Sexual Prejudice:
    A variety of motivations underlie sexual prejudice. One way to understand those motives is to ask how a particular heterosexual's antigay attitudes benefit her or him psychologically.

This functional approach has been used to understand attitudes in many different domains. Its basic assumption is that people hold and express particular attitudes because they derive psychological benefit from doing so. For any individual, attitudes toward different objects can serve different functions. Moreover, different individuals can express attitudes toward an object that appear to be identical but actually serve different functions. A final assumption of this approach is that attitudes are dynamic and are affected by situational variables. Different situations make different psychological needs salient, which can affect the extent to which a particular attitude is functional or not in that situation.

Thus, a functional perspective assumes that heterosexuals have different motivations for their attitudes toward lesbians, gay men, and homosexuality. Four principal psychological functions have been identified that underlie those attitudes.

First, attitudes serving an experiential function assist heterosexuals in making sense of their previous interactions with gay people. They do this by helping the individual to fit those interactions into a larger world view, one that is organized primarily in terms of the individual's own self interest. Some heterosexuals accept gay people in general on the basis of pleasant interaction experiences with a specific gay man or lesbian. Others hold negative attitudes toward the entire group primarily as a result of their unpleasant experiences with particular gay men or lesbians.

Sexual prejudice can only serve an experiential function when a heterosexual has knowingly had personal contact with gay men or lesbians. For those who have not had such contact, sexual minority individuals are perceived more as symbols than as flesh-and-blood human beings. Whereas attitudes toward people with whom one has direct experience function primarily to organize and make sense of those experiences, attitudes toward symbols operate differently. Such attitudes help people to increase their sense of well-being or self-esteem by expressing important aspects of themselves – by declaring (to themselves and to others) what sort of people they are. Affirming who one is often is accomplished by distancing oneself from or even attacking people who represent the sort of person one is not (or doesn't want to be).

Three different attitude functions have been identified that serve these symbolic purposes.

  • Attitudes serving a value-expressive function enable heterosexuals to affirm their belief in and adherence to important values that are closely related to their self concepts.

  • When attitudes serve a social expressive function, expressing the attitude strengthens one's sense of belonging to a particular group and helps an individual to gain acceptance, approval, or love from other people whom she or he considers important (e.g., peers, family, neighbors).

  • Finally, attitudes serving a defensive function help the individual to reduce painful emotions and feelings (e.g., anxiety) that are triggered by gay people or homosexuality. These feelings may occur for a variety of reasons, possibly including the person's own psychological conflicts related to sexuality or gender. The defensive process occurs largely outside of the individual's awareness.

It is important to recognize the nexus between individual attitudes and sexual stigma. A particular manifestation of sexual prejudice can serve one or more of these functions only when the individual's psychological needs converge with the culture's ideology about homosexuality. Antigay prejudice can be value-expressive only when an individual's self-concept is closely tied to values that also have become socially defined as antithetical to homosexuality. It can be social expressive only insofar as an individual strongly needs to be accepted by members of a social group that rejects gay people or homosexuality. It can be defensive only when lesbians and gay men are culturally defined in a way that links them to an individual's personal sources of anxiety or other negative feelings (e.g., her or his own psychological conflicts).

    Relevant References
  How widespread is sexual prejudice?
  Are some groups of people more prejudiced than others?
  What are the motivations for sexual prejudice?
  Does coming out reduce sexual prejudice?
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