Gay Marriage Legalization Will Make You Gay
Well, not exactly. But if social conservatives were reading about social science rather than attempting to de-fund it, that’s the erroneous conclusion they might draw from a new study by a group of UCLA researchers.
The study is based on the idea that a person’s sexual orientation is composed of two elements — actual sexual experiences and beliefs about those experiences. Although the facts of a sexual experience tend to be fairly straightforward, beliefs about the experience are open to personal interpretation. For example, that kiss at last weekend’s party may have been driven by a legitimate deep rooted desire, but it also may have been induced by those nine vodka shots.
The UCLA researchers, who were led by Mariana Preciado, hypothesized that these beliefs can be influenced by social factors. Specifically, because people are driven to see themselves in a positive light, their perceptions of their sexuality will be shaped by self-serving desires such as the need to avoid social stigma.
In a series of three experiments the researchers examined how cues of either stigma or support for homosexual relationships influenced the self-perceived sexuality of heterosexual participants. In the initial experiment participants read an article that described stigma or acceptance with regard to homosexuality, then completed a three-item survey that asked them to rate their sexual behaviors, fantasies, and attractions on a scale of 1 (“exclusively heterosexual”) to 13 (“exclusively homosexual.”) Partipants who read the article about acceptance of homosexuality rated their sexuality to be significantly closer to the homosexual end of the scale than participants who read the article about homosexual stigma.
In the second experiment, the two conditions involved exposure to statistics that either claimed a large percentage of gay students dropped out of college because of abuse (stigma condition), or that a large percentage of gay students felt accepted on campus (support condition.) Instead of a survey, self-perceived sexual orientation was measured by having participants rate the attractiveness of same sex individuals in a series of photos. The results confirmed the findings from the first experiment — participants exposed to cues of social support for homosexuality scored significantly higher on the same-sex attraction measure. The third and final experiment used subliminal primes — exposure to 16 ms of a happy or angry face — and a visual 101 point analog scale rather than the 1 to 13 scale used in the first experiment, but the results once again confirmed that exposure to supportive cues led people to report more same-sex sexuality than exposure to negative cues.
These findings are important because they appear to provide scientific evidence for a mechanism through which extremely strong signals of social support for homosexuality — things like the legalization of gay marriage and the ending of DADT — can make life easier. For example, imagine somebody who in a supportive environment self-reports a 90 out of 100 on a same-sex sexuality scale, but in a hostile environment reports an 85 out of 100. Whereas self-perceptions can adapt to the different environments, physiological responses to sexual stimuli are unlikely to obey social mores. In other words, if a person’s body responds as if they’re a 90, it’s better for them to always perceive themselves to be a 90. Thus it stands to reason that a person will be most comfortable in an environment where they maximize their level of self-perceived same-sex sexuality. This ought to be true even for a straight person who goes from a 1 out of 100 in a hostile environment to a 2 out of 100 in a supportive environment. Coming out is always healthy, even if it’s only to yourself, and it doesn’t matter if it involves changing .2%, 2%, or 20% of your perceived sexuality.
The study should also help serve as a rebuttal to those who think legalized gay marriage is unnecessary or that the movement against it does no harm. If preventing signals of social support leads to self-perceptions of less same-sex sexuality, there is the potential for incredible stress when that perception fails to align with physiological signals. On the other hand, enhancing cues of social support for homosexuality allows people to perceive themselves to be as gay as their physical reactions say they are, and that seems a lot healthier than the alternative.
Preciado, M.A., Johnson, K.L., & Peplau, A.L. (2013). The Impact of Cues of Stigma and Support on Self-Perceived Sexual Orientation among Heterosexually Identified Men and Women Journal of Experimental Social Psychology : 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.01.006