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What does it mean to be heterosexual?

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - HETERO (What does it mean to be heterosexual?)

Reporting period: 2021-05-01 to 2022-10-31

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 fragility of heterosexuality has a number of important implications on both the societal and individual level. Acceptance of fragile heterosexuality beliefs are explicitly claimed to be the basis for a number of discriminatory society-wide measures to protect heterosexuality and discourage homosexuality, including explicit anti-gay laws (still in force in 75 countries) and the practice of conversion therapy. On a more individual level, fragile heterosexuality beliefs are sometimes used as a justification for anti-transgender prejudice and aggression. The relevant belief here is that even if one is “tricked” into sexual activity with someone of the “same sex” (as transgender individuals are sometimes perceived to be), this single act is enough to compromise one’s heterosexuality. In some legal cases, this apparent compromise of one’s heterosexuality has been used to justify acts of violence and even the murder of transgender individuals, a strategy known as the “trans-panic” defence.

However, though widespread acceptance of fragile heterosexuality beliefs is often assumed by both lay people and psychological researchers, and though these beliefs appear to have serious and widespread consequences, they are nonetheless very poorly understood. Very little research has attempted to investigate them empirically and a number of questions remain unaddressed. For example: (1) Can fragile heterosexuality beliefs be reliably, empirically measured? (2) Do these beliefs apply to both men and women, or are they uniquely an aspect of male sexuality? (3) Which psychological factors explain these beliefs – e.g. sexuality social norms, social dominance orientation, anti-gay prejudice, ect . . . (4) Are fragile heterosexuality beliefs a culturally restricted phenomenon, or a more widespread, international phenomenon? And (5) what are the impacts of these fragile heterosexuality beliefs on future behaviour?

The objective of this 5-year project is to empirically answer these aforementioned questions. This period of the project in particular (30/04/2018 > 30/10/2019) focused on the first three questions concerning the empirical measurement, gender (non-) specificity and psychological precursors of fragile heterosexuality beliefs. Subsequent phases of the project will focus on the internationality and impacts of fragile heterosexuality beliefs.
This first period of the project (30/04/2018 > 30/10/2019) focused on the development of empirical measures of the fragile heterosexuality effect, investigations of the interactions of gender and the effect, and investigations of the potential psychological mechanisms behind the effect.

These initial results found that the fragile heterosexuality effect was reliably detectable using a variety of methods including participant 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). Due to their ease of application and numerical interpretation, these Likert-scale responses became the basis of our future measurement and investigation of the effect.

An empirical manuscript (containing 10 studies) based on these initial findings was submitted for publication in one the most competitive social-psychological journals. However, this manuscript was ultimately rejected due to concerns about the internal reliability of the fragile heterosexuality measures and the applicability of the findings for both men and women.

We conducted a second wave of studies in which we improved the internal reliability of the fragile heterosexuality measures, and explicitly investigated whether the gender of the observer (e.g. do men think heterosexuality is more fragile than women do, regardless of who is performing the behaviours?) and the gender of the target (e.g. do participants think that heterosexuality is more fragile for men than for women, regardless of the participant’s own gender) were more clearly and explicitly investigated. Psychological mechanisms behind the effect were also explored in these studies.

This led to a new empirical manuscript (4 studies) which is currently under review in one of the most competitive social-psychological journals. In brief, these results suggest that the fragile heterosexuality effect is very reliable, reasonably large, stronger for men than women (though present for both), and due to a combination of sexuality social norms and social dominance orientation.

These results were obtained with British samples and preparations are already underway to investigate the effect in other, international samples.
Our work on the fragile heterosexuality effect highlighted some unexpected findings, particularly relating to the lack of relationship between fragile heterosexuality beliefs and anti-gay prejudice (and constructs reliably related to prejudice, such as contact). This is particularly surprising considering the explicit use of fragile heterosexuality rhetoric to justify certain discriminatory behaviours. It remains unclear whether this is a finding unique to a particular cultural context or whether this is a more universal aspect of the fragile heterosexuality effect. Subsequent research on the impacts of fragile heterosexuality beliefs will investigate whether and under what circumstances prejudice emerges as a result of fragile heterosexuality beliefs, even if it is not a precursor to them.