Some notes on the experimental psychology of homophobia

There has been an impassioned debate over homophobia in Irish public life this past few weeks. This speech at the Abbey Theatre has deservedly gone viral. There has been a quite remarkable debate in the Dail, with two gay TDs giving life to the stories of homophobia that they have experienced. And one Senator has found that standards of acceptable language use towards other have evolved, and leaving him seemingly bereft of words to describe others who are different to him in their orientations. Of course, the language we can and do use toward others, and to describe others, depends on our relationships with them, toward them, and the power we have over them. And these change over time. Formerly acceptable terms are simply no longer socially acceptable, or become appropriated by those who are the object of them, detoxifying them at least a little.

One thing that is little mentioned in the public debate is the extensive experimental psychology of homophobia – there is little reference to the empirical evidence base. From where do the well-springs of the phobic response toward others derive? Do they derive solely from observations of so-called ‘deviations’ from socially-acceptable norms, or do they have any origin in individual psychological functioning? The internalisation of some degree of homophobia because of one’s own impulses is a theme articulated by Panti Bliss in that remarkable speech in the Abbey. And it is something for which there is some evidence in the literature.

Travelling back many years, Freud introduced us to the notion of ‘psychological repression

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– the ‘attempt by an individual to repel one’s own desires and impulses toward pleasurable instincts by excluding the desire from one’s consciousness and holding or subduing it in the unconscious.’ (wiki) The concept has evolved considerably since Freud’s time, but the key idea – that there may be components to our selves that act as drivers of our behaviour that we are uncomfortable with, or even repelled by, and thus try to deny there is existence of within ourselves, is a commonplace in psychopathology. Of course, it need not be the case that such repression is present for a homophobic or merely prejudicial response to be present. Those concerned with the enforcement of their preferred social norms might simply seek to police or enforce such norms, even if there is a cost to other individuals who seemingly deviate from those norms. Of course, norms shift over time, and defending a lost status quo is a lonely and probably futile thing. And, of course, the puritan impulse lurks within many – ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy’. Adams and colleagues (1996) ask if such repression is indeed present in a sample of US males who either express homophobic attitudes, or who do not. The abstract is telling – so I’ve simply placed it below.

Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal?
Adams, Henry E.; Wright, Lester W.; Lohr, Bethany A.
Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 105(3), Aug 1996, 440-445. doi: 10.1037/0021-843X.105.3.440
The authors investigated the role of homosexual arousal in exclusively heterosexual men who admitted negative affect toward homosexual individuals. Participants consisted of a group of homophobic men (n = 35 ) and a group of nonhomophobic men (n = 29); they were assigned to groups on the basis of their scores on the Index of Homophobia (W. W. Hudson & W. A. Ricketts, 1980). The men were exposed to sexually explicit erotic stimuli consisting of heterosexual, male homosexual, and lesbian videotapes, and changes in penile circumference were monitored. They also completed an Aggression Questionnaire (A. H. Buss & M. Perry, 1992). Both groups exhibited increases in penile circumference to the heterosexual and female homosexual videos. Only the homophobic men showed an increase in penile erection to male homosexual stimuli. The groups did not differ in aggression. Homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.

(PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)

There is an issue here with this study – and it is whether or not it can be replicated (but see this which characterises important moderator variables which have an effect; and also). The general issue is not the findings or the methodology – it is rather that attitudes have changed over time, and the kind of repression described might be much less frequent.

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Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer