A couple weeks ago, a couple Science Bloggers, sparked by Jessica of Feministing, discussed the potential dangers of discovering the biological causes of homosexuality. Jessica expressed a common attitude in her post, writing:
And naturally the larger question with all these why-are-you-gay studies is why do we have to know? I’m terrified that once someone targets a “reason” they’re just going to try and find a way to do away with it.
To which fellow Science Blogger Janet added:
Pinning homosexuality on something (abnormal) from genetics or development comes dangerously close to making it a disease for which medical science might be able to provide a “cure”.
The worry expressed in these quotes is definitely legitimate. We don’t have to think that far back to run into very real eugenics programs in the United States and elsewhere designed to rid society of undesirables, and we’re increasingly faced with the possibility that genetic testing will allow us to produce customized zygotes. Yet, each time I see this objection to, or at least reservation about, scientific research into the biology of sexual orientation, I’m struck with the lack of discussion of how people actually represent homosexuality, and how their representations affect their attitudes toward homosexuality. Sure, the reservations themselves are born of the realization that many people have negative attitudes towards homosexuality, but which people? How do they represent homosexuality, and do their representations differ from the representations of people with positive attitudes towards homosexuality? Are these differences relevant to the reservation?
I’m struck by this because I think it’s important in framing analysis (see stage 1 in that post) or any ethical discussion to understand how people represent relevant information, and how their representations affect their attitudes and behaviors. If you don’t know this, then any attempt to make prescriptions about how to talk about things, what it’s good to know and what it’s not good to know, etc., in order to avoid unethical behavior or promote ethical behavior, is taking place in the dark.
With that in mind, I’m going to talk a bit about what we know of people’s representations of sexual orientation, and how their representations affect their attitudes towards homosexuality. The best study to date on this topic was published in April in Personality and Social Psychology by Nick Haslam and Sheri Levy1, and it demonstrates nicely the relevance of representations to the very issues addressed in the posts above.
Before I get to that study, though, I want to remind you of a few things from my first post on essentialized social categories. There I wrote:
We are psychological essentialists about a particular [concept] if we believe that [concept] has an underlying nature that makes it what it is, even if we don’t know what that nature is.
We believe, for example, that most (if not all) natural kinds have essences. Tigers are tigers because they all share some unseen property (e.g., their genetic makeup). There’s plenty of evidence for our essentialism about natural kinds, but only recently have psychologists begun to explore other types of concepts, such as social concepts (gender, ethnicity, religion, political orientation, sexual orientation, etc.). To date, several studies have provided strong evidence that we do in fact believe that many social concepts have essences.
The last post was on gender, and described research indicating that we have strong essentialist beliefs about gender – so strong, in fact, that we may treat gender as a natural kind (mistaking it for biological sex, perhaps). In a study by Haslam et al.2, the way people represent gender was the best example of an essentialist dimension that they called “naturalness,” which includes the belief that a category is discrete (you’re either a member of the category or not), natural (as opposed to artificial or socially constructed), immutability (once you’re a tiger, you’re always a tiger), stability (the properties of the category remain the same over time), and necessity (there are certain properties that an individual must exhibit to be classified as a member of the category). The other essentialist dimension they found was called “entitativity,” and included the beliefs that a category is uniform (members of the category are highly similar to each other), informative (knowing that an individual is a member of a category tells you a lot about that individual), inherence (similarities and differences among category members “correspond to an underlying reality”), and exclusivity (if you belong to the category, you can’t be a member of contrasting categories). In the Haslam et al. study, the concept that scored the highest on the entitativity dimension was sexual orientation.
Expanding on the Haslam et al. study, Haslam and Levy attempted to explore in more depth the structure of people’s representations of sexual orientation, and the implications of those attitudes. In their first study, they had participants (n = 309) indicate how much they agreed with the following statements (based on the essentialist dimensions from Haslam et al.; quoted directly from p. 473):
- Biological basis. “Male homosexuality is caused by biological factors such as genes and hormones.”
- Immutability. “A homosexual man can become heterosexual.” (reverse scored)
- Fixity. “Whether or not a man is homosexual or heterosexual is pretty much set early on in childhood.”
- Discreteness. “Male homosexuality is a category with clear and sharp boundaries: men are either homosexual or they are not.”
- Defining features. “Male homosexuals have a necessary or defining characteristic, without which they would not be homosexual.”
- Historical invariance. “Male homosexuality has probably existed throughout human history.”
- Universality. “Male homosexuality probably only exists in certain cultures.”
Based on participants’ ratings of these statements, they found three different types of essentialist beliefs about male homosexuality. The first included the belief that male homosexuality is biologically based, immutable, and “fixed early in life;” the second included the belief that male homosexuality was historically invariant and culturally universal; and the third involved the belief that male homosexuality is a discrete category and that it involves “defining characteristics” that make someone a member of the category.
In their second study, they replicated the results of the first, and extended them to lesbians, again finding the three different types of essentialist beliefs. In this study, they also gave people the 10-question Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gays scale. They found that individuals who believed that homosexuality (male or female) was biologically based, immutable, and fixed early in life were the most “pro-gay,” while those who saw homosexuality as a discrete category with defining characteristics were the most “anti-gay.” This was particularly true of males, and Haslam and Levy argue that males may try to distance themselves from homosexuality by making it a discrete category of which you are either a member or not (with no fuzzy area in the middle).
Finally, in a third study, they added 8 statements representing the various types of essentialist beliefs described above (the 8 new statements can be found below the fold), for a total of 15 statements, and in addition to the Attitudes Towards Lesbians and Gays scale, they added scales measuring social dominance orientation, right-wing authoritarianism, political conservatism, and religiosity. Once again, they found that pro-gay attitudes were associated with the belief that homosexuality is biologically-based, immutable, and fixed early in life, and that the belief that homosexuality is a discrete category with defining characteristics was associated with anti-gay attitudes, particularly in individuals who scored highly on the right-wing authoritarianism scale and the religiosity scale. In fact, when all of the factors (essentialist beliefs, conservatism, social dominance orientation, and religiosity) were considered, the belief that homosexuality is discrete, but not biologically based, was the strongest predictor of anti-gay attitudes, while the belief that homosexuality was immutable was the best predictor of pro-gay attitudes.
Why is this relevant to the reservations that Jessica and Janet expressed? Because they argue that learning about the biological basis of homosexuality may lead to more anti-gay behavior, when it turns out that people who already believe that homosexuality has a biological basis tend to be more pro-gay than people who don’t believe that it has a biological basis! In other words, the way people’s representations of homosexuality are associated with their attitudes towards homosexuality runs counter to Jessica and Janet’s intuitions. Now, the Haslam and Levy data is correlational, and we therefore can’t make any hard inferences about the causal direction. It may turn out that people who have more positive attitudes towards homosexuality are more likely to adopt the belief that homosexuality has a biological basis than people who have negative attitudes towards it. But it also might be the case that believing that homosexuality has a biological basis leads to more positive attitudes towards homosexuality. It’s important, then, to explore the direction of the relationship between the beliefs and attitudes before we make any firm statements about the ethics of scientific research on homosexuality, because we might find that informing more people about the biological basis of homosexuality will lead to more positive attitudes towards it. And that would be a very good thing. If nothing else, this should serve as a lesson to ethicists: you have to know how the people you’re talking about think before you decide what information it is good or bad for them to have.
1Haslam, N., & Levy, S.R. (2006). Essentialist Beliefs About Homosexuality: Structure and Implications for Prejudice. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(4), 471-485.
2Halam, N., Rothschild, L., & Ernst., D. (2000). Essentialist beliefs about social categories. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 113-127.
Essentialism Scale from Study 3 (quoted from p. 483):
- Sexual orientations are categories with clear and sharp boundaries: People are either homosexual or heterosexual.
- Homosexual people have a necessary or defining characteristic, without which they would not be homosexual.
- Heterosexual and homosexual people are not fundamentally different. (reversed)
- Bisexual people are fooling themselves and should make up their minds.
- Knowing that someone is homosexual or heterosexual tells you a lot about them.
- Sexual orientation is caused by biological factors.
- Whether a person is homosexual or heterosexual is pretty much set early on in childhood.
- People cannot change their sexual orientation. (reversed)
- Homosexuality and heterosexuality are innate, genetically based tendencies.
- Doctors and psychologists can help people change their sexual orientation. (reversed)
- Homosexuals probably only exist in certain cultures. (reversed)
- Homosexuals have probably existed throughout human history.
- In all cultures there are people who consider themselves homosexual.
- The proportion of the population that is homosexual is roughly the same all over the world.
- It is only in the last century that homosexuals have appeared in large numbers. (reversed)