Monday, April 13, 2009

Why such aggression towards male homosexuals?

Throughout recorded history male homosexuals have been persecuted. All the major Abrahamic religions abhor homosexuality, often prescribing draconian punishments. Similarly, male homosexuality has until recent times been illegal in most states, with severe sentences (recall Oscar Wilde). Male homosexuality has never been an ordinary crime, like assault or theft. Underpinning legal deprecation there seems to be a visceral, vigilantism-inducing, macho hatred of male homosexuals, captured in rich and varied epithets (faggot, queer, sod being more pleasant examples).

Why the emotionalism? Why the hatred, applying almost always only to male homosexuals? This seems a key puzzle for evolutionary psychology, complementing the problem of the very existence of homosexuality for evolutionary theory itself.

I see very little research addressing the issue, so in the worst tradition of armchair, speculative, just-so storied evolutionary psychology, let me air a hypothesis. Here are the three points.

1. Most (all?) non-human social primates live in a dominance hierarchy, maintained by aggression and submission. A classical symbol of submission is to be mounted by a more dominant animal.

2. Human males normally structure themselves in dominance hierarchies. There are other hierarchies too (intelligence, craft or artistic skills, value-leadership) which reflect the increased sophistication of human sociality and the human mind. Nevertheless, anyone who contemplates the police, the army or prisons is in no doubt of the bedrock primacy of testosterone-fuelled, masculine, violence-driven hierarchical ordering. Explicit male-on-male sexual activity is notoriously part of this at the coarser level(prisons and showers, anyone?). This stuff is not unknown in business and politics either, more talk than action usually and thankfully.

3. Research seems to show that male homosexuals are often lower in aggression and higher in affiliative relationships. This automatically places them low in any masculine dominance hierarchy.

My conclusion is that macho-type men who consider themselves at the top-end of an aggression-sustained dominance hierarchy will consider male homosexuals to be both easy victims to be punished, reinforcing their position; and by virtue of their sexual preferences, to be subverting the hierarchy itself (affiliative sex vs. dominance sex). This leads to feelings of contempt and disgust, which can fuel both further violence and the institutionalisation of the view that male homosexuality is transgressive.

In support of this view I would note that dominant men typically show little disgust or antagonism against lesbians, who are typically viewed by macho men as amusing, arousing or as a challenge. Women historically have never been part of male dominance hierarchies*.

I don’t think my speculations above are particularly compelling although I think the methodology is consistent with a sociobiological approach. I merely hope to see more recognition that the phenomenon is indeed quite an important issue to be explored within an evolutionary (sociobiological) framework.

* Note that bringing women into organisations structured as male dominance hierarchies is always problematic. Either the women have to emulate masculine dominance behaviour (try to be as alpha as possible), or they are shunted into some parallel organisation leaving the male hierarchy intact, or the male hierarchy adopts a publicly hypocritical stance of non-dominance and the hierarchy itself goes underground.

To destroy the hierarchy in favour of something else – more affiliative? – would of course destroy the organisation. If we believe we sometimes need organisations structured as male dominance hierarchies, this would presumably not be a good outcome.

I am trying, all the way through this, to adopt a scientific, evolutionary methodology – not some normative, liberal, post-enlightenment, standard social-science approach. If human males across the world spontaneously form dominance hierarchies and apparently always have done, as do our close evolutionary relatives, then there must be some environmental features which select for this. In terms of efficiency of social action in conflict situations, I don’t feel personally we have to look too far to see why that might be the case.

What is more interesting is the way that individuals typically low in inter-personal aggression (perhaps some intellectuals) can nevertheless be promoted to elite positions. It seems to me that they’re mostly tolerated there for utilitarian purposes, and that in human affairs, alpha-male dominance in the end trumps everything. You should read the news through your own perspectives of course ...