Heterosexism and Homophobia among College Students

Article excerpt

This paper distinguishes between heterosexism and homophobia. Focusing on homophobia, the importance of conducting research with respect to reducing homophobia of lesbians and gay males among heterosexual college students is considered. Inconsistencies in the research dealing with the reduction of homophobia are discussed. Consideration is given to the application of social contact theory as a way of reducing heterosexual college student homophobia of lesbians.

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Human sexuality courses and texts have frequently presented underlying heterosexual norms, raising the issue that they are unfairly biased in heterosexual perspectives. Cultural heterosexism, the discriminatory assumption that people are or should be attracted to people of the other gender, promotes individual antilesbian attitudes by promoting a value system and stereotypes that appear to justify prejudice and discrimination (Herek, 1995). Existing homophobia attitudes, irrational fears and negative attitudes of lesbians and gay males, prevalent on college campuses may be one factor that accounts for lesbians finding their college social life less emotionally supportive and more resistant to change than the social environment found in society (Louderback and Whitley, 1997).

Diversity efforts have been undertaken to reduce heterosexism and provide acceptance of those students with differing sexual orientations. Such efforts encourage students with same-gender sexual orientations to become more visible (Schreier, 1995). Institutions which have been successful in bringing about a supportive environment for lesbians have determined that these students can feel comfortable and are less likely to experience self-destructive attitudes and behaviors than those lesbians in environments that are not as supportive (O'Conor, 1994).

When considering homophobia, it is important to consider the difference between prejudice and discrimination. Many college students have prejudices, attitudes and stereotypes about lesbians. However, although many students have prejudices, they do not necessarily act on these prejudices in a manner that would interfere with the rights of lesbians.

Homophobic attitudes toward homosexual males are more common among heterosexual males than heterosexual females, while heterosexual males and females do not differ in their homophobic attitudes toward lesbians. It could be the case that heterosexual male's less homophobic attitudes toward lesbians may be in part due to the exotic value they associate with lesbianism. Upon controlling for exotic value, heterosexual male's homophobic attitudes toward lesbians are similar to their homophobic attitudes toward gay males (Louderback and Whitley, 1997; Whitley, Wiederman, and Wryobek, 1999).

One explanation of homophobia is that a fear of homosexuality is a defensive reaction against one's exotic feelings toward someone of the same gender. To investigate this possible explanation, one investigation divided a group of college student men into homophobic and nonhomophobic groups, on the basis of their homophobia scores (Adams, Wright & Lohr, 1996). Both groups were shown sexual videotapes of heterosexual, homosexual male, and lesbian sexual interactions. More homophobic males showed an increase in penile erection to the homosexual male tapes than did nonhomophobic males. Upon further questioning, the homophobic males were found to underreport their arousal, indicating a possible unawareness of it or denying it. Therefore, it is possible that some homophobia is a result of fear that they may be vulnerable to their erotic feelings toward males and demean these feelings since they are not in agreement with their perspectives of themselves as heterosexual.

Purpose

Having established that homophobia exists among college students, is it possible to reduce these irrational fears and negative attitudes of lesbians and homosexual males? …