A number of weeks ago I made a post to this blog (of recycled material), expressing why I am opposed to the hasty use of the term homophobia (“Opposed to ‘Homophobia’“). In short, I said I felt is was a simplistic and perhaps unjust way to discount behavior and beliefs we may strongly disagree with. Whether or not our dislike of that behavior is for good reason, I felt and still largely feel that the use of pathologizing language is without good reason.
Why not diagnose as phobic all aversive and oppositional behavior? Because the underlying reasoning is defective, and because a term as serious as phobia should not be used to categorize a person or people with reckless abandon….
Language is a powerful tool. Sure, it would be nice if we could classify all behavior and persons we didn’t like as pathological, hence undeserving a legitimate place in the world. But it just isn’t that simple. Furthermore, by doing so we undermine a better understanding.
It is my belief that anti-homosexual behavior and belief has a number of causes, most of them cultural — ignorance/inexperience and an acquired prejudice chief among these. An aversion to “strange” behavior may be part of it as well. Observations of chimpanzees have found that the will merciless attack one of their own that becomes partially paralyzed due to illness. Children in our own species will be verbally attacked, and worse, for so much as looking and dressing ‘funny.’
I also speculate that there may be a “deeper,” innately psychological element involved. It has been noted that men are much averse to the idea of homosexual men than they are to homosexual women. Why? Men are attracted to women (whether or not they recognize the women may “play for the other team”). Blame our genes. It makes good sense. Two women being frisky with one another — well, what man would be put off by women behaving sexually? There’s a chance a man could join in. Or so a part of the brain hopes. Better, yet, in such a scenario, there is no competition from another male.
But two guys getting frisky?! The heterosexual man’s genes ‘say,’ “Hey, that ain’t no party you want to get involved in . . . there’s absolutely no future in if for me!”
This is certainly conjecture on my part. A grain of salt is warranted.
For the same set of reasons that most men are hyper-attuned to physical signs of sexual maturity of the female variety, they are also attuned to behavioral signs of sexual receptivity, and are attracted to these.
A shapely sweater, a flirtatious smile . . . . be still thine beating heart.
But wait! What if the behavior and the body don’t mix? What if a male body is giving of behavioral signs normally attributed to adult females — individuals the male’s selfish genes perceive as potentially mate-worthy? This could be disastrous, sexual-reproduction-wise.
I also speculate that the human primate, an intensely social species, is also finely attuned to detecting deceit. If you are suckered and used by others, your own prosperity will suffer.
So to me, part of the knee-jerk male aversion to homosexual males (that can be overcome by education and learning) is akin to their brain blaring out this signal: “Warning, warning! Beware, something is wrong with that individual — it looks like a male but is not behaving as one!”
Is that the case, or part of if? I wonder. Yet until I see supporting research, I’m not going to take it too seriously.
Meanwhile, other students and teachers of psychology have attributed an aversion to male homosexuality as Freud might. The claim that these men are actually afraid of something within themselves.
Could that be? Is there any good evidence for it? Because so many Freudian ideas have been found wanting (schizophrenia being caused by detached mothering, etc.), I have never given the idea much credit. But maybe I should change my tune. New research seems to suggest there may be something to the idea. Was I wrong to dismiss is?
In the news release,Is Some Homophobia Self-Phobia? I read these words by co-author Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester:
The findings provide new empirical evidence to support the psychoanalytic theory that the fear, anxiety, and aversion that some seemingly heterosexual people hold toward gays and lesbians can grow out of their own repressed same-sex desires.
Wow. Could it be? As a vigilant skeptic, I wondered what type of data the conclusion was based upon.
Here are a few brief paragraphs detailing the methods and outcome:
To explore participants’ explicit and implicit sexual attraction, the researchers measured the discrepancies between what people say about their sexual orientation and how they react during a split-second timed task. Students were shown words and pictures on a computer screen and asked to put these in “gay” or “straight” categories. Before each of the 50 trials, participants were subliminally primed with either the word “me” or “others” flashed on the screen for 35 milliseconds. They were then shown the words “gay,” “straight,” “homosexual,” and “heterosexual” as well as pictures of straight and gay couples, and the computer tracked precisely their response times. A faster association of “me” with “gay” and a slower association of “me” with “straight” indicated an implicit gay orientation.
A second experiment, in which subjects were free to browse same-sex or opposite-sex photos, provided an additional measure of implicit sexual attraction.
Through a series of questionnaires, participants also reported on the type of parenting they experienced growing up, from authoritarian to democratic. Students were asked to agree or disagree with statements like: “I felt controlled and pressured in certain ways,” and “I felt free to be who I am.” For gauging the level of homophobia in a household, subjects responded to items like: “It would be upsetting for my mom to find out she was alone with a lesbian” or “My dad avoids gay men whenever possible.”
Finally, the researcher measured participants’ level of homophobia — both overt, as expressed in questionnaires on social policy and beliefs, and implicit, as revealed in word-completion tasks. In the latter, students wrote down the first three words that came to mind, for example for the prompt “k i _ _.” The study tracked the increase in the amount of aggressive words elicited after subliminally priming subjects with the word “gay” for 35 milliseconds….
[We discovered that] participants who reported themselves to be more heterosexual than their performance on the reaction time task indicated were most likely to react with hostility to gay others, the studies showed. That incongruence between implicit and explicit measures of sexual orientation predicted a variety of homophobic behaviors, including self-reported anti-gay attitudes, implicit hostility towards gays, endorsement of anti-gay policies, and discriminatory bias such as the assignment of harsher punishments for homosexuals, the authors conclude.
Now that’s interesting. But while the experiment design was fairly ingenious, and may be telling us something about human ‘psychodynamics,’ I’m hesitant to accept that it provides solid evidence for the hypothesis that a repressed sexuality may underlie anti-homosexual attitudes and behavior.
Why? First, I don’t know what the number of subjects was and how large the effect was. Crucial information. I’m also wary of verbal self-reports, such as in “my parents did this” [when I was a child]. They are are notoriously unreliable. No person is a perfect witness, even and perhaps especially when it comes to the events of their own life.
Second, the meaning of word associations via reaction time also strikes me as a bit of a reach. Is it not possible, for example, that a person could be aroused by tabooed behavior? Studies have shown, for example, that the vast majority of adolescents that get excited by violent video games never go on to commit violent crimes Is it possible that a significant number of the most enthusiastic game players score lower than average on their self-ratings of love of these games? Would we then conclude that they are repressing a desire? Or is it more complicated than that?
My guess is that the whole matter is more complicated than we care to admit. Does a repressed homosexuality play a role in antipathy displayed toward homosexuals? It might. But until I find more and better evidence supporting the hypothesis, my belief remains that the more salient variables include ignorance coupled with an acquired prejudice (by way of family, peers, and community). In other words, the matter seems more cultural than personally psycho-pathological.
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