In his most recent column in Scientific American Mind, research psychologist Jesse Bering presents a fascinating discussion of the history and meaning of the slang term “fag hag” — a woman who supposedly hangs around with gay men because of her unattractiveness and inability to attract straight men.
Writes Bering (who is gay): “I’ve never seen myself as a ‘fag’ — although I’m sure many other people do see me this way and unfortunately nothing more — but more importantly I’ve certainly never regarded my many close female friends as ‘hags.’ So I was curious to learn more about the unflattering stereotypes lying at the etymological root of this moniker, which describes straight women who tend to gravitate toward gay men.”
Bering’s curiosity took him to a study published last year in the journal Body Image. “According to the investigators,” he writes, “the ‘hag’ component is essentially the common belief that these women ‘do not feel good about their bodies, and as a result, take refuge in the ‘gay world’ to avoid the harsher judgement and emphasis on female physical attractiveness inherent in the heterosexual social scene.’”
But the study, which included 154 heterosexual women who participated in a detailed Internet-based survey on “fag-haggery” (the researchers’ term), found just the opposite. “With this sample at least,” writes Bering, “there was absolutely no link between a woman’s relationship status, the number of times she’d been on the receiving end of a breakup, or her body esteem and the number of gay male friends in her life.”
The study did, however, have a couple of unexpected findings: The more gay male friends a woman had, the more sexually attractive she found herself. (Attractiveness in the study was all self-measured.) But, the longer a woman had had a close friendship with a gay man, the lower her perception of her sexual attractiveness.
“On interpreting this unexpected finding,” writes Bering, “the authors suggest that this may actually reflect some core, but nuanced truth of the ‘fag hag’ stereotype: ‘Perhaps women who perceive themselves as less sexually attractive develop closer relationships with gay men.’ The others just go for superficial attachments.”
You can read Bering’s entire column here.