Same Sex, Different Rules

 

 It’s good to be similar to your partner—but not too similar. So don’t expect typical gay partnerships to be simply same-sex versions of straight ones.

 

It is a common observation that we are attracted to people who resemble us. We are more likely to like them, bond with them and have stable relationships with them—a phenomenon that social scientists call “homophily”. This seems to make sense: partners of the same age, race, religion or educational level, or who have similar personalities and attitudes, will reinforce each other’s self-esteem, find mutually enjoyable pursuits, and receive support from their extended families and social networks.

Difference, on the other hand, has always seemed like a recipe for trouble. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that relationships between dissimilar partners were utilitarian “deals”—my beauty for your wealth, for example—and were therefore likely to fall apart as the qualities that were traded changed over time.

            Yet Aristotle, along with the scientists who have studied and promoted the phenomenon of homophily, have turned a blind eye to its most common and flagrant violation: heterosexuality. When men and women are attracted to each other, fall in love, and enter into lasting relationships, they are choosing partners who differ from themselves. At the very least they differ biologically, in physical appearance and body function—but that is just the beginning. For men and women also differ from each other, statistically, at least, in cognitive traits such as visuospatial skills, navigational strategies, verbal fluency, memory skills and mathematical reasoning, and in aspects of personality such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, self-esteem, risk-taking, neuroticism, emotional sensitivity, agreeableness, moral sense, interest in casual sex and pornography, and jealousy.

Furthermore, the tendency of preadolescents to join sex-segregated social networks allows for the development of marked cultural differences between males and females—in communication style, for example. Although a man and a woman may not be from different planets, they are much more alien to each other, on average, than are two men or two women. So, if homophily rules, why isn’t everyone gay?

            A related and more approachable question is this: do gay people fall in love more readily, and are their love relationships more stable than those of heterosexuals, by virtue of their inherent gender-similarity? The answer seems to be no, far from it. While there are plenty of long-lasting gay and lesbian relationships, there are also large numbers of gay people—men especially—who claim to be looking for Mr or Ms Right but who quickly lose interest in the specific partners they hitch up with. Even among those same-sex couples who do stay together, sexual passion may decline to the point that sexual activity between the partners ceases (“lesbian bed death” and its gay male equivalent). Neither of these problems is unique to gay people, of course, but they do seem to be especially common among them.

            According to the book Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love by the American psychiatrist Richard Isay, the difficulty that many gay men experience in falling and staying in love has its roots in childhood. Specifically, Isay says, the cause is a failure of some parents to love and support their gay sons, often because these sons are not as masculine as the parents would wish. This leaves them deficient in the self-love that is the prerequisite for loving others or for accepting the love that others have to offer.

While acknowledging the likely truth of these ideas, I suggest that a different factor is also relevant—one that Isay has touched on in his earlier writings. Gay partners, being of the same sex, may sometimes be too similar to each other for their relationships to be stable. They experience a kind of “anti-homophily.” It may be that they find it difficult to develop the reciprocal dependency that lies at the core of a stable loving relationship—they have nothing to trade, as it were. In addition, it may be difficult for either person to see the partner as sufficiently “other” or “exotic” for romantic passion to persist.

Consciously or unconsciously, gay people have developed strategies to circumvent this problem. People who enter into gay relationships, though belonging to the same sex, may actually be quite different from each other in their gender characteristics. There have been periods in history when these differences have even been culturally formalized. In their ethnography of a New York lesbian community of the 1950s (Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold) Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis recount how women entering that community had to declare and act out a “butch” (masculine) or “femme” identity; sexual partnerships could only be between a butch and a femme.  Even today, researchers have noted that partners in stable lesbian relationships are likely to differ in their gender characteristics.

What about male couples? Anthropologists such as Walter Williams of the University of Southern California have documented the tradition of marriages or cohabitations between masculine and feminine men in Native America, Polynesia, and many other cultures, including developed western ones. One such relationship was portrayed by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in the 1996 movie The Birdcage. Although grossly stereotyped for humorous effect, it may have been more culturally authentic than the relationship between two similar, conventionally masculine men that was the focus of last year’s Brokeback Mountain.

Besides gender-based differences, many gay couples are characterized by other kinds of difference, such as disparities in age, race, and cultural background—the very factors that, according to the homophily literature, are supposed to militate against the formation and stability of relationships. Admittedly, these disparities haven’t been the subject of much quantitative research, but anyone who spends time in the gay community comes across them. A common phenomenon, for example, is a couple consisting of an older, professional white man and a younger Asian or Hispanic man—perhaps an immigrant with a very different cultural perspective. Age-disparate homosexual relationships have been a recognized tradition in numerous cultures, from ancient Greece to Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Some degree of difference between partners is probably necessary for the establishment and maintenance of loving sexual relationships. With a man and a woman, this essential difference is supplied automatically by the very fact that the union crosses the sex divide. Differences beyond that, in age, race, and so forth, may tend to overload a couple’s capacity for mutual understanding, or may provoke social intolerance, which would explain why most heterosexual partnerships are between fairly similar people.

In same-sex relationships, on the other hand, where there is no automatic provision of gender-based differences, couples may actually seek out and benefit from dissimilarity, whether in gender-related behaviour traits or any number of other personality or demographic variables. It would be a useful project to examine whether same-sex couples differ in race, age, and so on more commonly than heterosexual couples, and to investigate whether, as I predict, such differences confound homophily theory by contributing to relationship stability rather than undermining it.

 

(This essay by Simon LeVay appeared in New Scientist, 29 April 2006. Not to be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.)

 

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