Research in the School, Social Psychology

Romantic love and cultural heterosexism

Do heterosexual people recognise the love experiences of gay and lesbian people? Professor Peter Hegarty from the School introduces recently published research that suggests some heterosexual people struggle to imagine romantic love between two men or two women.

In 2015, a week before the same-sex marriage referendum in the Republic of Ireland, novelist Colm Toibin recounted a letter from one of his readers, who had been moved by his 1996 novel The Story of the Night.  That novel includes an account of love between two men. The reader – a powerful person in Irish society, whom Toibin did not name –  was moved by the account.“ Prior to reading the novel, “it had never occurred to him that two men could fall in love in the way straight people do, that a man could wait for phone calls and messages from the loved one who was also a man, or that the two men could begin to long for and enjoy each other’s company and thus become happy in the warm glow of love.” Before reading Toibin’s work, this powerful anonymous figure had thought that “being gay was merely about sex” (Toibin, 2015).

When Sapphira Thorne was conducting her PhD research on the conceptualization of romantic love we talked about Toibin’s article and his reader’s response very often.  What intrigued us – and Sapphira’s second supervisor Erica Hepper – was the way in which a straight person could be surprised by the recognition that gay or lesbian people might just simply experience love in the ways that were ordinary.  What could they be thinking that would lead to this experience of surprise? Toibin attributes his reader’s experience to their lack of knowledge and personal contact with lesbian and gay people, and to the ways that lesbians and gays were ‘hidden from history’ as by the actions of the Irish Censorship Board in censoring novels in earlier decades for example. The social psychologist Gregory Herek (2007) named this dynamic ‘cultural heterosexism.’ Many queer theorists might prefer the term ‘heteronormativity’ to describe the same ideology that insists that lesbians and gay men do not exist, or that if they do they must be made to signify sexual and gender weirdness (Marchia & Sommer, 2019). Either way, it is this kind of ‘othering’ that involves both erasure and spectacle that creates the ideological context  in which other folks ordinary love can be surprisingly moving.

In a historical paper, Sapphira, Erica and I described how love and relationships emerged in social psychology in ways that bore the mark of cultural heterosexism (Thorne, Hegarty & Hepper, 2019). Researchers sometimes defined love explicitly as heterosexual, sometimes inserted women and men into participant and stooge roles in experiments in ways that traded on heterosexual scripts, and mostly ignored the small emerging literature on same-gender relationships. In this months British Journal of Social Psychology, we report on experimental studies which examined romantic love and cultural heterosexism from an experimental  angle (Thorne, Hegarty & Hepper, 2019). 

In one study we randomly assigned heterosexual-identified people to four experimental conditions  in which they listed the features that came to mind when thinking about either a couple in love (the default condition), a heterosexual couple in love, a gay male couple in love, or a lesbian couple in love. We content coded these responses, and constructed a plot of the proportion of participants who drew each feature to mind in each condition. These plots describe the graded structure of these categories of romantic love.  

Three findings showed an effect of cultural heterosexism in conceptualizing romantic love. First, this study was conducted online, and its heterosexual-identified participants dropped out of the study prematurely more often in the lesbian and gay male conditions than in the heterosexual or default conditions. Second, many of the participants assigned to the lesbian or gay male conditions reported that they struggled to keep the appropriate couples in mind. Finally, the graded structure in the default condition was more similar to the graded structure in the heterosexual condition than it was to the graded structure in the lesbian condition or gay male condition. Mirroring Toibin’s article, participants generated responses about sexuality and gender expression only in the lesbian and gay conditions but were more likely to call to mind how heterosexuals made personal sacrifices in relationships than lesbians or gay men did. 

A replication of this experiment with lesbian-, gay-, and bisexual-identified participants found very different patterns. Here there was no difference in drop out rates nor reports of particular difficulty in thinking about love in any of the four conditions. Among lesbians and gay men, relationships between gay men and between heterosexuals were conceptualized with graded structures that were more similar to the default than love between lesbians. Among bisexual-identified participants all of the sexual-orientation specific forms of love were equally prototypical. People don’t all conceptualize love in a way that is cognitively organized around their own sexual identity, but heterosexual-identified people particularly do, gay men and lesbians include gay couples in the default concept, and bisexual-identified people included all couples about equally.  

A third and fourth study – both conducted with heterosexual-identified participants – lead us to conclude that heterosexuality is the cultural default not only because of what heterosexual people do and don’t know about love , but because of the ease with which they can or can not call what they know to mind. When we presented participants with the 50 most commonly reported traits in the earlier study and asked them how typical they were of either love in general, heterosexual love, gay love or lesbian love, their answers were virtually identical across categories. However, when we asked participants to verify these features under time pressure, their categories of heterosexual love were somewhat more inclusive of diverse features of romantic love than were their categories of lesbian or gay love. 

In sum, cultural heterosexism may have more to do with howwe think  about other people thanwhatwe think about them.  Some heterosexual people may recognize love when they see it between two men or two women, but nonetheless struggle to conceptualize love between two men or two women when they are asked to actively imagine it. We hope this work leads us all to think more slowly and deeply about who are conceptualization of most valued of human emotion embraces.


Herek, G. M. (2007). Confronting sexual stigma and prejudice: Theory and practice. 

Journal of Social Issues, 63, 905–925.

Marchia, J., & Sommer, J. M. (2019). (Re) defining heteronormativity. Sexualities, 

22, 267–295.

Thorne, S.R., Hegarty, P., & Hepper, E.G. (2019). Equality in theory: From a 

        heteronormative to an inclusive psychology of romantic love. Theory & 

        Psychology, 29, 240-257.

Thorne, S.R., Hegarty, P., & Hepper, E. (2020). Love is heterosexual-by-default: 

        Cultural heterosexism in default prototypes of romantic love. British Journal of 

        Social Psychology.

Toibin, C. (May 14th, 2015). The same-sex marriage referendum and the embrace of 

love.The Irish Times.  Downloaded 6thOctober, 2020.

Read the new article by Thorne, Hegarty and Hepper in the British Journal of Social Psychology Open University readers can access the journal through the OU library.

Read about Peter Hegarty’s work here 

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