New research, published in the most recent issue of The Journal of LGBT Youth, explores the motivations of young people to use homophobic and misogynistic language. The research, conducted by Dr. Katherine Romeo and her colleagues in the Department of Education Psychology at the University of Illinois, noticed there was a lot of research analyzing the consequences of engaging in homophobic and misogynistic behavior, but noticed little research was dedicated to looking at the intent as to why high schoolers use such language. They hoped to fill in that informational gap.
Data was collected through 10 focus groups in a large midwestern city in the United States between 2011 and 2012.
The sample included 15 young men, 24 young women and two gender-neutral participants. The participants were asked whether they hear (a) “… students being called gay, queer, dyke, lezzie, fag, homo, etc.” or (b) “… students being called slut, bitch, whore, ho, etc.”
For each type of language, young people were asked, “Have you ever seen or heard about these or similar kinds of things happening at your schools? Can you tell us about what you’ve seen or heard about happening?”
Their responses were then coded specifically for intent. Researchers broke intent down into two subgroups: “regulation” and “other.” Regulation intent means that individuals were using homophobic or misogynistic language to regulate others’ behaviors — in the hopes that person would then conform his or her behavior to traditional, societal standards of being a “man” or “woman.”
“Other” included anything that wasn’t coded as regulation intent. It consisted of negative, positive, joking, harm and lack of. Here, “negative” and “positive” speaks to the connotation of how they were using the language. Was it meant to be said as a positive thing or as a negative thing? “Joking” meant they were joking, while “harm” meant with the intent of causing harm to someone. “Lack of” means they couldn’t really classify intent.
The results were not exactly what you would expect. Because of this, we spoke with the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Romeo, to get her opinions on the results.
“I was surprised that there was not more explicit homophobia among our sample,” she says. “For example, no one suggested that homophobic language is used because it’s wrong to be gay. On the contrary, even when they were clearly implying that being gay or trans is ‘not normal,’ the idea that someone would use homophobic language to harass someone because they are gay did not seem to resonate with them.”
“Similarly,” she says, “although discussion of regulation was also paramount with respect to the use of misogynistic language, participants rarely made the connection between misogynistic language and misogyny.”
Dr. Romeo continues, “Although there were occasions where young women, in particular, noted that there was a double standard, I was surprised that no one explicitly made the connection, for example, that calling a young woman a ‘ho’ perpetuates misogynistic norms.”
Thus, the adolescents in the group did not call a gay man a fag, but rather as one participant in the study mentioned, “… sometimes, like, boys just call another boy a fag if he don’t wanna talk to a girl or something.”
In this regard, homophobic slurs weren’t actually used to regulate homosexuality but rather constructs like masculinity.
Similarly, “regulation” was the core component of misogynistic language, used to regulate individuals’ behavior for dressing too promiscuously or being too sexually active (or simply perceived as being sexually active).
Asked if this is a form of victim-blaming, Dr. Romeo says it’s more nuanced than that.
“They seemed to view the use of misogynistic language as a response to perceived promiscuity as inevitable, not necessarily as deserved, and I think that’s a very important nuance,” she says. “While it has the impact of tacitly endorsing victim-blaming and certainly doesn’t challenge it, it also gives us an unexpected window for intervention: Could these young people envision an environment where being called a ‘slut’ or ‘ho’ is not an inevitable reaction to a young woman’s perceived promiscuity? Why or why not? Would they like to live in an environment like that?”
“I think there is a real learning opportunity there that would be missed if we did not push ourselves to understand how they are viewing these interactions,” Dr. Romeo says.
A second factor that influenced intent was the relationship and identities of the people involved in the homophobic and/or misogynistic dialogue.
“Sarah,” who was from an organization serving queer youth, said, “In the queer community … at my school, ‘dyke’ is really prevalent, like, this reclaimed version of dyke, which I love. But at the same time, like, someone will come up to me — like, a heterosexual — [and say] ‘What’s up, dyke?’ I’ll be like (in small voice) ‘Go away…’ [others laugh]. [It] makes me really uncomfortable. But it’s difficult because I joke with my queer friends, and we do call each other dykes — just, like, reclaiming the word. But when it’s within our community we’re not using it to be derogatory, we’re just like, ‘Hey!'”
So when speaking to other queer individuals, as a queer person, it was OK to use traditionally homophobic words, because they were reclaiming those terms.
But even among straight people these words can be thrown in jest, as long as they’re with friends. “John” said: “Most people wouldn’t walk up to a stranger and say ‘You’re a fag.’ Or ‘You’re a dyke.’ … But when it’s someone familiar it can be used in a joking manner but be offensive. For example, a guy could say to another guy, ‘You’re so gay for liking so and so TV show’ — that is generally considered a show that females watch or that gay people watch and it could be taken in a joking manner. But it’s still derogatory in that sense, because it’s viewing it negatively.”
So while meant in jest, and the person receiving the homophobic slur might not necessarily take offense, it’s still absolutely derogatory, equating gay with effeminate or bad. But again, this is only if the language is coming from a friend.
Overall, while it’s clear that the young participants in this study were aware of how this language results in regulation, they might not recognize offensiveness and inherent misogynistic and homophobic underpinnings. It also reveals that how, when, and to whom one speaks this way determines its meaning.
In the end, as noted in the research, “[The] data provide evidence that many young people are ready for difficult conversations that challenge both themselves and the adults with whom they are talking.”
Now we simply need to encourage those difficult conversations to happen.
Featured image by rappensuncle via iStock