Gay tendencies and anti-gay attitudes

Hudathunk it? That old bit of slander about how straight men hostile to gay men are actually fighting their own impulses has some scientific basis.

I really, really hate it when the argumentum ad hominem gets paraded in clinical dress. For example, “Opponents of gun control are compensating for feelings of sexual inadequacy” or “Opponents of gun laws are all drug abusers.” I’m even uncomfortable for “homophobia” as a parallel label to “racism” or “sexism” or “anti-Semitism,” because it converts a belief system into a diagnosis; might as well call gun-control advocates “ballistophobes.”

Another example: the belief that opponents of gay rights are fighting their own homoerotic impulses. Talk about a cheap shot!

But I really, really, really, utterly, totally hate it when one of those cheap-shot arguments proves to be … ummmmm … well … true. Or at least supported by actual scientific evidence.

Simple experiment done by Henry Adams, Lester Wright, and Bethany Lohr back in 1996: Give a group of men who self-report as straight in terms of both arousal and behavior a questionnaire designed to elicit their level of homophobia. Then expose all of them, in random order, to straight, lesbian, and gay-male porn, while measuring arousal in terms of penile tumescence. Run a cross-tab. (Better, run a regression. But these author didn’t.)

Bingo! Straight men who report high levels of anti-gay bias are much more likely to be aroused by gay-male porn; the average increase in diameter watching two guys getting it on is more than twice as great among straight men who report hostility toward gays as for straight men who don’t. Reactions to the other two videos were pretty much identical.

Not my field, so I don’t know what’s happened since in terms of research. But this result seems pretty much iron-clad. Color me surprised.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

21 thoughts on “Gay tendencies and anti-gay attitudes”

  1. might as well call gun-control advocates “ballistophobes.”

    I guess you’ve never been in an online conversation where the word “hoplophobia” was thrown around.

  2. Ever since it was done, the main “reasonable” criticism, afaik, has been that arousal as measured by tumescence is not necessarily a measure of what is stereotypically thought of as sexual arousal. If certain kinds of outrage or offense are linked to tumescence, then duh. Of course trying to quantify that kind of thing gets you into all kinds of discussion about what qualifies as specifically sexual arousal, and that’s a quagmire — even ignoring BDSM, there’s a reason people talking about food porn, torture porn, tool porn…

  3. Paul is correct. It is not ironclad evidence because other emotional reactions (besides sexual arousal) have been found to increase tumescence. Adams, Wright, and Lohr (1996) mention this alternative explanation in the discussion section, identifying it as a question for future research (research which, as far as I know, has not been conducted):

    “Another explanation of these data is found in Barlow, Sakheim,
    and Beck’s (1983) theory of the role of anxiety and attention
    in sexual responding. It is possible that viewing homosexual
    stimuli causes negative emotions such as anxiety in homophobic
    men but not in nonhomophobic men. Because anxiety
    has been shown to enhance arousal and erection, this theory
    would predict increases in erection in homophobic men. Furthermore,
    it would indicate that a response to homosexual stimuli
    is a function of the threat condition rather than sexual
    arousal per se. […] These competing notions can and should be
    evaluated by future research.” (p. 444)

  4. So….this study is from 1996. Why so long to discover it? What’s up with the methodology, etc?

  5. I’m trying to understand something. So, these researchers asked some men who self identified as “anti homosexual” if they would be interested in watching so gay porn and the men agreed. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that a study that relies on supposedly straight men volunteering to watch some gay porn might have slightly more serious methodological problems than whether it would have been better to do a regression analysis.

  6. Sex is … different. It’s personal and intimate for a far wider swath of the population than either firearms or intoxicants. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about either shooting people or being shot, so, while I do have opinions, I’m not passionate about gun control legislation. I don’t spend a lot of time imagining sticking needles in my arms, either. I do spend a LOT of time thinking about sex, though. If I were ideologically opposed to the kind of sex I think about, I would be passionate on the politics of sexuality.

  7. Anxiety gives men boners? Gosh, it never worked that way for me; rather the reverse, I would say.

  8. I’m also afraid of ballistas. The though of giant sized crossbows popping out and sending their huge shafts plunging into my innards gives me the heebie-jeebies.

  9. The anxiety theory is discussed in the last paragraph of the press release on the study that Mark linked to. Not sure how he missed it (which he must have done to reach the conclusion that the result was “ironclad”).

    @Mitch Guthman–the press release doesn’t say how the men were recruited for the study, but I doubt it was by asking them if they’d like to watch some gay porn. My guess is they were asked to participate in a study of attitudes toward homosexuality.

  10. @ Swift Loris:

    Sorry, not really buying that explanation. I just having a difficult time accepting that you have some self-described “homophobe” that’s asked to participate in a study of human sexuality. Doesn’t ask what it’s about or what’s involved. (And, by the way, wouldn’t informed consent or even just simple courtesy require that they tell these deeply anti-gay men that the study involves them watching gay porn while their penises are wired up to a monitor?) Personally, I’d be asking a lot of questions if some scientist started wiring up my penis with electrodes and stuff. And enough of these guys to produce a valid study, they don’t get angry or walk out when the gay porn starts playing, just sit there and enjoy the show (even though they surely must know why there penises have been wired up and everything).

    Also, how exactly did they determine the orientation of these guys? Did they put ads in the paper looking for “straight men who hate the gays (a lot) and are interested in participating in a study of human sexuality”? How exactly did they determine that they were, in fact, studying a homophobes and not a bunch of gay men who just wanted to watch some free porn?

  11. Studies about men’s attitudes or habits concerning sex, alcohol consumption, etc. are usually done with the most accessable group of subjects which turns out to be college students. This is always divulged in the fine print. I always find this amusing. It should be pointed out that college age men are likely to get a woody looking at a crossword puzzel will bang anything walking three times a day and will consume whatever quantity of alcohol is available. NOT THAT THERE IS ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT.

  12. Mitch, they drafted 64 Caucasian heterosexual men from the Psychology Department Research Subject Pool (no, I had no idea that there was such a thing) at the University of Georgia, then assessed their attitudes towards homosexuality using a number of tests.

  13. @ Katja — most schools with a Psych Dept. have a general research pool of students. When I was an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon, there was a requirement that almost every student take an intro-psych class (choose one of four) and as a class requirement for any of those classes, one had to “volunteer” as a research subject at least once, and usually two times.

    The experiments tended to be pretty tame (I think my Intro to Pscyh experiments were a memory game and a task distraction game) and tended to be fodder for the dissertations of the grad students.

  14. Mark, the sense of “-phobia” as antipathy rather than pathological fear dates back to the 19th century. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks of homophobia as a disease, though sometimes it’s rhetorically useful to play on that equivocation.

  15. Kevin, I’m not so sure about that. While it may not rise to the level of a clinical phobia, I don’t see how fear couldn’t be at least a strong part of it. For instance, I’m afraid of cockroaches. I have a strong visceral response to them. Much of it is disgust, but there is a strong element of fear as well. A deeper analysis would probably uncover all sorts of weird, ancient ideas about them lurking in my unconscious.

    I guess what we’re really talking about is hatred. You could say I have an irrational hatred of cockroaches (they’re just beetles after all). And it makes sense that they have historically been used as metaphors for groups targeted for hatred. It would seem that the feeling of hatred finds a perfect parallel in them.

    So, yes, I think phobia is a bit nebulous. But in many ways we simply lack the vocabulary. Is there a modifier for “hate”? Phobia certainly covers a lot of the bases.

  16. Tumescence can also be called “tumidity,” as in William Safire’s definition of “pornography”: “It’s not the teat, it’s the tumidity.”

  17. @Herschel, “tumescence” doesn’t necessarily mean a full erection. The study measured increase in penile circumference (not diameter, as Mark states). Increase in the homophobic men was described in the press release Mark linked to as “significant”; the study itself probably specifies what amount of increase qualified as “significant.”

  18. @Paul – “It is possible that viewing homosexual
    stimuli causes negative emotions such as anxiety in homophobic
    men but not in nonhomophobic men. Because anxiety
    has been shown to enhance arousal and erection, this theory
    would predict increases in erection in homophobic men.”

    Anxiety has been shown to enhance arousal? Can’t there be different types of anxiety? I’m never aroused when I’m anxious about work or a competition, etc. I could get anxious when I’m aroused by something I’m not supposed to be, like if I were a homophobic man and anxiously realizing I’m aroused by gay sex.

    I once read a study (I can’t remember where anymore) that suggested most women, gay and straight, are aroused by lesbian and straight sex but don’t necessarily realize they are, while gay and straight men know when they’re aroused. Which could help explain the anxiety of homophobic men who react negatively to their arousal by gay sex.

  19. Barlow-Sakheim-Beck is not apposite. The test subjects there were shown erotic films and told to, well, get it up. The shock (and threat of shock) *increased* arousal; it didn’t spontaneously *generate* it.

    The test is described here.

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