Heterosexism in a Scientific Study of Lesbian Attraction

a White woman, shot only from the upper torso, holds candles arranged in the colours of the LGBTQIA or pride flag

An evolutionary psychology study that gained much media attention in May 2017 claims to show women’s sexual attraction to other women is the outcome of evolution, specifically for the pleasure of heterosexual men. The study was reported widely as ‘homosexual women evolved for men’s pleasure.’ Journalists have not read the study nor linked to it. The study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The study is led by Associate Professor Menelaos Apostolou. The team is based at the University of Nicosia, with apparently only one woman co-author.

Here, I show why the study is flawed and why the conclusions are premised on dangerous heterosexism. Heterosexism is the prejudiced belief that heterosexuality is ‘natural’ and ‘normal,’ and that heterosexuality uniformly structures all aspects of social life.  Heterosexism also presumes that gender is a binary (there are only two groups, men or women), and excludes the lived experiences of transgender people. Heterosexism brings to light the social construction of sexuality, and in this case, the values and social dynamics that impact on what is taken-for-granted about heterosexuality.

I focus my discussion on cisgender heterosexual and homosexual people as the authors of the study have presumed men and women can either be homosexual or heterosexual, to the exclusion of other gender and sexual identities. They have done this without explicitly saying so (it is a facet of heterosexism to reinforce binaries, because variations of sexuality disrupt the idea that heterosexuality is natural and normal). Experiences for transgender lesbians would vary, however, the authors presume a gender binary in thinking about lesbian desire.

With these cautions in mind, let’s dive into the study.

Ignoring the history of sexuality

Apostolou and colleagues’ paper begins by arguing sexuality is about reproduction. This is incorrect. Human behaviour is complex. One of a range of possible motivations and outcomes of sexual behaviour may be reproduction, but it is not main reason why people have sex.

Throughout human history, various societies have managed sexuality and reproduction in diverse ways. The main commonality is that sexual behaviour is socially controlled, however, how that manifests can vary greatly. For example, various technologies have been used to sequester sexuality from reproduction. In Western cultures, reproduction, sex and intimacy have increasingly become distinct, in large part due to the wider availability of birth control medicine, especially the oral contraceptive pill.

Throughout history, homosexual relationships have been linked to elevated social status in many cultures, especially for men. The spread of Christianity and colonalism changed this, as homosexuality became criminalised during the Victorian era. The French sociologist Michel Foucault showed that, as legal attention began to increase attention towards homosexual behaviour, the term ‘homosexuality’ became falsely associated with mental illness, and it was contrasted with the so-called ‘natural’ and ‘innate’ attraction between opposite-sex people.

Map of the world showing gay rights
LGBTQIA rights around the world, August 2017. Source: Prospect Magazine. Data from Pew Research Centre and the Washington Post. Map prior to marriage equality in Australia in November 2017

Let’s go back to the evolutionary psychology study. As you see, the premise that sex is primarily about reproduction is flawed, reflecting bias from Western culture, which problematically sees homosexuality as ‘unnatural.’  This is a moral, rather than a factual construction. The study at hand seeks to explain why homosexual attraction exists, given homosexual sex does not (directly) lead to reproduction. This ignores many factors, such as:

  • Many LGBTQIA people also want—and have—kids
  • Not all heterosexual people want kids (the same is true for LGBTQIA people)
  • Asexual people don’t desire sex and yet they may have romantic relationships and children.

And so you see, sex and procreation are not just the stuff of biological drivers, but of social organisation and individual life-paths.

Sexual identity, attraction and behaviour

The study cites proportions on sexual attraction for Greece (where study was conducted), which do not match other OECD nations like Australia. This is in itself an outcome of culture, as sexual behaviours vary across time and place. For example, the study quotes 3% to 8% of Greek men are homosexual, but in Australia, up to 15% of people who identify as heterosexual also experience same-sex attraction; and in Australia up to 5% of men and up to 4% of women are bisexual.

At the same tie, the study picks up the same trend we see in OECD nations; that more women report same-sex attraction in comparison to men. The researchers want to know why and jump to assumptions about human evolution without addressing the complexity of social influences on sexuality, which requires valid sociological data.

There is plethora of research that already explains this pattern: it is relatively more socially acceptable for women to admit to same-sex attraction in an academic study. It is another thing to act on this attraction and another thing again being openly accepted for varied sexual behaviour, subject to gender, cultural and other social norms, as well as the legal context, which may prohibit or otherwise socially police homosexual relationships.

The sociology of sexuality studies three broad elements of sexuality: identity, attraction and behaviour. These three elements of sexuality do not always match up in the ways some people might expect. People may have a heterosexual identity but experience desire for others of the same gender, or they may have one or several sexual encounters with people of the same gender, but not necessarily identify as homosexual.

Heterosexual women are more willing to report homosexual attraction and have acted on it. Heterosexual men are less likely to act on homosexual attraction. Heterosexual men experience higher psychosocial distress when they have same-sex attraction because homophobia has a comparatively more overt restriction over men’s sexual behaviour.  The rates of sexual identity, attraction and behaviour below show there is a broad range of experiences (more on my Sociology of Sexuality resource). Data are drawn from a nationally representative sample where all respondents identified as women or men, and chose not to identify as transgender, intersex or other identities (see why in the original study).

Sexual scripts and social control

Norms about desire in Western culture have changed over time, shaping sexual behaviour. Women’s sexuality was once pathologised as being excessive, whereas now Westerners think men are insatiable. Policing of sexual norms have inverted these perceptions as sexual scripts (or societal narratives of sexuality) change over time.

Foucault’s work shows that laws governing the age of sexual consent today are different for heterosexual people, gay men and lesbians because of the legacy of Queen Victoria.  The word ‘homosexual’ was invented after the Queen became troubled by gay men. The word heterosexual was invented afterwards. These sexual identities were constructed in association with one another, through the perceived otherness of the former.

The Queen would not consider that women would have sex with women, so the medicalisation of homosexuality initially focused on men, and more punitive laws prohibiting sex between men, specifically by making sodomy illegal across Commonwealth nation states. In Australia, Tasmania was the last state to reverse sodomy laws on 1 May 1997. At that time, the age of consent for all genders and sexualities became 17 years. In some countries, there remains a higher age of consent for homosexual sex.

Homosexual activity and the law. Source: World Economic Forum

Social construction of sexual desire

Women’s sexuality is culturally restrained. Attitudes to lesbians was not always the stuff of fantasies. In the early 1900s, one woman’s public knowledge of the clitoris generated tremendous controversy. Over time, as fiction and pornography changed, heterosexual male norms appropriated women having sex with other women as a sexual fantasy.

Back to the study: it asks: why do more women report attraction to women? Well, sexuality studies have answered this: sanctions have changed.

While it is more socially acceptable for heterosexual women to report same-sex attraction, the sanctions are tougher on lesbians and bisexual women. Lesbians face taboos and social punishments that impact their belonging and safety (see Barbara Baird’s chapter in Perspectives in Human Sexuality). The United Nations finds that transgender and bisexual women face greater levels of domestic and sexual violence than other lesbians and gay men.

A woman faces the camera surrounded by seated friends. Quote is overlaid, saying: 'Sociology shows that social, cultural, racial, class and other social hierarchies affect the sexual agency of different groups in society
Sociology shows that social hierarchies affect the sexual agency of different groups

Heterosexual women may fantasise and act on same-sex attraction, but they do so because it doesn’t really disrupt heterosexual identity, as defined through patriarchal fantasies that women exist to please men. As long as heterosexual men are conditioned to see lesbian sex as ‘sexy,’ and they control the (erroneous) mainstream perception of what this sex involves, heterosexual women face less stigma where they ‘experiment’ sexually with other women. Lesbian and bisexual women, however, are subject of homophobia, harassment and violence, as their behaviour is not predicated on male approval.

The study by Apostolou and colleagues does not take this into account. Instead, it argues that men’s desire and approval of seeing women together is an evolutionary driver of lesbian sex. This hypothesis is already flawed: it forces an evolutionary perspective that does not take into account history and culture, as I’ve shown.

The study begins by considering that homosexual attraction in women may be a genetic mutation. To put it another way: that it’s abnormal. They do not provide any credible data to establish this stance, especially given that there is no specific gene that determines sexuality. The study does not consider gay men’s sex using empirical data, nor do they consider how gay men’s sex fits in with this evolutionary theory.  The study does not ask (under their warped logic): has gay men’s sex evolved to satisfy heterosexual men’s evolution? Consider why this was not hypothesised: homophobia prevents a male-led team to apply same problematic evolutionary psychology logic to gay men.

The study then admits that gene mutation is not the whole story, even though the references cited do not have empirical validity. In fact, of the seven sources cited, three are general textbooks on sexuality that do not provide proof of gene mutation and rest are the first author citing himself, again without valid empirical evidence.

The patriarchal myth of cuckoldry and heterosexism

The study then develops its ‘male choice hypothesis’ for homosexual attraction among women using the non-scientific concept of cuckoldry. Cuckoldry is the idea that heterosexual men need to protect themselves from women who may trick them into raising children that aren’t biologically their progeny. Apostolou and colleagues’ study twice argues there are two ways to deal with cuckoldry: violence or having a partner who is attracted to women. Violence is therefore normalised as science. For example, the authors argue:

Paternal uncertainty gives rise to considerable selection pressure on men to evolve mechanisms that would enable them to reduce the risk of cuckoldry… It has been argued, for instance, that jealousy, that motivates aggressive behaviour toward a partner, is a mechanism that has evolved to serve this purpose. By imposing a heavy cost on their partners for infidelity, men discourage them from cheating.

Cuckoldry is a historical idea that stems from Christianity and colonialsim. This irrational fear of women’s promiscuity transformed the institution of marriage, in order to protect men’s assets. Cuckoldry is a myth. Research shows that only 1% to 3% of paternity is misattributed, and largely not due to deliberate deception, but due to overlapping sexual relationships at the time of conception. So again: Apostolou and colleagues’ study is flawed, by continuing to reproduce the myth of misattributed paternity as fact driving human sexuality. As Professor Michael Gilding writes:

Evolutionary psychologists believe that high non-paternity rates provide independent evidence of their theory of human behaviour. They are responsible for very badly designed studies that arrive at high estimates of misattributed paternity.

Apostolou and colleagues argue that since violence against women is tough to maintain (!), having a same-sex attracted partner increases evolutionary fitness. The authors argue this is because women who have sex with women don’t get pregnant, so they won’t trick men into looking after extra babies. The study also argues men have access to twice the number of sexual partners with little effort, increasing his changes of having children. So the rationale here is governed by pornography, not reality. To be clear, lesbians don’t have sex with one another to invite men into their bed, no matter how much heterosexual auteurs and viewers may wish otherwise.

This is where we see how the researchers have absorbed patriarchal constructions of lesbian sex:

  1. Women have sex with women to please men
  2. Men are welcome to interject in lesbian sex as they see fit, and
  3. Lesbians are 100% compliant with heterosexual men’s needs.

This is dangerous scientific heterosexism. Have you ever seen surveys, forms, letters and invitations that are addressed to a household as ‘Mr and Mrs’? Have you ever met a woman and asked if she has a husband or boyfriend? The presumption that people are heterosexual, unless they say otherwise or appear to conform to stereotypes, is driven by heterosexism. See two examples below from my travels through regional New South Wales, Australia.  In the first, we see how a restaurant menu conceives of a romantic couple’s banquet in heterosexual terms and the second example shows how stereotypes of heterosexual couples positions women as financially dependant on men. Examples of heterosexist assumptions are everywhere, from the presentation of food, to shopping, to science.

Invalid science

In all scientific studies, including sociology and psychology, in order for research to be valid, the methods must match the research questions and conclusions. The methods of Apostolou and colleagues are invalid, as they claim to establish an evolutionary connection between modern lesbian behaviour to human evolution over time. In order for this to be true, they would need credible biological and anthropological data establishing this link. They do not have this. Instead, their study is based on a four-question survey and four demographic measures (sex, age, marital status, and sexual attraction). The questions are as follows:

  1. I prefer a mate attracted to: only same-sex or opposite sex; predominately opposite sex but sometimes same-sex or vice versa; both sex equally
  2. In a long-term relationship, I prefer that my partner has sexual contact with people of same-sex: never/occasionally/frequently
  3. The question asks the same of casual relationship preferences
  4. Scenarios of finding long-term and casual partner with the opposite sex vs the same-sex are measured against infidelity.

There is much wrong here: hypothetical scenarios are not the same as reality. For example, studies show long-term partners more forgiving of infidelity than short-term relationships. Additionally,  the sample is skewed towards young people (mean age for women is 28 years, and 31 years for men). The same is predominantly drawn from psychology courses, a phenomenon that has long been critiqued as a sample of convenience and undermines the universal applications of such research. For example, the ‘truisms’ of economics, that were long-believed by Western researchers as evolutionary, are not held up in cross-cultural studies of human cooperation.

Apostolou and colleagues’ study finds that around half of the heterosexual men surveyed report preference for a partner who is sometimes attracted to women, but only around 10% heterosexual women say the same. Heterosexual men in short-term relationships are more likely to want their partner to sometimes have sex with women than those in long-term relationships. The study does not explain this in light of pornification of heterosexual sex, but instead concludes that having some women evolve to sometimes have sex with women is beneficial to men. Bear in mind they don’t have data to support this claim.

In order to make the case for evolutionary drive, they would need longitudinal data over generations. Instead, they have 590 psychology students in their sample. Also, the fact that women reported being less interested in seeing their imaginary partners with other imaginary men is seen as evidence of evolution. Why? This is not really explained.

Western popular cuture—from romance novels, to erotica, to pornography—produces less materials appropriating gay men’s sex for heterosexual women than it does of lesbian fantasies for heterosexual men.

So there you have it: a poorly designed study, with self-referential hypothesis, skewed data, and problematic conclusions steeped in scientific heterosexism.

Bad science is dangerous. It promotes acceptance of stereotypes that protects the status quo. In this case, the media tells the public what it already believes: that lesbians exist for male consumption.

Don’t accept bad science. Media should publish more thoroughly researched articles vetted by experts, especially when it impacts minorities.

Note: a version of this post was first published on Twitter on 30 May 2017.

4 thoughts on “Heterosexism in a Scientific Study of Lesbian Attraction

  1. My supervisor questioned my writing as I was perpetuating heteronormative ideas. I did not realise it until I started to work and write about MSMs and CFSWs. Even as a young writer, I have to check my bias and perpetuation of a particular narrative in my writing. Thank you for sharing this information. It reaffirmed my supervisors remarks about the hidden script of writers too.


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