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UTA researchers find straight women interact more comfortably with gay men than with straight men

Eric Russell and Vivian Ta
Eric Russell and Vivian Ta

Studies led by a psychology researcher at The University of Texas at Arlington suggests that women are likely to be more comfortable and intimate in conversations with men who identify themselves as gay than with heterosexual men.

Eric Russell, a research associate in the Department of Psychology who received a Ph.D. in Psychology from UTA in 2017, is lead author of a paper titled “Women interact more comfortably and intimately with gay men — but not straight men — after learning their sexual orientation”. The paper was published recently in the prestigious journal Psychological Science. Co-authors are William Ickes, UTA professor of psychology, and Vivian Ta, a recent UTA Ph.D. graduate.

For the project, Russell and his colleagues conducted a pair of studies and found that when heterosexual women interacted with men for the first time, they had more open interactions with gay men after the men disclosed their sexual orientation to the women. However, women who interacted with straight men did not exhibit this same pattern after discovering their sexual orientation.

“Our research found that women are willing to engage more openly and intimately with gay men because they don’t have to worry about those men having an ulterior sexual motive,” Russell said. “This is especially true of physically attractive women, who are often wary of straight men wanting more than a platonic relationship with them.”

In the first study, the researchers assessed women’s anticipated comfort level in an initial interaction with a gay man versus a straight man. Heterosexual female college students completed an online survey in which they were asked to imagine sitting alone in a waiting room with either a straight or gay male stranger. The women were then asked to rate their comfort throughout this hypothetical interaction before and after they learned the man’s sexual orientation.

Russell and his colleagues found that, on average, women reported feeling slightly more comfortable after learning the man was straight, but significantly more at ease when the man turned out to be gay. The more attractive a woman reported perceiving herself to be, the larger the effect, suggesting the difference in comfort may be directly attributed to concerns about the man’s sexual interest, the authors wrote.

The second study consisted of face-to-face interactions between women and men, with one group of straight women conversing with straight men and the other group conversing with gay men. The researchers used a hidden camera to record video and audio of each pair during three interaction periods. In the first period, the women and men were left alone for five minutes to converse without knowing each other’s sexual orientation. In the second, they were prompted to describe his or her ideal romantic partner, which prompted them to reveal the gender to which they were attracted. In the third period, the women and men were again left alone to converse.

Following the face-to-face interactions, the pairings of straight women and gay men reported higher levels of comfort and rapport than did the pairings of straight women and straight men. This was evident from the more intimate conversations between the pairs and in the women’s body language during those conversations.

“Straight women and gay men likely see their friendships as safe spaces where they can have fun, be themselves, and engage in intimate conversations without fear of judgement, expectations, or one-sided sexual interest,” Russell said.

The findings reveal how, and why, close relationships often form quickly between women and gay men. Russell noted that the research raises exciting new questions about whether the higher levels of intimacy, trust, and mutual respect exhibited by straight women and gay men in the lab setting translate into closer friendships.

The study builds on previous research done by Russell, Ta, Ickes, UTA doctoral student Meghan Babcock, and David Lewis, lecturer in the School of Psychology & Exercise Science at Murdoch University. That research led to a 2017 article in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior titled “Why (and When) Straight Women Trust Gay Men: Ulterior Mating Motives and Female Competition”. The results from that study supported the researchers’ main hypothesis that gay men’s lack of motives to mate with women or to compete with them for mates enhances straight women’s trust in gay men and openness to befriend them.

Perry Fuchs, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, said the latest study by Russell and his colleagues is an important and intriguing addition to the social psychology landscape regarding relations between gay men and straight women.

“This research brings a clearer understanding of the differences in the ways that straight women interact with straight and gay men,” Fuchs said. “Eric’s work is continuing to shed light on gay-straight relationships and the dynamics that are at play in them.”