Science Tackles the ’Ick Factor’ :: When Straights Do It, Fine; When Gays Do It, Straights Recoil

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 31, 2010

The case can be made (and it has been) that one major stumbling block in the path of full legal and social equality for gays is the revulsion straights feel when they contemplate gay sex--or rather, one specific sexual act. Now science shows that straight disgust at anal sex is real... but contingent on who's doing it to whom.

According to a Psychology Today article, a study reveals that when heterosexuals--male or female--read accounts of anal sex between men, they respond with disgust. Moreover, their disapproval is more marked toward the man on the bottom--the receptive partner--than toward the man on the top, or the active partner.

But when given accounts of anal sex between mixed-gender partners, the response is different--for men, at least; whereas the same percentage of women remain disgusted regardless of the genders of the participants, disgust among men falls drastically.

"Together, these studies suggest that disgust is increased by gay male anal sex, and especially for the male in the penetrated role," wrote researcher Nathan Heflick. "A wide range of research shows that disgust triggers an avoidance response."

Heflick went on to posit that the (assumed) "primary sex act" between gay men might trigger a wish among heterosexuals to reject gays due to "feelings of ickiness," or disgust.

An EDGE article on the so-called "ick factor" posited that the result of such an "avoidance response" is more than personal in nature; it may well carry over into politics, and more specifically, into the voting booth.

"We laugh as New Hampshire lawmaker Nancy Elliott explicitly describes the horrors of anal sex between two men in a public hearing on same-sex marriage, but fail to address the question of why a topic which holds no bearing on the legal discussion at hand would be offered by an elected public official in the first place," wrote EDGE contributor Joseph Erbentraut.

"In fact, Elliott may have inadvertently stumbled on the real reason why we're not winning full equality," Erbentraut continued. "Elliott's articulated disgust with the physiology of gay male sex may, in fact, be far more pervasive in our society than the far right."

Elliott went off on a tangent about anal sex during a debate about rescinding marriage equality in New Hampshire last February, describing the act as "taking the penis of one man and putting it in the rectum of another man and wriggling it around in excrement." The state rep. went on to claim that fifth-graders were being taught how to perform anal sex in the state's schools--a claim that was utterly false.

""Representative Elliott," chided a colleague. "Let's keep our discussion directly to the bill."

Reported EDGE's Erbentraut, "A certain disgust with our sex lives may, in fact, have a far-reaching effect on our public lives, according to a respected academic."

That academic, Dr. Martha Nussbaum, coined the phrase "the 'ick' factor," and applied it to situations in which a visceral dislike for a group--specifically, gays--could be exploited by politicians and could lead to setbacks and defeats for GLBT parity when the rights of gays are put on the ballot.

"I think [disgust] plays a part in lots of arguments against same-sex marriage," Nussbaum told EDGE, "those that use the idea that straight marriage will be 'defiled' or 'tainted' by the approval of gay marriage." Added Nussbaum, "All societies known to us have subordinated some group or groups of people by ascribing disgusting properties to them. This is a key feature of misogyny, of anti-Semitism, of historical Indian caste prejudice, of American racism and so forth."

"The theory of disgust, Nussbaum argues, has reared its head continually in other anti-gay legislation through the years, ranging from issues like sodomy to non-discrimination statutes," Erbentraut noted. "It usually focuses on squeamishness on male-male sexuality and ignores the fact that many straight couples engage in kinky, non-traditional sexual practices."

The politics of disgust have long been a weapon in the arsenal of anti-gay activists, as well: noted Erbentraut, "In 1992, campaign literature in the battle that led to the passage of Colorado's Amendment 2, which barred communities from passing non-discrimination laws for sexual orientation, said gay men ate feces and drank blood."

Once rooted, such notions can be difficult to dispel. The EDGE article went on to note, "Nussbaum's theory of disgust brings up a number of negative stereotypes of the gay community that, interestingly, many activists and organizational leaders won't come anywhere near. Several contacts within major LGBT organizations declined to comment for this story. That reluctance from some to confront vehemently anti-gay rhetoric is somewhat telling of both the current political climate--and perhaps the skittishness of LGBT leadership to confront the most fundamental issue of how much what we do in bed defines us, in whatever way the information is used."

In other words, the instructional aphorism from the anti-gay right is also a lament for the GLBT community: "It's easier to nauseate than educate."

"Ick" and the Right

In a lengthy June 28 New Yorker piece about GOP politician and Fox news correspondent Mike Huckabee, writer Ariel Levy notes several things about the Baptist preacher-turned-politician and ten-year governor of Arkansas: his articulate nature (Huckabee has written a number of books), his self-declared ability to depart from the GOP lockstep, and his cooler, more rational style, which stands in contrast to many of his fellow Fox News hosts.

Several passages in the New Yorker article on Huckabee stood out with respect to GLBT Americans and their families that underlined what Levy referred to as Huckabee's "paradoxical" character. On the one hand, Huckabee was quoted as saying that he is not especially hostile toward gays; he simply thinks that to be gay is a choice, and that being gay means living in sin. In one of his books, the article's author noted, Huckabee writes, "Until recently, who would have dared to suggest that the practice [of homosexuality] should be accepted on equal footing with heterosexuality, to be thought of as a personal decision and nothing more?"

Another quote has Huckabee saying, "I've had people who worked for me who are homosexuals. And I don't walk around thinking, Oh, I pity them so much. I accept them as who they are! It's not like somehow their sin is so much worse than mine."

However, during an interview in Jerusalem, Huckabee also told the article's author that, "I do believe that God created male and female and intended for marriage to be the relationship of the two opposite sexes." Added Huckabee, "Male and female are biologically compatible to have a relationship. We can get into the ick factor, but the fact is two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn't work the same."

Huckabee later said that he had stumbled upon the phrase "the 'ick' factor" while reading Erbentraut's article at EDGE.

Another right-wing figure, Michael Medved, offered an even more unvarnished opinion about gay sex. In a posting at the website of Seattle-based conservative talk radio station KTTH-FM, Medved claimed that Biblical injunctions against same-sex acts between men were specified as "abominable," whereas lesbian sex acts were not, because, "A physical connection between a female couple, like a physical connection between man and woman, is based primarily on acts of affection. The most common sexual practice between two men involves an act of aggression--inflicting more pain than pleasure for at least one of the parties."

Added Medved, "Even decisions by Congress, equating homosexual and heterosexual relationships, or erasing distinctions between the interaction between lesbians on the one hand and gay males on the other, cannot repeal politically incorrect realities."

Or, as JoeMyGod summarized Medved's article in a Dec. 30 headline, "Lesbian Sex Is Better, Because It Hurts To Take It In The Ass."

What's purportedly icky and painful for gays, however, may for some straights be a wild turn-on. EDGE Editor-in-Chief Steve Weinstein addressed the phenomenon of "pegging" (when a heterosexual man engages as a receptive partner, either with another male or with a female equipped with the appropriate accessories) in a June 17, 2008, Village Voice article.

"If it feels good for us, why shouldn't it feel good for them?" Weinstein wrote. "It all comes down to the prostate., a website for swingers, explains it this way: "The lining of the anal cavity is rich with nerve endings, and deep penetration may allow for stimulation of the prostate gland, which many heterosexual men also find highly arousing."

Though some of the heterosexual men involved in the anecdotes Weinstein's article referenced responded to their same-sex encounters by rushing off to bed women or become men of the cloth, others simply accepted the experience as another in a wide array of sexual options available to them. Weinstein noted that social mores around anal sex may be changing in a manner similar to the way in which oral sex--considered filthy in the earlier decades of the 20th century--went mainstream after GIs deployed to Europe brought expectations of receiving the practice back to the States, and their wives and girlfriends.

If the so-called " 'ick' factor" centers around anal sex--which not all gay men practice--and if, correspondingly, that same " 'ick' factor" causes heterosexuals to vote against the interests of their gay fellow Americans, then the prospect of anal sex going mainstream among heterosexuals may prove a powerful agent for social equality in decades to come.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.