So after nearly two weeks of arguing about Israel, Palestine, Turkey, and the flotilla, I thought I would take Meteor Blade's advice and write about my favorite topic--my work.  I'm not saving the environment or helping poor people, but I hope that my work can contribute to the body of knowledge about an important social issue.  I am a social psychology graduate student at a large research university in a state with some crazy races in 2010.  I'm not that kind of psychologist.  I'm this kind of psychologist.  Specifically, I study (a) the moral emotions of sexual prejudice and (b) the social construction of manhood and the physiological, psychological, and behavioral effects of masculinity threats.

Sexual Prejudice

The nationally-recognized authority on sexual prejudice and stigma is Dr. Gregory Herek, a social psychologist at the University of California-Davis.  If you are interested in the psychological study of sexual prejudice, his website at UC-Davis is the best place to start.  You can read an abstract of one of his most recent publications here.  Dr. Herek also provides a link to the paper if you wish to read it.

Studies using college undergraduates and nationwide random samples have shown that negative stereotypes of sexual minorities remain pervasive with non-heterosexuals seen as promiscuous recruiters, child molesters, mentally ill, and abnormal (Page & Yee, 1985; Herek, 2002). Both gay men and lesbians are seen as abdicating traditional gender roles with gay men seen as feminine and possessing traditionally female traits and lesbians seen as masculine and possessing traditionally male traits (Page & Yee, 1985; Kite & Deaux, 1987). Although most heterosexuals support legislative protection against employment discrimination (ENDA) and adoption rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals and believe that sexual orientation is immutable and determined before birth, most remain opposed to marriage equality.

The years immediately surrounding the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness saw a change concerning sexual orientation research. The study of homosexuality as a disease began to wane as the focus shifted to the study of prejudice (Herek, 1994). The oft used term homophobia was coined by Weinberg (1972) in Society and the Healthy Homosexual. Strictly defined as the irrational fear of non-heterosexuals, homophobia has become a dogmatic, but controversial term to describe all kinds of anti-gay affect. Herek (1986) argues that the term homophobia "overpsychologizes" the nature of anti-gay prejudice by focusing on the individual rather than the social and cultural influences of such prejudice. Alternate terms have included homoerotophobia, heterosexism, homosexphobia, homosexism, homonegativism, shame due to heterosexism, anti-gay prejudice, antihomosexualism, and antihomosexuality (see Herek, 1991; Davies, 1996). More recently, Herek (2000) has suggested sexual prejudice, defined as "negative attitudes toward (a) homosexual behavior, (b) people with a homosexual or bisexual orientation, and (c) communities of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people" (pp. 19-20).

For nearly three decades, psychologists have sought to uncover the social and personality correlates of sexual prejudice. Research has found that more negative attitudes toward homosexuals are associated with such things as: the fear of AIDS (O’Hare, Williams, & Ezoviski, 1996), Christian religious ideology (Plugge-Foust & Strickland, 2000), religious fundamentalism (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992; Wylie & Forest, 1992; Lathes, Finkel, & Kirkpatrick, 2001), right-wing authoritarianism (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992), religious questing (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992), frequency of Bible reading (Wylie & Forest, 1992), frequency of church attendance (Agnew, Thompson, Smith, Gramzow, & Cure, 1993), youth (Lurks, Crawford, & Goldberg, 1991), less education (Luhrs, Crawford, & Goldberg, 1991), less contact with non-heterosexuals (Herek & Capitanio, 1996), a higher social dominance orientation (SDO; Whitley, 1999), a conservative ideology (Heaven & Oxman, 1999), more traditional gender role beliefs (Ficarotto, 1990), attributions of femininity (Basow & Johnson, 2000), racism (Ficarotto, 1990), a lack of intimacy between male friends (Devlin & Cowan, 1985), impulsivity (Patel, et al., 1995), sex anxiety (Luhrs, Crawford, & Goldberg, 1991), using attitudes as a defensive function (Luhrs, Crawford, & Goldberg, 1991), and sports ideology (Harry, 1995).

Sexual Prejudice and Gender

Researchers have repeatedly found gender differences sexual prejudice.  Men tend to hold much more negative attitudes toward gay men than lesbians.  Some studies have found that women have slightly more negative attitudes toward lesbians, while others have not. When the differences are found, they are usually very small.  Below is a chart from a study I conducted about a year ago.


In order for these differences to be considered meaningful, they must pass some statistical threshold.  This chart shows that men and women do not differ in anti-lesbian prejudice, but men hold much more negative attitudes toward gay men than lesbians, while women show the opposite pattern.

The differences don't end there.  Gay men are more likely than lesbians to be seen as child molesters and mentally ill, and heterosexuals are more supportive of adoption rights for lesbians than for gay men (Herek, 2002). Herek and Capitanio (1999) found that when questions about lesbians preceded questions about gay men, lesbians were viewed m ore positively than when the lesbian questions followed the gay male questions (see also Herek, 2002).  I have also found this effect, but I haven't looked for it since 2003 and its possible that attitudes may have gotten more progressive since then.

Prejudice and Emotion

While the study of prejudice is as old as the field of social psychology (Richard Lapiere's 1934 study of attitudes and behavior is a classic study), the study of the emotions of prejudice is relatively contemporary.  Intergroup emotions theory(IET; Mackie, Devos, & Smith, 2000) and the Stereotype Content Model (SCM; Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002) are two such influential theories.  One of the theories that has inspired my work is Cottrell and Neuberg’s (2005) sociofunctional approach.  Cottrell and Neuberg argue that construing prejudice as a general attitude can mask the distinct threat profiles, emotions, and action tendencies associated with different groups.  In their research, they found that gay men were perceived as a contamination threat to values and health and elicited disgust.  They also found that gay men elicited some anger.  

What specifically interests me is what specifically about sexual minorities elicits anger and disgust and how these emotions shape moral judgments of sexual minorities.  To study this, I have looked to research in moral psychology, especially work by Jon Haidt at the University of Virginia and Paul Rozin at the University of Pennyslvania.  According to the CAD triad hypothesis (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999), violations of three different ethical codes elicit three distinct emotional responses.  Violations of Community ethics elicits--behavior which violates the commmunity hierarchy or one's social role--elicit moral Contempt.  Violations of Autonomy ethics--actions which harm or violate the rights of others--elicit moral Anger.  And violations of Divinity ethics--behavior which physically or morally pollutes the body or soul--elicit moral Disgust.

The studies that I am conducting right now look at how sexual minorities can be perceived as violating the ethics of autonomy and divinity.  Anecdotal evidence for the influence of anger and disgust abound.  Below are two different clips of anti-gay public figures.  In the first clip, Pat Robertson emphasizes that same-sex marriage can harm (autonomy ethics; anger) America.

In this second clip, a conservative politician in New Hampshire describes anal sex to emphasize that gay anal sex is abnormal and unhealthy (divinity ethics; disgust).

There is a great deal of evidence that linking sexual prejudice and sexual minorities to disgust.  One way of studying this is to use a measure of disgust sensitivity.  This is way of measuring one's emotional disposition for feeling disgusted.  The most popular scale was created by Jon Haidt (you can check out the scale at his website).  In the studies I'm doing right now, I use the Three-Domain Disgust Scale, which measures sensitivity to sexual disgust, pathogen disgust, and moral disgust.  Another researcher has found that sexual disgust sensitivity (measured with the Haidt scale)--but not trait anger (one's emotional disposition for feeling anger)--predicts anti-gay male prejudice, with higher sexual disgust sensitivity scores corresponding with great anti-gay male prejudice (Tapias, Glasner, Keltner, Vasquez, &  Wickens, 2007).  And consistent with the idea that prejudice toward different groups is associated with different emotions, they also found that trait anger--but not disgust sensitivity--predicted anti-Black prejudice.  I have replicated this in my own (as yet unpublished) work, finding that sexual disgust sensitivity and pathogen disgust sensitivity (physically disgust things like stepping in dog poop) predicts both anti-gay male and anti-lesbian prejudice.

Based on these findings, I conducted an experiment this spring looking at emotional responses to sexual transgressions.  My participants read a story about a male employee who seduces his boss in a failed attempt to get a job.  In half of the stories, the boss was male (gay condition) and in half of the stories, the boss was female (straight condition).  I measured their emotional responses to the story and they also completed the disgust sensitivity and sexual prejudice surveys.  Those who read the gay story were more disgusted than those who read the straight story, but there were no differences in anger.  When I looked to see if disgust sensitivity played a role, I discovered that those who were high in pathogen disgust sensitivity were more disgust by the gay story than the straight story, but there were no differences for those who were low in disgust sensitivity.


Disgust is on the vertical axis and pathogen disgust sensitivity is on the horizontal axis.  The blue line represents the scores for those who read the gay story and the read line represents the scores for those who read the straight story.

There is research which suggests that when disgust becomes attached to something, it is there permanently.  It's almost like a drop of black paint in a bucket of white paint.  You can't get rid of it completely.  If disgust is attached to sexual minorities, I am interested in the implications when LGBT persons are being evaluated in a domain that is unrelated to their sexuality.  That is something that I am working on right now.  

So this is just a tiny piece of the homophobia work that I am currently doing.  I hope this was informative.  Feel free to ask questions in the comments or via email.  I'm not an expert, but I'll share with you what I do know.

Originally posted to Just PsycoBabble on Mon Jun 14, 2010 at 08:00 AM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.