Is sexism the reason why so many heterosexual men are prejudiced towards gay men?

Gay rights have improved hugely in recent years, but prejudice remains a significant problem. Hate crime data from the US show that gay men in particular are victimised more than other sexual minorities and that their attackers are usually heterosexual men. Moreover, survey data repeatedly find that heterosexual men, on average, are especially prejudiced towards gay men: that is, they typically show more prejudice towards gay men than they do towards lesbians, and they show more prejudice towards gay men than heterosexual women do. What’s the explanation for these findings?

A popular folk theory holds that homophobia is rife among hetero men because of their own latent and repressed homosexual tendencies. A new study explores a different explanation. Cara MacInnis and Gordon Hodson at Brock University in Canada argue that an important reason has to do with old-fashioned sexism – heterosexual men, more than heterosexual women, endorse traditional beliefs about men being superior to women, and this then fosters prejudice towards gay men because of the stereotype of gay men being feminine.

MacInnis and Hodson measured the prejudice of three samples of heterosexual men and women towards gay men and lesbian women (based on their agreement with phrases like “I think male homosexuals are disgusting”). The first sample consisted of hundreds of heterosexual Swedish high-school students (aged 16 to 20); the second was 97 heterosexual Canadians and Americans recruited online (average age 35); and the final sample was made up of hundreds of hetero Canadian university students (average age 19 years).

As well as measuring the participants’ prejudice, the researchers also asked questions about their so-called “Social Dominance orientation (SDO)” – that is, how much they believe some social groups are superior to others. People with a strong SDO endorse statements like “Superior groups should dominate inferior groups”. Finally, the researchers measured the participants’ sexism: the traditional kind (measured through agreement with statements like “Women are generally not as smart as men”) and more contemporary sexism, which the researchers said is about the denial of gender inequality (measured by disagreement with statements like “Women often miss out on good jobs due to discrimination”).

The main take-away is that in all three samples, hetero men showed more prejudice than hetero women towards gay men (in contrast, the pattern of gender differences in prejudice towards lesbian women varied across the samples). Crucially, the gender disparity in prejudice towards gay men disappeared once social dominance orientation and sexism were taken into account. Stated differently, hetero men are more likely to score high on social dominance orientation and sexism, and in turn, these measures correlate with prejudice toward gay men. Being correlational, this kind of analysis can’t prove that social dominance and sexism cause heterosexual men’s prejudice towards gay men, but the findings are consistent with that possibility and they certainly suggests these are important factors to consider.

“Most importantly,” the researchers said, “these findings can inform intervention strategies to reduce men’s prejudice toward gay men. Our results suggest that efforts to attenuate SDO or sexism may have positive outcomes on anti-gay prejudice by reducing male propensities toward anti-gay-male bias.”


MacInnis, C., & Hodson, G. (2015). Why are heterosexual men (vs. women) particularly prejudiced toward gay men? A social dominance theory explanation Psychology & Sexuality, 6 (3), 275-294 DOI: 10.1080/19419899.2014.987684

further reading
Men’s sexual orientation recognised in a fraction of a second
When gay men reveal their homosexuality later in an interaction, prejudice toward them is reduced
Intervention helps reduce homophobia
Some bisexual men are aroused by women, some aren’t – is curiosity the reason?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.