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What does it mean to be heterosexual?

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - HETERO (What does it mean to be heterosexual?)

Reporting period: 2022-11-01 to 2023-04-30

Consider the following two statements: (1) “It only takes one gay experience for a person to no longer be straight”, and (2) It only takes one straight experience for a person to no longer be gay”. Though the statements concern the same basic topic (sexual orientation) and are framed in exactly the same manner, it is commonly accepted that most people would readily agree with the first statement but not with the second. This illustrates the psychological “fragility” of heterosexuality: a belief structure in which one’s heterosexual status is perceived as both valuable and easily compromised, particularly in comparison with a potential “homosexual” status, which is perceived as relatively robust and difficult to compromise.

This ERC-funded research project investigated this "fragile heterosexuality effect", testing it's nature, it's limits, and it's associated consequences. Over the course of 5 years the research team found evidence that (1) people do indeed generally perceive heterosexuality as more fragile than homosexuality (i.e. the Fragile Heterosexuality) (2) that this belief can lead to increases in prejudice against sexual minorities and transgender people when "heterosexual people" threatened like their sexuality has been threatened (3) that the Fragile Heterosexuality effect applies to both men and women, but more significantly more strongly to men (4) that the Fragile Heterosexuality effect is related to higher levels of prejudice-related variables such as social dominance orientation, right wing authoritarianism, and estimates of population size (5) that even sexual minorities (e.g. gay people) perceive heterosexuality as more fragile than homosexuality (6) that the Fragile Heterosexuality effect holds true across a number of geographically, linguistically and culturally diverse societies European societies, but (7) that the Fragile heterosexuality is apparently not culturally universal. Certain high-prejudice populations (e.g. Jamaicans) seem to hold reversed views, believing heterosexuality to be the more stable, less easily compromised sexual identity.

The research is ongoing. Collaborators in Jamaica, Spain, Germany and other European countries are continuing to untangle elements of the Fragile Heterosexuality effect, and to investigate how it relates both to manifestations of prejudice (e.g. conversion therapy) as well as to perceptions of groups who can be perceived as threatening established sexuality categories (e.g. transgender people). Nonetheless the research has already confirmed some long-held cultural beliefs about sexual orientation while challenging others.
About 20 studies have been completed to investigate (1) the creation of empirical measures of the fragile heterosexuality effect (2) interactions of gender and the effect (3) psychological mechanisms behind the effect (4) the international prevalence of the effect (5) whether the effect was stable for different sexual populations and (6) how the fragile heterosexuality effect contributes to other social beliefs and behaviours.

An initial group of 10 studies (total N = approximately 2000, British) covered a variety of methodologies including free-responses concerning behaviours necessary to lead to a change in one’s perceived sexual orientation, responses to characters described in vignettes, and agreement with items concerning the nature of heterosexuality and homosexuality reported using Likert scales (a methodology widely in use in social psychology). These were submitted as a single manuscript which was ultimately rejected but provided material for future studies.

A second set of 4 studies (total N = 2103, British) re-investigated the Fragile Heterosexuality effect with similar, but tweaked methods. This set of studies re-affirmed the effect and also found that lower estimates of the gay and lesbian population increased the Fragile Heterosexuality effect. These were published in the journal Social Psychology.

A third set of studies (N = 2485, German and Italian) investigated whether the Fragile Heterosexuality effect applied to non-English speaking European populations. These studies re-affirmed the Fragile Heterosexuality effect among European populations, and found that higher levels of anti-gay prejudice strengthened the effect. These were published in the journal Sexuality and Culture.

A fourth set of studies (N = 169, British and American) re-investigated the Fragile Heterosexuality effect with sexual minority participants and found that the effect also applies to sexual minorities. These studies were also published in the journal Sexuality and Culture.

A fifth set of studies (N = 1325, Jamaican) investigated the Fragile Heterosexuality effect in Jamaica and was the first recorded instance of the effect being reversed. That is, according to their responses, Jamaicans perceive homosexuality to be more fragile than heterosexuality. We hope to clarify and publish these findings later this year.

A sixth set of studies (N = 135, British) found that heterosexual men who feel attracted to transgender women experience their sexuality as fragile and threatened. This was published in the Journal of Homosexuality.

A seventh set of studies (N = 585, British) investigated how fragile heterosexuality beliefs relate to our implicit beliefs about our own personal sexualities, especially after experiencing a threat to our declared sexual orientation. The results of these studies were unexpectedly complex. We aim to complete a manuscript this year.
Our work on fragile heterosexuality has now affirmed much received wisdom about the nature of sexual orientation beliefs. We confirmed, for example, that in Western countries heterosexuality is perceived as more fragile than homosexuality, and that this effect is stronger for men than for women. We also found that these beliefs are (at least sometimes) related to anti-gay prejudice, generalised conservatism, and beliefs about hierarchy. We have also developed numerous measures of the effect that should be useful for other researchers.

However, we have also found some very unintuitive findings, such as the finding that Fragile Heterosexuality beliefs might also be related to social norms and perceived normative behaviours, as much as they are related to prejudice. We also found that sexual minorities also believe heterosexuality to be more fragile than homosexuality. However, what was perhaps most interesting, was the finding that the effect is not universal, and may not apply outside of predominantly White, Western cultures. Indeed, in our Jamaican studies, we found that homosexuality was perceived as the more fragile identity, which raised new, fundamental questions about the cross-cultural understandings of human sexuality.
Interaction of social norms and fragile heterosexuality beliefs
Germans and Italians also perceive heterosexuality as fragile
Attraction to transgender women threatens heterosexual men
Interaction of target gender and fragile heterosexuality beliefs
Sexual minorities also perceive heterosexuality as fragile