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Loving the Sinner but Hating the Sin (But What is the Sin?)

Updated on May 13, 2013

Loving the Sinner Whilst Hating the Sin (But What is the Sin?)


I have been active on the Internet since the early 1990s, and although I only started maintaining my own blog about four years ago, I have written numerous articles pertaining to the rights of gay people, gay marriage, anti-discrimination legislation, the ban on openly gay persons serving in the US armed forces, and other issues of interest to the gay community in the US.  During this time, I have frequently confronted people who insist that, in accordance with their religious beliefs, they most ardently "love the sinner" whilst "hating the sin".  This argument has superficial appeal to those who insist that it is possible to differentiate between being gay and engaging in gay sex; however, it falls apart when confronted and carefully examined.  This argument collapses for a number of reasons, some of which I will explain in this post.

It should be noted at the outset that those who most frequently expound this argument -- that they "love the sinner" whilst "hating the sin" -- are usually religious people who insist that they are merely following the dictates of their religious beliefs.  This should be kept in mind for the simple reason that we live in a diverse, pluralistic society in which many different people, of very different racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, live together and contribute to society on supposedly equal terms.  I have absolutely no desire to dictate to any person what he or she should believe; I have gotten into many arguments with gay friends who become surprised and indignant when I insist that the likes of Fred Phelps, disgusting as they may be, have every right to expound their special brand of venom and hatred.  I stand diametrically opposed to many feminists, who insist that pornography should be banned or severely restricted because of the manner in which it degrades and dehumanizes women, and because of its potential to encourage and to reinforce such degradation and dehumanization; however, I would defend to the ends of the Earth the right of such feminists to express such views.

(Examples that come to mind include Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.  MacKinnon has made many highly controversial statements with which I strongly disagree (examples include "Politically, I consider it rape whenever a woman has sex and feels violated" and "In my opinion, no feminism worthy of the name is not methodologically post-Marxist" come to mind.))

To confront the old trope that it is possible to "love the sinner" whilst "hating the sin" (of gay sexual orientation and gay sexual expression, respectively), it is necessary to examine the relationship between the so-called "sin" and the so-called "sinner".  Given the depressing frequency with which this tired, trite, and hackneyed justification for cruelty, abuse, and moral condemnation is invoked, it is necessary to examine the logical and semantic underpinnings behind this fallacious line of thinking.

Sexual orientation is not a matter of conscious moral choice, and it takes a special and perverse brand of wilful blindness to reach conclusions to the contrary. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) dropped homosexuality from the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) almost 40 years ago, back in 1973.  This official position was later endorsed and accepted by the American Psychological Association, the Canadian Psychological Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counselling Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, the American School Health Association, the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of Social Workers, the National Education Association, and numerous other professional bodies (the World Health Organization held out for almost 20 years, finally dropped homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in 1992).  Revisionist social conservatives have attempted to undermine the legitimacy of this determination by asserting that gay activists (“militant homosexuals”) badgered and harassed the members on the Board of Trustees of the APA into dropping this diagnosis from the DSM.  However, the vote by the Board of Trustees was ratified by a majority vote (58%) of the general membership of the APA the following year.  (As a gay man, I am always amazed to discover the full extent of the unbridled power that I supposedly possess). The hard truth remains that homosexuality was never reinstated as a mental disorder, notwithstanding the fact that the DSM has been revised and augmented extensively since the decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder was made 36 years ago, and notwithstanding the efforts of a small but rabid minority of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals to remedicalize and recriminalize homosexuality (these include psychologist Joseph Nicolosi and psychiatrist Charles Socarides).

Although some theologians and right-wing commentators maintain a distinction between homosexual sexual orientation and the physical expression of that orientation (homosexual conduct), this is, in the last analysis, a distinction without a practical difference. The so-called “sin” and the so-called “sinner” are inextricably intertwined; the so-called “sin” is a reflection of an aspect of personhood of the so-called “sinner” – entirely different from consciously chosen preferences, such as a person’s taste in clothing, food, or automobiles.  Although many black Americans decry and resent comparisons between race and sexual orientation, the fact that these people dislike the comparison in no way renders it logically unavailing.

In 1998, the late Reggie White caused uproar when he addressed the Wisconsin state legislature, making sweeping generalizations and repeating old stereotypes.  He will doubtless forever be remembered for the following statements, excerpted from his diatribe: “When you look at the black race…  [a] lot of us like to dance, and if you go to black churches, you see people jumping up and down, because they really get into it…  Hispanics are gifted in family structure. You can see a Hispanic person and they can put 20 or 30 people in one home. They were gifted in the family structure…  When you look at the Asians, the Asian is very gifted in creation, creativity and inventions…”  After making these observations and characterizations, White denounced gay Americans, declaring that “As America has permitted homosexuality to establish itself as an alternate lifestyle, it is also reeling from the frightening spread of sexually transmitted disease.  Sin begets its own consequence, both on individuals and nations…  One of the biggest [sins] that has been talked about that has really become a debate in America is homosexuality…  Sometimes when people talk about this sin they've been accused of being racist.  I'm offended that homosexuals will say that homosexuals deserve rights.  Any man in America deserves rights, but homosexuals are trying to compare their plight with the plight of black men or black people.  In the process of history, homosexuals have never been castrated, millions of them never died.  Homosexuality is a decision.  It's not a race.  And when you look at it, people from all different ethnic backgrounds are living this lifestyle, but people from all different ethnic backgrounds are also liars and cheaters and malicious and backstabbers.”

Apparently, it is acceptable to some black Americans to compare gay Americans to murderers, liar, and cheaters, but it is not acceptable to compare gay Americans to black Americans in terms of members of both groups being entitled to civil rights protections.

Blaming a gay person for that person’s expression of his or her identity is morally obtuse, and does violence to notions of substantive fairness. Prominent psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals have concluded, almost without exception, that most gay men and lesbians are as well-adjusted and as emotionally healthy as are most heterosexuals.  One justification for removing homosexuality from the DSM were embodied in the findings of Evelyn Hooker, whose 1957 paper “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual” showed that gay men were as well adjusted and as capable of functioning in society as were heterosexual men.  To the extent that gay people suffer increased rates of depression and other emotional disorders, these problems are in fact reflections of the appalling abuse, mistreatment, and hostility directed towards gay people by American society.

Telling a gay person that one “loves the sinner” whilst “hating the sin” is analogous to telling a black person that one loves that person but hates the fact that he or she is black. Another pertinent analogy that has been invoked by scientists in the field of psychological assessment involves laterality; just as about 10% of the male population is left-handed, about 10% of men are predominantly or exclusively homosexual.  Nobody knows why some 10% of men are predominantly left-handed, although it seems that laterality is a function of brain organization and neurophysiology.  The data pertaining to lesbians are not as clear-cut; many researchers have concluded that female sexuality is less clearly differentiated than male sexuality, and that female human sexuality is more fluid and malleable than male human sexuality.

The term “sexual preference” is actually a misnomer, and should be avoided when discussing the rights of gay people; this term implies that gay people consciously and deliberately choose with whom to fall in love, and that gay people choose to have sexual and emotional relationships with members of the same sex.  This is not a matter of preference, as this misnomer implies; preference does not enter into this matter.

What is particularly depressing and disgusting about the attitude of many homophobes is their tendency and willingness to reduce the complexities of gay relationships to the sum of a number of sex acts. Gay people are no less capable than heterosexual people of feeling love and emotional attachment – yet many homophobes utterly dismiss the expression of such emotions, emphasizing only the sexual aspect of gay relationships. The “Family Research Council” (FRC) is notorious for this tendency – several years ago, the FRC referred to Elizabeth Birch’s companion as her “sex partner” when commenting on the fact that Birch and her lover had adopted a child (Birch is a prominent gay rights attorney, who became Executive Director of the “Human Rights Campaign” (HRC) in 1995). This crude form of biological reductionism is both dehumanizing and profoundly insulting. The Nazis evoked precisely this technique in the early stages of the Holocaust, dismissing Jewish people (as well as gay people, Gypsies, and political prisoners) as “untermensche” (lower forms of human life). By adopting this paradigm, the Nazis found it easier to insult, abuse, and ultimately attempt to exterminate, entire classes of persons.

While the writer does not accuse homophobes of genocide (at the present time), it bears noting that no less a figure than Associate Justice Antonin Scalia – known for the contempt that he displays towards gay Americans – went so far as to complain about the homosexual “problem” in the State of Colorado (his dissent in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996) invoked standard, all too familiar stereotypes about gay people). Scalia launched into a particularly vitriolic and ugly diatribe, the first sentence of which, through the choice of words employed, had many people wondering what could possibly have possessed this man to allude (consciously or unconsciously) to the autobiography of a well-known German totalitarian, written several decades ago, in which the author had described his kampf ("The Court has mistaken a Kulturkampf for a fit of spite....").  (Although Scalia was ostensibly referring to the influence of the Catholic Church and German policies in relation to secularity enacted from 1871 to 1878 by Otto von Bismarck (then-Chancellor of the German Empire), the word "Kulturkampf" (literally meaning "culture struggle") has other, less savoury connotations, and it is impossible for the writer to conclude that Scalia (whose tool, as a Supreme Court Justice sitting on the highest court in the land, is the written word) did not understand or anticipate these connotations, particularly in view of the stereotypes and naked generalizations in which he indulged in the dissenting text that immediately followed his invocation of this term.)

Scalia worked himself up into a state of frenzy, accusing the Court of “placing the prestige of this institution behind the proposition that opposition to homosexuality is as reprehensible as racial or religious bias."   He insisted that “seemingly tolerant Coloradans” were merely trying to prevent a “politically powerful minority” from revising “traditional sexual mores”.  In passages eerily reminiscent of writings and speeches all too well known to this world, Scalia inveighed against the homosexual "problem" faced by the citizens of Colorado, noting that gay men and lesbians tended "to reside in disproportionate numbers in certain communities", where they possessed "political power much greater than their numbers, both locally and statewide".  He expressed outrage at the "enormous influence in American media and politics" enjoyed by gay Americans, and railed against the fact that gay men and lesbians "care about homosexual rights issues much more ardently than the public at large", claiming that this perceived tendency on the part of gay Coloradans to invoke the democratic process more readily and more vigorously than their heterosexual counterparts constituted a distortion of that process in and of itself. (Does any of this sound depressingly familiar?) One wonders how it could have escaped Scalia's attention that, in a country where people vote their policy preferences into law under a "one man, one vote" system, members of any particular group of citizens can never, by definition, possess "disproportionate" political power, unless members of other groups of citizens choose to abdicate their own power. One also wonders whether Scalia would ever care to apply a similar analysis to the behavior of fundamentalist Christians, who certainly care about their issues (e.g., forcing mandatory school prayer down the throats of the rest of us, outlawing reproductive freedom for women) "much more ardently than the public at large". Perhaps one can be forgiven for harboring some degree of cynicism towards this analysis, given the selectivity of its application and the transparency of its logic.

Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, sitting on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, eloquently exposed the false and discriminatory nature of the status versus conduct distinction as this distinction pertains to gay persons serving in the armed forces, in his dissent in Holmes v. California Army National Guard, 124 F.3d 1126 (1997). Reinhardt noted that:


“[…] the fact that conduct may be banned does not mean that speech may be also. Certainly, an admission of prohibited conduct, although speech, is an admission of an offense and may serve as the basis for discipline. However, admitting that one is homosexual is not admitting to an offense under the newly crafted and somewhat schizoid "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. For, under that policy, homosexual status – being a homosexual – is not an offense. To the contrary, the military now purports to welcome into the service individuals who are homosexuals – but only so long as they don't engage in homosexual conduct. This might appropriately be analogized to welcoming Jews to be a part of society so long as they do not attend synagogue or pray publicly or privately to God. Nevertheless, it is the policy that the President and the Congress in their collective wisdom have agreed upon.

“The proponents of the status / conduct distinction seem to believe that classifications such as homosexual and heterosexual are based on something other than sexual conduct, perhaps one's taste in art, music, literature, dress, or the pursuit of a particular, if indefinable, "life-style." This argument confuses cause and effect. What makes a person a homosexual, or a heterosexual, is the abiding desire to engage in sexual conduct with persons of the same sex, or persons of the opposite sex. It is no secret, even to federal judges, that the sexual drive is a strong one. Sex is the elementary form of human activity and expression, and it provides the basis for the most important of human relationships, rivalled only by that of parent and child. It also provides the basis for distinguishing homosexuals from heterosexuals.

“The complications regarding sexual preferences involve questions such as whether one is born with a particular orientation or acquires it, and whether one may constitutionally be forced to lead a sexless life in order to serve one's country as a member of the military. Most persons are born with a particular sexual preference and in the vast majority of cases, it is heterosexual; a minority is born with homosexual preferences. In some cases, it may not be so clear what one's preferences are; in some cases there may be ambivalence; in some a preference for both sexes; and in some a complete lack of interest in sexual conduct. (The latter would appear to be the smallest group.) But the idea that persons should be compelled to surrender entirely the right to engage in sexual conduct if they wish to serve in the armed forces would seem to me clearly to conflict with the Constitution and in particular with substantive due process. Nevertheless, as I have acknowledged, that is not the current state of the law and I am bound to follow a view contrary to my own, pending a repudiation of Bowers by the Court or its issuance of an opinion construing Bowers to mean something other than what its authors intended.” [emphasis added]


(Fortunately, the obscene and wrong-headed decision to which Reinhardt referred throughout his dissent (Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986)) was explicitly and bluntly overruled by the US Supreme Court seventeen years later in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). This reflects a sea change in the manner in which the federal judiciary treats gay Americans; Bowers upheld anti-gay state “sodomy” statutes, which were challenged as being violative of the substantive component of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The Lawrence Court implicitly apologized to the gay community for the manner in which it had demeaned and insulted gay Americans in Bowers, acknowledging that it had framed the constitutional issue at stake in that case far too narrowly. In overturning Bowers, the Court acknowledged that gay persons have every right to sexual privacy, and that the state governments have no business interfering with that right. The US Courts of Appeals for the First and Ninth Circuits recently analyzed Lawrence and concluded that the right to intimate sexual conduct between members of the same sex is afforded substantial constitutional protection by Lawrence, of a much higher order than that associated with traditional rational basis review.  Appellate courts are still grappling with the reach of Lawrence and with the standard of review employed by the US Supreme Court in Lawrence; although the US Supreme Court employed language traditionally associated with mere "rational basis review", both the First and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals have concluded that the US Supreme Court actually applied a much more searching standard of review than mere rational basis review.  The Ninth Circuit decision survived an en banc call, in that the government failed to muster the majority of active, non-senior judges required for an en banc panel to review the case, prompting vigorous dissents from several of the more conservative judges on this Circuit.)

The lies told about gay people are particularly vicious and nasty. There is no truth whatsoever to the old canard that gay men were abused in childhood, or that overly dominant mothers are “to blame" for the sexual orientation of their gay sons. These old “blame the mother” theories were bandied around up until the 1970s, when mental health professionals acknowledged that such theories were completely lacking in terms of empirical evidence. If overly protective mothers are responsible for male homosexuality, the percentage of the male population that is exclusively or predominantly gay would be much higher than current estimates (which range from 2% to 10%, depending on the manner in which homosexual orientation is defined and measured).

Social and cultural conservatives make much of the fact that the origins of homosexual sexual orientation have not yet been proved to have their roots in biology or genetics. Because no definitive proof has yet been adduced to the effect that homosexuality is biologically or genetically “hard-wired”, it must be assumed (according to this line of reasoning) that homosexuality is chosen. The logical fallacy undergirding such thinking is so egregious as to disinvite comment. Many human characteristics that were once assumed to have no basis in biology or genetics (laterality is once again a good example) are now known to have a biological basis. The frontal lobes of the human brain mediate psychological and behavioural attributes such as creativity, impulse control, the exercise of moral judgment, the sequencing of appropriate behavior, and social interaction. The fact that this was neither known nor understood prior to the second half of the 20th century does not rob current understanding of brain organization of its legitimacy, just as the fact that penicillin was not known to have antibiotic properties prior to the second half of the 20th century does not rob current understanding of the antibiotic properties of this drug of its legitimacy. It is entirely possible, if not probable, that male homosexuality has a strong genetic component; the fact that this component has not yet been identified definitively does not foreclose the future identification of a genetic basis of this phenomenon.

Indeed, the research data that does exist strongly supports the hypothesis that male homosexuality has a genetic component. The most compelling evidence of this component exists in the form of twin studies; in such studies, the sexual orientations of identical twins are compared, and the concordance rates for homosexuality in cotwin pairs are contrasted with those in fraternal twins and non-twin siblings. Psychologists Bailey and Pillard (of Northwestern University, Illinois) conducted such a study in 1991, and concluded that the concordance rate for homosexuality in monozygotic cotwins was 52%, as opposed to 22% of dizygotic (fraternal) cotwins, and 11% in adoptive brothers (the concordance rate for nontwin siblings was only 9.2%). These highly respected researchers, known for their caution in interpreting such contentious data, concluded that “[h]eritabilities were substantial under a wide range of assumptions about the population base rate of homosexuality and ascertainment bias.” (In other words, they concluded that there is strong evidence that male homosexuality is at least in part genetically determined, regardless of cultural bias and difficulties in determining the relative size of the gay male population.) The results of this study were written up in the highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal “Archives of General Psychiatry” (March 1993). Bailey and Pillard then studied lesbian twins and siblings, and obtained strikingly similar results, further reinforcing their conclusions.

Even more dramatic results were obtained in a 1952 study by Franz Kallman, who reported that 100% of the identical twins in his study were concordant for homosexual sexual orientation (in other words, the identical twin of every gay subject in his study was also gay). Differences between the Kallman data and the Bailey and Pillard data may well have been artifacts relating to the manner in which homosexual sexual orientation was assessed across the two studies, or artifacts relating to the manner in which subjects were selected across these studies.

These two studies are by no means the only studies that have examined sexual orientation as a function of genetics. Bailey conducted a larger study involving 5,000 subjects selected from the Australian Twin Registry, and arrived at similar results. In short, strong evidence exists to support the theory that gay sexual orientation is at least partially genetic in its origins.

(Whether or not gay people should have to prove that homosexuality is not a matter of conscious moral choice is another issue, and whether or not such proof -- if adduced -- will result in a change in the way in which gay persons are viewed by society remains far from certain. Certainly, it has been established that race and ethnicity are firmly rooted in genetics and biology – but this has in no way diminished the extent and depth of racism and ethnic stereotyping in American society. Should gay persons succeed in proving the existence of a genetic component to homosexuality, it is entirely possible – if not probable – that the hard right will announce that the "etiology" of homosexuality has been discovered, and that attempts will then be made to remedicalize and recriminalize homosexuality. Furthermore, religion is clearly a chosen behavior; yet religious belief is granted substantial constitutional protection by our political system, notwithstanding the fact that religious beliefs are chosen.)

Homophobes who adduce their religious beliefs as justification for their abusive, cruel, and discriminatory attempts to deprive gay Americans of the rights and privileges that they take for granted fly in the face of such venerated constitutional principles as the equal protection of the laws and the wall of separation between church and state.  Gay Americans are not asking that religious people change their belief systems to accommodate the gay community’s demands for equal treatment.  As a recent article printed in the “New York Post” (described in eloquently noted, Christians will not be required to surrender anything at all as American society recognizes gay marriage.  Christians will remain free to believe and to teach their children that homosexual behavior is sinful or immoral; what they will not be free to do, however, is to inscribe that belief into the laws under which all Americans, both gay and non-gay, must live their lives.

We do not live in a theocracy. We live in a constitutional democracy, in which the rights of minorities are protected by irrepealable constitutional law. Attempts to circumvent the law by making reference to religious dogma have no place in a society in which the liberty interests of all citizens are protected by such law. The US Supreme Court recognized this fundamental truth in Lawrence (supra), holding that

Had those who drew and ratified the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment known the components of liberty in its manifold possibilities, they might have been more specific. They did not presume to have this insight. They knew times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom”.

Long may those words stand for the proposition that religious bigotry cannot, and will not, undergird law and public policy in a free society.




Writing about Lawrence v. Texas...

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Homosexuality and Religion


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