Friday, 17 June 2016

Do some homophobic men harbour a latent attraction to other men?

An example of imagery used in the study by Coeval et al
The idea that homophobia in men is a counter-reaction to their own unwanted attraction to other men has its roots in psychoanalysis – where's it's considered a psychodynamic defence – and is possibly supported by anecdotal evidence, most recently in reports that the perpetrator of the horrific homophobic massacre at an Orlando gay club was himself gay. But it's worth heeding the cautions on Science of Us yesterday where journalist Cari Romm noted that "internalized homophobia almost never manifests itself as violence" in her article headed The Myth of the Violent, Self-Hating Gay Homophobe.

However, if repressed gay impulses are a common motivator for homophobic attitudes, this would be useful to know from the perspective of combating homophobia, and for helping such people come to terms with their own sexuality. In fact the evidence is mixed. For instance, supporting the theory, a study from 1996 involving dozens of men who self-identified as heterosexual found that some of those with homophobic attitudes got an erection in response to gay porn, but the men who weren't homophobic did not. On the other hand, a later study that measured time spent looking at images of men kissing found no evidence that some homophobic men are gay at a subconscious level – in fact, some of the homophobic men seemed to have an implicit aversion to such images.

Now a new, small study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine has combined a range of techniques, including eye tracking, to show that a subset of homophobic men who self-identify as heterosexual do seem to have an impulsive, automatic attraction to other men.

The researchers assessed the homophobia of 38 heterosexual young men – high scorers agreed strongly with statements like "Gay men should stop shoving their lifestyle down other people's throats". Then they tested their "impulsive approach tendencies" toward men (that is, their latent attraction to them) in a task that involved tapping keyboard keys rapidly, to move an on-screen manikin – a basic drawing of a human figure – as quickly as possible in a specified direction. On half the trials, an image of a gay male couple subsequently appeared on the side of the screen toward which the participants were moving the manikin; on the other trials, a heterosexual couple appeared in this position. Relatively faster performance when the task involved moving the manikin toward the gay male couple was taken as a sign of implicit attraction, rather than aversion, toward homosexual men.

After that, the researchers tracked the eye movements of the participants as they looked at and rated the pleasantness of images of gay male and heterosexual couples. The men were told to look at the images for as long as necessary to make their judgments, and longer time spent looking specifically at the faces and bodies of the gay male couples was taken by the researchers as another sign of attraction to men.

The non-homophobic participants spent more time looking at the heterosexual couples than the gay male couples, as you'd expect. In contrast, the homophobic men spent just as much time looking at both types of image. Also, whereas there was no link between the amount of impulsive attraction the non-homophic men showed toward men (on the manikin task) and the time they spent looking at the images of male gay couples, there was a link among the highly homophobic participants – those who showed a greater impulsive attraction to men also tended to look longer at the images of gay couples than heterosexual couples.

This suggests the homophobic men's alleged impulsive attraction to men was also affecting their looking behaviour, although whether it's fair to interpret this increased looking at gay men as attraction, rather than, say, curiosity, is debatable. However, there was also evidence that it was filtering through to a lesser extent to their explicit ratings of the images. That is, among the highly homophobic men, those who showed signs of implicit attraction to men in the manikin task also tended to give higher pleasantness ratings to the images of gay male couples, but not to the images of heterosexual couples.

The researchers acknowledged their findings are limited by their small sample size, and that it would have been useful to measure stress and anxiety to see how this was affecting the results. For instance, it's possible that for homophobic men the stress of looking at gay imagery has the ironic effect of increasing the influence of their implicit attraction to men on their behaviour – a stress effect that would be absent in non-homophobic men, hence their implicit attraction not being relevant to their looking behaviour.

These limitations and complexities aside, the researchers concluded that their findings provide more evidence consistent with the idea that "some men high in homophobia indeed have a sexual interest toward homosexual stimuli, whereas others do not" and that they "provide a better understanding of the psychological processes involved in the processing of erotic gay material among men high in homophobia...".


Cheval, B., Radel, R., Grob, E., Ghisletta, P., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., & Chanal, J. (2016). Homophobia: An Impulsive Attraction to the Same Sex? Evidence From Eye-Tracking Data in a Picture-Viewing Task The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 13 (5), 825-834 DOI: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2016.02.165

--further reading--
Is sexism the reason why so many heterosexual men are prejudiced towards gay men?
People's "coming out" experiences are related to their psychological wellbeing years later
Intervention helps reduce homophobia

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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