September 19, 2007

Swagger and Sway: The Study’s Author Comments

Posted at 11:46 am (Pacific Time)

In a recent posting, I discussed a newly published study titled “Swagger, Sway, and Sexuality: Judging Sexual Orientation from Body Motion and Morphology.” In addition to summarizing the study findings, I pointed out that some media reports seem to have missed the point of the research.

Prof. Kerri Johnson, the study’s lead author, e-mailed me today about that posting. In her e-mail, she noted that her principal research focus is how people perceive others, and she explained the study’s relationship to her ongoing research program. With her permission, I’m posting the text of her e-mail here.

“On your blog you recently reviewed some of my research that appeared in this month’s JPSP. I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful comments — and for helping to set the record straight.

As is always the case, this research is part of a broader program of research. The broader research program aims to understand how individuals use sexually dimorphic cues in their social judgments, and here we focused on the implications for perceived sexual orientation. I feel quite strongly that understanding how people make these judgments (whether they are correct or incorrect) can also help to understand stigma and bias. In other research (currently being written up), for example, we demonstrate that inferences made about the cues that convey masculinity/femininity, not the homosexual category membership itself, predict harsh evaluations. Because I see a clear link between understanding person construal and preventing bias, some of the claims in popular blogs have been unsettling.

In any event, you’re one of the few individuals who has correctly pointed out that my emphasis is on social perception, not the production of gendered body motion.”

Kerri L. Johnson
UCLA Department of Communication Studies

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 15, 2007

Swagger and Sway

Posted at 11:18 am (Pacific Time)

Anyone who saw The Birdcage probably remembers the hilarious scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) tries to teach Albert (Nathan Lane) how to walk like John Wayne.

Classic film lovers will remember a similar, albeit more serious scene in the 1956 film, Tea and Sympathy, in which Tom (John Kerr), a heterosexual teenager falsely accused of being gay, asks Al (Darryl Hickman), his (straight) friend, to help him with his walk.

In both films, of course, it wasn’t walking per se that concerned the characters. Rather, it was having others believe one is straight. Audience members understood that there are “masculine” and “feminine” ways to walk in American culture, and that men who walk in a feminine manner are likely to be labeled gay, regardless of their actual sexual orientation.

Relevant to the experiences of the characters of Albert and Tom, a study by Prof. Kerri Johnson and her colleagues, published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), systematically examined just how observers make judgments about whether someone is male or female, and gay or straight, based on their body shape and gait.

However, media coverage and public discussions of the article have been focusing on an incidental component of the study. More about that below.

First, let’s review the study findings. Like many research papers published in JPSP, this one reported data from three related studies, all conducted with samples of undergraduate college students.

Studies 1 and 2: Animated Figures

In the first two studies, the researchers showed students computer animations of walking human figures. They systematically varied two aspects of the models, each of which they hypothesized would be used by observers to make judgments about the figure’s sex and sexual orientation.

One variable was the figure’s overall body shape, which they characterized in terms of waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). Although there are many exceptions, women tend to have a lower WHR than men. In other words, women tend to have broad hips relative to their waist (in the extreme, an “hourglass” shape), whereas men tend to have what the researchers described as a “tubular” shape, that is, relatively similar measures of waist and hip size.

The second variable was the figure’s gait, which the researchers defined in terms of the amount of shoulder motion relative to hip motion. The stereotypical masculine walk — what Albert in The Birdcage and Tom in Tea and Sympathy were trying to achieve — involves more shoulder motion than hip motion. The researchers characterized this as a “swagger” (à la Robin Williams channeling John Wayne). By contrast, the stereotypical feminine walk involves more hip motion than shoulder motion — what the researchers called a “sway” (for the counterpart to John Wayne, think Jessica Rabbit).

When students viewed the animations, they tended to judge the cartoon walkers with more swagger to be men, and those with more sway as women. They also tended to judge walkers with more hourglass-shaped bodies to be women, and those with more tubular shaped bodies to be men. If an hourglass-shaped figure walked with swaggering shoulders, they tended to assume it was a lesbian. Tubular-shaped figures that walked with swaying hips were often assumed to be gay men.

If the body shape was androgynous but the student was told the figure’s sex, he or she then tended to rely on the image’s gait for making a guess about its sexual orientation. Once again, swaggering males were usually assumed to be straight whereas swaying males were often guessed to be gay. The pattern was usually reversed for female figures.

Thus, absent all other information about an individual, the research suggests that a male who walks with a feminine sway is often taken for gay (at least by this group of NYU undergraduates). Ditto for a female who walks with a masculine swagger.

Study 3: Videos of Live Actors

In their third study, the researchers used videos of actual human beings. Or rather, they used stripped-down videos that obscured many physical details of the real-life actors who were filmed.

To make the videos, they asked 8 men and 8 women to be filmed while walking on a treadmill. Half were heterosexual, half were gay or lesbian. The JPSP article didn’t provide any other information about the actors — such as their age or ethnicity, how they were recruited, or whether they considered themselves to be masculine, feminine, or androgynous. Presumably, however, the 4 gay male and 4 lesbian actors were all sufficiently out of the closet that they were willing to be filmed. In other words, they weren’t trying to pass as heterosexual.

As in Studies 1 and 2, the researchers showed the videos to students and asked them to guess about each walker’s sex and sexual orientation.

When it came to guessing the women walkers’ sexual orientation, the students essentially did a mental coin toss. They correctly guessed the sexual orientation of the lesbian models 43% of the time, but incorrectly guessed that the heterosexual women were lesbians 46% of the time.

They were somewhat better with the male walkers, but nevertheless were wrong about the gay male models most of the time. They correctly labeled the gay male model as homosexual only 38% of the time, and incorrectly guessed that the gay model was straight 62% of the time. They incorrectly labeled the straight men as gay 15% of the time.

Missing the Point

In summary, the three studies show that NYU students (and probably other people as well) use gender-stereotypical movement cues to make assumptions about sexual orientation in artificially created figures, and to a lesser degree in real models. When judging the real models, they use the motion cues somewhat for men, but not for women.

To the extent that people actually use these cues in their day-to-day interactions, it can have important consequences. Other research suggests that once a heterosexual observer categorizes someone as lesbian or gay, this judgment often affects their subsequent perceptions of that individual. For example, they may dislike the individual and are likely to assume that he or she conforms to a variety of gay-related stereotypes.

Although the findings reported by Prof. Johnson and her colleagues are about observers’ judgments, media coverage has been paying a lot of attention to the swagger and sway of those live actors who were videotaped for Study 3. In many reports, the study has been incorrectly characterized as revealing something about the person who’s walking rather than the people who are observing that walk (and who make guesses about the walker’s sexual orientation).

Perhaps this can be traced to the UCLA press release about the study, which was headlined “Sexual Orientation Revealed by Body Type and Motion, Study Suggests.” To read that press release, you’d think the study’s focus was on determining whether gay and straight men and women actually have different body types and walk differently. Two paragraphs placed early in the 9-paragraph release described the 16 models who were videotaped for Study 3, concluding:

…the researchers determined that the gay subjects tended to have more gender-incongruent body types than their straight counterparts (hourglass figures for men, tubular bodies for women) and body motions (hip-swaying for men, shoulder-swaggering for women) than their straight counterparts.

This is true for the 16 models. But the study didn’t show that gender-specific body movements are reliably associated with a person’s sexual orientation. As noted above, the researchers videotaped only 4 gay men, 4 lesbians, 4 heterosexual men, and 4 heterosexual women. You simply can’t generalize about an entire population from a handful of people. And we don’t even know how these models were recruited in the first place.

Nevertheless, MSNBC pursued this tangent in its story, quoting another researcher (not connected with the study) who opined:

“There’s reason to think that gay people can’t conceal their homosexuality…. I don’t think it’s a performance that gay people enact. I think it’s something that either is inborn, or it’s acquired very early, perhaps by watching members of the other sex.”

To be fair, the quoted researcher didn’t appear to be suggesting that the JPSP study proves his point — he was simply stating his personal opinion.

My own hunch, though, is that thousands of gay men and lesbians who have successfully concealed their sexual orientation from their straight friends and relatives would disagree with him. As would a lot of straight males who, like Tom in Tea and Sympathy, have worried about the way they walk.

# # # # #

Swagger, sway, and sexuality: Judging sexual orientation from body motion and morphology” was authored by Kerri L. Johnson, Simone Gill, Victoria Reichman, and Louis G. Tassinary, and it appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 93, #3, pp. 321-334 (2007).

Some of the video clips that the researchers used in Studies 1 and 2 are posted at the American Psychological Association’s journals website. Some of the videos used in Study 3 are posted at the website and the APA website.

See Mike Airhart’s comment on media coverage of the study at

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 18, 2006

Penguins, Pedophiles, and Paul Cameron

Posted at 5:30 am (Pacific Time)

Want an insight into recent attempts by the Christian Right to link homosexuality with child molestation? Just remember New York’s “gay” penguins.

In 2004, news circulated around the world that penguins in the Central Park Zoo had formed long-term same-sex pairs. Reports soon surfaced of “gay” penguins in other zoos as well.

One of the most memorable accounts of the phenomenon was created by Samantha Bee for Comedy Central’s Daily Show. She accompanied antigay activist Paul Cameron to the Zoo’s penguin exhibit and got his take on the birds.

(Cameron is a gold mine of material for The Daily Show. Last month, Samantha Bee’s real-life husband, Jason Jones, interviewed him for a piece about the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.)

Cameron declared the notion of gay and lesbian penguins “silly” and told Bee “There is no such thing as gay penguins.”

But in other contexts Cameron has argued that a single homosexual act makes someone gay. When interviewed recently by the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, he asserted that a man who thinks of himself as straight, is married with children, and has sex with women is nevertheless gay if he sexually abuses a young boy.

“If a fellow molests a boy, why would anyone consider him heterosexual even if he has a girlfriend or a wife?” Cameron asked.

Cameron isn’t alone in promoting such ideas. As I discussed in a previous post, the Family Research Council and other Christian Right groups are all in accord on this. Never mind that many pedophiles and child molesters aren’t even capable of relationships with adults and that their sexual attractions are directed solely at children. If they molest boys, they’re gay, according to Cameron and the FRC.

But if Cameron et al. count men who have sex with little boys as gay, surely they must also count men who’ve had consensual sex with other adult men. This may be more than 14% of US men, according to recent research I described in my September 29 post. Using the criteria Cameron applied to child molesters, they’re “gay.” And if we count adults with any same-sex attraction at all, the studies suggest 1 in 6 (or more) are gay.

Yet, Cameron, the FRC, and their fellow travelers staunchly maintain that only a small segment of the population — between 1 and 3 percent — is homosexual.

So let’s review the Christian Right’s rules for counting the gay population.

When the topic is molestation, male + male = gay. And female + female = lesbian. Always.

But when the goal is to minimize the size of the sexual minority population, most men and women with same-sex attractions are not counted as gay.

When it comes to the penguins, the male + male = gay equation leads to the conclusion that being gay is natural. That’s inconvenient for Cameron. Therefore, the penguins aren’t gay.

In Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Cameron and his Christian Right compatriots have taken a page from Humpty Dumpty’s playbook. “Gay” means what they say it means. And they choose whatever meaning best serves their agenda of stigmatizing sexual minorities and making them invisible.

Maybe Cameron will eventually find some penguins that molest their young. Now those would be birds he could call gay.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 15, 2006

Scapegoating Sexual Minorities: An Opinion Essay

Posted at 3:44 pm (Pacific Time)

In the wake of Rep. Mark Foley’s resignation from the US House of Representatives, antigay activists and their supporters seized on the scandal to revive the tired old stereotype of gay men as child molesters.

The Family Research Council, for example, complained that neither political party “seems likely to address the real issue, which is the link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse.” Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, was quoted by ABC News on the subject of gay men: “The reality is that many of them are interested in little boys. Not all of them, of course. But many of them.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial suggested the Foley scandal should increase liberals’ support for the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scoutmasters. It portrayed the Republican leadership (who previously have shown no reluctance to exploit the public’s unease about same-sex couples for their political ends) as fearful of offending gay people “in today’s politically correct culture.”

Although promoters of the child molester myth claim their arguments are based in fact, a careful reading of the scientific research shows otherwise. Relatively few studies have systematically assessed how many pedophiles and molesters can be considered gay, straight, bisexual, or none of the above. Those addressing this question, however, haven’t found any inherent connection between an adult’s sexual orientation and his or her propensity for molesting children. The ranks of sexual predators include straight and gay adults, but neither group is disproportionately likely to spawn molesters.

In fact, many child molesters fit the “none of the above” category. They lack the capacity for a mature relationship with another adult. Instead of being straight or gay, they are attracted mainly or exclusively to children — boys, girls, or both. Conservative activists are quick to label such men gay when they molest young boys (and sometimes even young girls). But this simplistic (and politically expedient) assumption doesn’t fit with the facts about human sexuality and pedophilia.

The lack of a linkage between homosexuality and child molestation is widely recognized by clinicians and child welfare advocates. This is why relatively little research has directly addressed the issue — proving something we already know simply isn’t a priority. Indeed, a commentary that accompanied publication of a 1994 study in the journal Pediatrics (which found no link between homosexuality and child molestation) noted that debates about gay people as molesters “have little to do with everyday child abuse” and lamented that they distract lawmakers and the public from dealing with the real problem of children’s sexual mistreatment.

Of course, congressional pages aren’t prepubescent children. They are 16 or older, which is the age of majority in some jurisdictions. Regardless of whether they’ve reached the legal age of consent, teens in the workplace need to be free from sexual harassment and coercion by their supervisors and superiors. Here again, sexual orientation isn’t a predictor of perpetrating abuse. Neither straight nor gay people are disproportionately likely to molest teenagers, use their positions of authority to abuse their subordinates, or engage in other reprehensible acts.

The gay-men-as-pedophiles stereotype is part of a long tradition of portraying disliked minority groups as a threat to the majority’s most vulnerable members. In times past, Jews were accused of murdering Christian babies and black men were regarded as a threat to white women. Society’s out-groups make convenient scapegoats, and mustering public outrage against them is often disconcertingly easy.

Predictably the gays-are-pedophiles canard is now being touted by some conservatives. This move should be seen for what it is — an effort to shift the national discussion from questions about the congressional leadership to more comfortable turf, namely, gay-bashing and scapegoating sexual minorities.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 7, 2006

Child Abuse and Christian (Right) Science

Posted at 3:54 pm (Pacific Time)

Although Christian Right groups are highly suspicious of science in matters such as evolution and the origins of the universe, they like to argue that scientific research strongly supports their claims that homosexuality and pedophilia are linked.

The Family Research Council has produced what is perhaps the most extensive attempt to document this claim. It is an article by Timothy J. Dailey titled Homosexuality and Child Abuse.

With 76 footnotes, many of them referring to papers in scientific journals, this screed’s facade of scholarly rigor gives it some degree of truthiness. A careful check on what the sources actually say, however, belies this impression. Specifically, its central argument — that “the evidence indicates that homosexual men molest boys at rates grossly disproportionate to the rates at which heterosexual men molest girls” — doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

I’ve recently updated and expanded the section of my web site devoted to Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation. It now includes a detailed review of the main sources cited by Dailey and the FRC to support their claim. Some of the new material is summarized below. For more background and context for interpreting the studies, please see my web site.

In brief, the scientific sources cited by the FRC report don’t support their argument. Most of the studies they cited did not even assess the sexual orientation of abusers. Two of the studies explicitly concluded that sexual orientation and child molestation are unrelated. Only one study (Erickson et al., 1988) might be interpreted as supporting the FRC argument, and it failed to detail its measurement procedures and did not differentiate bisexual from homosexual offenders.

Here are my comments on the 9 main sources cited in the 2004 version of the FRC article.

1. Freund et al. (1989). Heterosexuality, homosexuality, and erotic age preference. Journal of Sex Research, 26, 107-117. As the FRC concedes, the findings from this study contradict their argument.Its abstract summarizes the authors’ conclusion: “Findings indicate that homosexual males who preferred mature partners responded no more to male children than heterosexual males who preferred mature partners responded to female children.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 3, 2006

Anti-Gay Groups: Trying To Change The Subject

Posted at 11:14 am (Pacific Time)

As I anticipated in my Saturday post, antigay activists and their supporters have been seizing on the Foley scandal as an opportunity to link being gay with being a pedophile.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins issued a statement yesterday in which he complained that neither Republicans nor Democrats “seems likely to address the real issue, which is the link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse … ignoring this reality got the Catholic Church into trouble over abusive priests, and now it is doing the same to the House GOP leadership.”

An editorial in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal made a similar linkage, arguing that the Foley scandal should increase liberals’ support for the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scoutmasters.

Just to repeat what I wrote on Saturday: The ranks of child abusers, pedophiles, and sexual predators include people of all sexual orientations (and, as explained on my website, many child molesters don’t even have a true adult sexual orientation). The same goes for people who engage in sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct in the workplace: They can be straight, gay, or bisexual.

But none of these groups are disproportionately likely to behave badly. A person’s sexual orientation isn’t related to his or her propensity for sexual abuse or engaging in other reprehensible acts.

Stereotypes routinely portray denigrated minority groups as a threat to the majority’s most vulnerable members. The myth that gay men are child molesters fits this mold. Predictably, it is being touted now by conservatives who’d like to shift the national discussion from questions about the congressional leadership to the more comfortable turf of gay-bashing.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 30, 2006

This Post Isn’t About Mark Foley

Posted at 11:14 am (Pacific Time)

A few years ago, when the Catholic Church was rocked by the scandal about priests’ sexual abuse of boys, some of the Vatican hierarchy sought to focus attention on the “problem” of gay priests and seminarians (rather than the real problem of the church’s failure to protect children from predators). The Pope signed a policy in 2005 to ban ordinations of gay men, and a recently-completed probe sought evidence of homosexuality in Catholic seminaries. The fact that pedophile priests and gay priests are two distinct groups with little overlap was largely ignored.

Here we go again?

In the wake of Rep. Mark Foley’s resignation from the US House of Representatives, the Web has been full of commentary about it, including suggestions that being gay is equivalent to being a pedophile.

Although most people no longer accept the stereotype of gay men as child molesters, this old canard gains temporary currency whenever a sensationalistic story breaks. Without wading into a discussion of the specifics about Rep. Foley, I’d like to note an important fact:

There is no inherent linkage between an adult’s sexual orientation and her or his propensity for sexual attraction to children or molestation of children. The ranks of those who engage in sexually inappropriate behavior with children or underage teens include gay, straight, and bisexual adults. But none of these groups are disproportionately likely to be molesters or predators.

My web site includes an extensive discussion of this issue.

The Mark Foley story undoubtedly will generate considerable buzz in the days ahead. But it shouldn’t foster scapegoating of sexual minorities.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.