Many of us grew up seeing straight couples kiss on TV and in the movies. A peck on the lips between a man and a woman became the premise for stories where this kiss led to something desirable. Yet, as the presence of gay characters continues to grow in the media, comfort around same-sex PDA has not, according to a recent study published in journal Psychology & Sexuality.

Canadian researchers found straight men showed a similar physiological stress response to seeing two men kiss as seeing maggots in a bucket. Both images triggered a rise in salivary alpha-amylase levels — a digestive enzyme linked with stress, and response to disgust — in heterosexual men compared to their responses to neutral stimuli. Saliva was collected in a vial before each slideshow and once after.

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"It could mean that participants found the images of male same-sex couples kissing to be equally disgusting as the disgusting images," Karen L. Blair, corresponding study author from St. Francis Xavier University, told PsyPost.

She also hypothesizes it could mean the straight men had an anxiety response to same-sex male couples kissing, and a disgust response to the disgusting images of maggots. However, they were unable to tell the difference between these two emotions. It's difficult to determine whether the increase in salivary alpha-amylase level was an indicator of stress, fear, or anger.

Previous research has found disgust is linked to social evaluation. People with higher levels of disgust tend to show more sexual prejudice. However, moral elevation via inspiring videos — the opposite of disgust — reduced both implied and explicit sexual prejudice.

However, it was clear the physiological responses in the study could not be explained by the participants' sexual prejudices alone. In other words, responses did not differ whether straight men self-reported sexual prejudice, or self-reported aggression towards gay men. The heightened physiological response to same-sex PDA was experienced by all participants, including those who self-reported low levels of prejudice.

The study also debunked the "gay panic" defense; this is when straight men commit violent crimes because they feel triggered by the person's sexual orientation. For example, the father of Omar Mateen, the man who committed the heinous acts in Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., believed his son shot and killed dozens of people in the club because he saw two men kissing.

Blair argues: “Clearly, the large majority of individuals who witness same-sex PDAs do not respond with violence, indicating that whatever small physiological response we are noticing here is not evidence for an uncontrollable or overwhelming fit of panic, as suggested by the ‘gay panic’ defense.”

A total of 120 straight men between the ages of 18 and 45 were included in the study. The participants were placed in a room on their own, instructed to sit still, not touch their face, and look at six slide shows, each consisting of 30 images, ranging from male couples kissing, male couples holding hands, mixed-sex couples kissing, mixed-sex couples holding hands, neutral images (i.e., paper clips) and disgusting images (i.e., maggots). Images were in grayscale, and all couples were ‘relatively young, white, and of an average body size, so as to reduce additional mitigating factors, such as prejudice towards interracial couples.

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Although the authors believe "gay panic" was debunked, it remains unclear why men with low sexual prejudice still showed an increase in physiological response. Blair suggests this could be the result of society's socialized notion of same-sex sexuality and affection as being "disgusting" or immoral. In other words, displays of same-sex affection are still shielded, and therefore, this breeds unfamiliarity. It would be interesting to see if high physiological stress levels occur in cultures where there is a lot of sexual prejudice.

The researchers hope to replicate their results with a larger sample and with more indicators of physiological reactivity, including additional indicators to distinguish the meaning behind the physiological responses.

In the meantime, gay rights groups will continue to fight against stigmatization, demonization, and prejudice.

Perhaps future generations will grow up and consider men kissing as normal.  

Source: O’Handley BM, Blair KL and Hoskin RA. What do two men kissing and a bucket of maggots have in common? Heterosexual men’s indistinguishable salivary α-amylase responses to photos of two men kissing and disgusting images. Psychology & Sexuality. 2017.

See Also:

Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults Are More Likely To Face Mental And Physical Challenges

Verbal Disclosure Of Gay Identity May Improve Well-Being For White Men, But What About Latino Men?