Fecundity vs. lesbianism; what's more atypical?

By Razib Khan | May 18, 2010 10:52 pm

Sex Lives of Supreme Court Justices:

Now that the sex lives of Supreme Court justices have become grist for commentators, we are finally free to discuss a question formerly only whispered about in the shadows: Why does Justice Antonin Scalia, by common consent the leading intellectual force on the Court, have nine children? Is this normal? Or should I say “normal,” as some people choose to define it? Can he represent the views of ordinary Americans when he practices such a minority lifestyle? After all, having nine children is far more unusual in this country than, say, being a lesbian.

The GSS can answer this question. Sort of. It turns out that the highest number of children it asks about are “8 or more.” Limiting the sample to 1998-2008 so it has some contemporary relevance, ~1% of respondents in the GSS has 8 or more children. But that’s not quite fair, since many respondents are young adults, or just starting their families. Limiting the sample to those who are 60 years or older you have ~3.5%. Limiting to 70 and above it goes up to ~4.5%. Scalia is 74 years old, so I think it might be appropriate to judge him by his generation, though the relative gerontocracy of the Supreme Court, and American politics in general, might warrant examination. In 2008 in the GSS asked about sexual orientation, and ~2% of women stated they were lesbian, gay or homosexual. So whether Scalia is more abnormal than a lesbian measured against the general population depends on the reference population you use. For his generation, probably not, but for this generation, perhaps.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture

Comments (15)

  1. bioIgnoramus

    I wonder how many lesbians have eight or more children?

  2. Limiting to 70 and above it goes up to ~4.5%. Scalia is 74 years old, so I think it might be appropriate to judge him by his generation, though the relative gerontocracy of the Supreme Court, and American politics in general, might warrant examination.

    Of course this is not an issue of Scalia’s “generation”, but of the (quite probable) possibility that people who live to be 70 have more children on average than people in general (both because they have more time to have children, and because they are healthier on average).

    So, while it isn’t fair to include people before their main reproductive years, it’s also not fair to limit the sample to a particularly long-lived segment of the population.

  3. Hermenauta

    Besides that, I think it´s much more likely that people underreport sexuality than the number of children they have.

  4. Lauren D

    Younger women often don’t identify with the label “lesbian” EVEN when they’ve had, and prefer, sex with other women. For example, I know someone who is in a ten-year monogamous relationship with another woman, and only came to call herself a ‘lesbian’ somewhere around the 4th year.

    There’s also the fact that a lot of women simply lie to cover up their sexuality, even when asked anonymously. Though I suppose some of Scalia’s children, likewise, might not admit to being his, so perhaps this factor balances out.

    We can’t forget all the “bi-curious” women who prefer women sexually, but stay in straight-relationships for the social-acceptance, for the children, or for the financial stability (more than a few).

    Put these together and you get a VASTLY under-reported incidence of female same-sex orientation. If you included all the above sorts of cases, I’d venture a guess at something between 10 and 15 %.

  5. gcochran

    Why not 150%, while you’re at it?

  6. Lauren D

    @ gcochran


    You said, “Why not 150%, while you’re at it?” Not only is that just an unhelpful smart-alec (and un-funny) remark, it also shows a complete ignorance of the situation with sexual statistics.

    As I said in my comment, explicitly, I was venturing “a guess”. But here’s the thing, my guess is PROBABLY pretty reasonable (doesn’t mean it’s right, but it has some evidence in support, thus “pretty reasonable”).

    The original Kinsey reports, like all sex-studies, had some problems, but what they showed was that the dominant expectations American people had about their neighbors’ sexuality were way off. What had been commonly viewed as rare, aberrant proclivities turned out to be fairly common.
    By their account, somewhere between 6% and 13% of women 20 – 35 years of age could be described as having “lesbian” sexual orientations (depending on the definition of that term: i.e. is that exclusive or inclusive orientation, does that include a 3/bi rating, etc.). If “lesbian” means exclusive-same-sex orientation and experience — yeah, those numbers would be low according to most recent studies. But if you include women who find in their adult life that they in fact can only truly love another woman, or women who as adults just find lesbian sex equally or more exciting, then including those women, the numbers are much higher than the bogus stats commonly bandied about.

    That was at a time when many women weren’t even aware that the option of other women existed: every indication is that women explore alternative forms of romantic-sexual fulfillment more now than they did then. So, if anything reasonable estimates should be higher than Kinsey et al. found.

    And here’s another basis for my “guess”: yeah, I’m a lesbian, who’s also been in straight relationships earlier in life. That’s why the topic’s always been of special interest to me. Personal conversations with women on three continents (i.e. diverse anecdotal experiences) lead me to believe that the true numbers MAY even, SLIGHTLY exceed those drawn from more recent, well-formed studies (thus my 10% – 15% guess). Those same conversations gave me the content for my earlier post: where I mentioned how some lie, even anonymously, to hide same-sex experience, about bi/lez women who stay in straight relationships for non-romantic reasons, etc. These are incredibly common stories when women feel comfortable enough to discuss these things openly.

    Finally, even the best sex studies are notoriously difficult to trust, just because, as i mentioned, people DO habitually conceal and lie to cover the more embarrassing aspects of their sexuality — typically understating socially-marginalized behaviors — this is yet one MORE reason to suppose the numbers may be slightly higher than reported.
    NOTE: when I said “vastly under-reported”, I meant the kinds of stats you see in the media; if I’d been talking about clinical studies, I would have said only “slightly under-reported”.

    Now, if you have a different guess (estimate), better evidence, and more experience on the topic, LET’S HEAR ABOUT IT !

    Otherwise, put that 150% comment where it belongs. k?

  7. Lauren D

    @ gcochran


    It’s entitled, “Why The Total Number Of Gay People In The World Can’t Be Counted”

  8. Eric Johnson

    You define some categories of women who might be missed in counts of lesbians, which is well and good, but you don’t seem to have much justification for the quantities you assign to those categories. So I don’t think you are succeeding at all on that front.

    Citing Kinsey does add info, but one ref can’t decisively close a question like this, which I’m sure has been studied countless times (the more studies get done, the wider the cumulative range of differing results will be), and which is obviously a bone of contention and then some. Often, in such a debate, each pole has 4 or so respectable empirical papers which are favorite cites, and which of course totally disprove the “enemy” papers (which in turn disprove them) — sometimes more like 15 papers on each side instead of four. Playing the game for some years, seeing this situation repeatedly, engenders cynicism.

    Citing a few meta-reviews would be much more convincing, at least if they were reasonably consonant. Still, even meta-reviews can disagree, and if someone cites three agreeing ones, how do I know for sure that four others don’t exist which contradict the ones cited? The best 15-minute investigation would be to just try to dredge up *every* meta-review, using a neutral or balanced set of search terms (important), and read out just their bottom lines (and a little bit of the methods) to see if they almost all agree. If not, then 15 minutes just can’t do the job.

  9. Lauren D

    @Eric Johnson

    Actually I didn’t assign any “quantities to those categories”. I simply said that such categories make it REASONABLE to GUESS that the actual numbers are a “bit” higher than the reported ones. And in fact my educated GUESS is just a bit above the numbers generated by a range of studies.

    Moreover, I provided a link which suggests that in fact NONE OF US can know with anything approaching certainty what the numbers are — this is not like measuring the electrical conductivity of metals.

    What I find interesting is that my personal experience — like the sort one might acquire if one has spent one’s life emotionally invested in, say, good coffee — offers up some rules of thumb which in fact mimic the above sort of estimate (i.e. 1 or 2 out of every ten women). That just gives me some confidence that the intuitive numbers aren’t ridiculously off. If you’ve give any credence to ‘gaydar’, then you’ll understand what I mean; and if you don’t give gaydar any credence, then ask yourself how women found each other back in the ’70s and ’80s when social taboo prevented open admission. Bayesian induction happens implicitly in a lot of contexts, but especially when the stakes are high (like romance-and-sexuality). But again, all of this is just to say, AGAIN, that mine is an EDUCATED GUESS.

    Now, let’s examine the reaction I get here for suggesting that there may be under-reporting. Clearly, nobody’s gonna imagine that studies of human sexuality, as self-reported, are going to render indisputable results. So, if the results are likely to be somewhat off, then the question becomes, in which direction. I have very good reasons for thinking that the numbers generated by such studies are likely to be a bit low; what POSSIBLE reasons do you have for suggesting that people have over-reported their same sex orientation all these years???

    Yeah, exactly, you’ve offered none, and yet you’re so ready to protest even a very slight bump in the numbers: me thinks thou dost protest too much. Seriously, why do straight guys get edgy when they hear large numbers associated with women who don’t prefer them ?? Ok, you don’t need to answer that.
    Anyone without a dog in this fight would have to admit that my estimates are well within the bounds of “reasonable guess” — which is exactly how I portrayed them. So WHY THE TOUCHY REACTION, TO AN “EDUCATED GUESS”?? (“touchy” = gcochran saying “Why not 150%, while you’re at it?”)?
    If this is at it seems, just guys getting edgy about the possibility of sexual-rejection — then let’s end the pretense that this is any real debate about inductive methodology. Seriously, do you normally get so critical when someone gives an educated guess that under-reporting might be going on??

    By the way, in the summary of results on MANY MANY of these studies, the researchers themselves suggest that under-reporting may be going on. Are they just being irrational too?

  10. Lauren D

    @ Eric Johnson

    By the way, I did like your discussion of “meta-reviews’, but consider the possibility of under-reporting: If in fact there is systematic under-reporting, then wouldn’t the meta-reviews be skewed in exactly the same ways, and to the same degree, as the studies they embody? If the numbers were entirely consistent, with results varying very little across studies, we’d still ask that question. So while I think you describe the usefulness of meta-reviews admirably, it strikes me that they’re just irrelevant to the debate at hand.

    One can imagine a large number of studies being done on penis-size where the data in each case is entirely self-reported (no independent measurements). Even if the averages are entirely consistent across these studies, one can imagine there might just be a tiny bit of ‘over-reporting’. You don’t need to be a rocket-scientist to see the possible effect of normative social forces combining with self-idealization when it comes to such matters.
    Since sexual experience and orientation aren’t matters really susceptible to independent measure, then we’re stuck with the self-reporting and there’s no way to figure out the degree to which under-reporting is really going on. We have to go with our best, educated guesses.

    So, what’s needed is a bit of experience with human beings to recognize the tendencies either to over or under report (think of asking 1000 women how much they each weigh). What might be dismissed as anecdotal evidence is in fact crucial to deciding where and how much trust should be given to the claims of others, even when those claims are combined in the form of statistics.

  11. Doug1

    You’re conflating “done with having children” and the characteristics of the generation in your conclusion.

    The nature of things tends to make those difficult things to separate, but your conclusion might have noted these considerations.

    I don’t think having 8 or more kids was a lot more frequent in the boomers than in current generations. Both almost always goes with strong religous fundamentalism I’d guess, including the Catholic sort, as Scalia.

  12. rob

    what POSSIBLE reasons do you have for suggesting that people have over-reported their same sex orientation all these years???

    How about because women claimed to be lesbians for political ideology?

    But now lesbianism had been transformed from a criminal activity practiced by the mentally ill into a radical political gesture embraced by the women’s movement…feminist Susan Brownmiller describes a “coming-out fervor akin to a tidal wave”: “I was bewildered by the overnight conversions and sudden switches in overt orientation by many of the activists I knew.” Many feminists who weren’t even particularly attracted to women were drawn to lesbianism, convinced that it was “not a matter of sexual preference, but rather one of political choice which every woman must make if she is to become woman-identified and thereby end male supremacy,” according to the début issue of The Furies, a publication put out by the separatist collective of the same name.

    The feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson went so far as to claim that her brand of celibate “political lesbianism” was morally superior to the sexually active version practiced in her midst. Atkinson was not alone in this martyred line of reasoning; a 1975 essay by the separatist Barbara Lipschutz entitled “Nobody Needs to Get Fucked” urged women to “free the libido from the tyranny of orgasm-seeking. Sometimes hugging is nicer.” This argument was never particularly compelling to the lesbians in the movement who were actually gay.

    From: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/02/090302fa_fact_levy

    Really Lauren, do you think the sample of women you’ve talked to about how much they want to fuck women could be a just a wee bit biased towards women who do want to?

  13. rob

    hope I didn’t double post

  14. rob, you may be interested the episode “Angry Wimmin” from the british tv series “Lefties”:


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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