Gay men and straight women

A piece of research that’s gotten something of a run in the media, now officially out in the journal Psychological Research:

“Women Interact More Comfortably and Intimately With Gay Men — But Not Straight Men — After Learning Their Sexual Orientation”, by Eric M. Russell, William Ickes, & Vivian P. Ta, first published on-line 1/8/18

The research adds some depth and twists to the topic of close friendships between gay men and straight women.

Background from popular culture, in my 4/21/17 posting “Seahorse on a stick, GBF, and the Describe-A-Muffin Task”:

GBF-hood is a relationship between a straight woman and a gay man in which the two parties have the advantages of cross-sex friendship — in particular, insight into the ways and feelings of the other sex (each is a spy into their own gender world for the other) — without the complexities of a sexual relationship and without the potential competitions of same-sex friendships. [See] the Decider site’s posting on “The 10 Best Gay Best Friends”, from #10, Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn) in Reality Bites, to #1, Tanner Daniels (Michael J. Willett) in [the film] G.B.F.

And of course Will and Grace (and Jack and Karen). From Wikipedia:

Characters Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), Will Truman (Eric McCormack), Grace Adler (Debra Messing), and Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes)

Will & Grace is an American sitcom created by Max Mutchnick and David Kohan. Set in New York City, the show focuses on the relationship between best friends Will Truman (Eric McCormack), a gay lawyer, and Grace Adler (Debra Messing), a straight interior designer. The show was broadcast on NBC from September 21, 1998 to May 18, 2006, for a total of eight seasons, and restarted its run on NBC on September 28, 2017. During its original run Will & Grace was one of the most successful television series with gay principal characters.

Now in the real world, the abstract for the Russell, Ickes, & Ta article:

Research suggests that the development of close, opposite-sex friendships is frequently impeded by men’s often one-sided sexual attraction to women. But what if this element were removed? The current research tested the hypothesis that women engage in more comfortable and intimate interactions with a gay (but not a straight) man immediately after discovering his sexual orientation. In two studies, female participants engaged in imagined or actual initial interactions with either a straight man or a gay man. After the man’s sexual orientation was revealed, women (particularly attractive ones) who were paired with a gay man reported greater anticipated comfort, which was mediated by their reduced worry about his sexual intentions (Study 1). Further, once women discovered that they were interacting with a gay man, they displayed more intimate engagement behaviors with him (Study 2). These findings reveal how, and why, close relationships often form quickly between women and gay men.

The longer summary, in the intro to the body of the study:

In recent years, modern media have highlighted the ease with which straight women and gay men relate to one another (Mapes, 2013Riley, 2012Rushall, 2016). Social scientists have empirically corroborated this phenomenon by examining close friendships between straight women and gay men. They have reported that women show an increased willingness to engage in intimate conversations with gay men very early in their relationships (Grigoriou, 2004Hopcke & Rafaty, 1999Muraco, 2006).

Yet it remains unclear why women rapidly develop a deep engagement with gay men — but not with heterosexual men — and how this high level of rapport develops in the early stages of their relationship. One explanation is that straight women have more similarities with gay men than with straight men (Blashill & Powlishta, 2009Kite & Deaux, 1987). However, there is another explanation that we think is even more important in this regard. We propose that because gay men are not sexually attracted to women, a woman should (a) feel more comfortable interacting with a gay man immediately after discovering his sexual preference and then (b) display warmer and more intimate interaction behaviors with him that accelerate the rate at which rapport is established between them.

Whereas gay men and straight women often form platonic relationships that are firmly rooted in increased trust and mutual understanding (Grigoriou, 2004Hopcke & Rafaty, 1999), straight women and straight men have more difficulty forming such friendships (O’Meara, 1989). A likely reason for this difference is the element of sexual attraction. Although attraction can exist in either direction in heterosexual opposite-sex friendships (Bleske-Rechek et al., 2012), straight men, more often than women, report initiating opposite-sex friendships with the intent to gain sexual access to a woman they are sexually attracted to (Bleske-Rechek & Buss, 2001). Women, who are likely aware of such intentions, may hesitate to intimately engage with straight men early in their relationships to avoid having their friendlier behaviors misinterpreted as signaling sexual interest (Abbey, 1982Koenig, Kirkpatrick, & Ketelaar, 2007), which is often overperceived by straight men (Haselton & Buss, 2000).

Building on these ideas, Russell, Ta, Lewis, Babcock, and Ickes (2017) advanced the hypothesis that gay men’s lack of sexual motives toward women enhances women’s willingness to trust and befriend gay men. In a series of studies, Russell et al. found evidence that (a) women trust gay men more than straight men in mating contexts and (b) gay men’s absence of deceptive mating-related intent contributes to women’s perception of gay men’s benevolence and honesty. Recently, Russell and colleagues predicted and found that physically attractive women — who are more likely to be sexually pursued and exploited by straight men — are more likely to value gay men’s advice and friendship (Russell, Babcock, Lewis, Ta, & Ickes, 2018). They concluded that the overall pattern of evidence suggests that women’s close relationship formation with gay men is rooted in gay men’s absence of sexual motives and intentions toward women.

If gay men’s lack of mating motives (i.e., absence of sexual intent) enables women to trust and befriend them more readily than straight men, could we see evidence of this close bond developing as soon as a gay man reveals his sexual orientation to a woman? We set out to answer this question by examining whether a woman’s knowledge of a man’s homosexual orientation contributes to her heightened feelings of comfort with him (Study 1) and, therefore, leads to an interaction that is more intimately engaging for both individuals (Study 2).

The statistical effects are very big.

One Response to “Gay men and straight women”

  1. [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky looks into the latest sociological and psychological research on the especially warm friendships that can […]

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