Remembering Mary

by Alan Sheard

from Signs of the Times, No. 35 - Oct 2009

Truth is an important concept in the Judeo Christian tradition and one would hope that it would be essential in the study of sexuality. Sadly this is often not the case today. In the 1978 report on sexuality the then Bishop of Gloucester who chaired the Working Party said that it 'attempted to discover and assess the medical evidence as objectively as it could, and to set down what appeared to be the facts of the matter, whether the facts were to the liking of all its members or not'. Some conservative Christians today fail to do this and present a distorted view of the evidence to support their own views.

A common cause of distorting the truth is the iceberg effect - what is presented is a description of a small part of the evidence, based on the visible part which is easy to examine and describe, but is not representative of the whole. For instance we read criticisms of gay behaviour, based on the behaviour of people in gay night clubs in California or New York several decades ago. The limited source of the data may be clearly stated in the original account, but this is omitted in later quotations from it which imply that the findings are universally true. And subsequent quotations of quotations may end with a completely different and misleading story. Another frequently quoted example is the report that the average age of death of homosexual people is forty. This is based on deaths listed in gay magazines, which are more likely to record the deaths of young rather than older people. Reputable journals employ peer reviewers, experts in the subject who can detect distortions of this kind before publication. The reputations of all scientific journals depend on peer review.

Another false stratagem is 'fishing'. It is easy to scan the large volumes of published statistics and pick out the ones that appear to support your case, and draw wrong conclusions. An example is from a document by a Christian organisation which quotes official police figures showing that the yearly number of convictions for sexual offences against children fell by a third between 1985 and 1995; and they comment that 'there is clearly a serious problem of law enforcement over this period'. But they are quoting only the police records. Following a tragic death of a 6 year old child, Mary Bobrow from parental abuse in the late 1980s, and a campaign by the Daily Mirror, the police, social services and the health service have been required to hold joint meetings after all such events and to work cooperatively together. This has resulted in some of the cases of sexual and other child abuse being followed up by the social services or health service rather than by the police and the courts. The social and health services are not soft options because they, as well as the police, have reserve powers of compulsion. The outcome has been fewer prosecutions, but more appropriate and effective measures of dealing with the problems.

Thirdly, homosexual activity was decriminalised in 1968 because the courts had run out of options for people accused of 'cottaging'. The magistrates usually 'excused' such people from punishment if they accepted that they were ill and agreed to treatment. The 'treatment' was aversion therapy which entailed showing homosexual pictures, accompanied by an injection which caused immediate vomiting or pain. The victim only had to say he was cured to stop further sessions. The psychiatric profession refused to continue this charade, which never 'cured' anybody, and when high profile victims such as Alan Turing, the inventor of the computer, were involved, the disrepute of the system was seen as scandalous and had to stop. This is well documented in a theme issue of the British Medical Journal of 21st February 2004, titled 'Treating homosexuality as a sickness, one of medicine's many mistakes'.

This experience, with the other evidence, has led to the conclusion that about 98% of people are born with a fixed sexual orientation, which remains all their life. But this gives the homophobic organisations the excuse to say or imply that since two percent of people can change their orientation, so can everybody else if they are 'Christian' enough. A direct proof of this would require a large prospective survey of hundreds of people, from their birth to middle age. This is impractical. The nearest equivalent is the survey of a group of thousands of adults that took place from 1940 to 1960, divided at the start into smokers and non-smokers, monitoring their death certificates for lung cancer as the cause of death. The results were dramatic, and even the tobacco industry cannot refute them. My father was in this survey, (he was a smoker who did not die of lung cancer), and the organiser of the survey was Sir Richard Doll, who incidentally was one of my teachers in epidemiology at London University in the early 1960s. I mention this to indicate we are not considering matters of a type that are abstract and remote from reality.

It is sad that the House of Bishops' 358 page discussion document 'Some issues in human sexuality' includes reports of reports, in which their authors had in many cases not taken the precaution of checking their original sources. If they had done so they would have discovered that the original documents are either overtly homophobic, or they make clear the limitations of their findings, which their copiers have ignored. This is not a minor quibble, and it has been pointed out at the highest level in the Church, but has been met with indifference and inaction. The lack of any substance whatsoever in the criticisms of homosexual people is becoming better recognised and should lead to the removal of the discrimination against lesbian and gay people, in both church and state.