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Web Topic 14.1: The Categorical Perception of Sex May Influence Sexual Orientation

[Referenced on textbook p. 454]

How does sexual orientation “work”? According to the simplest model (see Figure 1A), one could imagine that people respond differentially to male-typical and female-typical features in the faces, bodies, and behaviors of the people they meet, and that these differential responses constitute their sexual orientation. Thus, a straight man is straight because he finds small chins, narrow jaws, large eyes, and breasts, as well as female mannerisms and personality traits, attractive and (in the right circumstances) sexually arousing; a gay man is gay because he is attracted by wide jaws, large chins, smaller eyes, muscular chests, and male mannerisms and personality traits. In other words, a person’s sexual orientation emerges directly from the way they process and evaluate raw sensory data. The problem with this model is that there is not enough perceptual information in, say, faces, to support exclusive heterosexuality or homosexuality; many faces cannot be reliably discerned as male or female. With multiple cues the identification of a person’s sex becomes highly reliable, of course, but sexual attraction is often experienced when sensory cues are limited.

Figure 1  Alternative models of sexual orientation.

According to a more complex model (see Figure 1B), one could imagine that when presented with, say, a face, people first make an unconscious and nearly instantaneous classification of that face as male or female, based on the visual cues available. Such a process is called categorical perception. There is evidence to support the idea that the sex of faces is indeed perceived categorically (Campanella et al., 2001). This judgment of a face’s sex (which is likely to be correct, but could be wrong) powerfully influences the assessment of its attractiveness (Meerdink et al., 1990). If a straight woman perceives a face to be male, for example, she assesses the attractiveness of the face by reference to her standards of male attractiveness (such as those we have discussed above), and a face judged attractive may trigger sexual arousal. If she perceives a face as female, she may assess the attractiveness of the face (heterosexual women can make judgments of female beauty, after all), but whatever the result, it does not lead to sexual arousal.

This model helps explain how sexual orientation can be exclusive even though faces, bodies, and behaviors do not necessarily provide unambiguous cues to a person’s sex. It also helps explain how an exclusively heterosexual or homosexual person can be sexually attracted to and aroused by a person of the “wrong” sex, and even have a sustained relationship with that person: so long as the person is perceived as being a member of the preferred sex, attraction and arousal are possible. Once the illusion is shattered, however, that person becomes nonarousing and even positively unattractive (because his or her attractiveness is now assessed with reference to standards for the other sex). These moments of shocked revelation have long been a staple of late-night television. The model can also account for why bisexual persons may be aroused by entirely different “looks” in men and in women.


Campanella, S., Chrysochoos, A. & Bruyer, R. (2001). Categorical perception of facial gender information: Behavioural evidence and the face-space metaphor. Visual Cognition 8: 237–262.

Meerdink, J. E., Garbin, C. P. & Leger, D. W. (1990). Cross-gender perceptions of facial attributes and their relation to attractiveness: Do we see them differently than they see us? Perception and Psychophysics 48: 227–233.