I try to abstain from making assumptions about the sex life of other people—because sometimes looks can be deceiving. The little old lady pushing her grocery cart might, against all expectations, like it rough in the sack. The burly, catcalling construction worker could enjoy chamomile cuddle sessions with his special someone rather than jackhammering any piece of tail that walks by. Everyone has sex—except nuns and rollerbladers—and outward appearances aren’t always a reliable window into a person’s intimate preferences. At least that’s what I’ve always thought.
After reading a paper from researchers at the University of Toronto, which was released last month, I might have to rethink that, ahem, position. Dr. Nicholas O. Rule and Konstantin Tskhay asked 23 people to guess the sexual inclinations of 200 gay men based on neutral photographs of their faces. Gay men, scientists have shown, tend to self-identify as one of three sexual types: “top,” taking on the insertive role; “bottom,” being a receiver; and “versatile,” enjoying both sexual roles. It’s also been documented that sexual preferences tend to align with stereotypical gender dynamics; in general, tops tend to be dominant and masculine, while bottoms are more inclined to be submissive and effeminate. It seems pretty clichéd if you ask me, but I guess we all have to live under the patriarchy.
The researchers were testing whether there is a correspondence between the physical markers of masculinity, like facial hair and strong features, and self-professed sexual preference. Nicholas and Konstantin’s study gathered pictures of 200 men, half tops and half bottoms, and showed them to 16 men and seven women selected randomly from Amazon’s mTurk. It turned out that even when faces were taken completely out of context, the study participants were able to guess the men’s preferences at a rate better than chance. All this suggests that our desires might not be as private or unpredictable as we like to think.
Or it means jack shit, because the sample size was so insanely small.
Overall, Nicholas and Konstantin’s paper elicits more questions than it answers. In the study, participants tended to name more tops than bottoms, revealing an innate gender bias toward identifying men of any sexuality with the dominant role. That issue brings up some chicken-and-the-egg questions about the spectrum of “masculinity.” Does its perception dictate the sexual role in gay as well as straight relationships, or is it a reflection of a particular inclination? What does it means that masculinity, a cultural and biological construction, is observable in the human face? I spoke to Nicholas about his past research on women’s gaydar, perceptions of masculinity, and how you might be able to guess what a dude likes by looking at his face.
VICE: The study size was pretty small. Can you really make sweeping conclusions about perception based on the reactions of 23 people you met on the internet?
Dr. Nicholas O. Rule: Great question. I guess N = 23 might seem small. The effects that we tend to get in these sorts of social perception experiments are rather robust, however, so the statistical power needed to achieve reliable effects doesn't require huge samples.
The fact that we had more men than women was incidental. In most psychological research, it's almost always the opposite—women tend to make up a greater share than men. In this instance, we had no reason to believe that men and women would differ in their judgments, and so we didn't make an effort to balance the number of men and women. Rather, we just took what random chance delivered, which here ended up being more men than women.
A previous study you conducted established that ovulation improves the accuracy with which women are able to distinguish between gay and straight men. Is there any proof that this factor affects women’s ability to distinguish between tops and bottoms?
We didn’t explicitly take this into account. We didn’t ask female participants about their fertility. There is certainly reason to hypothesize, based on previous work, that women may perceive tops and bottoms differently depending on their fertility status. For instance, earlier work done by researchers like Neil Macrae, Lucy Johnston, Ian Penton-Voak, and others found effects in which women preferred the faces of masculine men when ovulating and feminine men at other points in their cycles—I am loosely paraphrasing their results here. It stands to reason that women might be more attentive to the faces of tops versus bottoms during ovulation, owing to correlations between being a top and perceived masculinity. That said, their ability to distinguish between tops and bottoms would probably not be affected, as the presumed motivation to distinguish the two wouldn’t necessarily vary depending on which side of the division they are attending to more closely. The two are defined by relative opposition to each other, so identifying one leads to an inference about the other.
In a study like this, how do you separate cultural signifiers and stereotypes of masculinity from biological indications of masculinity? Do you see the categories as interchangeable or inextricable? Is it possible to parse the differences?
In this study we actually didn’t separate the two. I don’t think that they’re necessarily interchangeable, but rather that one serves as a proxy or representative for the other. What I mean by that is there are ostensible biological markers of higher levels of testosterone, for example, which are related both to the development of certain facial features as well as predispositions to particular behaviors.
They don’t correspond perfectly, however, so the perception of the features can serve as an approximation by proxy for what some would define as biological masculinity. That said, the way that we generally think of masculinity is in terms of its behavioral manifestations, apart from the fact that one could feasibly construct a measure of how masculine an individual is biologically.
In a study on perception, we’re typically more interested in perceived masculinity, as derived from behaviors. These would correspond best to the cultural signifiers and stereotypes to which you refer but, of course, would also interact with what is available from the biologically-derived cues as well.