The Associated Press last year abandoned the use of the term “homophobia,” saying the word was an inaccurate way to describe the disapproval of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender individuals.

Anti-gay sentiments are not driven by a fear of LGBT people. Or are they?

Research published online May 6 in Social Psychological and Personality Science found general negativity among heterosexual college students was driven by the fear that some lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals directed unwanted sexual interest at them.

“In all, our paper demonstrated robustly that perceptions of unwanted sexual interest by certain sexual orientation groups predict sexual prejudice quite well among college students, and that other alternative explanations (e.g., that non-heterosexuals violate gender norms or threaten one’s sexual identity) cannot explain patterns of sexual prejudice,” Angela G. Pirlott of University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, the lead author of the study, explained to PsyPost.

The study was co-authored by Steven L. Neuberg of Arizona State University.

The new hypothesis of sexual prejudice was derived from evolutionary and feminist perspectives, which both “point to the challenge to sexual autonomy posed by unwanted sexual interest,” the researchers explained in their study. “Unwanted sexual advances by nonheterosexuals may be viewed by heterosexuals as challenging that autonomy by creating coercive or uncomfortable sexual situations, or by placing doubt about one’s sexual orientation in others’ minds.”

The three part study of 533 heterosexual students found that sexual prejudice reflected perceptions of which sexual orientation groups direct unwanted sexual interest. In other words, heterosexual men who had a negative view of gay men viewed them as a source of unwanted sexual advances. The same was true of women.

“To assess this, we had participants rate their sexual interest in each of the six target groups (straight men, straight women, bisexual men, bisexual women, gay men, and lesbians),” Pirlott told PsyPost. “We then assessed their perceptions of the extent to which each of the those six target groups were interested in heterosexual men and women. Using a difference score in which we subtracted perceptions of target sexual interest from perceiver sexual interest, we determined which groups were perceived to direct unwanted sexual interest.”

“Women perceived unwanted sexual interest from bisexual men, bisexual women, and lesbians (but not gay men, who they perceived as directing mutual sexual disinterest) whereas men perceived unwanted sexual interest from gay and bisexual men (but not bisexual women, who they perceived as a mutual sexual interest target),” she added. “Patterns of prejudice mapped onto perceptions of unwanted sexual interest—heterosexual women viewed bisexual men, bisexual women, and lesbians negatively (but not gay men) and heterosexual men viewed bisexual and gay men unfavorably (but not bisexual women, for example).”

The study also examined whether an in-group vs. out-group mentality, gender–role violations or sexual identity threat could explain sexual prejudice among college students. All three have been proposed as driving factors behind anti-gay sentiments. But these three alternative explanations did not mirror sexual prejudice, while unwanted sexual interest did.

However, the researchers do not assume that unwanted sexual interest alone can fully explain sexual prejudice against gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals. Unwanted sexual interest may be a primary concern among college-aged individuals, but older individuals may be more worried about threats to social norms, for instance.

“[T]hinking about sexual prejudices, like thinking about all prejudices, requires we consider the perceived tangible challenges and opportunities people perceive others to pose,” Pirlott and Neuberg concluded in their study. “Finally, to explain sexual prejudice is not to justify it. Our goal was to enhance our understanding of why certain heterosexuals are prejudiced against sexual orientation minorities in the nuanced ways they are. Only through such understanding can effective means of reducing prejudices be designed and implemented.”

Originally published on PsyPost