Scepticism as survey doubles teen same-sex attraction

Prof Athanasou NEWS FEED IMAGE

By: Rebecca Urban, The Weekend Australian

Sex education in schools is being dictated by activist-driven research projects aligned to gay and lesbian groups, resulting in the significant overstatement of the rates of same-sex attraction among young people and questionable claims about the degree of homophobia in the schoolyard.

The latest National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health, conducted by La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, claims that 16.8 per cent of 16-19-year-olds reported being attracted to the same sex.

The ARCSHS figure is more than double that cited in earlier incarnations of the report and more than four times higher than the number of same-sex-attracted people identified in the 2013 Australian Study of Health Relationships, the nation’s most comprehensive study of sex and relationships.

That study, which polled more than 20,000 people aged 16-69, reports that 3.3 per cent of men and 3.6 per cent of women describe themselves as being gay or bisexual.

The ARCSHS is the same group that spawned the Safe Schools program, which will be overhauled by the Turnbull government.

The large variations in the reported rates of same-sex attraction have attracted growing scepticism.

The quality of the research that has been widely used to lobby governments and educators to overhaul sex education has come under fire from University of Sydney health sciences academic James Athanasou, who conducted an independent assessment of the ARCSHS’s most recent study into the sexual health and wellbeing of same-sex-attracted young people.

According to Professor Athan­asou, a former lecturer in measure­ment­ and evaluation, the Writing Themselves In 3 study suffered from “major shortcomings’’. It found that 66 per cent of same-sex-attracted and gender-questioning youth had exper­ienced­ some form of abuse or homophobia, with 80 per cent of instances occurring at school.

In a report seen by The Weekend Australian, Dr Athanasou raises concerns that the sample group could not be considered represent­ative of the broader same-sex-attracte­d population as partici­pants were required to self-select.

This, combined with the absence­ of a control group, “limits the potential value of the findings” and “paints quite a one-sided and incomplete picture”.

He also questions some findings regarding participants’ experiences of abuse and homophobia, noting that bullying behaviours were studied in isolation from other features of bullying at schools, such as the experiences of heterosexual students.

“These figures have been taken by others and used in social prog­rams and policies, which should never have been done,” Dr Athanasou told The Australian.

“You would never see this in medicine or other scientific fields.”

Leading education expert Kevin Donnelly said he’d long queried the statistics relied upon by the promoters of the Safe Schools Coalition, which has been used in 500 schools across the country.

“Safe Schools refers to 10 per cent being same-sex-attracte­d, and a further 4 per cent gender diverse­ or trans(sexual) and 1.7 per cent intersex, so that’s 16 per cent,” he said. “Now I just don’t believe that. I think they overstate that figure­ to make the situation look worse.”

Writing Themselves In 3, which is authored by Lynne Hiller and colleagues at the ARCSHS, is the third report in a series that has been used Australia-wide to inform­ government policy and curriculum development. It is currently listed as a resource on the NSW Department of Education and Communities website.

Also listed on the website is the fifth National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health, released in 2014, which bills itself as a comprehensive study of 400 schools and more than 2000 students, presenting “an accurate picture of the sexual attitudes, knowledge and experiences of Australian young people”.

Yet analysis of the methodol­ogy shows that 36 per cent of the participants were recruited with the help of a leading advocate for same-sex-attracted and trans­gender issues.

Having struggled to recruit through schools — just 26 of the 729 schools canvassed ultimately participated — researchers turned to Micah Scott, the head of youth-led organisation for same-sex-attracted­ and gender diverse young people Minus 18 and a co-author on several Safe Schools Coali­tion education materials, to help with online recruitment.

The report acknowledges the impact that the online recruitment had on bolstering the numbers of same-sex-attracted participants, who are known to be frequent users of the websites that advert­ised the survey.

Despite its limitations, the study is routinely cited by the Safe Schools Coalition when it claims that 10 per cent of students are same-sex-attracted; a figure not supported in the research. Nor is the claim supported in the two previous secondary school surveys.

The 2008 survey reports 6.7 per cent of participants identified as same-sex-attracted, including bisexual, while the 2002 survey had the figure at 5.2 per cent.

Previous research that tried to measure the number of same-sex-attracted youth in the community included a 1996 study by Dr Hiller, involving 1200 rural high school students, in which it has frequently been claimed that 11 per cent were same-sex-attracted.

A closer look at the report, The Rural Mural: Sexuality and Diversity in Rural Youth, reveals that 3 per cent were attracted only to people of the same sex, 2 per cent were attracted to both sexes, while 6 per cent of respondents, some as young as 12, were unsure of their sexual orientation.

A spokeswoman for La Trobe University said many studies had shown a proportion of young people reported that they were not exclusively attracted to the opposite sex and those estimates varied due to different sampling techniques.

“However, there has been a trend over the past three surveys of the Secondary Students and Sexual Health studies … that the percentage of secondary students who report they are not exclusively attracted to the opposite sex has increased in the previous decade,” the spokeswoman said.

“Writing Themselves In uses a sample which gathers both quantitative and qualitative data about the lives of same-sex-attracted young people. It has consistently found that school was a major source of bullying for (them).”

Dr Hillier and Ms Mitchell decline­d to comment. A spokeswoman for Safe Schools did not respo­nd to a request for comment.

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