Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
Surveys suggest that 4.4% of women and 6.2% of men experience same-sex attractions (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, and Michaels, 1994). Slightly fewer have a same-sex partner after age 18.
Only .3% of women and 2.4% of men reported exclusively same-sex attraction. Data from a longitudinal study of a birth cohort in New Zealand produced similar numbers.
Alfred Kinsey proposed in the 1940s that sexuality was on a continuum. He used a scale on which 0 was exclusively homosexual, 3 was equally heterosexual and homosexual, and 6 was exclusively homosexual.
More recent researchers treat homosexual and heterosexual attraction as two different variables that can be high or low in the same person. A bisexual person would have higher ratings on both variables than a person uninterested in sex.
What scale did Kinsey propose? How do some other researchers look at the same issue?
Many psychologists believe homosexuality is natural for some people and not a sickness or abnormality. Certainly many homosexuals feel that way. A pioneering researcher, Evelyn Hooker, wrote in the 1960s:
The majority of [homosexuals] I have interviewed believe that they were born as homosexuals, or that familial factors operating very early in their lives determined the outcome. In any case, it is a fate over which they have no control, and in which they have no choice.
It follows as a consequence that the possibility of changing to a heterosexual pattern is thought to be extremely limited. To fight against homosexuality is to fight against the inevitable since they are fighting against their own "nature" in its essential form, as they experience it. They believe that homosexuality is "natural" for them, as heterosexuality is for others. (Hooker, 1967, p.183)
This does not prevent some people from feeling very threatened by and hateful of homosexuality. Homophobia is an exaggerated hatred of homosexuals. It is distinct from disapproval based on religious or moral grounds. Like other phobias, homophobia is irrational and intense and may disturb normal behavior.
What is homophobia?
Some psychologists explain homophobia as a defense mechanism in people who are secretly confused about their sexual orientation or attracted to both sexes. They fight off same-sex attractions in order to feel normal. If mental defenses against same-sex attraction are failing, a person feels compelled to "shore up the defenses."
This is done by developing an exaggerated defensive reaction: homophobia. If true, this would be an example of the defense mechanism Freud called reaction formation. This line of reasoning predicts that a secure heterosexual will be less homophobic than a person with an uncertain sexual orientation.
Patterns of Homosexual Behavior
Evelyn Hooker, whose breakthrough research on male homosexual behavior was conducted in the 1950s, said she was drawn into research on homosexuality after befriending a gay male student. The student wanted Dr. Hooker to study "normal" gay people of the type who were usually overlooked by psychiatrists.
He introduced Hooker and her husband to the gay communities in California. Hooker ended up doing the one of the first scholarly studies devoted to patterns of homosexual behavior.
How did Evelyn Hooker get started on her research?
Hooker found in the 1950s that there were over 60 gay bars in Los Angeles. Most homosexuals were attempting to conceal or de-emphasize their sexual orientation on the job, so most socializing took place after hours during leisure time. The bars performed an important function in helping people meet. Hooker described a typical encounter in her 1967 book:
If one watches very carefully, and knows what to watch for in a gay bar, one observes that some individuals are apparently communicating with each other without exchanging words, but simply by exchanging glances–but not the quick glance which ordinarily occurs between men....
Later, as if in an accidental meeting, the two holders-of-a-glance may be seen in a brief conversation followed by their leaving together. Or, the conversation may be omitted.
Casually and unobtrusively, they may arrive at the door at the same time, and leave. If we followed them, we would discover they were strangers, who by their exchange of glances had agreed to a sexual exchange.
...What I have described is one form of "cruising." While the agreements resulting in the "one night stand" occur in many settings–the bath, the street, the public toilet–and may vary greatly in the elaboration or simplicity of the interaction preceding the culmination of the sexual act, their essential feature is the standardized expectation that sex can be had without obligation or commitment. (Hooker, 1967, pp. 175-176)
How did a "pick up" occur in a gay bar, when Hooker did her research (the 1950s)?
Saghir and Robins conducted another large-scale study of homosexual behavior in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They found that gaze was the most important ingredient in mutual recognition among homosexuals.
40% described "prolonged looks" as a primary way of recognizing other homosexuals, while 48% cited a combination of eye contact and other physical cues: voice, gesture, vocabulary, or choice of clothes.
What role was played by gaze, according to Saghir and Robins?
Students often interpret this as describing something unique about homosexuals, as if they have "gaydar" or a special radar for spotting other homosexuals. But the Saghir and Robins findings could be interpreted the opposite way, as showing homosexuals and heterosexuals are essentially similar in this regard.
How are students often misled by the Saghir and Robins findings?
Heterosexuals use the same exact cues–significant looks, voice, gesture, and conversation–when looking for a partner. Also, 48% is less than half, so over half of homosexuals in the Sahir and Robins research did not think gaze and other obvious cues were important. A quarter of the respondents said flatly that they could not recognize homosexuals by looking (Saghir and Robins, 1973, p.80).
Cruising–casual, anonymous sex "without obligation or commitment"–was once the most common form of sex among young homosexual males. As a result, many male homosexuals had multiple sexual partners.
Saghir and Robins (1973) found that 94% of their sample of homosexual partners had a history of more than 15 sexual partners, whereas only 21% of heterosexual men had this many female sexual partners.
Male and female homosexuals show distinctly different patterns of behavior when considered as groups. Yet certain features of their childhood histories are similar.
Two-thirds of lesbians, like two-thirds of gay men, recall being "different" since childhood. Just as 67% of male homosexuals remembered being called sissies in childhood, 70% of lesbians remembered being called tomboys.
What are common features in the childhoods of lesbians and gay males?
Tomboyism is not, however, strongly diagnostic or predictive of adult lesbianism. Over 16% of heterosexual women also reported being tomboys.
Only 3-4% of heterosexual men report being teased as sissies when young. So being called a sissy if you are a boy (and remembering it and being willing to admit it) is a more powerful predictor of homosexuality than being called a tomboy as a girl.
Why is tomboyism not strongly diagnostic of adult lesbianism?
A more powerful childhood predictor of adulthood lesbianism, in subjects interviewed by Saghir and Robins, was a repetitive childhood wish to be a boy or man. Two-thirds of adult lesbians recalled childhood wishes to be a boy.
Only 7% in a heterosexual control group reported similar childhood wishes. Again: two-thirds sounds like a high figure, but it also means that a third of lesbians did not have childhood wishes to be a male.
Like male homosexuals, 80% of lesbians remember same-sex attraction before adolescence. Only 9% of a heterosexual control group remembered similar attractions, and those were usually fleeting.
Saghir and Robins write that "emotional attachments were universal among homosexual women." This was true even in childhood.
When are the first same-sex attractions noticed, for most homosexuals?
Saghir and Robins reported a childhood memory of one lesbian:
I was 8 when I developed a strong attraction to a 7-year-old girl. I wanted to be with her and to protect her. It was my secret and felt natural to me at that time. It was more than a friendship and lasted for 4 years.
When I was 10, I saw in a newspaper the word homosexual. I [looked it up] in a dictionary and thought that it applied to me since I felt similar love for my friend. (Saghir and Robins, 1973, p.206)
Intensity and quality of emotional feeling attained with other women, not sexual behavior, is the defining characteristic of lesbianism. One woman interviewed by Tennov reported:
Sex with a man is tolerable. Sometimes it is more than tolerable. Sometimes I'm even in the mood for it. If I'm repelled, it's more by their attitudes toward women than by their physical maleness.
But no relationship with a man could begin to hold the positive value in my life that is possible with a woman. As far as I can see, that's what it means to be a lesbian. (Tennov, 1979, p.225)
What is the defining characteristic of lesbianism, according to the woman interviewed by Tennov?
Only a quarter of homosexual women report genital contact as a part of their first experience of homosexual arousal. By contrast, 81% of males report direct genital contact as part of their first homosexual arousal.
How do male and female homosexuals differ in their first encounters?
Childhood same-sex attractions in females are likely to be platonic, with no sexual activity. During pre-adolescent years about half of homosexual women report attachments with sexual undertones such as a desire for kissing or contact, and two-thirds began to have predominantly homosexual fantasies.
During adolescence, 98% of lesbians had homosexual fantasies, dreams, and daydreams. In a control sample of heterosexual women 7% reported similar fantasies.
How were adolescent dreams revealing?
Female homosexuals were far more likely than males to form a lasting relationship, in the days before the HIV virus and gay marriage. Before the age of 20, 88% of female homosexuals had partially sexual relationships characterized by faithfulness.
Between ages 20 and 29, 89% of lesbians lived with a partner for over a year, and 84% remained faithful for the duration of their relationship. Infidelity was taken seriously in this sample. It was the most common reason for a breakup.
By contrast, infidelity was tolerated among homosexual males living together, in the years before AIDS. The most common cause of a break-up among male homosexuals was loss of interest in each other or development of attachments to other people (Saghir & Robins, 1973, p.227).
Sexuality is not necessarily a focus or reason for sustaining a lesbian relationship. Support, sensitivity, and comraderie of a friend are more likely to be cited as reasons for keeping a relationship together. Cruising for partners in public places is almost nonexistent among lesbians.
What factors are most likely to be cited as a basis for a lesbian relationship?
Only 20% reported using gaze as a clue to another woman's homosexuality. Over half (56%) said they could not recognize another lesbian by appearance. The other 44% said they could recognize another lesbian using a combination of eyes, gesture, voice, clothes, and physical appearance.
This is similar to the 48% figure reported by gay males answering a similar question. Some students conclude from this that homosexual people can recognize each other, but these statistics show that less than half claim that ability.
The Impact of AIDS
In the early 1980s it became obvious that HIV, the virus that caused AIDS, could be transmitted through sexual activity. Researchers found the probability of contracting the disease was strongly correlated with numbers of sexual contacts.
One study found that homosexual men with AIDS had an average of twice as many lifetime sexual partners as homosexual men without AIDS. The earliest victims of AIDS sometimes had extraordinary numbers of sexual contacts.
In a 1982 study of 50 AIDS victims...the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta found that the median number of lifetime sexual partners for these men was 1,100, with a few of the men reporting as many as 20,000. The median number of different partners for a homosexual control group without the disease (a matched sample of 120 men) was 550. (Meredith, 1984)
Simply remaining monogamous, having only a single sex partner, is the surest way to achieve "safe sex." Avoiding shared needles is important as well, to prevent HIV transmission. The AIDS virus can incubate for five or more years, so a partner's past history is relevant.
Is monogamy the solution for gay males? Meredith (1984) wrote a few years after the AIDS epidemic started, "...Questions remain as to whether most homosexual men really want or can have monogamous relationships."
How did AIDS alter the pattern of male homosexual behavior?
However, AIDS forced many male homosexuals to discontinue the previously common pattern of frequent, anonymous sexual encounters. More gay men began to seek lasting couple relationships.
The legalization of gay marriage in the 21st Century, common in Europe and Asia as well as the United States, was undreamed-of before and during the AIDS epidemic. Not all gay men are interested in marriage, but displays of joy when gay marriage was legalized showed many were interested in legally binding long-term commitments.
Hooker, E. (1967) Sexual Deviance. New York: Harper & Row.
Laumann, J. H., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Saghir, M. T., & Robins, E. (1973). Male and female homosexuality: A comprehensive investigation. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
Tennov, D. (1979) Love and limerence. New York: Stein and Day.
Write to Dr. Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org.