BYU political scientist Valerie Hudson recently published a now much-discussed LDS feminist argument against same-sex marriage. The central thrust of her argument is that there is a trade-off between gender equality and acceptance of homosexuality, and that Mormons should favor gender equality by opposing same-sex marriage and acquiescence toward homosexuality more generally. The normative part of this argument depends on the empirical claim: that there is indeed a trade-off. Can this assertion survive empirical scrutiny? If not, Hudson’s entire essay basically fails.
The simplest way to empirically examine Hudson’s argument is to check whether countries that are more acceptant of homosexuality are also less gender equitable. A useful measure of acceptance of homosexuality is the Pew Global Attitudes Survey from 2007, which asks (more or less) representative samples of people in 43 countries to agree or disagree with the statement that:
Homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society.
Gender equality is, perhaps, a more complicated concept, and indeed a major theme in Hudson’s essay. How to adequately quantify this tricky idea in a cross-national way? It may be the case that no fully acceptable measures exist, but some data are available that are at least minimally acceptable from Hudson’s perspective: those published through her research website, womanstats.org. Three multivariate scales drawn from those data will be used in this post: Mary Caprioli’s Physical Security of Women Scale, Valerie Hudson’s Scale of the Degree of Discrepancy Between Law and Practice on Issues Concerning Women in Society, and Rose McDermott’s Inequity in Family Law Scale. Each of these scales is coded such that the greatest level of gender equity is achieved at a score of 0, while the most inequity occurs at a score of 4.
Both basic and more sophisticated analysis produce a set of results that, I suppose, could be described as striking — if no stronger word is at hand. In every case, the relationship is exactly the opposite of the one that Hudson’s argument requires. Those societies that are most acceptant of homosexuality are also the societies that are the most gender equitable. Let me show some simple results to support this claim. Consider first the following bivariate plot, with acceptance of homosexuality along the horizontal and inequality in family law along the vertical.
This is essentially as clean a relationship as one can ask for in the social sciences: increased acceptance of homosexuality is — in a linear way and almost without exception — associated with increased equality in family law. Women are most equal, on this measure, exactly where same-sex family arrangements and relationships are most accepted. The relationship is somewhat weaker and more error-laden when the Caprioli scale of women’s safety is used in place of the McDermott scale for family law, as seen in the following graph.
Increased error notwithstanding, the overall relationship is clear. It is particularly noteworthy that every country which receives the best observed score of 1 on women’s safety is also a country where a large majority of citizens support acceptance of homosexuality. For the Hudson measure of discrepancy between law and practice on women’s issues, the relationship is somewhere in the middle — stronger than the nonetheless strong relationship for physical safety, but weaker than the overwhelming relationship for family law.
These graphs are, of course, bivariate representations of the relationships of interest. Controlling for confounding variables may certainly change the relationship, and in principle might even reverse it. Yet my efforts at controlling for a variety of standard variables (GDP, women in the workforce, education levels, democracy levels, latitude, colonial heritage, etc.) made no dent. Regardless of the analysis I undertook, the results were clear: increased acceptance of homosexuality is associated with increased gender equality, not with a drop in gender equality as Hudson’s argument would require.
These results do not necessarily mean that acceptance of homosexuality causes gender equality, or vice versa. However, they do mean that adherents to Hudson’s argument have a lot of work to do. Their line of reasoning requires a connection between recognition of same-sex relationships and gender equality that is the opposite of the strong evident trend in the empirical data. If there are statistical confounders producing this result, the burden of proof is on Hudson and her supporters to demonstrate them. Otherwise, her argument requires too much of an imaginative leap.