Sexuality special issue - Part two
Psychology at the crossroads
Ian Hodges and Jim McManus call for psychologists to be more proactive in challenging homophobia and sexual prejudice.
recent histories of both psychology and the struggle for lesbian and
gay rights are closely intertwined. Here we argue that psychology has
long been, and unfortunately remains, profoundly ambivalent with regard
to proper recognition and effective support
for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. We offer some brief critical reflection on the role of psychology in effectively tackling homophobia and hate crimes and argue that we need creative and insightful psychological research to support struggles for policy reform and individual LGBT rights. In order for this to happen, psychology (and this includes all the subdisciplines and not only lesbian and gay psychology) must become much more proactive in the struggle towards the elimination of sexual prejudice and its effects on the lives of LGBT persons.
Policy and homophobia
Recent public policy changes have originated from the premise that
homophobia and sexual prejudice are straightforwardly wrong. Often such
a premise is derived purely from principles of equity and natural
justice – LGBT citizens pay their taxes and are thus entitled in law to
the protection from victimisation that such citizenship entails. These
arguments may subsequently incorporate relevant social scientific data.
The role of LGBT agencies and academics in this process is often crucial, and the debates concerning psychological evidence – or lack of it – may play a decisive role. Thus, while we must never become complacent about psychology’s (continued) role in the oppression of sexual minorities (in particular through the psycho-pathologisation of ‘other’ sexualities, including for example transgendered and intersex persons), it is also important to note the role psychology can play in comprehending and challenging various forms of sexual prejudice.
The prevalence of homophobic crime, by its nature, is difficult to identify in the absence of a national census. However, there have been a number of surveys conducted with an LGBT sample, and prevalence rates range from 64 per cent to 72 per cent of male respondents and 21 per cent to 35 per cent of female respondents reporting one or more experiences of homophobic abuse or violence (McManus & Rivers, 2001). Prevalence of homophobia in the workplace is also difficult to determine (McManus, 2004), while understanding what constitutes a homophobic incident is itself a complex task. Homophobia is not restricted to a dislike of individuals; the dislike can be based on any sexual act or characteristic that the person associates with an LGBT person, whether or not any specific person performs that act or has that characteristic. That dislike does not have to be so severe as hatred. It is enough that people do something or abstain from doing something because they do not like LGBT people (Crown Prosecution Service, 2004). Herek et al. (1999) established that incidents that law enforcement personnel may not readily identify as homophobic can have traumatic sequelae for those experiencing them. Victims themselves have recounted that the process of reporting can repeat or reinforce the trauma they experienced, especially if the reporting process is unsympathetic or itself overtly or covertly homophobic (McManus, 2004).
Following this and other evidence, especially studies that have identified ways in which some organisations may be prone to homophobia at an institutional level, McManus and Rivers (2001) among others postulated that the MacPherson Inquiry’s model of ‘institutional racism’ and definition of a racist incident – which was based on the perceptions of the victim – should be applied to both homophobia and sexual prejudice. While not unproblematic, this would enable practicable and effective interventions with victims and perpetrators and allow organisations – especially the police and local authorities – to identify and subsequently change aspects of their culture and practice to make effective responses to homophobia and homophobic crime more likely.
In fact, such an understanding of homophobic crime is now to be found
in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) definition of a homophobic incident;
‘any incident which is perceived to be homophobic by the victim or by any other person’ (CPS, 2002). Recent CPS and police policies, and the guidance to the judiciary in the Equal Treatment Bench Book (Judicial Studies Board, 2004), should mean that LGBT people are treated equally before the courts, with clear implications for the role of psychologists as expert witnesses. The latest CPS report of prosecutions for homophobic violence (CPS, 2004) showed that 70 per cent of anti-LGBT hate crimes reported to the police in England and Wales resulted in convictions.
The ambivalence of psychology
Given such clear condemnation in public policy of homophobia and
homophobic crime it is useful to ask what role theoretical and applied
psychology can play in upholding this. It has been argued elsewhere
that the more ‘direct’ prejudice of the 1970s and 1980s, although still
with us, has to some extent given way to an ambivalent position towards
LGBT persons (Hodges, 2003) and the discipline and practices of
psychology are not exempt from this. Hans Eysenck’s announcement in
1972 – upon being challenged by Peter Tatchell during a symposium on
aversion therapy – that electro-shock and other similar behavioural
therapies (for gay men) were ‘just like a visit to the dentist’
(Tatchell, 1972) is a historical example of right-wing moral
condemnation operating under the veil of scientific/medical authority.
Likewise, during the recent struggle to form the Society’s current
Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section,
the Scientific Affairs Board and Council rejected various versions of the proposal on five separate occasions, while in response to the first proposal the Society ‘changed its rules to make it harder to form a section’ (Wilkinson, 1999, p.3). Moreover the final (approving) vote ‘had more “anti” votes than had been recorded in any other subsystem ballot in the history of the society…’ (Kitzinger, 1999, p.3) and members of the steering group received a stream of abusive hate mail from psychologists, which included ‘don’t solicit, bitch’, ‘you lot disgust me’ and ‘lesbians do not need psychology, they need a good stiff all round talking to’ (Wilkinson, 1999, p.5). Given the number and variety of Divisions and Sections in place within the Society at that time, one
is left to contemplate the motivations of those psychologists who voted against
the Section. We argue that in these and other ways the discipline of psychology continues to view LGBT individuals and communities in a markedly ambivalent way.
This ambivalence must in part be understood by recognising how the moral and ethical positions found within wider society inform and sustain psychological theory and practice. Methodological debates have existed for some time concerning the extent to which psychologists should be more transparent and reflexive with regard to their own moral and ethical positions (in this case a heteronormative one, placing heterosexuality at the centre of understandings of love and sexuality).
We believe that the practice of individual reflexivity is fundamental in enabling psychology as a discipline to move beyond its current ambivalent stance. In particular, psychologists, both academics and practitioners, need to candidly explore their own values and beliefs concerning gender, sexuality and sexual identity. It is no longer acceptable for psychologists to engage with LGBT research and experiences without
a thorough and public exploration of their own part in the process, especially the value systems and the moral and political positions from which they operate.
At the same time, these authors think that the British Psychological Society could be much more proactive with regard to public policy statements in support of LGBT rights. The Society’s reluctance to make LGBT affirmative policy statements significantly contrasts with the American Psychological Association’s (APA) regular involvement in debates which impact on the lives and rights of members of sexual minorities. The APA’s three recent statements – in support of same-sex civil marriages, opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation in matters of adoption, and opposing discrimination in the military – provide apposite examples (see www.apa.org/pi/lgbc).
The BPS’s stance also contrasts with law enforcement agencies in the UK, which have consistently declared that homophobia and homophobic crime will not be tolerated. A recent policy statement from the CPS asserts that:
Prejudice, discrimination or hate of members of any part of our community based on their sexual orientation or gender identity has no place in a civilised society… The CPS has a vital role to play in delivering this aim, not only in terms of its own role but also in terms of advising its partners in the criminal justice system… that this sort of crime must no longer be tolerated. (CPS, 2003)
The role of research
There are a number of challenges for psychology, from understanding
what constitutes sexual prejudice and homophobic crime to the
imaginative development of interventions that may contribute to victim
support, the rehabilitation of offenders and the prevention of
recurrence. However, with regard to the role of research, if we are to
tackle homophobia and sexual prejudice effectively – both within and
without psychology – we must understand the complex relationships
between lived experience (for example the experience of homophobic
abuse) and the social and cultural processes (including the impact of
public and other policy) that mould and shape it (Hodges, 2004). For
example, we need to explore ways of tackling what has been termed
‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (Rich, 1993). In other words we need
to understand the significance of the compulsion in our society to adopt
a heterosexual identity – which begins very early in childhood. The normality
and moral superiority of heterosexuality (and the ‘normal’ family) is continuously promoted through socialisation, the media, the law, religious teaching, education, peer-pressure, bullying, and so on. Ultimately it is within such social and cultural processes that we must search for an explanation of homophobia and sexual prejudice, including psychologists’ ambivalence towards LGBT persons.
However, despite this, the interconnectedness of self and society is often lost in psychological research, and we are then left with either an unduly individualised account of prejudice that remains more or less decontextualised,
or a structural/discursive account of heteronormative talk or beliefs that runs
the risk of failing to deal with, among other things, the motivations of prejudiced individuals. While there is no doubt that these frameworks are useful, neither is fully able to capture the lived experience of both the prejudiced and their ‘targets’. Thus, much psychological research on homophobia and sexual prejudice runs
the risk of providing only limited practical utility to those fighting for policy reform or working with LGBT individuals who are struggling to come out and to build satisfying and meaningful lives in a society that routinely devalues and pathologises their experiences.
Unable or unwilling?
There are numerous challenges facing psychology if it is to engage
meaningfully and effectively with the current needs of LGBT individuals
and communities, (including more recent struggles against AIDS-phobia
and trans-phobia). To be effective we require an understanding of the
emotional and visceral as well as the ‘cognitive’ aspects of prejudice
and discrimination (Hodges, 2004). However, the BPS seems to find
itself unable or unwilling to properly play its part in implementing
the principles already asserted in wider public policy. The defence
that our charity status prevents this does not stand up on any view,
especially when the Society has issued statements and made submissions
on a range of other issues (for example, the recent call for ‘more men
and people from Black and Ethnic Minority groups to study psychology
and pursue a career within the Health Service’; BPS, 2004). At a time
when other organisations are having to consider the possibility that
prejudice is systematised in their practices, the Society should
examine this possibility with regard to institutionalised homophobia.
The struggle for equality is far from over. Psychology has a range of
resources that can help achieve sensible and equitable policy
solutions. It is time to up our game, or risk being seen as an
- Ian Hodges is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Westminster. E-mail: [email protected].
- Jim McManus is a public health specialist for Barking and Dagenham Primary Care Trust, and member of the Equal Treatment Advisory Committee of the Lord Chancellor’s Judicial Studies Board. E-mail: [email protected].
British Psychological Society (2004, 17 August). Society calls for
wider representation [Press release]. Available via
Crown Prosecution Service (2002). Policy for prosecuting cases with a homophobic element. Retrieved 19 October 2005 from www.cps.gov.uk/publications/
Crown Prosecution Service (2003). Guidance on prosecuting cases of homophobic crime. Retrieved 19 October 2005 from www.cps.gov.uk/publications/
Crown Prosecution Service (2004). CPS publishes first homophobic crime data [Press release]. Retrieved 19 October 2005 from www.cps.gov.uk/news/
Herek, G., Gillis, J. & Cogan, J. (1999). Psychological sequelae of hate crime: Victimization among lesbian, gay and bisexual adults. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67, 945–51.
Hodges, I. (2003). Explaining ‘new’ homophobia: A Q-methodological study. Paper presented at the BPS Social Psychology Section Conference, London.
Hodges, I. (2004). Homophobia, disgust and the body: Towards a psycho-social approach to sexual prejudice. Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review, 5, 82–88.
Judicial Studies Board (2004). Equal treatment bench book. London: Judicial Studies Board and Department for Constitutional Affairs.
Kitzinger, C. (1999). Chair’s welcome. Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section Newsletter. Issue 1, pp.3–6.
McManus, J. (2004). Homophobic violence, trauma and recovery. Paper presented at the conference of the British Society of Criminology, UK.
McManus, J. & Rivers, I. (2001). Without prejudice. London: Nacro.
Rich, A. (1993). Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. In H. Abelove et al. (Eds.) The lesbian and gay studies reader. London: Routledge.
Tatchell, P. (1972). Aversion therapy is ‘like a visit to the Dentist’. Retrieved 28 September 2005 from www.petertatchell.net/psychiatry/dentist.htm
Wilkinson, S. (1999). The struggle to found the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section. Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section Newsletter. Issue 2, pp.3–5.
Speaking of sexual politics in psychology
The debate in the letters pages of The Psychologist in late 2003 and early 2004 made it apparent that there are many points of tension between psychologists, not only over explanations of sexuality, but also over whether politics can, and should, be incorporated into psychological theory and research. Initially this was addressed in an interview Meg Barker conducted with Peter Hegarty (Chair of the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section of the BPS) for this special issue (now published as Barker & Hegarty, 2005). However, following a review from David Hardman (author of one of the original letters) it was decided that a dialogue between Peter and David would enable a more in-depth consideration of some controversial issues about scientific and political discussions of sexuality. Here we present this discussion.
In the last year or two there have been several occasions where
‘science’ and ‘politics’ have seemed to clash publicly over matters
concerning sexuality, including the debate in the letters pages of The
Psychologist. There is obvious disagreement about whether an issue is a
‘scientific’ one or a ‘political’ one, and accusations of personal bias
are never far away. Clearly the boundaries of proper academic discourse
are in debate here. Perhaps in this dialogue we can figure out a useful
way of thinking about these kinds of events that doesn’t boil down to
absolute arguments that science is a form of free speech that ought
never to be limited, or that all claims about sexuality are equally
valid or truthful.
I am interested in why these clashes between science and politics often adhere to topics such as sexuality, gender and race. I think that it is usually understood that science represents things that cannot speak for themselves, and politics represents people’s voices or interests. However, not all humans have always been considered political subjects, and the domains of ‘science’ and ‘politics’ are neither as exhaustive nor mutually exclusive as the rhetoric of these debates sometimes assumes. For example, many canonical democratic theories did not consider women to be political subjects, and some were even comfortable with the practice of slavery. Of course, psychology extends science towards the study of the human subject and so it has always been a hybrid of these two forms of representation.
Perhaps these debates cohere around topics such as sexuality because this is one domain where the category of political ‘humans’ has altered relatively recently. After all it is only some 30 years since lesbians and gay men were considered to be mentally ill. Perhaps it takes longer than that for psychological theories to assimilate the idea that sexuality is not grounds for considering one person more properly human than another. As many biological and psychoanalytic theories were formed at a time when it was assumed that homosexuality was an illness, scientists may often perceive that they are ‘just doing science’ when their work positions lesbian, gay or bisexual people as abnormal. Perhaps also, professional lesbian, gay and bisexual people and those who specialise in the care of lesbian, gay and bisexual people will be most acutely aware of the way in which sexuality is used to dehumanise or abnormalise some people relative to others.
It is inevitable that there will be clashes between science and
politics, because they are two different forms of argument. A
scientific argument requires any claim to be based on a combination of
logical analysis and empirical evidence. One is
not entitled to express a claim where one knows that claim to be clearly contradicted by evidence. This constraint does not apply to political argument. Although evidence may be incorporated into political argument, people are nonetheless able to give free rein to their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence or in the absence of evidence. In fact, evidential support is often in the form of pseudoevidence: a plausible scenario about causation (Kuhn, 1991). It often seems to me that the most strongly held beliefs are those where real evidence is highly uncertain or unavailable.
Of course, this is a simplified view of public discourse. Scientists may attribute more validity to certain evidence than is actually the case and this may be influenced by their private beliefs. They may also go on to make pronouncements about how this evidence relates to public policy. In such a situation the boundaries between science and politics become blurred, the classic example being the IQ debate. Despite these realities, it is
the virtue of science that its claims require a reference to evidence.
Why do clashes between politics and science occur in certain domains such as sexuality? Again, perhaps this is inevitable. As sexuality is central to all our lives, it is surely not surprising that we are so curious about it, that scientists want to study it and that people hold lay beliefs about it?
I am curious as to why you think that contemporary science positions lesbian, gay or bisexual people as abnormal. Homosexuality has been removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and British society has moved in a more socially liberal direction. Homosexuality is not regarded with the degree of opprobrium that has been evident in previous generations. This is not, of course, to deny the continued existence of prejudice and the consequent struggles faced by many gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
Implicit in your distinction between ‘science’ and ‘politics’ is the
idea that science is a superior form of argument free of bias. Such
claims can make us complacent about the ways that scientific work might
– deliberately or inadvertently – contribute to prejudice and
discrimination. I agree that scientists’ views can affect their
theories, the kinds of studies they are willing and able to do, and the
kinds of interpretations that they make of their data. However, I
disagree that this is down to private beliefs. Such an interpretation
disguises the fact that communities of scientists often share a
sociological location or a world view, such that their shared personal
interests express group-based interests and ideologies.
You mentioned IQ debates, and IQ is a field where more than the personal and private was at play. Scientific objectivity became utterly conflated with white people’s views of intelligence; black psychologists could rarely achieve the training for PhDs, and their reports that poor rapport between white experimenters and black children were depressing those children’s test scores were routinely dismissed (Guthrie, 1978; Richards, 1997). Unfortunately, the view that science is better, more logical and less interested than politics can serve as a rhetorical defence of unjust practices in such situations. In this case, it was even used to defend the view that the supposedly low IQ of black Americans warranted their disenfranchisement (e.g. Minton, 1988).
Regarding homophobic prejudice, there is convergent evidence that this is modernising rather than simply going away. One component of modern prejudice is the denial that prejudice still occurs. Perhaps that is one reason why the Lyons letter (October 2003) offended so many; it presumed that sexual prejudice was a thing of the past.
With these concerns in mind – that science is a social activity and that sexual prejudice is modernising – I want to address your question of why I think that contemporary science continues to abnormalise lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. It is apparent that by ‘sex’ psychologists often mean ‘reproductive heterosexual sex’. This metonym conflates the particulars of the latter kind(s) of sex with the former more general category. This sets up homosexuality (among so many other forms of human sexual expression) as a ‘paradox’ that needs to be explained,
a puzzle that cries out to be solved. We would not conflate ‘sex’ and ‘heterosexual reproductive sex’ if we were to assume that reproduction is not the sole function of sex. Indeed, many of my heterosexual friends go to considerable lengths to have sex without reproducing. Homosexuality is not a paradox to be solved but a reason to revise the assumption that the sole – or normative – function of those actions we call ‘sex’ is reproduction.
David Hardman: If I understand
you correctly, you are concerned that the results of science may be
used to support oppressive ideologies or practices; specifically, you
seem to be arguing that certain ideas may claim a spurious objectivity
by calling upon particular scientific results. There are two initial
responses I would make to this line of thought. Firstly, in my view,
arguments that call upon science to justify public policy are more
properly called political arguments (as when politicians say ‘We have
relied upon the best scientific advice available’). Nonetheless,
although such forms of argument may be used to support some form of
ideology, it is greatly preferable that political argument does call
upon the results of science rather than not at all. This allows all
concerned parties to debate something real, as opposed to merely
exchanging different forms of pseudoevidence (untested scenarios).
For example, it would be quite easy to challenge the use of intelligence research to support racist arguments. This could be done by pointing to factors such as (a) the known influence of the environment, (b) the difficulty of achieving ‘culture-fair’ tests, (c) the fact that the mean Japanese IQ is higher than the mean US score, or (d) the fact that there are many aspects of intelligence that are not captured by standard psychometric tests. There is no shortage of eminent white researchers willing to make these points (notably Sternberg, e.g. 1996) and, indeed, these were among the points made by the APA’s task force (Neisser et al., 1996) in response to the publication of The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994) just over 10 years ago.
My second response is to ask what it is that you are expecting of scientists. Do you want them to stop doing research whose results may be used for undesirable purposes? There are people who hold this view, but I regard it as dangerous. Prejudice does not exist because of science; indeed, it is likely to flourish in the absence of relevant science because there is then no possible way for argument to be constrained by evidence.
I do regard homosexuality as a puzzle to be explained, but that does not imply that I must therefore regard homosexuality as abnormal (I do not). You propose an alternative resolution: to regard homosexuality not as a puzzle, but ‘a reason to revise the assumption that the sole – or normative – function of those actions we call “sex” is reproduction’. This strikes me as a very unlikely hypothesis. In evolutionary terms, universal behaviours or feelings (sexual desire, anger, hunger, etc.) exist because they increase the likelihood that our genes will be passed on into future generations. It hardly seems credible that evolution would have equipped us with the whole apparatus of sexual reproduction (sperm, eggs, penises, testicles, vaginas, fallopian tubes, and so on) if reproduction were not the intended end result of evolution’s ‘design’.
Peter Hegarty: Evolution
has endowed us with capacities for myriad non-reproductive sexual
pleasures. Why should it be axiomatic that so much sex is anomalous?
Feminists countered Freud’s description of women as the ‘dark
continent’. Why should gay/lesbian people accept the status of
evolutionary puzzle instead of revising the sex = reproduction
assumption? Sound methodology should produce theories that distinguish
the attributes or experiences of privileged groups (such as
heterosexuals) from ‘human nature’. My experiments show that people
overlook this distinction, and that stereotypes then affect scientific
explanations (Hegarty & Pratto, 2001).
I ask not for censorship but for higher standards of explanatory coherence.
It seems to me that your wish to revise ‘assumptions’ about sex would
merely create an even bigger puzzle that gays and lesbians would still
be a part of. In humans, sexual orientation seems to be mainly or
totally fixed before birth, and there are reasons to suspect that some
instances of male homosexuality are the result of a perturbation in the
processes of prenatal development (e.g. Blanchard, 2004;
Cantor et al., 2002). It is not hard to see that such findings could ultimately lead to biological or genetic engineering, something that many people would find objectionable. I suspect this concern lies behind the objections of some people to research into sexual orientation.
But censorship is not the answer, and I am glad you oppose it. The demise of Soviet biology under Lysenkoism was an object lesson in the deleterious effects of censoring scientists (e.g. Ridley, 2003).
- Dr Peter Hegarty is in the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey. E-mail: [email protected].
- Dr David Hardman is in the Department of Psychology at London Metropolitan University. E-mail: [email protected].
Sex diversity and evolutionary psychology
Myra J. Hird on what psychologists can learn from the huge range of non-human design and behaviour.
contemporary Western society, ‘sexuality’ has come to define, as
Foucault (1980) argued, the ‘truth of ourselves’. Evolutionary
psychology is one increasingly cited and powerful theory concerned with
the ‘aetiology’ of homosexual behaviour. I argue that two broadly
competing evolutionary theories offer radically different accounts of
the evolution of homosexual behaviour: the more traditional emphasis on
evolutionary theory as a set of law-like parameters obscures the
emphasis on sex and sexual diversity outlined by competing evolutionary
theories. I suggest that psychologists need to acknowledge these
competing accounts, and I extend an invitation to explore more recent
evolutionary theories which argue that homosexual behaviour requires no
‘special’ explanation at all.
Debates in The Psychologist in the last few years attest to the enduring interest of psychologists in the aetiology of homosexual behaviour, and more specifically to the salience of evolutionary theory in guiding this interest. People are much more likely to be familiar with theories that emphasise homosexual behaviour as ‘abnormal’ and thus in need of explanation. Within this approach, some researchers argue that homosexual behaviour is adaptive (Ruse, 1988; McKnight, 1997), others claim it is maladaptive (Gallup & Suarez, 1983) and still others maintain homosexual behaviour is simply neutral (Futuyama & Risch, 1984). Critics of evolutionary psychology argue that the first two kinds of explanation ultimately come to grief both in the specificity of their assumptions (for instance, homosexual non-human animals do not sexually reproduce), and more broadly because these studies operate within a paradigm structured by heteronormativity (a structured hegemonic privilege systematically given to heterosexuality that also systematically explicitly or implicitly disadvantages all non-heterosexual practices). Critics further contend that traditional evolutionary theories enjoy endorsement within the popular press, and society generally, because all operate within a heteronormative paradigm. Because theories are paradigm driven (Kuhn, 1
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