Study: Gay men tend to be shorter than heterosexual men

New research published in the Journal of Sex Research investigated the relationship between objective height, self-reported height, and sexual orientation.

The study of 863 Canadians found that people tended to say they were taller than they objectively were and men tended to overreport their stature more than women. Gay men were shorter on average than heterosexual men, but there was no height difference among women of different sexual orientations.

PsyPost interviewed Malvina Skorska of Brock University. Read her explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Skorska: I am interested in this topic for several reasons. This topic allows us to learn about the development of sexual orientation, which includes not only why people might be gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but also why people are heterosexual (i.e., straight). What makes people attracted to the other sex or the same sex (or both)? Given that partner choice is a huge part of our behaviour, and sexual orientation is a fundamental aspect of choosing a partner, this topic is very important to generally understanding more about ourselves, our behaviours and our attractions.

Also, this topic allows us to learn more about the potential specific processes that might be going on to explain the association between height and sexual orientation, and the development of sexual orientation more generally. 

I am also interested in the role that sex/gender plays in the development of sexual orientation. Sexual differentiation (differences between the sexes in how they develop) is a huge part of theories about the development of sexual orientation, but the development of various parts of sex and gender are complex. Height is a sexually dimorphic physical characteristic. That is, men tend to be taller than women, on average. So, by studying a sexually dimorphic physical characteristic, we can learn more about the role that processes differing between the sexes (when the different sexes develop) play in the development of sexual orientation.  

Last, given my training in social psychology, I was interested in learning more about how people might perceive themselves to appear in a certain way. In this particular study, I was interested in whether and how people might distort their height. Previous studies have suggested that people distort their height to appear more powerful, or because of their gender roles (e.g., more masculine men distort their height to appear taller).

What should the average person take away from your study?

On average, gay men tend to be shorter than heterosexual men. This difference is small; about 1.5cm difference in height. We did not find evidence that lesbian women were taller than heterosexual women, on average, although we might need a larger sample size to see if there are any differences in height between lesbian women and heterosexual women.

We have learned that a psychosocial explanation that involves distortion of height cannot explain the height and sexual orientation association, and so, indirectly, more biological explanations (e.g., prenatal hormones which seems to be the most popular explanation) that involve how height develops are likely better explanations for this association. And so, this study also tells us about how sexual orientation might develop, at least for those that are different in height in the way found within the paper (i.e., gay men shorter than heterosexual men, on average).

This is the first study to show that the difference in height is in measured, objective height, not self-reported height, which was used in the majority of the previous studies conducted on the relation between height and sexual orientation. 

We have also learned that both men and women distort their height to appear taller, on average. Men seem to distort more than women to appear taller (i.e., height distortion amount is greater in men than in women). 

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

As with any study, there are limitations. This is a correlational study and so we cannot be sure whether sexual orientation causes height, height causes sexual orientation, or a third variable causes both. Also, just because a height difference was found between gay men and heterosexual men in a group of men does not mean that this information can be used to tell whether any one person or individual is gay or heterosexual. And we did not directly test most of the mechanisms that we think might explain the height and sexual orientation association, and thus, we are hypothesizing what might be going on. We did test a height distortion explanation, but more biological explanations were not tested. 

Several questions need to be addressed:

a) What is the mechanism that explains the association between height and sexual orientation? We know it is not likely a height distortion explanation. And in a recent paper of ours (Skorska, M. N., & Bogaert, A. F. (2016). Pubertal stress and nutrition and their association with sexual orientation and height in the Add Health data. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508-016-0800-9) we show that pubertal stress and nutrition likely do not explain this association. We still do not know the exact mechanism and so future research will need to be conducted.

b) What is going on in women? We need to figure out whether there is an association between height and sexual orientation in women. The majority of the studies indicate there is not this association, but they may not have enough sample size to detect an effect. A meta-analysis (where we aggregate the findings across several studies) will likely be able to help us answer this question. 

c) Why do people distort their height? We did not test any potential explanations for height distortion in this study. We can test explanations involving gender roles, social desirable responding, and personality variables and we hope to do that in future research. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for the opportunity to tell you more about our research! Some great research on the puzzle of sexual orientation (including our study on sexual orientation and pubertal stress and nutrition) will be published in an upcoming special issue of Archives of Sexual Behaviour (see here for more articles that will be published in this special issue:  

In addition to Skorska, the study “Sexual Orientation, Objective Height, and Self-Reported Height” was co-authored by Anthony F. Bogaert.