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

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Dec 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."

Next: The Politics of 'Ick'


  • , 2011-01-07 23:45:16

    I am glad the writer noted tersely in the last paragraph that not all men practice anal sex. Oral sex is probably the most common form. There is also frottage, mutual masturbation, erotic massage and heavy makeout, all of which can lead to satisfying orgasm. And anal sex, if practiced skillfully and with affection, is not painful or unsanitary. The GLBT media need to do a better job of educating the mainstream media about the gay facts of life. Schools will never teach it in sex ed.

  • , 2011-02-11 12:04:11

    I agree with Tom Brown’s comments. The gay community lacks equal rights, in part, due to straight people’s ignorance of who we are, and what we do. Organizations like Human Rights Campaign and others take in SO much money, and yet they do NOTHING to educate the public with facts, while meanwhile, the Religious Right "educates" the public with mis-information and lies, such as "being gay is a choice" and "gays recruit". Until we EDUCATE the public from our side, the ignorance -- and the withhholding of rights - will continue.

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