For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012. Originally cross-posted at Family Inequality.

The other day the New York Times had a Gray Matter science piece by the authors of a study in PLoS One that showed some people could identify gays and lesbians based only on quick flashes of their unadorned faces. They wrote:

We conducted experiments in which participants viewed facial photographs of men and women and then categorized each face as gay or straight. The photographs were seen very briefly, for 50 milliseconds, which was long enough for participants to know they’d seen a face, but probably not long enough to feel they knew much more. In addition, the photos were mostly devoid of cultural cues: hairstyles were digitally removed, and no faces had makeup, piercings, eyeglasses or tattoos.

…participants demonstrated an ability to identify sexual orientation: overall, gaydar judgments were about 60 percent accurate.

Since chance guessing would yield 50 percent accuracy, 60 percent might not seem impressive. But the effect is statistically significant — several times above the margin of error. Furthermore, the effect has been highly replicable: we ourselves have consistently discovered such effects in more than a dozen experiments.

This may be seen as confirmation of the inborn nature of sexual orientation, if it can be detected by a quick glance at facial features.

Sample images flashed during the “gaydar” experiment:

There is a statistical issue here that I leave to others to consider: the sample of Facebook pictures the researchers used was 48% gay/lesbian (111/233 men, 87/180 women). So if, as they say, it is 64% accurate at detecting lesbians, and 57% accurate at detecting gay men, how useful is gaydar in real life (when about 3.5% of people are gay or lesbian, when people aren’t reduced to just their naked, hairless facial features, and you know a lot of people’s sexual orientations from other sources)? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not much.

Anyway, I have a serious basic reservation about studies like this — like those that look for finger-lengthhair-whorltwin patterns, and other biological signs of sexual orientation. To do it, the researchers have to decide who has what sexual orientation in the first place — and that’s half the puzzle. This is unremarked on in the gaydar study or the op-ed, and appears to cause no angst among the researchers. They got their pictures from Facebook profiles of people who self-identified as gay/lesbian or straight (I don’t know if that was from the “interested in” Facebook option, or something else on their profiles).

Sexual orientation is multidimensional and determined by many different things — some combination of (presumably many) genes, hormonal exposures, lived experiences. And for some people at least, it changes over the course of their lives. That’s why it’s hard to measure.

Consider, for example, a scenario in which someone who felt gay at a young age married heterogamously anyway — not too uncommon. Would such a person self-identify as gay on Facebook? Probably not. But if someone in that same situation got divorced and then came out of the closet they probably would self-identify as gay then.

Consider another new study, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which used a large sample of people interviewed 10 years apart. They found changes in sexual orientation were not that rare. Here is my table based on their results:Overall, 2% of people changed their response to the sexual orientation identity question. That’s not that many — but then only 2.5% reported homosexual or bisexual identities in the first place.

In short, self identification may be the best standard we have for sexual orientation identity (which isn’t the same as sexual behavior), but it’s not a good fit for studies trying to get at deep-down gay/straight-ness, like the gaydar study or the biological studies.

And we need to keep in mind that this is all complicated by social stigma around sexual orientation. So who identifies as what, and to whom, is never free from political or power issues.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
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