A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why are gays attracted to members of the same sex who look like the opposite sex?

July 4, 2014

Dear Cecil:

Why is it so many gay people are attracted to those of the same sex who look like the opposite sex? If you are a gay man and presumably do not fancy women, why are you nonetheless attracted to other men who copy feminine qualities? If you don't want women, it seems strange to want your male partner to act and look like one! The same for lesbians — they don't like men, yet many of them try to look like men and seem to find that attractive in their female partners.

Cecil replies:

Ah, a fellow anthropologist, just back from the field. How shrewd of you to disguise yourself as a complete dumbshit.

Needless to say, gays’ and lesbians’ appearance and behavior don’t line up especially well with stereotypes based on a few atypical examples. You see some pretty serious acting-out in the World Cup; it’d be foolish to conclude from this that all Uruguayans bite. What we need is some data. The scholarly literature on what homosexuals find attractive isn’t as robust as we might like, and for some reason has focused more on lesbians than gay men. However, we do find the following:

  • Asking people what they find attractive in a romantic partner tends to produce predictable results. For example, in a 2010 survey conducted in northern California, both lesbians and gay men reported that what they’d initially been most attracted to in their partners were personality traits: “fun,” “sense of humor,” and “intelligent” were at the top of the list for both groups. Physical characteristics (“sexy,” “appearance,” “nice body”) were in the middle, while more material concerns (“successful,” “financially secure,” “owns a nice house”) were at the bottom.
  • The problem with such surveys, of course, is that respondents may simply be saying what they think they ought to say. An alternative gauge of what people find attractive is what they ask for in personal ads (granted, few are entirely frank in this venue either). A common finding is that straight men tend to look for physical attractiveness and promise financial success, while straight women look for success and promise attractiveness. In contrast, lesbians advertising for partners generally downplay attractiveness and success and emphasize personality traits such as sincerity and honesty.
  • A 2001 study asking lesbian and bisexual women what body types they considered most attractive found a strong preference for heavy, big-breasted physiques, followed closely by heavy, small-breasted ones. This contrasts with heterosexuals, with research indicating both sexes strongly prefer slim bodies. However, that’s hardly evidence of a lesbian preference for masculine-looking partners. While straights may prefer thin bodies today, a glance through an art history book suggests the earth-mother type (heavyset, usually but not always with prominent breasts and hips) has been a much-admired physique throughout history, presumably by parties of various sexual orientations.
  • One study of personal ads from 1997 found that in ads placed by lesbians, 75 percent of the terms used to describe sought-after traits in a partner were characteristically feminine (most frequently seen: the word “feminine” itself), whereas 95 percent of the traits that the women actively didn’t want were masculine. Further support, in my opinion, for the hypothesis that among lesbians the most popular type is the earth mother.
  • Generalizing about gay males is tougher. The same study of personal ads found more than 96 percent of the traits gay men sought in their partners were characteristically masculine, and all of the undesirable traits were feminine. What exactly those terms mean is debatable, though — gay men have been found to exhibit a wider spectrum of stereotypically masculine and feminine mannerisms and speech patterns than straight men. It may be helpful to distinguish body type and behavioral preferences. Surveys notwithstanding, gay men’s appreciation of a well-toned male body surely is at least the equal of straight men’s tendency to drool over a shapely woman; nobody’s going to claim the gay guys at CrossFit look effeminate. Behavior is another story. A perennial controversy in the gay community pits “gay-acting” types against gay males who in terms of manner and appearance are indistinguishable from straights.
  • A related question is whether in a gay or lesbian relationship one of the partners habitually assumes the masculine role while the other plays the female. True, a subset of lesbians identify as either butch (masculine) or femme (feminine). However, one study of lesbians and bisexual women found butch types accounted for at most 15 percent. Assuming butch and femme women pair off, such couples would be in the minority of lesbian relationships.
  • A study of gay Latino men found their adoption of dominant or submissive roles was situational, and depended upon the perceived masculinity of their partners. If they considered a partner more masculine than themselves, they’d be more likely to play the pasivo (bottom) during sex. Conversely, if their partner was less masculine, they were more likely to be the activo (top). (I'm advised this isn't universally true, however.)

So, do gay men and lesbians find different things attractive than straights do? Duh, of course. Does that mean gays prefer girly men and lesbians prefer mannish women? That’s absurd.

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References

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Bassett, Jonathan, Sharon Pearcey, and James M. Dabbs Jr. "Jealousy and partner preference among butch and femme lesbians. "Psychology, Evolution & Gender 3.2 (2001): 155-165.

Blashill, Aaron J., and Kimberly K. Powlishta. "Gay stereotypes: The use of sexual orientation as a cue for gender-related attributes. "Sex Roles 61.11-12 (2009): 783-793.

CarballoDiéguez, Alex, et al. "Looking for a tall, dark, macho man… sexualrole behaviour variations in Latino gay and bisexual men. "Culture, Health & Sexuality 6.2 (2004): 159-171.

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Levitt, Heidi M., Elisabeth A. Gerrish, and Katherine R. Hiestand. "The misunderstood gender: A model of modern femme identity. "Sex Roles 48.3-4 (2003): 99-113.

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Rosario, Margaret, et al. "The coming-out process of young lesbian and bisexual women: Are there butch/femme differences in sexual identity development?. "Archives of Sexual Behavior 38.1 (2009): 34-49.

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The Straight Dope: Was Pink Originally the Color for Boys and Blue for Girls? http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2831/was-pink-originally-the-color-for-boys-and-blue-for-girls

Welling, Lisa LM, et al. "Self-reported sexual desire in homosexual men and women predicts preferences for sexually dimorphic facial cues. "Archives of Sexual Behavior 42.5 (2013): 785-791.

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