A lot of people seem to believe that homosexuality is contagious--that it can spread from one person to the next through simple social contact. For example, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network recently warned parents that they should be cautious about inviting gays and lesbians into their homes because, if they do, their children will probably grow up to be gay. Similarly, the leader of a group that calls itself the Islamic People Forum recently described homosexuality as a "disease" that is "contagious and harmful to our children."
Is there any reason to believe that these claims about homosexuality being contagious are actually true, though? Can homosexuality really be transmitted through social contact? According to a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, there doesn't seem to be anything to the idea that you can "catch the gay" from others.
In this study, researchers looked at data from a longitudinal, nationally representative survey of US adolescents in grades 7-12 (specifically, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, known as “Add Health” for short). The sample for this study consisted of 14,000 participants, who were about evenly split between males and females and were diverse with respect to race. All participants answered questions about their friendship circles and health behaviors at three different points in time.
Researchers looked specifically at how the sexual and romantic attitudes and behaviors of adolescents were correlated with those of other participants in the study that they were friends with. In other words, the researchers wanted to see whether things like attraction to the same sex tend to "spread" within social networks. So, if a friend of yours comes out as gay, does that increase the chances that you will become attracted to people of the same sex, too?
The results did not support the idea that same-sex attraction spreads within social networks. In fact, it turned out that adolescents’ patterns of same-sex attraction--whether sexual or romantic in nature--were unrelated to those of their friends. This means that people with same-sex desires didn't necessarily even have to know anyone else with same-sex desires.
One limitation of these data is that this study only considered same-sex attraction, which isn't necessarily the same as same-sex behavior. It's not necessarily the same as holding a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity either. Sexual orientation is something that can be measured in different ways, and different forms of measurement can potentially yield different results.
Limitations aside, these results argue against the idea that homosexuality is “contagious” among adolescents. So where does homosexuality come from? Research suggests that it's likely to have a biological basis. To learn more about recent research supporting this idea, see here and here.
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To learn more about this research, see: Brakefield, T. A., Mednick, S. C., Wilson, H. W., De Neve, J. E., Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2014). Same-sex sexual attraction does not spread in adolescent social networks. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(2), 335-344.
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