Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A hypothesis about the origins of homophobia

Here is a hypothesis that, if correct, would explain many instances of male homophobia. Heterosexual men often objectify women, and they believe (often correctly) that other straight men do likewise. Consequently, they believe that men generally objectify those persons to whom they are sexually attracted. Therefore, such a man may believe that homosexually oriented persons objectify men, and in particular are apt to objectify him. But he has an aversion to being objectified, or at least to being objectified by persons he is not himself sexually interested in. Therefore, such a man exhibits a certain kind of aversion or even fear of men who are sexually attracted to men—he does not want to be lusted at.

The hypothesis would suggest the following predictions:

  1. Homophobia is more often directed at men by men than at men by women, women by men, or women by women.
  2. The incidence of homophobia is correlated with the incidence of the objectification of women (both individually and in a social circle; thus, even if x does not himself objectify women, if his friends do, this may correlate with increased homophobia).
  3. Homophobic heterosexual men are likely to be averse to having a very unattractive women being sexually interested in them.
  4. A significant amount of homophobia is also directed at sexually abstinent homosexual men.
I don't know if the predictions are true. I suspect on anecdotal grounds that (1) and (4) are true. I do not know if (2) and (3) are.

I should note that I do not equate homophobia with a moral disapproval of homosexual activity or with a disgust at homosexual actions, and hence I can consistently say that homophobia is irrational (or even that some homosexual actions are disgusting—just as some unnatural heterosexual actions are), while still holding that homosexual activity is wrong. It is, after all, possible to strongly disapprove of an action, but to have no aversion or fear towards the persons who perform the action. Thus, orthodox Catholics strongly disapprove of contraception, but I think are unlikely to feel an aversion or fear towards the large majority of fellow citizens who contracept. (The case is chosen carefully: The Christian tradition classifies homosexual activity and the heterosexual use of condoms in the same moral category of "unnatural acts", and both Catholics and Protestants traditionally called both sets of acts "sodomy".) Nor can one identify disgust at an action with an aversion to the person who does it. Thus, everyone on a daily basis does disgusting and morally unexceptionable things in private, but being disgusted at these actions is not equivalent to aversion to oneself and one's fellow man. Disgust at an action can sometimes give rise to an aversion to the doer, but the disgust and the aversion are still distinct.


Ariel said...


"...I can consistently say that homophobia is irrational (or even that some homosexual actions are disgusting—just as some unnatural heterosexual actions are), while still holding that homosexual activity is wrong."

I think the parenthesis should go after the final clause, because it actually contrasts with the penultimate clause, along with the final clause.

And this is a challenging hypothesis.

David said...

Doesn't your third prediction need the additional premise that heterosexual men believe that women generally objectify persons to whom they are attracted?

Alexander R Pruss said...


You're right. I shouldn't have made this prediction.

Tim Lacy said...

Professor Pruss,

So, may I conclude your argument as follows:

If men would stop objectifying women, then most instances of homophobia would cease.

Fair? I suspect you'll find a problem with my "most."

- TL

peter said...

There is also a "fear" independent of objectification. In fact it may be even more awkward if I knew a homosexual maintained an attraction to me as a "Thou".

CK said...

Have you read Nussbaum on disgust? This is her theory about homophobia. Your outline follows hers in a lot of ways.

Alexander R Pruss said...


As a married man, I would be in an awkward position if someone other than my wife fell in love with me in an I-Thou way. It would be equally awkward regardless of whether the person were male or female, though I would perhaps prefer the person to be male because then there would be less temptation for me.

But a desire not to be put in an awkward position does not, I think, translate into a gut-level aversion towards persons.


Something flashed by in the Nussbaum piece (thanks for the reference, by the way--I may use it in class): "For example, disgust at sexual fluids, bodily waste, and so forth is probably more intense and more ubiquitous among males than among females; at least it does a better job of explaining the structure of sexual relations on the male than on the female side."

The first part sits poorly with the relative cleanliness we would expect to see in an apartment lived in by three males versus an apartment lived in by three females. (Which house's bathroom would we rather use as guests?)

A difficulty with using Nussbaum's account to explain homophobia is that the scapegoated "disgusting" group, to fulfill the social role of uniting everybody else, has to be somewhat prominent in people's thoughts. But I hypothesize that in past centuries in Christian countries, the average heterosexual man (a) would exhibit a fair amount of homophobia if faced with someone who self-identified as homosexual, but (b) would very rarely think about the existence of homosexuals, and might not even know that any such existed in his country. Maybe I'm wrong about either or both parts of this hypothesis.

Nacisse said...

wouldn't this mean that men (and women, i guess) shouldn't have an aversion to being objectified?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Or maybe one conclusion is that we should have a charitable attitude. Just as a woman should not assume that a heterosexual man is objectifying her just because he is a heterosexual man (unless perhaps there is specific evidence of this), so too a man should not assume that a homosexual man is objectifying him. I think that if it were not an operative assumption in our society that men objectify, then men would not objectify as much. (This is a special case of a standard point about the way that negative expectations are self-fulfilling.)

I think there is also something to the idea that it is indecent of us, who are all sinners, to have aversions to people. We should, I think, be averse to being objectified, but it does not follow we should have an aversion to those who objectify us.

Alrenous said...

I like the idea in general but for personal use I change 'objectify' to 'direct sexual aggression at.'

Because of the nature of the sexes, men must be sexually assertive. However, it's actually very difficult to be assertive and not aggressive. Ergo, lots of men must be aggressive to some degree to achieve their sexual desires.

Hence men's fear of homosexual men, and very little symmetrical fear by women of homosexual women.

It's simply a mirroring of women's fear of heterosexual men.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't see why "Because of the nature of the sexes, men must be sexually assertive".

Alrenous said...

Men do the asking out. It's just a fact. Similarly, women often test if he's interested by being coy.

Many women will lose interest if their man isn't constantly demanding things of them. She starts seeing him as weak, regardless of whether she would accept the demands.

Many women have what's called a 'rape fantasy' which is apparently when an attractive guy knows when 'no' means 'yes.'

And so on.

Off topic, that second last one is a constant frustration to modern women; they dislike the constant demands, yet often don't realize that without them she would stop feeling 'emotionally fulfilled.' Similarly, there's got to be a better way for men to go about it, presumably by edging away from the assertion/aggression divide.

Alexander R Pruss said...

When generalizations like that are made, I like to have references to sociological/psychological literature to back them up. While anecdotal evidence can be suggestive, it carries little weight on its own.

Moreover, when it is claimed that this holds by "the nature of the sexes", evidence is needed, either cross-cultural studies showing that this is culturally universal, or some plausibilistic philosophical argument based on what kinds of differences between men and women are fitting, or maybe even some evolutionary argument. The last is perhaps the most hopeful in this case, in that coyness / assertiveness seems a not implausible adaptation in species where the cost of reproduction is much higher to the female than to the male. But this runs the danger of being a just-so story.

Alrenous said...

evidence is needed, either cross-cultural studies showing that this is culturally universal,

I've seen them though I can't put my finger on them at present.

The evolutionary argument is here. Basically, it notes that historically humans are polygamous, and that therefore it greatly benefits men to be aggressive about taking risks. Women have responded by liking more aggressive men.

With the unfortunate corollary that women justifiably have some anxiety about men in the general sense.

Also, I find it hard to believe that you are unaware of the general rules of "The Game" or that men and women both complain about women liking jerks. There's an entire blog by a jerk, and not exactly a tiny niche blog. The Game is not just an anecdote; it's a cultural symptom. We apparently disagree on what it's a symptom of.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am aware of what the stereotypes of male/female interaction in our society are. I do not know how closely these stereotypes match what actually goes on in our society, much less whether they match what is natural to humans. I wouldn't be surprised if there was some match, either because people sometimes conform their behavior to stereotypes, or because the stereotypes reflect the behavior, or both (it can be a mutually reinforcing system).

No doubt some people play The Game, just as some people play a lot of chess, some spend their time reminiscing about being kidnapped by aliens, and some have had themselves surgically castrated. What percentages of the population fit in each category is a question for social science research, rather than for armchair estimates.

I am generally suspicious of statistical generalizations made without statistical data. I do not think we humans are all that good at sampling and statistics unless we sit down to do it in a very precise and deliberate way.

Social science not infrequently finds results that do not match those which we would have expected. Thus, we might have expected that cohabitation decreases the divorce rate by weeding out unpromising relationships and giving couples additional practice time. But this expectation is false--cohabitation correlates with divorce (the causal mechanism, if any, is still under dispute).

There is a stereotype of Americans as trusting and Eastern Europeans and Russians as suspicious. But in 2000, 66% of Russians agreed that most people can be trusted, while US numbers around the same time are at about 35% (see here [PDF]). Likewise, there is a stereotype of Americans as law-abiding. But survey data suggests that Americans are surprisingly accepting of cheating on taxes.

Until I actually checked research results yesterday, I would have very much overestimated the incidence of various psychological and relationship problems among infertile couples (it looks like there is a higher than average incidence of depression and sexual dysfunction, but the incidences are well below 50%, and a majority of infertile men and women report having grown closer in their relationship).

I am also somewhat suspicious of claims of natural human polygamy. I doubt there are statistically solid cross-cultural studies here. On the level of anecdotal data, I may note that it is my impression that in some cultures where polygamy is overtly accepted, it is covertly despised, e.g., as a privilege of the rich. Is it really so? I don't know.

Rascal and Sheila said...

Perhaps the aversion heterosexual men feel at being sexually objectified stems from their disgust at being "socially equated" with women, i.e., with those whom *they* sexually objectify. If this is the case, then, at bottom, male homophobia would stem from a disgust at being identified with/as women. Plausibly true (indeed, I think it is) if not a new idea.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think this is always true in contemporary society. While there is is probably a correlation between misogyny and homophobia, I bet one can have the one without the other.

According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the ancient Greek taboo against older men being in the "passive" homosexual role was based on a desire not to be like women--an enjoyment of penetration was seem womenish.

Audre said...

Certainly one needn't equate the two, but as an hypothesis of origins, the (my) implicit supposition would do quite a bit of explanatory work. As it stands your hypothesis/argument needs at least some explanation of the (albeit obvious) fact of heterosexual men's dislike of being sexually objectified. Or so it would seem.

It might be worth noting that my added assumption also makes prediction #3 more likely. (Heterosexual men would particularly dislike attention from women whom they have rejected as unfit for sexual objectification.)

Certainly one wouldn't want to claim that this (or any other) social hypothesis explains all features of or the origins of male homophobia (or any other complex social phenomenon), but it's at least a plausible feature of a larger explanatory framework -- of which much of what you say is likewise plausibly a part.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The equating with women hypothesis may require that the homophobes make a distinction between active and passive homosexuals. While in some cultures this distinction is an important one (e.g., in ancient Greece, in contemporary prisons, perhaps in contemporary Russia), the distinction may not be sufficiently alive in most of current U.S. culture for the equating with women hypothesis to be best.

On the other hand, maybe the hypothesis does not require such a distinction, but just the simple thought: "If x has sex with a man (in whatever way), then x is like a woman."

I just looked for some empirical data. There is definitely a correlation between sexism and negative attitudes towards homosexuals. However, the correlation is only a part of the story. Beliefs about gender roles only explain 23% of the variation in attitudes. Using participant gender, male role norms, attitudes toward women, hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, modern sexism and hyper-gender-role accounted for 45.7% of the variation in attitudes. See the paper by B. E. Whitley Jr in Sex Roles 45 (2001) 691-721.