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The Science of Hate Crimes: When Prejudice Turns to Violence

Scott Jones. Marc Carson. Michael Felenchak. Peter Nortman. Nick Porto. Kevin Atkins. Jacqueline Clarke. Ali Matson. Kerry Tyler. Ben Stoviak.

These names represent just a handful of individuals who have recently been physically attacked because of their actual or perceived sexuality. There has been an apparent surge in violent responses to same-sex couples who display affection in public (such as holding hands or kissing). Two women were attacked in Vancouver after holding hands and kissing on a public transit bus. A number of male same-sex couples have been attacked in NYC while holding hands, some even in broad daylight in areas of the city known to be gay-friendly. Yet another gay couple is launching a human rights case against a taxi cab company whose employee tried to force the couple out of his cab on a busy expressway after the couple shared a kiss in the back seat of their cab.

These aren’t “raunchy” over-the-top public displays of affection that might make anyone recoil. Everyone has their own personal tolerance for public displays of affection. But, in general, holding hands is considered pretty modest and socially acceptable. What is it about two men or two women holding hands or kissing that causes such an intense level of emotion in some people that it leads them to react violently? Even when people don’t haul off and physically assault a same-sex couple for holding hands, many still respond with looks of disgust, by pulling their children closer or by turning to walk in the opposite direction.

People may have more intense responses to same-sex PDAs than others because of the extent to which homonegative1 individuals view same-sex activity as viscerally disgusting AND the extent to which any given individual tends to be high in what researchers call ‘disgust sensitivity.’ Disgust sensitivity is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Do you ever watch shows like Grey’s Anatomy and have no trouble at all watching the surgery scenes while your viewing companion ducks under a blanket any time the slightest amount of blood and gore appears? Chances are your companion would score higher on a measure of disgust sensitivity than you would. It turns out that when you mix high disgust sensitivity with holding negative views of same-sex sexuality (consciously or unconsciously), the combination creates a bit of a recipe for an intense emotional response to same-sex public displays of affection. In fact, researchers have found that just being high in disgust sensitivity correlates with having negative views of same-sex sexuality.2

But most of what we know about how people respond to same-sex public displays of affection is still extremely anecdotal. While we know a fair bit about the various predictors associated with why one person might be more homonegative than another (e.g., level of education, religious affiliation, political views, number of LGBTQ friends),3 we still know very little about the physiological responses that prejudiced individuals experience in the precise moment that they encounter a same-sex couple holding hands or kissing. Understanding how individuals react during such moments could be the key to developing a better understanding of how best to prevent hate crimes.

Why is it important to focus on preventing hate crimes, specifically, as opposed to just trying to target crime in general? Hate crimes tend to be more violent than non-hate motivated crimes.3 Hate crimes also have significantly greater mental health consequences for not only the victims of the hate crime, but also for individuals who share the same identity as the victim. Over the past 3 months, I have been raising funds to conduct a study that will examine the specific physiological reactions that an individual has when they encounter two men holding hands or kissing. The study will examine how different types and levels of prejudice are associated with a variety of different physiological responses to same-sex public displays of affection, with the hope of shedding light on the question of how best not only to reduce prejudice in general, but specifically to reduce prejudice that results in violent attacks on innocent lives. As of today, there are only five days left to continue raising funds for this important study. If you’d like to learn more or to make a donation, you can visit: www.drkarenblair.com/donate/ or www.reduceprejudice.com.

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1The term homonegativity is used in place of homophobia so as to dissociate the negative attitudes and prejudices from the concepts of clinical phobias used by mental health professionals. While a small minority of individuals may truly be homophobic (truly fearful and phobic of homosexuals), the large majority of those who are prejudiced towards same-sex sexuality merely hold negative attitudes and prejudices towards lesbians and gay men, as opposed to possessing an actual phobia.

2Inbar, Y., Pizzaro, D. A., Knobe, J. & Bloom, P. (2009). Disgust sensitivity predicts intuitive disapproval of gays. Emotion, 9, 435-439.

3McDermott, D. T. & Blair, K. L. (2012). ‘What’s it like on your side of the pond?’ A cross-cultural comparison of modern and old-fashioned homonegativity between North American and European samples. Psychology & Sexuality, 1-20.

Dr. Karen Blair - Learn more about Karen's research | Science of Relationships articles

Dr. Blair's research focuses on the connections between romantic relationships and health, social approval for romantic relationships, and LGBTQ psychology. Her latest research is focusing on the potential health benefits (and costs) of public displays of affection (PDAs) in both mixed-sex and same-sex relationships. Do PDAs provide health boosting moments of support for all couples, or might stigmatized couples experience PDAs as a source of stress and discomfort? As part of this line of research, a study on the psychophysiology of prejudice is being crowdfunded on the science funding site, Microryza. Dr. Blair also offers consulting services for online research development and implementation. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger... Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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