People who are particularly committed to the idea of marriage and family as the bedrock of society tend to be opposed to gay marriage. On the face of it, this seems counterintuitive, even hypocritical: Why would you resist the extension of an institution you revere?
Well, newly published research suggests a tired stereotype deserves much of the blame. Those same fiercely monogamous people, it finds, tend to be predisposed to associate gays with promiscuity.
So, in their minds, gays are less likely to take the institution of marriage as seriously (which is to say, as binding) as heterosexuals do, which will lead to its eventual weakening.
"Our ideas may shed light on the unusually rapid increase in support for same-sex marriage that has occurred throughout the past decade," write psychologists David Pinsof and Martie Haselton of the University of California–Los Angeles.
"If early state legalizations of same-sex marriage increased the visibility of monogamous gay couples, this could have challenged (straight people's) beliefs that same-sex relationships are promiscuous, which in turn could have increased support" for extending matrimony to gays.
Much anti-gay-marriage thinking can be traced to a specific combination of experiences, fears, and biases.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, featured 1,085 adults recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Participants were asked to note their level of agreement (on a one-to-seven scale) with five statements about gay men or lesbians, such as they "tend to have more casual sex" than straight people, and they "tend to be less interested in lifelong, romantic commitments."
To measure unconscious beliefs, participants also completed an Implicit Association Test, designed to test how closely they associated homosexuals with promiscuity.
In addition, they indicated their openness to having casual sex, and their attitude toward same-sex marriage (including their degree of support for a constitutional ban on the practice).
As expected, Pinsof and Haselton found a "robust correlation" between distaste for casual sex and opposition to gay marriage, which was driven in large part by "both implicit and explicit mental associations between homosexuality and promiscuity."
Certain people "fear that expanding the definition of marriage to include seemingly promiscuous relationships could weaken the link between marriage and monogamy," the researchers write. "If this link became severed, marriage would offer no assurance of fidelity; like an outmoded currency, marriage would lose value as a social institution."
And for this particular subculture, that's a big deal. "Early child-rearing and large families hinder women's occupational attainment, making them economically dependent on bread-winner husbands," the researchers note. They thus "incur higher costs of abandonment than their more self-sufficient counterparts."
Combine that genuine concern with the fact that, in small towns with highly religious populations, gay people are still likely to keep a low profile. Residents are exposed to few stable same-sex relationships—the gay people they know are probably closeted—so their prejudices have not been challenged, and their attitudes have failed to shift with the rest of the country.
The researchers concede that, while this dynamic explains a good deal of the continued opposition to gay marriage, other factors need to be identified. (They suspect "moral outrage" and "fears of unwanted sexual interest" probably play a role.)
Nevertheless, their study clarifies that much anti-gay-marriage thinking can be traced to a specific combination of experiences, fears, and biases.
The "gay marriage will destroy straight marriage" never made much sense to most of us, and it still doesn't. But at least we now have an idea where it comes from, and how it can be countered.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.