Are Homophobic Men Turned On by Gay Porn?

Are Homophobic Men Turned On by Gay Porn?
AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi
Are Homophobic Men Turned On by Gay Porn?
AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi
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In 1996, psychologists at the University of Georgia reported an intriguing, controversial result: Heterosexual young men with homophobic beliefs were aroused by gay porn, while their nonhomophobic straight peers were not.

Since the study was published, it has been touted in some circles as proof that many homophobic men are in fact secretly gay themselves.

"The point is that these men already have this arousal naturally, but that they block it because they do not see it as socially acceptable," Dr. Nathan Heflick, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln, wrote on the study. "So they form extra strong anti-gay attitudes as a means of appearing heterosexual to others, and perhaps trying to convince themselves they are entirely heterosexual."

But as we are now realizing with so many other seductive findings – and the psychological studies that produce them – this one may not be as firmly grounded as originally assumed. Just 64 heterosexual men, all college students, comprised the original study group. Moreover, the method used to assess sexual arousal, the penile plethysmograph, a device that measures blood flow to the penis, has recently come under fire in judicial and academic circles for variation in testing and the potential for false results. Moreover, the University of Georgia researchers admitted the possibility that "viewing homosexual stimuli causes negative emotions such as anxiety in homophobic men but not in nonhomophobic men. Because anxiety has been shown to enhance arousal and erection, this theory would predict increases in erection in homophobic men."

Considering these glaring issues, further research is needed to confirm or refute the study's findings. Unfortunately, not much has been conducted since. One study published in 2006 found that any arousal to gay sexual stimuli from homophobic men can likely be attributed to "implicit aversion rather than an implicit attraction," countering the original research. But another study published more recently reported the opposite. Men who were both homophobic and scored high on measures of impulsivity looked significantly longer at homosexual images than at heterosexual images when exposed to both in an eye-tracking test. The result, however, barely eked under the bar (P<.05) for statistical significance, a disconcerting sign.

Waffling results, based on few studies, with sparse sample sizes – these are not auspicious signs of a robust finding. Are homophobic men more likely to be turned on by gay porn? It's possible, but the published research does not warrant a sweeping and conclusive "yes," not by a long shot. At best, we can say that some homophobic men may be aroused by homosexual imagery, but we didn't need methodologically-dubious studies to tell us that.

Psychology is regularly weaponized in cultural and social debates, but all-too-often, the field often does not lead us to replicable truths, only to misleading headlines and enduring myths.

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