Saturday, January 31, 2009

SciAm Mind - Single, Angry, Straight Male... Seeks Same?

We need more and better education for kids about sexual orientation, like this video posted at Psychology Today. Kids need to grow up learning that . . .
Research shows that sexual attractions emerge around the time of puberty. If you think back to puberty, do you remember making a choice of who you would be attracted to? In fact, research shows that it doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is, it tends to emerge around the time of puberty. All indications are that people don't choose their sexual orientation.
If we taught this earlier, then fewer kids would grow up like the men in this article.

Oh yeah, and this study confirms the classic street wisdom that homophobic males secretly feel attracted to men, whether they know it or not. Hate of any kind is a sad thing, but hatred of one's own sexual desire is deeply saddening - and yes, I'm talking to you Ted.

Single, Angry, Straight Male... Seeks Same?

A classic study reveals that young homophobic men have secret gay urges

By Jesse Bering

Jesse Bering

Jesse Bering

I wish I could say that I decided to come out of the closet in my early twenties for more admirable reasons—such as for love or the principle of the thing. But the truth is that passing for a straight person had become more of a hassle than I figured it was worth. Since the third grade, I’d spent too many valuable cognitive resources concocting deceptive schemes to cover up the fact that I was gay.

In fact, my earliest conscious tactic to hide my homosexuality involved being outlandishly homophobic. When I was eight years old, I figured that if I used the word “fag” a lot and on every possible occasion expressed my repugnance for gay people, others would obviously think I was straight. But, although it sounded good in theory, I wasn’t very hostile by temperament and I had trouble channeling my fictitious outrage into convincing practice.

I may have failed as a homophobe, but unfortunately, many people succeed. And it turns out we may have something in common—many young, homophobic males may secretly harbor homosexual desires (whether they are consciously trying to deceive the world about them as I was or not even aware they exist). One of the most important lines of work in this area dates back to a 1996 article published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology. In this empirical paper, researchers Henry Adams, Lester Wright, Jr., and Bethany Lohr from the University of Georgia report evidence that homophobic young males may secretly have gay urges.

In this study, 64 self-reported straight males with a mean age of 20.3 years were divided into two groups (“non-homophobic men” and “homophobic men”) on the basis of their scores on a questionnaire measure of aversion to gay males. Here, homophobia was operationally defined as the degree of “dread” experienced when placed in close quarters with a homosexual—basically, how comfortable or uncomfortable the person was in interacting with gay people. (There is debate in the clinical literature about the semantics of this term, with some scholars introducing other constructs such as “homonegativism” to underscore the more cognitive nature of some people’s antigay stance.)

Each participant then agreed to attach a penile plethysmograph to his, well, “lesser self.” According to the authors, this plethysmograph device is “a mercury-in-rubber circumferential strain gauge used to measure erectile responses to sexual stimuli. When attached, changes in the circumference of the penis cause changes in the electrical resistance of the mercury column.” Previous research with this apparatus (the plethsymograph, not the penis—well, actually both) confirmed that significant changes in circumference occur only during sexual stimulation and sleep.

Next, the participants were placed in a private chamber and presented with three 4-minute segments of graphic pornography. The three video snippets represented straight porn (scenes of fellatio and vaginal intercourse), lesbian porn (scenes of cunnilingus or tribadism), and gay male porn (scenes of fellatio and anal intercourse). Following each randomly ordered video presentation, the participant rated how sexually aroused he felt and also his degree of penile erection. Can you guess the results?

Both groups—non-homophobic and homophobic men—showed significant engorgement to the straight and lesbian porn and their subjective ratings of arousal matched their penile plethsymograph measure for these two types of video. However, as predicted, only the homophobic men showed a significant increase in penile circumference in response to the gay male porn: specifically, 26 percent of these homophobic men showed “moderate tumescence” (6-12 mm) to this video and 54 percent showed “definite tumescence” (more than 12 mm). (In contrast, for the non-homophobic men, these percentages were 10 and 24, respectively.) Furthermore, the homophobic men significantly underestimated their degree of sexual arousal to the gay male porn.

From these data, the researchers concluded that, “individuals who score high in the homophobic range and admit negative affect toward homosexuality demonstrate significant sexual arousal to male homosexual erotic stimuli.” Of course, it isn’t clear whether these people are unconsciously self-deceiving or consciously trying to conceal from others their secret attraction to members of the same sex. The Freudian concept of reaction formation—in which people’s repressed desires are manifested by their fervent emotional reactions and hostile behaviors towards the very thing they desire—could explain the former. (From Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”) The latter implies an act of deliberate social deception, such as my 8-year-old self's misguided scheming. It could of course be a bit of both, or work differently for different people. Who is to say whether Ted Haggard—the very incarnation of this phenomenon—was self-deceiving or whether he knew he had full-blown homosexual urges all along?

Adams and his colleagues’ interpretation of these plethsymograph findings have not gone unchallenged. For example, in an article published in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Research in Personality, Gettysburg College researcher Brian Meier and his colleagues argue that Adams’s findings can be better interpreted as the homophobic group’s “defensive loathing” of gay males rather than a secret attraction. Drawing an analogy to other phobias, Meier and his coauthors state that, “We believe it is inaccurate to argue that spider phobics secretly desire spiders or that claustrophobics secretly like to be crammed into dark and tight spaces.” These investigators reason that Adams’s homophobic sample experienced erections in response to the gay male porn due not to sexual arousal, but due to their anxiety over the images, which in turn provoked the physiological response of penile engorgement.

However, I think this “defensive loathing” reinterpretation by Meiers is off course. Although it is true that ambient anxiety has been shown to increase the degree of sexual arousal in response to stimuli that is already sexually arousing, I could find no evidence that anxiety alone can give a man an erection. At least I hope this is the case. I have anxiety over public speaking. If, on top of everything else, I have to worry about getting an erection during my talk tomorrow, perhaps I ought to just cancel my appearance. Likewise, by these investigators’ logic, male arachnophobes should get a mild tickle down there whenever they spy a spider scurrying across their desk. I suppose that’s possible, but it seems rather far-fetched to me.

If we take Adams’s findings that homophobic men get erections from watching gay porn as reasonable evidence of their sexual arousal, then, these findings are enormously important. For example, they may help us to understand some of the psychological causes of gay-bashing. Some of the most startling data I’ve come across lately involve a 1998 survey of 500 straight males in the San Francisco, California area. Half of these men said they had acted aggressively in some way against homosexuals (and these were just the ones who admitted to such acts). And a third of those who hadn’t struck out in this manner against gay people said that they would assault or harass a “homosexual who made a pass at them.” If you missed the irony, this was in San Francisco—arguably one of the most “gay-friendly” places in the world!

Read the whole article.


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