November 20, 2007

Disclosure of Personal Information during Friendship Formation through Internet-Based Communication

Over the past 50 years, the Internet has been developed from a government-run system to help fight the Cold War (DARPA, 2007) into a multimedia, communications, commerce, and informational system that is used around the world (Slabbert, 2007). A Nielsen//Net Ratings study published September 30, 2007 reports that 1.24 billion people (18.9% of the world’s population) used the Internet in the past month. Additionally, 234 million people used the Internet in North American countries, which is 70.2% of the population in that region. Most residents of North America and about one-fifth of the world’s population use the Internet at least once a month. A survey of Internet users showed that the most common use of the Internet is for interpersonal communication (Kraut, Mukopadhyay, Szczypula, Kiesler, & Scherlis, 1998). During interpersonal communication, conversational partners may provide information about themselves. Some researchers have suggested that information disclosure (the process of communicating information about oneself) is an extremely important factor during friendship formation because increased information disclosure leads to intimate, more satisfying, and more stable relationships (Altman & Taylor, 1973). Internet users disclose information about themselves to their conversational partner differently than in face-to-face interaction, but the accuracy of this information can be affected by the user’s anonymity, and perceived anonymity may affect the accuracy and type of information disclosed on social networking websites.

Information Disclosure through Face-to-Face Interaction in Friendship Formation
Information disclosure is important in friendship formation (Peter, Valkenburg, & Schouten, 2005). During the initiation and maintenance of a friendship, the quantity and quality of information disclosure affects the strength of the relationship (Hendrick, Hendrick, & Adler, 1988). In early stages of friendship formation, each person begins by revealing superficial personal information. When a person decreases the superficiality of the information disclosed, this person will discuss a wider variety of more personal topics, which leads to an increased sense of intimacy and trust (Altman & Taylor, 1973). This personal information disclosure leads to feeling validated and understood by the other person during or after the initial establishment of the relationship (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimmons, 2002). Information disclosure is also important after the relationship has been initiated. Good friendships are often characterized by a great deal of information disclosure (Matsushima & Shiomi, 2001). Information disclosure occurs more often after more interaction, increases perceived intimacy, and is a feature of a good friendship. Past research has established that information disclosure has important effects on friendships, and recent research suggests that Internet users present relatively accurate information about themselves during Internet-based communication, but may also present idealized information if it is more difficult to verify this information.
Types of Information Disclosure to Conversational Partners on the Internet
An individual is likely to provide personal information based on the actual ideal rather the ideal self during Internet-based communication. John Bargh and Katelyn McKenna have done several studies based in Higgins’ (1987) self-discrepancy theory. Bargh , McKenna, and Fitzsimmons (2002) conducted an experiment in which two participants used computer-mediated communication[1] to communicate while sitting in two separate rooms. They found that each participant’s actual self (who the person believes to be and what other people believe him/her to be) was more cognitively accessible than the participant’s ideal self (who the person wants to be or who other people what him/her to be; Higgins, 1987). The participants’ actual self was more accessible, so they were more likely to draw upon the concepts in their actual self when providing information about themselves. Expressing the actual self is likely during Internet-based communication and is beneficial to both the Internet user and the potential relationship. People who believe that they can only reveal their actual self through Internet-based communication are more likely to have long-lasting and increasingly intimate relationships through this method than people who believe that they can reveal their actual self in face-to-face interaction (McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2002). Presenting the actual self can lead to better friendships because information disclosure is a factor in good friendships. The results of these two students suggest that presenting the actual self is both likely and advantageous in developing relationships. Internet users are more likely to present the actual self than the ideal self, but presenting the ideal self can allow aspects of the ideal self become part of the actual self.
Despite being more likely to present the actual self during Internet-based communication, presenting the ideal self can allow aspects of the ideal self to be incorporated into the actual self. An important part of a person’s actual self is what the person perceives other people’s concepts of that person to be (Higgins, 1987). An individual can provide information about concepts from the ideal self during Internet-based communication, and will likely believe that the conversational partner includes this information in his/her concept of the individual, which makes it part of the actual self (McKenna, et al., 2002). Presenting information about the ideal self can make it part of the actual self if other people believe that the information is accurate. A feature of Internet-based communication allows users to present the ideal self because they are given more time to respond during a conversation. An Internet user can “craft” the response because an immediate reply is not necessary (McKenna & Bargh, 2000). An Internet user has more time to think of a response to a statement, comment, or question during Internet-based communication than in face-to-face interaction. Although the actual self is more cognitively accessible than the ideal self during Internet-based communication, the time-delay for an expected response during Internet-based communication allows the user to retrieve information from the ideal self and present this information to the conversational partner. In addition to presenting the both the ideal self and the actual self during Internet-based communication, Internet users must provide information about nonverbal features that are easily accessed during face-to-face interaction.

Internet-based communication requires different methods of information disclosure than traditional face-to-face interaction does because Internet-based communication lacks much of the nonverbal information found in face-to-face interaction (Walther, 1994). Nonverbal information that appears in face-to-face interaction but not most methods of Internet-based communication includes body language, physical appearance, tone of voice, and eye contact. Researchers studying Internet-based communications in the 1990s and earlier hypothesized that the friendships formed through Internet-based communication would be of poorer quality, less intimate, and shorter-lasting because of this “lost” nonverbal information (Kraut, et al., 1998; Walther, 1994). However, some studies have revealed that the lack of nonverbal information in Internet-based communication is “made up” over time: when researchers allow participants to have open-ended interaction, they have intimate and satisfying relationships similar to ones that occur through face-to-face interaction (Parks & Floyd, 1996). Additionally, without visual access to the dress, physical attractiveness, and mannerisms of the other person, a person will project ideal or desired characteristics of a potential friend onto one’s conversational partner when the initial conversation has been enjoyable (Bargh, et al., 2002). Although this projection does not rely on information disclosure, it suggests that people are willing to fill in the gaps in their concept of the other person with positive information rather than negative information. Information about physical appearance may also be transmitted by providing one’s conversational partner with a picture of oneself, but it is possible that a person will provide an outdated, particularly flattering, altered picture, or a picture of someone else. Many people believe that nonverbal information is very reliable during face-to-face interaction (Fiske, 2004, p. 90), but the nonverbal information disclosed during Internet-based communication may be less than accurate. Information about nonverbal features is important during friendship formation, but it is malleable by both parties because of the anonymity of Internet-based communication.

Effects of Anonymity: Deindividuation and Nonconforming Behavior
One key difference between Internet-based communication and face-to-face interaction is the anonymity of the conversational partners. Specifically, a person has the option to remain relatively anonymous through Internet-based communication, which is not as easy in face-to-face interaction. An Internet user can choose a nonidentifying screen name (e.g., “wildcat7493”, “soccerfan99”, “kweenbee”), conceal his/her IP address that could be used to identify the user’s general physical location, and omit any identifying personal characteristics such as job title or city of residence. Some researchers have predicted that increased anonymity may lead to increased information disclosure. In a study of face-to-face interaction, Gergen, Gergen, and Barton (1973) found that participants who sat in a darkened room where they could not see one another disclosed more personal information than participants who sat in a lit room. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that an individual may disclose information to a person who cannot interact with the individual’s friends and family (the “stranger on the train” phenomenon; Rubin, 1975). When the conversational partner cannot interact with the individual’s friends and family, the information disclosed cannot be verified and there is very little cost of disclosing false information. Interacting with people outside one’s immediate social circle allows the Internet user to try on a variety of identities because these identities cannot be confirmed (Bargh, et al., 2002). The presented identities may be of a different religion, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, or education level than the Internet user is in reality. When interacting with friends and family, information disclosure and identity presentation are constrained by the conversational partner’s expectations (Pennebaker, 1990). These expectations are not present during Internet-based communication between Internet users who do not know each other outside of their Internet-based communication (Bargh, et al., 2002). The “strangers on the train/Internet” can disclose information that cannot be verified by their immediate social circle. The two conversational partners perceive a “wall” around their conversation that cannot be breeched by friends and family, also known as the “dyadic boundary”. An Internet user can converse with another Internet user without worrying that the information will break the dyadic boundary, and the user may engage in behavior is socially unacceptable.
When people believe that they cannot be identified, they are likely to behave differently than when they can be identified. Increased anonymity leads to deindividuation, during which people regulate their behavior less, do not engage in long-term planning, react based on emotions, are less concerned with their actions’ social desirability, and are less likely to be aware of the behavior of others (Zimbardo, 1970). Internet-based communication is more anonymous than face-to-face interaction, and individuals may engage in behavior that they perceive to violate social norms. An increase in nonconforming behavior may signal a lack of concern for social norms, which may in turn lead to increased honesty that would normally not occur because of self-presentation concerns (Johnson & Downing, 1979). If an individual is a member of a socially marginalized group (e.g., homosexuals, practitioners of non-major religions), that person may be able to meet other individuals of this group over the Internet. Finding and joining a group of similar others (a group that the individual may not have been able to contact in the past), leads people to gain emotional support by feeling less isolated and disclosing a part of their identity that was previously held private (McKenna & Bargh, 1998). Deindividuation can lead Internet users to reveal aspects of their identity that may be kept secret from their usual circle, and perceived anonymity may lead Internet users to disclose information on social networking websites.

Information Disclosure on Social Networking Websites
Social networking websites provide alternative means for individuals to disclose information about themselves compared to other means of Internet-based communication such as instant messaging and newsgroups. Social networking websites feature user-created profiles, which provide some amount of information about the user. A user often selects other users as “friends”; these relationships may or may not exist in the offline world. Unlike Internet-based communication, a user’s profile exists as a standalone description of that user and the information in this profile may or may not be accurate. Can social networking profiles serve as a form of information disclosure?

Information disclosure occurs on social networking websites, although the information provided has malleable accuracy. Name and academic classification (freshman, senior, graduate student, etc.) are disclosed most often: 87% of a sample of college students (Stutzman, 2006) and 82% of a sample of teens report including this information in their user profiles on social networking websites (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). More than three-quarters of both samples report including a picture of themselves (77% of college students, 79% of teens). Less than two-thirds of the samples include the name of the city in which they live (62% of college students, 61% of teens). More than half of college students include information about their political views and membership in certain clubs (55%). Less than two-fifths of the college student sample include information about their sexual orientation and a brief biography of themselves (37% of college students) and provide a link to their personal website or web blog (18% of college students, 39% of teens). Although these samples of college students and teenagers revealed that they disclose information about themselves in their profiles on social networking websites, this information may not be accurate because users want to remain somewhat anonymous. Providing more information that is accurate about oneself leads to increased identifiably. A sample of more than 1,000 college students reported that the participants agree that their social networking profile is accurate (M = 4.16 on a Likert scale where 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree; Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfeld, 2006). However, a survey of teenagers almost 1,000 teenagers revealed that 46% of those teens included at least some false information in their social networking profiles (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). The same survey found that the amount of reported false information in social networking profiles decreases with age: younger teens reported including more false information than older teens. It is possible that younger people are more concerned with being identified than older people, which would explain why the college students believe their profiles are accurate and the younger teens reported including false information. College students report that it is important to protect their identity information online (M = 4.21 on a Likert scale of 1 to 5, where 5 = strongly agree), are somewhat concerned about the consequences of sharing identity information (M = 3.29), somewhat likely to share their identity information online in the future (M = 3.34), and less likely to believe that their identity information is well protected online (M = 2.66) (Stutzman, 2006). Both of these samples of people with social networking profiles report being concerned with the identifiability of their profiles, but younger people are more likely to provide false information than older people. Regardless of the amount of false information in social networking profiles, these profiles play a role in the maintenance of friendships.

Many researchers have reported that participants establish interpersonal relationships through online communication. Another survey of 600 Internet users found that 50% of those respondents had formed a relationship with another person online that resulted in a face-to-face meeting, and 20% had developed a long-term romantic relationship through online communication (McKenna, 1998). Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a survey (60.7%) reported that they had established at least one personal relationship through participation in online newsgroups (Parks, 1996). In a national sample of adolescents, 25% of the participants reported having a friendship with someone that they knew online but had never met in person (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2002). However, these friendships were formed through participation in newsgroups/forums, direct emails, and instant messaging, not through social networking profiles. It is possible that users use social networking websites to meet new people who they do not know from offline contact (face-to-face interaction). Some research has suggested that social networking websites are fundamentally different than Internet-based communication because social networking websites are used more often for discovering information about people that the user knows from face-to-face interaction. A study by Lampe, et al. (2006) found that students with social networking profiles do not look for new friends online. Instead, they use social networking websites to find out more about people they know offline. Although many studies have found that Internet users have formed friendships over the Internet, these studies primarily examined newsgroups and computer-mediated communication between two individuals. It is possible that newsgroups/forums, instant messaging, chat rooms, and direct emails are useful when the conversational partners do not have access to each other in the online world, but social networking profiles are useful when the two parties know each other from face-to-face interaction. It seems probable that social networking websites are fundamentally different than communications method previously research in studies of computer-mediated communication and newsgroups because these methods are used during different stages of friendship formation.
Information disclosure occurs through Internet-based communication differently than through face-to-face interaction, but information disclosure through both methods is important to the development of friendships. The amount of information disclosed increases over time, which leads to increased intimacy and more rapid development of friendships. When disclosing information, people are more likely to provide information about their actual self rather than their ideal self, but presenting information about the ideal self can allow this information to be incorporated into the actual self. Descriptions of one’s physical appearance may or may not be accurate, but all nonverbal information that is easily accessed in face-to-face interaction must be explicitly stated in Internet-based communication because of the lack of visual image of one’s conversational partner. The lack of easily-available nonverbal information makes Internet-based communication relatively anonymous. Increased anonymity leads to deindividuation, which can lead to expressing nonconforming views and displaying socially unacceptable behavior. Anonymity is of concern to Internet users with profiles on social networking websites, but this concern decreases with increasing age. People use social networking websites to find out more information about other people that they already know from offline contact, rather than to meet people who were previously unknown. Information disclosure occurs through Internet-based communication, is affected by anonymity and deindividuation, and occurs on social networking websites but with users’ concerns about the consequences of providing this information.

Altman, I. & Taylor, D.A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
Bargh, J.A., McKenna, K.Y.A., & Fitzsimmons, G.M. (2002). Can you see the real me? Activation and expression of the “true self” on the Internet. Journal of Social Issues, 58(1), 33-48.
DARPA: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (2003, October 23). DARPA Over the Years. Retrieved October 25, 2007, from
Fiske, S. (2004). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Gergen, K.J., Gergen, M.M., & Barton, W.H. (1973). Deviance in the dark. Psychology Today, 7, 129- 130.
Hendrick, S. S., Hendrick, C., & Adler, N. L. (1988). Romantic relationships: Love, satisfaction, and staying together. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 980–988.
Higgins, E.T. (1987). Self-discrepancy theory. Psychological Review, 94, 1120-1134.
Johnson, R. D., & Downing, L. L. (1979). Deindividuation and valence of cues: Effects on prosocial and antisocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1532-1538.
Kraut, R., Patterson, M., Lundmark, V., Kiesler, S., Mukopadhyay, T., & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist, 53, 1017-1031.
Lampe, C., Ellison, N., & Steinfield, C. (2006). A Face(book) in the crowd: Social searching vs. social browsing. 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 167-170). Alberta, Canada: Banff.
Lenhart, A., & Madden, M. (2007, April). Teens, privacy, & online social networks: How teens manage their online identities and personal information in the age of MySpace. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Matsushima, R., & Shiomi, K. (2001). The effect of hesitancy toward and the motivation for self-disclosure on loneliness among Japanese junior high school students. Social Behavior & Personality, 29(7), 661-670.
McKenna, K. Y. A. (1998). The computers that bind: Relationship formation on the Internet. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio University.
McKenna, K. Y. A., & Bargh, J. A. (1998). Coming out in the age of the Internet: Identity “de-marginalization” through virtual group participation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 681-694.
McKenna, K.Y.A., & Bargh, J.A. (2000). Plan 9 from cyberspace: The implications of the Internet for personality and social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4(1), 57-75.
McKenna, K.Y.A., Green, A.S., & Gleason, M.E.J. (2002). Relationship formation on the Internet: What’s the big attraction? Journal of Social Issues, 58, 9–31.
Nielsen//NetRatings. (2007, September 30). Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics. Retrieved September 30, 2007, from stats.htm
Parks, M.R., & Floyd, K. (1996). Making friends in cyberspace. Journal of Communication, 46(1), 80-97.
Pennebaker, J.W. (1990). Opening up: The healing power of confiding in others. New York: Morrow.
Peter, J., Valkenburg, P.M., & Schouten, A.P. (2005). Developing a model of adolescent friendship formation on the Internet. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 8(5), 423-430.
Rubin, Z. (1975). Disclosing oneself to a stranger: Reciprocity and its limits. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 233-260.
Slabbert, N.J. (2007, May 2). The technologies of peace [Electronic version]. Harvard International Review, 28(1), no pagination specified. Retrieved from
Stutzman, F. (2006, April). An evaluation of identity-sharing behavior in social network communities. Paper presented at the iDMAa and IMS Code Conference, Oxford, Ohio.
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen. Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Walther, J.B. (1994). Anticipated ongoing interaction versus channel effects on relational communication in computer-mediated interaction. Human Communication Research, 20(4), 473-501.
Wolak, J., Mitchell, K.J., & Finkelhor, D. (2002). Close online relationships in a national sample of adolescents. Adolescence, 37, 441-457.
Zimbardo, P. (1970). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In W. J. Arnold & D. Levine (Eds.), Nebraska symposium on motivation (Vol. 17, pp. 237-307). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[1] Computer-mediated communication is a process by which two individuals converse through an Internet connection. This includes instant messages, email, and experimental/laboratory settings in which two individuals sit in adjacent rooms and discuss a topic via written text messages to the other person on one of two computers.

July 22, 2007

Drag as Misogynism and Double Standards

I read this article on MSNBC last week. The article is a cultural critique of the new movie Hairspray, in which John Travolta plays Edna Turnblatt. The writer suggests that it is misogynistic for Travolta to play Edna on the following rational: If men can play female characters, why does Hollywood need female actors?

Edna Turnblatt has traditionally been played by biological men: Divine in the movie and Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical. John Travolta, who is married to Kelly Preston, is publicly heterosexual and his religion, Scientology, may promote homophobia. Regardless, the article misses a key point.

John Travolta playing Edna Turnblatt is another example of cultural appropriation. Drag, especially male-to-female drag, is a cultural symbol/icon of the male homosexual community. One of the ways that the male homosexual community defines itself is through the use of drag as a exaggeration of traditional male-female roles that may no longer apply in male homosexual relationships. Gay men performing drag highlights how flexible the seemingly -inflexible traditional gender roles and norms can be.

John Travolta playing Edna Turnblatt is not misogynist. Edna Turnblatt's character is not meant to be a traditional female character. Hairspray's message is one of tolerance and acceptance of all types of people; Edna Turnblatt as a transsexual/biological male is another kind of difference that Hairspray encourages acceptance and tolerance of.

*This is not to say that transsexuals or gay men should only be tolerated or accepted. Society would never say that heterosexual men/women need to be tolerated, and using the word "tolerance" for gay men/lesbian women only highlights their second-class status in our society. But that's an issue for another entry.

Straight men taking on gay roles is becoming more common in films over the last few months. Namely, Hairspray and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry have taken a gay male sensibility to previously heterosexual male areas. This is certainly an areas to watch in coming months, and it may have a serious effect on the hearts and minds of American citizens.

June 13, 2007

Josh Wolf on The Colbert Report, Part 2

Last night, Josh Wolf was the featured guest on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. Before the show aired, I set up my Comcast DVR to record the show, and I was surprised to see that the show's description was "Journalist Josh Wolf" (emphasis added). In the discussion about Josh Wolf and his judicial shenanigans, people disagree about whether Josh is a journalist, blogger, or regular person with no importance. Although Colbert referred to Josh as "controversial video blogger Josh Wolf", I think the cable guide's description was more fitting.

Josh was doing his thing on the Report last night. He stuck to his talking points like a pro, and didn't get flustered when Colbert did his Colbert schtick. Josh knew that Colbert's show is half joke, half serious, which made his interview less fun to watch because Colbert didn't get the best of him, but it's still good for Josh.

I guess Josh will have to add "media pundit" to his list of accomplishments now.

June 6, 2007

Josh Wolf on The Colbert Report

Josh Wolf, a media activist and fellow SFSU alumnus, is going to appear on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report tomorrow night (June 12). I recommend tuning in, if only to see Josh and Colbert butt heads. Josh is very open-minded and progressive. He spent 184 days in jail for freedom of the press, and deserves our media attention.

I can just imagine Colbert's jokes about how Josh is a liberal tree-hugger, and I can't wait to see it live.

Hopefully, I'll post some comments about the show after the fact.

Gay Marriage through an Economic Perspectice

I was listening to NPR's Marketplace (as I do everyday) and I was pleasantly surprised to hear a story about gay marriage (linked above). The reporter mentioned a recent report issued by the state of New York that states that legalizing gay marriage would lead to an increase in tourist dollars brought to the businesses of New York. What a great idea! Republicans love money, but tend to not approve of gay marriage, and this may be a great way to sway a few opinions.

May 20, 2007

This American Life - 81 Words

Let me preface this post by writing that This American Life is one of my favorite shows on the radio, if not my most favorite. Anyway!

This past weekend, This American Life reran an episode titled "81 Words" about the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) decision to alter the entry about homosexuality is the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM). For a show designed for a nonacademic audience, it was pretty great.

It touched on the changing meaning of homosexuality over time, although not as in-depth as it could have been. The narrator mentioned that before the mid-1800s, there was no such thing as homosexuality, there were only people who religiously-defined sexual crimes. These crimes included committing acts of sodomy (including masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, bestiality, and any other sexual act that didn't directly result in the production of babies). However, the producers' left out the fact that what we now know as a "homosexual" is an identity category. There is a big difference between being a homosexual and engaging in sexual acts with a person of the same sex. For example, men on the "down low"[1] don't consider themselves gay, but do have sexual relations with other men. A homosexual identity is a new phenomenon, not occurring over 1,000s of years but only within the last 150 or so.

A thousand years ago, people who engaged in sexual acts with other people of the same sex were considered sodomites. Then, around the mid- to late-1800s, a medical definition became popular: People who engaged in same-sex intercourse had a medical or psychological disease. At the time, many people considered this a great accomplishment: Now, people who engaged in same-sex intercourse could not be blamed for their sexual acts, it was God's fault for giving them a disease. However, the problem with calling same-sex intercourse a disease is that people will try to cure a person of that disease. From the late 1800s until 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental illness that could be cured through therapy or other interventions. And this is where the This American Life story picks up.

Definitely check this story out. You can download a copy from for 99-cents or download a free copy from the This American Life website for a limited time.

May 18, 2007

Heterosexual by Default, Homosexual by Deviation

Throughout everyday life, most people make predictions and have expectations about other people’s thoughts and behaviors. Additionally, most people need some sort of external reference to make these predictions. This external reference could be race, ethnicity, gender performance, age, socioeconomic status, dress, or a combination of the above. The problem with these predictions is that they are almost entirely based on broad cultural stereotypes that often do not include opportunities for individual variation. One such stereotype involves sexual orientation. People often presume that others are heterosexual, or that heterosexuality is the default and nonheterosexuality is a deviation from that default. The theory of heteronormativity has both theoretical and practical implications, including binary thinking, intolerance of others, and hierarchical value structures.

Heteronormativity is a cultural phenomenon that is based in the different ways that societies make rules and norms surrounding sexual activity. In societies with heteronormative ideologies, heterosexuality is preferred above all other forms of sexuality. This is due to the social construction of sexuality in heteronormative cultures. The social constructionist theory suggests that different cultures give different labels and meanings to sexual thinking and behavior, which affects the ways that people in those cultures experience sexuality. According to Jeffrey Weeks, “the West still defines the norms of sex in relationships to one of the possible results -- reproduction” (Weeks, 1986). Reproduction is inherently heterosexual. Try as they might, two women cannot combine their DNA to create new life like a man and a woman can. Therefore, heterosexual reproduction becomes the ideal of sexual behavior between two people. A corollary of this is that nonreproductive sexual behaviors are less socially-desirable than reproductive sexual behaviors. This corollary helps to explain why there is a broad social preference for intercourse over masturbation. Gayle Rubin (1992) wrote that “the powerful nineteenth-century stigma on masturbation lingers in less potent, modified forms, such as the idea that masturbation is an inferior substitute for partnered encounters.” In heteronormative cultures, “normal” sexuality is socially constructed to involve reproductive, heterosexual behaviors. Conversely, “alternative/deviant” sexuality involves nonreproductive and/or nonheterosexual behaviors. Due to the heterosexual construction of sexuality in many Western cultures, certain sexual behaviors are designated as “deviant” and are open to be mocked and ridiculed by society at large.

Due to the social construction of sexuality in the Western world, a hierarchy exists that determines the social value of sexual identities. Gayle Rubin suggests that “marital, reproductive heterosexuals are alone at the top of the erotic pyramid” (1992). She goes on to write that “stable, long-term lesbian and gay couples are verging on respectability, but bar dykes and promiscuous gay men are hovering just above the groups at the very bottom of the pyramid” (Rubin, 1992). In this way, monogamous, reproductive heterosexuality is valued socially above all other forms of sexuality. Partnered, long-term, heterosexual relationships are valued above all other forms of sexual relationships. Sexual encounters that occur between two people are “partnered” encounters, and are part of the preferred forms of sexuality, which helps to explain the social taboo on masturbation. Long-term relationships are also favored over short-term relationships, which is why there is cultural restriction against very short-term relationships like one-night stands. Also, heterosexual relationships are preferred over nonheterosexual relationships. Certain sexual preferences and acts are valued over others, which results in the social hierarchy of eroticism.

The definitions of heterosexuality relate to its broad social normalization. By default, people are labeled as heterosexual under heteronormative ideologies. Sexual normalcy is often defined “in terms of relations with the opposite sex, and the consequent categorization of other forms as deviant” (Weeks, 1986). First, gender is defined as the opposition of male and female; other gender identities are not included in the definition of heterosexuality. Under this definition, a transgender person cannot identify as heterosexual. Secondly, all nonheterosexual identities are described as deviation from normalcy. A broad heteronormative ideology predicts that heterosexuality is normal, and nonheterosexuality is deviant. “Deviance” carries a connotation of strange, bizarre, and not fit for social acceptance. Therefore, nonheterosexuality is outside the range of culturally acceptable behaviors and practices. Yet again, heterosexuality is at the top of Rubin’s “erotic hierarchy,” with all other forms of sexuality below it.

Heteronormativity also reflects social norms surrounding gender roles. The presumption of heterosexuality suggests that heterosexuals conform to traditional gender roles. A key aspect of the Western construction of masculine identities is their sexual attraction to women. Nonheterosexual men “fail” at their masculine identity because they are not sexually attracted to women. When a man does not show externalized sexual interest in women, he will probably be considered “gay” by others because an essential part of masculine identity is the sexual pursuit of women. Nonheterosexual identities are lower on the social hierarchy of sexuality than heterosexual identities. At the same time, some presume that pervasive, forceful sexuality is essential to masculinity. In this way, heterosexual and nonheterosexual men are constructed similarly. Women are often instructed to resist sexual advances made by men, while men are encouraged to accept all sexual offers. Men with nonheterosexual identities are often constructed as having the same pervasive, forceful sexuality. This assumption results in the perceived “homosexual threat” posed by homosexual men (Yep, 2002). It is possible that gay men are seen as more of a homosexual threat than lesbians, which may explain why most personal observations of negative homosexuality are often of male homosexuality. In this way, the construction of sexuality also involves gender norms, which deviance from symbolizes a deviation in sexuality.

Bisexuals and bisexuality are also questioned by society in ways that heterosexuals and heterosexuality are not. Intolerance of bisexuals is often manifested in the “denial of the very existence of bisexual people” (Ochs, 1996). This intolerance exists because “we live in a culture that thinks in binary categories” (Ochs, 1996). In discussions of sexuality, most people often discuss heterosexuality and homosexuality. The omission of other categories implies that there are only two classes of sexuality. Ochs suggests that bisexuality is overlooked because it is more difficult to classify bisexuals into either heterosexuality or homosexuality, and this difficulty makes people profoundly uncomfortable (1996). Heterosexuality is often the default sexuality, and homosexuality is constructed as the opposite of heterosexuality, and as such, bisexuality does not fit in to that binary classification system. Additionally, bisexuality is often associated with nonmonogamy (Ochs, 1996). Bisexuals are attracted to people of more than one gender, and it is often assumed that bisexuals will have simultaneous relationships with people of one of more of those attractive genders. In the social hierarchy discussed earlier, this gives bisexuality an undue connotation of sexual encounters that occur in nonmonogamous, short-term relationships, which are valued at a lower level that monogamous, long-term relationships. There is a social assumption that most sexual encounters occur in heterosexual monogamous contexts, but bisexuality defies that rationale. Bisexuality does not fit in to the binary categories of sexual identity and also has an unnecessary relationship to nonmonogamy, which gives bisexuality a lower social standing than heterosexuality.

Heteronormativity is the broad social assumption that almost everyone is heterosexual, which makes heterosexuality the “default” sexuality. All other sexual identities fall below heterosexuality on a sociocultural hierarchy of sexual orientation. The ideology of heteronormativity falls under traditional gender roles. Additionally, heteronormativity excludes bisexuality as a valid sexual identity due to the problems with binary categories. Overall, heteronormativity creates a social environment that is intolerant of nonheterosexual identities.

Works Cited
Ochs, R. (1996). Biphobia: It goes more than two ways. In B.A. Firestein (Ed.), Bisexuality: The psychology and politics of an invisible minority. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 217-239.
Rubin, G. (1992). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C. Vance (Ed.), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring female sexuality. New York: Routledge Press, pp. 267-319.
Weeks, J. (1986). Sexuality. London: Horwood & Tavistock Press, pp. 19-44.
Yep, G. (2002). From homophobia and heterosexism to heteronormativity: Toward the development of a model of queer interventions in the university classroom. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 6(3), 163-176.

May 16, 2007

My Theory on Sex - December 2005

A long-standing debate within the social sciences has been the root of human behavior and thinking: biology or society. This debate has been summarized by two main theories: social constructionism, which posits that thinking and behavior are based on society’s rules, and essentialism that suggests that personality is inborn, and that all people have innate, immutable traits. However, I believe that both of these theories are inaccurate. If social constructionism was correct all of the time, then there would be very few similarities between different cultures and historical periods because cultures are very different by time and place. Alternatively, if essentialism was correct all of the time, then more people would be very similar cross-culturally and cultures would be more similar across time and place. I hypothesize that the basis of human thinking and behavior is biology and certain innate characteristics, but the culture and society in which one lives modifies these characteristics. This model includes both biological and social influences, and suggests that these influences interact with each other to create individual personalities. For example, imagine two brothers that are one year apart in age. They are so close in age, that they are likely to have similar experiences culturally. They are also raised by the same parents and have similar genetics. However, practical experience tells us that it is highly unlikely that these two boys would be alike in every single way. They both have inborn personality traits that they do not share with their brother and that make them individuals, rather than very similar. Now imagine that these boys were raised in 8th century China. The time and place of their birth has changed, but their innate personality traits have not changed. It still seems likely that the different culture in which they were raised would also have an effect on their personalities. When examining the root of human behavior and thinking, it is important to recognize the influences of both biology and culture, because neither exist without the other.

Gender is one of the most common dichotomies in Western culture. However, it has been suggested recently that gender should be viewed as following a continuum, with traditional notions of “male” and “female” and the ends of that continuum. This conceptualization allows for more individual variation than previous models because there are more than two “options” for gender. A person can fall at any point on the continuum of gender, without being forced into an archaic binary system. In addition, it reflects the observation that most people do not conform to all aspects of traditional gender norms. I predict that most people would reside close to the polar ends, with very few people being at the exact poles. If this were true, then most people would conform to many aspects of gender norms, but not all. This model also helps to deconstruct the notion that “male” and “female” are mutually exclusive. An individual’s gender will probably reflects some traditional notions about both genders, with a greater adherence to the norms of one particular gender. Conceptualizing gender as a continuum is more reflective of the ways that gender is expressed in recent Western culture.

In the fields of psychology and human sexuality, female desire is often viewed as a complement to male desire, meaning that women are only interested in sex because men are interested in sex. This ideology reinforces a deficiency model of gender and denies female sexual agency. First, “maleness” is frequently constructed to be the ideal gender form, and that all other forms of gender are less valuable than male gender (a deficiency model). This leads to a greater tolerance of non-male variations in gender. For example, in Western societies, there is a greater tolerance of female transgressions of gender (i.e. wearing pants) than male transgressions (i.e. wearing a skirt). Additionally, those who identify as male may face greater criticism if they challenge their seemingly concordant sexual identity, or they identify as male and nonheterosexual. Secondly, in modern U.S. culture, women have a great deal of sexual agency. Denying this is to suggest that women are passive sexual partners who only exist as a place to hold babies until they are ready to be born. It also expresses heteronormativity, which many theorists have recently criticized. Gender forms should be constructed as equally valuable and not so that one gender is preferred above all others.

May 5, 2007

Monosexuality as a Monolith: Response to Riegers, Chivers & Bailey (Aug 2005) Sexual Arousal Patterns of Bisexual Men

*Note: I wish I could link to the article, but the only copy I could find on the web was one that requries a password. You may be able to find it through your library's electronic journal service.

Citation: Rieger, G., Chivers, M.L. & Bailey, J.M. (Aug 2005). Sexual arousal patterns of bisexual men. Psychological Science, 16(8), 579-584.

A few researchers at Northwestern University have reported that bisexual men don't exist. They say that all the men the studied were either heterosexual or homosexual, and no men were bisexual. What follows is an analysis of the flaws with the research, including both methods, theory, and cultural and practical implications.

Simply enough, this article is extremely heteronormative. Heteronormativity is the cultural preference for heterosexuality over all other forms of sexuality. This is different that homophobia, which implies a dislike or fear of homosexuals. Heteronormativity often plays out as the assumption that everyone is heterosexual until told otherwise. This is why it is always socially interesting to find out who is identified themselves as homosexual, bisexual anything else, because so many people assume that most people are heterosexual.

The researchers suggest that practically all men are either heterosexual or homosexual. They note the difference between attitudes and behaviors, that people can have a sexual orientation that is not reflected in their behavior (i.e. a self-identified bisexual who only have sex with people of the same gender). They also cite a few articles that found that many homosexual men previously identified as bisexual (up to 40%). This suggests that bisexuality is just a pre-cursor to homosexuality, or heterosexuality in rare cases.

The researchers write that self-reporting one's own sexual identity and orientation is not enough. There has to be a more objective measure for sexual orientation. To do this, the researchers measured the change in penile circumference while watching pornography featuring either two men having sex or two women having sex (a cephalograph). There is more than one problem with this.
  1. The researchers assume that all gay men will be aroused by watching two men have sex, and all heterosexual men will be aroused by watching two women have sex. What about heterosexual men who like to watch pornography with a man and a woman? Anecdotal as well as academic research suggests that heterosexual men like to watch a variety of pornography over the population. In other words, there are a bunch of different kinds of guys who like to watch a bunch of different kinds of porn.
  2. Is level of erection an ideal measure of sexual orientation? The researchers suggest self-report measures can be inaccurate because people may be misleading in their answers for a variety of reasons.
  3. This also implies that men who identify as bisexual are more likely to "lie" than people of either monosexuality (heterosexuality or homosexuality). Other researchers have found in studies of biphobia (like homophobia, but towards bisexuals) that some of the stereotypes about bisexuals include that they are likely to lie to their partners, are disease-carrying, and generally disliked.

They use the Kinsey Scale as a self-report measure of sexual orientation. (The Kinsey Scale was developed by Albert Kinsey. The scale ranges from 0 to 6, with 0 being "sex exclusively with people of other genders/heterosexuality" and 6 being "sex exclusively with people of the same gender/homosexuality" and "sex with 50% same gender and 50% other gender/bisexuality" being a Kinsey 3. A person can fall anywher on that scale from 0-6, and Kinsey found that most people were not 0s or 6s, but somewhere in between.)

Anyway, the problem with the Kinsey scale is that it only measures behavior. It does not take in to account, fantasies, desires, attractions, sexual values, etc. Other valid scales have been used to measure sexual orientation that include more than one quality, like the Klein Grid and more recently the Intimate Career (Peplau, 1999).

Basically, they find that none of their participants had strong penile reactions to the both kinds of pornography. This relates back to the flaws discussed earlier, specifically the major flaws with the pornography and the researchers operational definitions of bisexuality.

I have moral qualms with the research as well. I don't think that anyone has the ability to instruct another person on how to identify themselves. If a group of men, women, or people of any other gender choose to identify as bisexual, then who cares? The researchers are making a point to show that people who identify as bisexual are not being really honest to other people about their sexual identity.

There are many flaws with this research about bisexual men. It follows the theory that sexuality can only be heterosexuality or homosexuality (monosexuality). Also, it heavily implies that men who identify as bisexuals are "lying" with that identification. This is not suitable for modern psychological research (or any other kind of research for that matter), and should not be accepted by anyone in the academic community, or anyone else either.