Can you tell someone’s sexuality from their face?

Imagine you’ve just met someone new. They’re good looking, and after talking with them you find out you’ve got shared interests and opinions. They seem like just the sort of person you can imagine being with for the long-term. But one of the problems when it comes to forging relationships is that, just because someone is your perfect partner it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re theirs. Obviously if you could tell whether there was a minimal chance of a particular potential partner falling for you, then you could save time pursuing them and instead direct your attention elsewhere, towards someone more likely to reciprocate your affections.

One variable that could reduce your chances with a prospective partner to zero is their sexuality. If they’re not attracted to people of your gender, it won’t matter if they’re a perfect match in every other way. So the ability to determine a person’s sexuality before making romantic advances is probably very useful. But is it easy, or even possible, to detect whether a person is gay or straight just by looking at them?

We might feel more comfortable subscribing to the idea that people who are gay and straight are, in every respect other than their sexual orientation, indistinguishable. It’s an idea that’s appealing to anyone who wants to live in a world where all people are free to enjoy the same rights and freedoms, regardless of their sexual orientation, and it’s replaced the old stereotype of gays as gender inverts: people with a biological sex that doesn’t match their psychological gender.

However, just because one explanation is more appealing than another doesn’t make it more likely to be true. If we’re guided by scientific principles we should test our assumptions using well-designed experiments. The first step is to formulate a testable research question: for our purposes, this might be: is it possible to distinguish people on the basis of their sexuality using only visual cues?

Jonathan Freeman of Tufts University in Massachusetts was sufficiently intrigued to test this question. He obtained 120 facial photographs of men and women from online sources. Half of the people who sat for the photographs were gay, and half were straight. Freeman then had 27 people view all the faces and guess the sexuality of each one.

If straight people are completely indistinguishable from gay people, then the ability of these participants to categorise the faces should have been no better than chance. They would have got about 50% of their guesses correct and 50% incorrect. However, Freeman found that 67% of the guesses were correct, suggesting that we are able to tell straights and gays apart on the basis of their appearance.

So, how were Freeman’s participants able to do this? Well, one possibility he investigated is that people use the simple rule-of-thumb that gay men look more feminine than straight men, and that lesbians look more masculine than straight women. This seems to be how people were making their decisions because the participants were more likely to classify feminine-looking men and masculine-looking women as gay, even if in reality they were straight.

One problem with the research is that the photographs were taken from dating websites. It’s possible that when gay or straight people post photographs of themselves on the web for the purposes of meeting prospective romantic partners, those photographs differ in some systematic fashion, perhaps in terms of facial expression. It’s also likely that the type of person who uses personal advertisement websites isn’t representative of the population at large. To be sure that Freeman’s participants were using face shape alone to guide their decisions, it’s probably necessary to take photographs in the laboratory under controlled conditions.

But despite this limitation, this study is a useful first step in the investigation of a topic that’s no less interesting and important than it is controversial.

Freeman, J. B., Johnson, K. L., Ambady, N., & Rule, N. O. (2010). Sexual orientation perception involves gendered facial cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(10), 1305–1317. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the August 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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