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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind


A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior
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Are Straight Women and Gay Men “Natural Allies”? An Evolutionary Account

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Still from the movie G.B.F (2013, "Gay Best Friend")

Not every gay man has a female best friend, nor does every straight woman have a gay man as her most trusted confidant. But according to a recent article in Evolutionary Psychology, every one should. The authors of this piece, the psychologist Eric Russell and his colleagues from Texas Christian University, claim that the age-old relationship between the homosexual male and the heterosexual female served (and likely continues to serve) a biologically adaptive function.

It’s an ancient alliance, they reason, that is unique among human social bonds for one important reason: the absence of ulterior motives in the domain of sexual behavior. “Straight women may experience increased trust in their relationships with gay men,” explain the authors:

… due to the absence of deceptive mating motivations that frequently taint their relationships with straight men (sexual interest) and other straight women (mate competition).

In terms of having someone to help them to make the most adaptive reproductive decisions, it’s a one-sided friendship. But the authors reason that gay men also derive indirect sexual benefits from having straight female friends:

The sexual interest and competitive motives that may taint gay men’s friendships with each other are notably absent from their relationships with straight women.

And therein lies the win-win for both:

Despite being sexually attracted to the same gender (i.e., men), gay men and straight women are neither potential romantic partners nor mating competition for each other. They are thus uniquely positioned to provide one another with mating-relevant advice and support that is not tainted with ulterior motives borne from intrasexual rivalry or competition.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘tainting’ in the foregoing analysis. That’s shorthand for the ambiguous, deliberate, or awkward sexual tensions that can undermine even the best platonic friendships between a straight woman and a straight man (or between two gay men.) Needless to say, every friendship, no matter the sexual orientations of the parties involved, is different. Yet prior studies have indeed revealed that both straight women and gay men rate their friendships with each other as being qualitatively more meaningful and deeper than other friendships.

Such previous work—which also found that straight women with gay male friends tend to have a positive body image, to feel sexually attractive and secure, and to consider themselves appreciated for their personality—used survey data, thus keeping scientists from drawing any conclusions about the underlying causes. Russell’s study, by contrast, is the first experimental approach to unraveling the mysteries of this distinct type of relationship, and the authors set out explicitly to test their hypothesis that it all boils down to getting unbiased mate advice.

The experiments were in fact quite modest. In the first study, the investigators zeroed in on the vantage point of 88 straight undergraduate females. All of these women read the same hypothetical scenario, which was as follows:

Imagine that you have recently been invited to a party by your friend. It is the night of the party and your friend becomes ill. However, they suggest you attend the party with one of their neighbors. You do not know this person, but you decide to look them up on Facebook before accompanying them to the party.

The participants were then shown a fake Facebook profile of the college-aged neighbor, including a photo and clear information about the person being: (a) a gay male; (b) a straight male; or (c) a straight female.  (The authors point out that the photo depicted a person of average attractiveness; for the two male conditions, the image was of the same person, so that only the sexual orientation of the target differed). The women were then asked a series of questions about this target—who, by the way, was given the androgynous name “Jordan” in all three conditions. More specifically, how much would they trust this “Jordan” when it came to making a variety of mating-related decisions? So, for example:

  • Imagine that you try on something different, and Jordan compliments you on your appearance. What is the likelihood that Jordan is being sincere?
  • How likely would you [be to] trust Jordan to tell you that you have something stuck in your teeth before talking to an attractive man at the party?
  • Imagine this attractive man at the party starts flirting with you. He seems really nice and is really interested [in] what you have to say. However, Jordan later tells you that, “He isn’t really interested in you.” How likely would you [be to] trust Jordan?
  • And so on…

Just as Russell and his colleagues predicted, the straight women who’d been randomly assigned to the “gay male Jordan” condition rated his trustworthiness as significantly higher compared to those answering questions about “straight male Jordan” or “straight female Jordan.” The latter two were seen as being equally (un)trustworthy, supporting the authors’ “ulterior motive” account.

But what happens when the roles are reversed?  Do gay men perceive straight women as being similarly trustworthy allies in love and war? Well, yes, apparently so. In the second study, the researchers replicated the party/Facebook experiment, but the participants this time were gay men rather than straight women. “Straight male Jordan” was also replaced with “lesbian Jordan” in the hypothetical scenario. On the one hand, lesbians and gay men have the whole homosexuality thing in common, and their friendships lack ulterior sexual motives. On the other hand, argue the authors, since gay men and lesbians are attracted to different genders, this absence of a common sexual interest may lead gay men to perceive lesbians as less trustworthy than straight women, at least when it comes to relationship and dating advice. And indeed, that’s precisely what they found. Gay men who were randomly assigned to the “straight female Jordan” perceived the target’s trustworthiness to be significantly higher than those who got the “lesbian Jordan” or “gay male Jordan.”

The authors concede that their study was simply an exploratory investigation. And, as such, it has its limits. For example, it’s unknown if these perceptions of the target’s trustworthiness would translate to other adaptive decision-making domains as well. All else being equal, for instance, would a gay man also take a straight woman’s financial advice over that of a lesbian or a fellow gay man? It’s also not entirely clear to me why lesbians and straight men wouldn’t enjoy a similar evolutionary dynamic. But friendships between lesbians and straight men are considerably less common than those between gay men and straight women.

Another point to keep in mind here is that Russell’s study only tapped into perceptions of trustworthiness. Whether or not, say, gay men are actually more trustworthy than straight men (or other straight women) when it comes to doling our mating advice is a very different empirical question. And finally, although we may be more sincere and trustworthy, ladies, that also doesn’t make us right.

 

Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit www.jessebering.com or add him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jesse.bering). Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 3:36 pm 01/2/2014

    Compassion is large when the common denominator is small.

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  2. 2. Therapsid 4:42 pm 01/2/2014

    “It’s also not entirely clear to me why lesbians and straight men wouldn’t enjoy a similar evolutionary dynamic. But friendships between lesbians and straight men are considerably less common than those between gay men and straight women.”

    This is one of the reasons why straight men consistently poll as less pro-gay than straight women.

    Straight women directly benefit from gay culture, whereas straight men enjoy no analogous benefit.

    Gay men flatter, flirt with, offer advice, tease, and pump up the egos of their female friends whereas lesbians… aren’t normally friends with straight men in the first place.

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  3. 3. rshoff2 6:41 pm 01/2/2014

    er… No!

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  4. 4. rshoff2 6:43 pm 01/2/2014

    Gay men are socialized as straight (unavoidable) and straight women are socialized to men. So, the gay men / straight women linkage is simply a variation of the traditional heterosexual game, with no sex. I find that association disturbing. But that’s my opinion.

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  5. 5. formertranskid 7:10 pm 01/2/2014

    One could argue that this “natural alliance” is not one is “natural” is that androphilia in men does not always lead to the cultural solution that is found in modern Western societies, that of the “egalitarian homosexual”, i.e. “gay man”. Instead, many cultures recognize that many androphilic males are highly feminized compared to straight men, and thus ‘provide’ if that is the right word, a more ‘transgender’ androphilic niche. In that niche, androphilic males would not be seen as being ‘tainted’ with sexual tension / attraction… by would most definitely be seen as potential sexual competitors, vying for the attentions of “straight” men who find femininity in either females or males to be attractive.

    Then again, in our own culture, we also see the tension in straight women, who are themselves “fag hags”… not merely best friends with a gay man, but also sexually attracted to him.

    All in all… I think this concept of “natural allies” is silly. I believe we can dispense with the need to see this as “natural”, and instead see all friendships as potentially problematic… and at the same time, worthy of building and maintaining.

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  6. 6. joepoppa 9:44 pm 01/2/2014

    One of my best friends, as a young man, was a lesbian named Kate. Some women become lesbians because they hate men. Kate simply loved women and loved to harass them at work. That is the determining factor re a relationship with the opposite sexuality: what made them choose the sexuality they did? Is there a negative friction with the opposite sex or a positive attraction with their own? All they had to do was ask me and I could have saved them a heap ‘o green stuff on something easily known.

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  7. 7. Therapsid 10:05 pm 01/2/2014

    Joepoppa – Note the reverse is uncommon – gay men are not typically motivated by an aversion to women.

    There’s a stark asymmetry here which is unavoidable.

    And even if lesbians did act like gay men in this respect, since there are more of the latter straight men would experience less of this phenomenon in any event.

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  8. 8. plex 5:50 am 01/4/2014

    This is a very western-centric argument. In the “stone age” there is very little contact between men and women, unless married or close genetic partners. This is obvious from the anthropological studies. The same is true for non-western societies, such as in the Middle East.

    One wonders what the experiment would have found if it occurred in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

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  9. 9. Ar U. Gaetü 8:18 am 01/4/2014

    The article seems to be a tremendous overgeneralization, mainly stereotypes as seen by straight women. Being Gay, my own experiences and those of my fellow Gay friends are usually one of two feelings from straight women; we’re some sort of semi-feminine male anomaly with an innate sense of “style” in need of their pity or empathy, or they are a “fag-hag” hanging around Gays using us as a way to be with men in a bar and not be hit on by them (whatever their warped reasons are for hating straight men).

    I try not to be around any women, they’re too depressing, and my life has had enough hard times, I certainly don’t want to hear about their (often superficial) “problems”, and I certainly don’t want their pity or 1000 questions about being Gay and my Gay history. Do I look like Oprah to you?

    As for Lesbians, we have nothing in common with them. Gay men and Lesbians don’t socialize. Personally, I despise the local Lesbians for overrunning every new Gay bar here in the suburbs, starting as an all-male Gay friendly safe place, but eventually leading to their demise within a year. Usually, it only takes a few women, Lesbian or not, visiting just a few weeks for the Gay men to stop going there. It’s happened 3 times in 6 years within 20 miles. The owners and bartenders say they don’t make enough money from female customers buying one drink every two hours and then barely tipping.
    Gay men don’t need straight women or Lesbians. You can add annoying “bi-sexual” married men cheating on their wives to the list, as they think we’re all cheaters, prostitutes, promiscuous, and love anal sex as much as their own f’ed up mind.
    I’m tired of battling all of my life, every day of my life. Just give us equal rights, equal opportunities, stop making us exaggerated token TV characters, and simply leave us alone. All of you!

    [/end rant]

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