Alex Blaze

The science of "Gays are icky"

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 14, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: homophobic behavior, psychology, study

Here's an interesting chart from an article by a research psychologist who's studying the correlation between homophobia and disgust. He lists few established predictors of homophobia like sexism, religiosity, conservative politics, sexual anxiety, and impulsiveness (!), and goes on to describe his own work on correlations between disgust and homophobia.

The chart below is based on some of his findings - people with high sensitivity to disgust (like they're easily upset by bugs or poop or mold) are on the right, low sensitivity is on the left. They were divided up and given a gay story or a straight story to read, and the resulting level of disgust was recorded.


In other words, the argument is that the same psychological response to bugs is what some people literally feel in response to male homosexuality. This gives a whole 'nother dimension to "Gays are icky."

Here's how he describes his work:

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 I have replicated this in my own (as yet unpublished) work, finding that sexual disgust sensitivity and pathogen disgust sensitivity (physically disgust things like stepping in dog poop) predicts both anti-gay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.

And this explains Peter Labarbera's life's work:

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.

Another group of psychologists are working on the bigger picture of our disgust response, and their research shows that it's about more than just a physical response to real sources of pathogens (like bugs or bad food):

According to the principle of preadaptation, a system that evolves for one purpose is later used for another purpose. From this viewpoint, disgust originates in the mammalian bitter taste rejection system, which directly activates a disgust output system. This primal route (e.g., bitter and some other tastes) evokes only the output program, without a disgust evaluation phase. During human evolution, the disgust output system was harnessed to a disgust evaluation system that responded not to simple sensory inputs (such as bitter tastes) but to more cognitively elaborated appraisals (e.g., a cockroach). Initially, the evaluation system was a food rejection system that rejected potential foods on the basis of their nature or perceived origin. This was the first "true disgust," because it engaged this evaluation system. Later, through some combination of biological and cultural evolution, the eliciting category was enlarged to include reminders of our animal nature, as well as some people or social groups (2). This process had adaptive value, because by making things or thoughts disgusting a culture could communicate their negativity and cause withdrawal from them.[...]

According to a possible three-layer scheme of disgust analysis, there are three pathways through which an elicitor could activate the disgust output program (see the figure). The core route elicits a set of disgust evaluations (appraisals, feelings, and contamination cognitions), which in turn lead to the disgust output. What about routes involving moral violations of incest and unfairness? It may be that incest and other corporeal (divinity) violations activate the disgust evaluation system, just as do elicitors of core disgust. If unfairness and other moral violations that have no corporeal element trigger the disgust evaluation system, then they represent the furthest expansion of the "oral to moral" evolution of disgust.

The issue with homosexuality is that there is a physical element that raises disgust in some people - anal sex. But even if they manage not to think about that, they still prefer a more abstract form of purity over impurity - what's described here as "divinity." But the psychologists stress that this isn't an abstract reaction, but a real, physical disgust triggered by abstract input:

Alternative views by a number of scholars propose that the link between morality and disgust is largely a metaphor (5), construed as such because it bypasses the disgust evaluation system. But the link is not "just" a metaphor. Unfairness and other moral violations may directly affect the disgust output system, after processing by some other evaluation system, or these violations might simply activate the verbal label "disgust," which would then activate the disgust output system. The outcome of either route would include the facial expression of disgust. The Chapman et al. observations are consistent with both these alternative routes as well as the one that uses the disgust evaluation system. But only if evidence is found for a route from unfairness to the disgust evaluation system can it be concluded that disgust at unfairness is "the same" as disgust that is elicited through the core route (such as in response to cockroaches).

There is evidence that violations of the ethics of divinity (especially violations of food and sex taboos) engage the full disgust evaluation output. People feel disgust for divinity violations (3). There is also a link between incest and oral inhibition (such as nausea, gagging, and loss of appetite) (6). And contaminating cognitions accompany divinity violations (7).

It explains why homophobes try to link gays to sodomy, STD's, "plumbing," feces, and children (the purest people around who need to be protected from all this dirtiness). They can't avoid it themselves - they've made the link between homosexuality and disgust and can't help but feel it every time the topic is brought up.

It also explains why gay activists try to do the opposite and clean up our collective image for ballot initiatives, going so far as to scrub the gay away. They're trying to avoid a psychosomatic reaction to homosexuality itself that can't be eliminated in a short campaign season.

And then there's the link between disgust and internalized homophobia that goes deeper than religious condemnation or literal interpretations of heaven and hell (especially evidenced by non-religious, progressive queers who have to get over self-hatred over their sexuality anyway). I'm sure this is the sort of thing that's hard to detect oneself, but it does explain a lot if we're actually, physically disgusted by our own selves.

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I'd like to see the same experiment tried with Trans and Intersexed people rather than Gays as the test data. Nothing involving sexual behaviour, just their mere existence.

And include GLBs in the surveyed sample too. I think the results might be illuminating. As GLB/Straight is an axis of sexual behaviour, and that is orthogonal to the issue, it would be interesting to see if there's some difference.

Are Gay Transphobes that way because of the "Ick" factor, or because they think "trannies" make them look bad, by appearing to be extreme Gays? I conjecture that there's a mix, though I think maybe the latter is dominant.

And what about the Intersexed? Most people don't give IS a thought, it's off the radar - but the idea of someone with a body neither wholly male nor wholly female can be (not is) profoundly upsetting. Even - no - especially - if it's yours.

The reason I mention IS is because there has been a recent and most unfortunate development. The Catholic Church is becoming extremely anti-IS. This is due to their problems with Homosexuality.

So many priests are gay - even if celibate - that they can't say that "gay is bad" per se any more. Now the official party line is that gay behviour is bad, not same sex attraction itself, because it is "objectively disordered". And the reason it's "objectively disordered" is because it goes against the Natural Law that divides humans into males, and females, an indivisible and distinct divide, as is seen in all Creation.

Except of course that that's biological poppycock. They have a problem with animals such as Clownfish etc that change sex, and Naked Mole Rats that have 4 sexes, but they can cover those up.

To make this line work though, the existence of Intersexed people has to be suppressed. And that means suppressing IS people themselves. This has been most visible in the Pope's recent speeches to the Curia and Vatican Diplomatic Corps, and the recent actions of the American Catholic Bishops and Indonesian Bishops. All Intersexed people have now been banned from the popular Catholic Answers Forum, for stating inconvenient biological facts. Those facts are not allowed to exist now, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned.

Jesuot biologists must be tearing their hair out over this, it's the heliocentric controversy all over again, and the Church will look even worse this time around. The problem is that advanced biology courses are not compulsory for Bishops, Archbishops, or Cardinals, and they're not listening to the people who have taken them, because it's against the dogma of the theology of the body, very popular in conservative Catholic circles.

But until they get this sorted out, a hard rain's gonna fall on Intersexed people. It's no longer the case that we're going to get persecuted because people think we're Gay. Instead, Gays are going to be persecuted ostensibly for being too much like the Intersexed.

I've heard lots of people claim inter-sexed conditions and even met a few in person but have never had a single one present any proof. I'm sure a few must exist but it is such an extremely small number I doubt any study such as the one cited by Alex could be constructed with any statistical reliability. I doubt also that the Vatican is significantly concerned about the issue.

Next subject?

The concept of requiring "proof" before accepting a population's validity is insulting. What do you really expect intersex folks to do? Show you paperwork of hormone levels? A karyotype? Can you imagine the absurdity if the same level of "proof" was required for gays and lesbians? I've never seen Ellen fuck a woman, does that mean we should think of her lesbianism as unsubstantiated?I've never seen anyone on the Bilerico ed team engaging in sexual activity with a person of the same gender for that matter.

Not that population size matters -- as the study didn't require large numbers of people of the identity in question, but instead asked for the general populations levels of disgust. Even if you choose to believe intersex identity is make believe, there's nothing preventing a study on people's reactions to intersex folks.

Of course there actually are a decent number of intersex folks. A lot of folks might not know that they are intersex, have an intersex condition that isn't externally visible, and so forth. But if you include all such folks then you're talking roughly about the same world wide population as red heads.

Stating that you have a preference is quite a bit different than claiming a physical anomaly. You cite absolutely nothing for your claim about intersex versus redheads. You may as well assert that they are as prevalent as Irishmen. I made very simple and accurate statements about my own experience. I have asked people whom I know and who have asserted intersex for simple verification and they always seem to come up with reasons why they just can't seem to find the test results or other claimed verification. I have seen the same behavior by some people claiming multiple advanced degrees. When you ask then all you get is excuses.

Tobi I apologize if I offended you but over many years I have grown tired of people trying to exalt themselves over others. It distracts from the actual issues and topics of discussion. Correct me if I am wrong but this post originally was about a study of people's reactions to male homosexuals. Please explain to me how it became re-focused into something totally hypothetical and unrelated.

How we got here? Someone makes an interesting point wondering what results would happen if the study was repeated for levels of disgust for trans and intersex identities, someone claims that most intersex identities are fraudulant, and I couldn't help but take the bait. But you're right, we shouldn't take up too much space on this side topic.

I'll just say that you're not in a position to require proof. When I learned my mother in law had breast cancer, I didn't demand her medical documents. When a friend got a genital piercing, I didn't disbelieve them until they showed me. When someone says they have a deadly peanut allergy, I just don't give them peanuts no questions asked.

When my former partner told me that they found out about having an intersex condition a month or so earlier at a doctor's appointment, I didn't even think to ask for the chart notes and it strikes me as odd that that is your reaction. In most cases, it would be an invasion of privacy to demand private medical records. And beyond that to require proof implies that you think the person is lying. Shouldn't "My doctor told me I'm intersex" be at least as believable as "I like both girls and guys"?

Really? Only a few must exist?
We went over several different genetic causes of intersex in my undergrad genetics course, and I've certainly seen intersex animals, as a vet. It's not common (neither is being queer), but it isn't so rare as to be nonexistant, either. I'm not an MD, but we're still just mammals, and the biology is similar. You can google it.

I think I would balk at a request for 'proof' of most aspects of my identity.

I've heard lots of people claim inter-sexed conditions and even met a few in person but have never had a single one present any proof.

OK, prove to me you're not Intersexed.

Actually, you don't have to. What I mean is that you should think about how you'd go about doing that. What medical results would you say are conclusive. A Karyotype isn't enough, for example. What about a doctor's note? An androgen series tests's results? Abdominal ultrasound? How would you do this without willingly violating your own medical privacy? How would you go about conveying that to someone who arrogantly demands that proof - would a copy do, or would you require a Judge to notarise it?

Heck, I don't even know how I'd go about getting a certified copy of the diagnosis from the Fertility Clinic in 1985 of "undervirilised fertile male" - AIS-1. I do have a copy of the Medicare records saying that I was being treated for "1404 To reduce drive in sexual deviations in males." in one month, the next "1230 Moderate to severe androgenisation in non-pregnant women" after the results of the tests came through. Is that enough?

Or would you prefer the online photographic evidence?

Deena, your cis-sexual privilege is showing. You feel you have the right to demand of others what you don't see the need to produce yourself. That's my point.

From the Australian Human Rights Commission report on the issue:

Androcur is prescribed to block and reduce production of testosterone in men with testicular cancer, prostate cancer or other androgen-aggravated cancer or to convicted sex offenders to reduce sex drive and chemically castrate if taken in high doses. Because one of these reasons must be given to prescribe Androcur, and the patient is not a male with cancer, the one left is ‘reduction of drive’ – and this means, that to have this medication the patient will then have the letters “SD” on their medical record for Sexual Deviant.

While I was deemed biologically male (albeit intersexed), based on the 1985 (mis)diagnosis, this was the only option. After it was decided that biologically speaking, I was "over the divide", the diagnosis was changed. And the price doubled, by the way.

Zoe I made a few simple points. You are the one who felt the compulsion to both divert this thread and subsequently to present the statements you just made while simultaneously pointing out that your own words can not be verified and are thus hearsay. In this virtual internet world I learned long ago that there are many real people and many who are total frauds. Distinguishing between the two requires more than reliance on the representations made in the virtual world. Yes I possess and will retain the privilege of being skeptical at times just as I'm sure you are also skeptical at times.

So now back to your original suggestion. I think it might be fascinating to modify the study so that the person tried to obtain a job by seducing the boss and revealing that the boss was a hermaphrodite possessing genitalia of both sexes.

I don't know if the "mere existence" distinction would hold up for most people being studied. I think that people unfamiliar with transsexuality see it as an act, and a choice, in much the same way they view homosexuality.

I'm sure they could construct a story that works along the lines of gender identity and study it. That'd be worth studying. While the researcher I quoted above says that anti-black and anti-gay are associated with different reactions (anger vs. disgust), my guess would be that anti-trans and anti-gay discrimination would come from the same place.

I knew I lived in a different reality. Roaches are not icky. They make great spider food and I like my spiders huge and well fed.

And let's face it: this is male homosexuality they're talking about, because lesbianism is, while distasteful, nowhere near as icky. Besides, put a man in there, and he'll straighten those two ladies out -- isnt that the theory?

:: shaking head ::

Well, ladies, here's one particular piece of "male perogative" that I can happily live without.

Marja Erwin | June 14, 2010 9:44 PM

I don't want anyone to try to straighten me out. Heterosex is icky.*

*Your tastes may vary.

Agreed. And my post was meant in jest, JIC that wasnt clear.

Marja Erwin | June 14, 2010 10:59 PM

Yes. My point being that heterosexuality and/or male sexuality and/or female sexuality, depending, may seem icky to any of us. It is a piss-poor excuse for the majority to impose its standards on the minority, when its practices can be just as icky to the minority.

Paige Listerud | June 16, 2010 11:29 AM

Not only is lesbianism (and bisexuality in women) nowhere near as "icky"--it's downright erotic. It's what most straight (and bi/pansexual) men crave. I've stopped coming out to straight men because their response to my bisexual disclosure is practically Pavlovian--"Wanna have a threeway? Threeway? Threeway?"

So sex between women is erotic--not disgusting--because it doesn't challenge the straight guy's masculinity. And if the threeway gals are willing to pony up some anal during the threeway, then the straight guy would be virtually ecstatic. No disgust about dirty girls' anuses here. Heck no--this is his lucky day!

The disgust is multilayered and deeply tied into gender construction. "How could a guy let another man do that to him?"--meaning penetration. "He must not be a 'real' man. How disgusting! And those dirty male assholes! (So much more filthy than women's assholes--aren't they?--do we really know whose asshole is dirtier?) Danger, Bill Robinson, danger!"

More often than not, heterosexuals don't examine the rationales behind their disgust toward sex between men and it's not exactly the kind of activism you can do in the street or in 1 minute advertising for marriage equality, etc.--hence the squeaky-clean gay/lesbian image.

It's something you can tease out in workshops, if you could only get the hets who really need those workshops to show up for them. Hey, I have a great idea. Promise them threeway sex with hot bisexual babes at the end of the workshop! Bi sex workers, we need you now more than ever.

Would certainly explain why Barney Frank seems to get tourettes about trans womyn in washrooms whenever ENDA comes up.

I agree - once we accept that it isn't about logic or reasoning, it all becomes clearer and easier to fight.

If they can measure disgust, then I wish they could measure attraction because I have a question and I'm trying to figure something out.

I don't like labels so I'll just say I'm a woman who considers myself open to anything. I experimented with a couple girls in high school because they were cute and I was curious. And I have enjoyed relationships with men as an adult. But if I ever encountered a woman I was really sexually attracted to - I wouldn't hesitate to act on it.

I'm kind of curious as to how preferences play into a person's own sex life, fantasies, etc. Because although I've been mostly with men, and I've enjoyed myself immensely, watching straight porn or fantasizing about hetero sex doesn't do much for me. On a scale of 1-10, it's about a 5-6. Watching two women doesn't do much either because I just feel like I'm watching - ME X 2. But sex between two men - that's the gold! It's an 11+ I find it the biggest turn on in the world. Why is that?

As a female friend of mine, living in Japan and a huge fan of yaoi manga, once said: "One guy is hot. Two are off the stove."

I find the Zoe/Deena exchange fascinating since it points to another type of disgust that is relevant to the LGBT population. This type of disgust being based upon repetition to the point of nausea. This also most likely being biologically based .

Consider if you were allowed unlimited access to your favorite food. Even the most gluttonous among us would eventually stop eating. The point we stop eating is the point that the pleasure of eating is matched by the ever increasing disgust we develop with the food.

Now lets move from this biological type of disgust to Zoe. I doubt a day goes by that Zoe does not make a post somewhere on the net about her intersexed history. Any of us LGBT types that are reasonably well read have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of such posts. We're typically to or past the point of disgust. In plain English, Give It A Rest Zoe. This being the case whether you are telling the truth or not.

If we continue this line of thought consider how repetition can harm the ability of LGBT individuals in general to fit in socially. Many non-LGBT people don't have much problem, if any, with our sexual/gender orientations (S/GO). They will, however, typically get disgusted if we force feed them day after day still more information about our S/GO issues. If this concept remain obtuse to you imagine a proud parent telling you about their young child - again and again and again ad nauseam.

(Side note - this reply is getting too long winded. You may be disgusted already. Ha - point made!)

Finally (disgusted yet?) consider how this concept applies to many (most?) LGBT activists. In several years of living out of the closet as a TS I have yet to meet an activist who did not jam their activism down my throat by endlessly talking about it and obsessing over it. I'd be FAR more likely to get out and help them with their activism activities if they spent even a moderate amount of time hanging out with me in situations where LGBT issues never came up.

(Side note - If you wish to have fun dare a LGBT activist to spend an evening with you in which the deal is they are not allowed to speak about LGBT issues. I've yet to have any activist agree to this. They literally are unable to conceive of having a night out that does not entail bringing up LGBT issues.)

In conclusion, while "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is wrong when it comes to LGBT issues, we should be aware that people are prone to become disgusted with us if we can't go fifteen minutes without bringing up still more of our S/GO issues. And disgusted people do not make good allies in the workplace, voting booth or with our LGBT activism.

So, how is the above comment any different from the defense ikk'd out straights make to make their ikk'd-out-ness sound reasoned? You know the one:

"I Don't Care What You Do in Your Private Bedroom, Just Don't / Do It in Public / Shove It In Our Face / Shove It Down Our Throat."

I'm of a mind opposite of Nerissa. We haven't gone far enough yet.

I'm not suggesting guys having bathhouse-style sex in public at every opportunity. But gay and lesbian couples should be able to play by the standards of public behaviour set by/for heterosexuals concerning public displays of affection, not a different, more highly restrictive standard.

And as a transwoman, I don't want to have my trans-ness shoved back in a closet as folks around me who know I'm trans go through the most ridiculous gyrations trying to pretend I was actually born female. Or worse, shushing me if I even dare bring up the issue of trans and transness.

New parents learned to deal with the ickiness of baby poop because wishing it away doesn't stop the loads from coming.

And wishing the ickiness of gay(BUTTSEX!!!shudder) and trans(whatever ikks people out about trans folks) to go away, and requiring gays and transwomen to constantly bear the responsibility of not setting off the sensitive amongst us is doomed to failure and leaves gays and transwomen (and to a lesser extent lesbians and transmen) always less-than-equal.

Your points are well made. However, mine are too. Can we both be right? I think so.

Someone once told me to mention my transsexuality with the same frequency a (presumably mentally healthy) Black person mentions they are Black. Imagine meeting a new Black person at work and shaking hands with them. If they said something along the lines of "Hi, my name is Bill and I'm Black" we might wonder at their sanity. Not only would their race be irrelevant but it would be obvious without mention.

My points are twofold as in the Black guy example above.

First, LGBT individuals should not make a point of their LGBT related issues when they are not relevant.

Second, our issues are often obvious without mention. Most people who meet most of us MTF TSs soon figure out we're TS. So why bother to point it out? Likewise if you're gay and have a same sexed partner then by all means bring them to the company picnic but there is no need to explain to people your bedroom activities. Trust me, they know and they care about as little as you do about their bedroom activities with their SOs.

Your point appears to be that our LGBT issues are relevant and should be mentioned. I agree.

Yipes - pressed the send key too soon!

I agree that our LGBT issues are sometimes relevant. And when they are we need to speak up and do so as often as necessary to obtain our rights.

We're typically to or past the point of disgust. In plain English, Give It A Rest Zoe.

Hey! I STRONGLY resemble that remark!

Marimba Ani | June 15, 2010 1:42 PM

This seems bogus. Bugs can startle me (though they're not "gross"), but gays don't bother me at all. They're just people. Plenty of people bother me for plenty of reasons, but sexual orientation isn't one of them.

Michael M | June 16, 2010 2:46 PM

I remember watching Vanguard’s piece on the anti-gay bill in Uganda (which everyone should watch and is still available on Hulu).

I remember that the pastor kept associating homosexuality with "eating our children's poo poo." I found this associate ridiculous, but it makes sense if one is trying to bring up the disgust response (and actually showing scat porn to audience).

This being said, I believe that this is still a cultural reaction. Just reading the comments above seem to highlight that point. Male on male is icky, women on women is hot. Japanese Yaoi fan girls is another national difference (although acceptance isn't necessarily correlated).

The idea that we cause disgust is usually correlated to the other factors that were brought up (“sexism, religiosity, conservative politics, sexual anxiety, and impulsiveness”…I want to read this thing about impulsiveness)

Thanks for this piece Alex!!!

Intersex individuals occur at a relatively high frequency. Just because you haven't heard of one doesn't mean they don't exist.