Study of Sexual Discrimination in Psychology: Examples & Impact

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Being discriminated against because of sexual orientation can have a major psychological impact, and it can be complex to understand. This lesson discusses the history, causes and effects of sexual discrimination on a psychological level.

Understanding Sexual Discrimination

As someone who identifies as a lesbian, Jan knows what it feels like to experience discrimination, or negative acts based on the prejudices of others. She knows that discrimination based on sexual orientation, or how a person identifies sexually and who they are attracted to, has happened in many different ways over the course of history.

Jan also knows that discrimination has had a profound effect on her psychological well-being at different times in her life, and as a new psychologist, she hopes to better understand this phenomena so that she can help others work through some of the difficulties she has faced.

History of Sexual Discrimination

Jan knows that there have been different sexual identities and ways of expressing them since the beginnings of human civilizations. She also understands that the history of sexual discrimination is culturally mediated. For instance, many scholars have shown that in Ancient Greece, homosexual relationships were not particularly frowned upon.

Similarly, in many Native American societies, people who expressed same-sex love were and are revered and seen as spiritually enriched. Most historians think of overt discrimination against gay and lesbian people as beginning most prominently in the colonial era and growing out of increasing desire for, and anxiety about, reproduction as a symbol of perpetuating empire.

However, it is also true that same-sex relationships have never been treated with the same seriousness and reverence as heterosexual relationships.

Jan discovers that the twentieth century saw a dramatic uptick in sexual discrimination, and much of the modern history she is more familiar with has to do with the activism of the 1960s and 70s that began a pushback against discriminatory laws and cultural constructs.

Today, Jan knows that the extent of sexual discrimination a person experiences depends significantly on culture, geography, and socioeconomic status, among other markers.

Psychological Causes

Jan wonders what in the field of psychology, or the study of the mind and how it works, can help account for sexual discrimination. She thinks about her own parents, who were initially very upset that she was a lesbian and said things that hurt her deeply. Jan can understand their discrimination in the following ways.


Many people are made anxious by difference in general and by sexual difference in particular, and this fear can lead to acts of discrimination.

Anxiety About Reproduction

Although we know that gay and lesbian people can in fact have and raise healthy children, many people experience a kneejerk psychological reaction that leads them to believe that homosexuality will circumvent the perpetuation of the species.

Cultural Messaging

Heteronormativity, or the sense that you are only normal if you follow a heterosexual developmental trajectory, is omnipresent in society, in books, movies and television. It's hard not to unconsciously take in these messages, which in turn can lead to discriminatory behavior.

Anxiety About Self

Jan has talked with many heterosexual people who have told her that sometimes they are attracted to people of the same sex, and this worries them. When a person is very anxious about their own sexual identity, they can project this anxiety onto others and act in discriminatory ways as an unconscious way of defending their own heterosexual identity.

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