It is fairly rare when physiology is used to test the claims of psychoanalysis. This is just one of the many, many reasons a study carried out at my almost alma mater, the University of Georgia — while I was attending, even — captured my imagination. Probably most acute, though, was my utter and near complete disbelief that someone actually conducted this study.
Back in 1996, UGA psychologists Henry Adams, Lester Wright and Bethany Lohr put to the test the old trope that homophobia is really evidence of latent homosexuality. Basically, the idea goes that the guys who are the most vocally and adamantly opposed to the concept and practice and very existence of homosexuality are probably gay themselves. Their homophobia, then, is misdirected self hatred. It’s based on an almost intuitive concept growing up in adolescence: A spontaneous diatribe against the disgustingness of homosexuality from a kid surrounded by nude boys in a gym locker room just comes off as suspicious. And as one gets older, homophobia becomes harder to explain as the standard confrontations of one’s own sexuality become less frequent and eventually end as one’s identity sets and forms. It becomes a very strange thing to hear an adult express homophobia. Of course, it’s possible these are merely adults who never fully worked out their uncertainties as kids; it’s also possible they hate gay people because they are secretly gay as well. As a scientific idea it is, in the vernacular, scandalous.
The UGA study set out to test the hypothesis that homophobia is the result of a latent homosexual forced to confront his repressed sexual identity; that “when placed in a situation that threatens to excite their own homosexual thoughts, they overreact with panic or anger,” as the sexuality researcher D.J. West asserted in 1977. But how to test such a thing? Of course, with porn. Adams, Wright and Lohr decided they would find the homosexuals amongst the homophobes by attaching a penile plethysmograph — an instrument used to detect minute changes in the circumference of a penis as it grows erect — to study participants and showing them graphic homosexual pornography. As a control, they also showed the volunteers straight heterosexual porn and lesbian porn, the idea being that the heterosexual guys would really separate themselves from the closeted homosexual homophobes by responding to viewing lesbian sex. It’s like this study was designed by 12-year-old boys with grant funding.
Cleverly, the researchers formed their study group from a larger pool of respondents on a test of heterosexuality and homosexuality by selecting only participants who reported never having experienced any homosexual thoughts, questions, urges and the like; those respondents with the virtually impossible score of only 1s for each of the questions in the poll — 1 being strongly heterosexual and 5 being strongly homosexual. It was the researchers’ implied assertion that the respondents had given themselves up as homophobic by being too perfectly heterosexual.
What’s most surprising of this entire spectacle of a study — beyond the use of four-minute clips of porn, beyond even the use of penile plethysmography– is the results. The researchers’ hypothesis that heterosexuals should respond with more arousal to lesbian pornography than latent homosexuals proved to be, unsurprisingly, bunk. Both groups responded rather well, as it turned out. So too were the results similar for the heterosexual porn clips. But when it came to the homosexual porn, the penile circumference among those who rated most highly homophobic had a combined difference in physical arousal about double of those who rated least homophobic (about 11 mm change in circumference, compared to 5 mm). Which, astoundingly, pretty much proved that the most homophobic are aroused by homosexuality. Which is, again, scandalous.