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April 21, 2011 10:51 PM   Subscribe

Soc-Psych-filter! Do people become gay or lesbian because they grow up feeling that stereotypically straight-acting kids are "exotic" -- as per the "Exotic Becomes Erotic" theory?

I recently encountered the Exotic Becomes Erotic theory of Daryl Bem: that our genes determine whether boys are "girly" or girls are "tomboyish", and that us gender-discordant kids then grow up oriented to think of stereotypically boyish boys or girlish girls as exotic (and, ultimately, as objects of desire). This seems fascinating to me and kind of gels with my own experience, but not knowing anything about soc psych, I'm curious. Is the theory plausible and has it gained any traction in the psychology community?
posted by dontjumplarry to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
That was not my experience at all.

Though, I might argue that non-gender conforming kids are less desirable because they are lower on the social ladder.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:02 PM on April 21, 2011


Just to clarify... Does this theory suggest that homosexuality is acquired taste rather than a something an individual (regardless of gender expression/identity/sexual organs) is born with?
posted by iLoveTheRain at 11:11 PM on April 21, 2011


Not all tomboyish girls are attracted to girly girls and vice versa. I can't speak for men.
posted by deborah at 11:13 PM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


it's not a matter of either primarily genetic/biological/instinct or primarily environmental/cultural/taste. the two dimensions are intertwined and shape each other (although that's still an absurdly simplistic way of putting it, particularly with human beings)
posted by Bwithh at 11:17 PM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


If I am reading this study correctly, it is suggesting that children who do not conform to "normal" gender stereotypes grow up to identify as gay. But, I don't think this study is suggesting that non-conformists become gay because of the non-conformity. I read this as: the non-conformity is an indicator that your child is gay.
posted by AlliKat75 at 11:19 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just to clarify... Does this theory suggest that homosexuality is acquired taste rather than a something an individual (regardless of gender expression/identity/sexual organs) is born with?

Why can't it be both, or in addition to?
posted by zephyr_words at 11:38 PM on April 21, 2011


This question confuses me because it's weirdly binary, so I'm trying to figure out what I'm missing that's tripping me up and preventing me from participating in the discussion. I've always been under the impression that suggesting that homosexuality is something that's acquired or developed rather than innately imbued within individuals since birth = bad news bears.

As a straight ally, I asked some of my friends who identify as gay or lesbian the OP's question and they all gave me offended looks like I'd gone off my rocker. One of my friends would like to point out that she is a "stereotypically" girlish girl and so is her partner. Being a human being is being a part of a spectrum, regardless of what your sexual orientation is.
posted by iLoveTheRain at 12:09 AM on April 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Exotic? No. You're surrounded by cis-straights on a daily basis. That's the opposite of exotic. Indeed, they're (statistically speaking) normal. Surely it's the much rarer sissies who would seem exotic to the macho boys, and the tomboys to the princesses, but then...?

The hypothesis, if it's anything, is totally bass-ackwards. It's not even wrong.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:59 AM on April 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


The problem with this theory, assuming for a moment its valid, is that it doesn't explain anything at all, it just enlarges the locus of investigation. It concludes that homosexuals are not attracted to just the same sex, but that they are attracted to the same sex AND opposite gender.

You see, this theory cannot discard the link between sexual attraction and biological sex because that would entail 'sissy' gay men being sexually attracted to 'tomboy' lesbian women -- and I'm pretty sure that ISN'T the case.

Therefore, if this theory is correct, sexuality has to be explained in terms of two variables, sex and gender, instead of one. Occam's razor, anyone?
posted by davidjohnfox at 1:38 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


If lesbians are (generally speaking) all tomboys who are attracted to girly-girls, then by definition the girly girls are not lesbians, and therefore lesbians must be all permanently frustrated at lusting after all these girly straight ladies.

At the very least, your theory fails to account for

a) girly lesbians
b) bears
c) tomboys who like other tomboys.
d) people whose gender does not fit into neat boxes "gender conforming" and "non gender conforming".

and after eliminating all those people, my gut feeling is that you are down to a rather small proportion of gay folks.

Also, what about bisexual people?
posted by emilyw at 2:13 AM on April 22, 2011 [9 favorites]


Occam's razor, anyone?
FTA: The theory is based in part on the frequent finding that a majority of gay men and lesbians report being gender-nonconforming during their childhood years. A meta-analysis of 48 studies showed childhood gender nonconformity to be the strongest predictor of a homosexual orientation for both men and women
Well big fucking yawn-o-rama. "Predictor." This is just more "Is Johnny (going to be) gay?" bullshit that ignorant parents use to emotionally abuse their children. Like it isn't hard enough on the continuum without Prof. Bem using his grant money to 'Nard Dog me.

That said, the dude was on Stephen Colbert mixing quantum physics and porn a few months ago!
posted by rhizome at 2:45 AM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think there is a fair amount of evidence that sexuality is genetic.

For one thing, homosexuality has now been documented in a wide variety of animal species. Do sea-gulls or Bonobo monkeys go through the process of thinking about the exotic? It seems unlikely.

Any plausible theory for same-sex behavior has to account for its common occurrence in all primates, and nearly the entire animal kingdom. IMO.
posted by Flood at 4:58 AM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here's copy of Bem's paper [pdf].

Bem's theory is speculative, so you're not likely to get a yes or no answers to this question, just judgments about how plausible it is.

It's not understood how most people end up being attracted to people of the opposite sex, and some people to people of the same sex and other people to both. It's likely to be complicated than, genes, bingo! attraction! But does Bem's theory account for how that happens? That's a different story.

Bem connects his "Exotic Becomes Erotic" theory to the Westermarck effect. I don't think this makes sense. The Westermarck effect has to do with sexual attraction and familiarity (not perceived similarity) of individuals. I don't think it's much like Bem's theory at all. In general, I don't think Bem's thinking about the subject is especially clear.
posted by nangar at 5:42 AM on April 22, 2011


Slightly off-topic, but Bem and his wife Sandra Bem- who is also a psychologist- tried to raise their kids in a gender-neutral way.
posted by mareli at 5:56 AM on April 22, 2011


Short answer: no. Longer answer: this is a really, um, reductionist or maybe poorly researched or maybe just stupid description of life among the queers. Look, I'm a butch queer woman. I'm not attracted to straight women generally or femme women at all (with, in fairness, the minor exceptions of "you meet someone really cool and you start to be attracted to them). I'm sometimes attracted to non-gender-conforming men.

What exactly is attraction, anyway? Like, if I think some girl is pretty, but then I find out that she's straight, I still think she's pretty but I wouldn't really say I'm "attracted" to her, like I want to ask her on a date. And then there are lots of people I think are nice to look at but in whom I have no sexual interest.

And queer attraction has for so long been contoured by homophobia--like, there are definite social advantages to a "straight-acting" partner, because then, hey, you can walk around in public and not get queer-bashed! And since "straight-acting" is what's socially valued, it can be "attractive" in the same way that the nerdy boy wants the totally unsuitable cheerleader, because it proves something.

Now that I think about it, the ways that queer sexualities have been shaped by homophobia and resistance actually--to me--point to the social construction of all sexualities, and the absolute nonsense of all that "on the veldt men were like this and women like that" stuff.

I'm sure the Bems mean well, and I do support letting kids figure out gender themselves as much as possible.
posted by Frowner at 6:39 AM on April 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Just as far as gelling with experience, I'm not that butch but I'm not that femme, so I don't even know how this would work for me. But I'm not even sure this makes logical sense in general. In that case, it basically says that, okay, you were a tomboy so you grow up to be a butch lesbian because you like the femme girls.

But then it'd also say that the femme girls wouldn't be gay. So you'd basically have a ton of butch lesbians and they'd all be eternally frustrated because they couldn't have the sort of woman they actually wanted, so wanting them would be totally pointless.

Why, even if you removed all the people this system can't account for, would it even work that way?

(My type isn't so much "butch" or "femme" as "low-maintenance". Which is pretty much the opposite of exotic, as far as I'm concerned.)
posted by gracedissolved at 6:51 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Any plausible theory for same-sex behavior has to account for its common occurrence in all primates, and nearly the entire animal kingdom. IMO.

AND its universality in nearly every tribal society studied by anthropologists, and in every early civilization. In fact, wherever homosexuality is "merely approved it tends to be prevalent."

I'm reading The Origins and Role of Same-sex Relations in Human Societies, by James Neill. The argument in the book is the most profound and insightful illumination of homosexuality I've ever encountered. Neill argues that human same-sex behavior is our inheritance from the animal kingdom, that it has always served a supportive role among social creatures, that humans--like most animals--are naturally ambisexual, and that it is only dominant western culture over the past couple of thousand years which has obscured this fact and led to much neurosis.

Essentially, there is nothing to explain about homosexuality except when it is absent.
posted by General Tonic at 6:53 AM on April 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


Been a while since I studied Psych, but Bem's name was certainly thrown around in undergrad courses, so I think we can say he's reasonably well-respected.

If you want to find out how his work is regarded by other psychologists, you might try checking PsychInfo for citations to it, and see what they say. Alternatively, here's a Google Scholar list of such citations - probably not available in full text though.
posted by Infinite Jest at 6:56 AM on April 22, 2011


Here's an interview with the author I mentioned above, in which he says:

. . . the modern Western conception of sexuality, what I call the heterosexual myth, has distorted the way we perceive sexuality. Looking from the perspective of the broad range of human societies around the world and throughout history, in which diversity of sexual expression and variability in orientation was common, it would be more accurate to say that in the post-Medieval Western world ambisexuality became “non-normalised”.
posted by General Tonic at 7:07 AM on April 22, 2011


This really reads like you don't understand the difference between sexuality and gender performance. Queer women exist throughout the range of gender performance possibilities for women*; queer women are attracted to women throughout the range of gender performance possibilities for women*. Any individual woman may express and be attracted to a fairly limited range of gender performance, but in the aggregate, all possibilities are covered, and, despite what impressions you may have gathered, a wide range of types and attractions are utterly normal.
posted by endless_forms at 7:23 AM on April 22, 2011


As a social psychologist I can comment on how, generally, this work is viewed, and Bem in a larger sense. He does show up often in the common literature, but not as much for this idea as others. I've seen this suggestion offered, among many of the theories people have had, in textbooks, but with an overall end statement about nature playing a primary role in sexual orientation. My guess is that an evolutionary psychologist (and those textbooks) would see it mentioned more frequently and in a more nuanced way.

Bem is usually mentioned in terms of his attitude change work, which plays against and with cognitive dissonance theory. More recently, though, he's been attached to the work he put forth about ESP, which has pissed off a lot of people who felt like it shouldn't have been published in our top journal.
posted by bizzyb at 7:24 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


The simple problem with the theory is that it is restating the problem and adding no additional information. Sometimes this is useful (when a pool of information exists) and sometimes it is not.

In this case, they are trading "why are people gay?" for "A child's temperament predisposes the child to prefer certain activities over others -> why is a child's temperament the way it is?"

It's really not going out on a limb to say that much of what passes for locial psychology is barely science.
posted by rr at 7:26 AM on April 22, 2011


There is no grand unified theory of sexuality, because it is as different as every one of us. Sometimes opposites attract, and your theory would hold water. Sometimes they don't, and it wouldn't.

CAN it happen that way for some people? Absolutely. But it is no more definitive for homosexuality than it is for heterosexuality. Experiential evidence is when we see a couple that seems wildly mismatched, yet happy. "If I was Chris, there is no way I would be dating someone like Pat!" People date and mate for all kinds of reasons. Sexual attraction is completely intertwined with genetics/hardwiring, socialization, personality, hormones and everything that makes us "us".

And a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea that anyone "becomes" LBGT, because that implies that someone could also become un-gay. Which leads simple minds to assume it is a choice, which leads to re-sexualization camps and bigotry.

(I suspect part of the reason people like to shout about "it is a choice, just choose to be normal, weirdo" is evidence that sexuality really is a continuum. These are likely people who have experienced the non-binary-ness of sexual attraction, and have chosen to suppress their non-hetero feelings. So they assume that because they DID, everyone else SHOULD. Because in the end, it isn't about science, but about civil rights and minding our own business.)
posted by gjc at 7:46 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do people become gay or lesbian because they grow up feeling that stereotypically straight-acting kids are "exotic" -- as per the "Exotic Becomes Erotic" theory? This seems fascinating to me and kind of gels with my own experience,

How do you explain all the gay and lesbian people who conform to "stereotypical" gender norms and have throughout their lives? This theory feels like it was dreamed up by someone whose exposure to actual gay people has been limited to watching the fabulous ones on the teevee.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:12 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


This theory feels like it was dreamed up by someone whose exposure to actual gay people has been limited to watching the fabulous ones on the teevee.

To be fair, Daryl Bem is gay. (Well, I'm not sure what he identifies as now, but when I took a class with him he identified as "homoerotic," though he is/was married to a woman for a long time.)

That being said, I think the Exotic Becomes Erotic theory is bunk, for many of the reasons people have already discussed.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 8:45 AM on April 22, 2011


To be fair, Daryl Bem is gay. (Well, I'm not sure what he identifies as now, but when I took a class with him he identified as "homoerotic," though he is/was married to a woman for a long time.)

Ah, queer academia. It can't be parodied.

Judging from his posting history, I'm guessing that the OP is also gay, but my point still stands. The theory is embarrassingly parochial.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:56 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the robust critique. Yes, I am gay. I should point out that my summary was (in retrospect - apologies) a gross oversimplification of Bem's paper, which nangar linked above. That's not to play devil's advocate for it at all, just to suggest that -- as bizzyb pointed out -- the actual theory has much more nuance than I am giving it credit for.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:58 PM on April 22, 2011


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