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and consulting editor to Policy Review magazine. She is currently at work on a book about the social and medical problems of American children. She is married to the writer Nicholas Nash Eberstadt and has four children.