"Men are avoiding reusable shopping bags so they won't look gay," reads the headline of Australian public broadcaster SBS. "Men Don't Recycle Because They Don't Want People Thinking They're Gay, Study Finds," says Vice. "Men may be more likely to snub mother nature by refusing to carry reusable shopping bags—because they don't want to appear feminine or gay," reports the New York Post.
If this sounds ridiculous, it's because it is. The study in question didn't find that men are avoiding supposedly pro-environmental behaviors for fear of being thought gay.
The paper in question was published in the journal Sex Roles by researchers from Penn State University and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The study, which received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, involved 960 participants who were asked to engage in two separate activities designed to test their social perceptions of different "gendered" environmental behaviors, from carrying reusable bags (supposedly feminine) to caulking windows (a ballsy, hairy-chested masculine activity).
Participants were first asked to read fictitious accounts of a person engaging in either masculine or feminine "pro-environmental behaviors." They were then asked to rate that person's masculine and feminine traits, as well as their sexuality on a scale of most heterosexual to most homosexual. In the third part of the study, participants were given a list of four possible discussion partners they would be paired with to talk about environmental behaviors, then asked to rank their preference for these partners.
The list of discussion partners included a gender-conforming man and woman (who were interested in discussing environmental behaviors that supposedly conformed with their genders) and a gender-bending man and woman (who wanted to discuss environmental behaviors associated with the opposite gender).
In the first activity, participants generally ascribed feminine traits to pro-environmental behaviors regardless of what the activity was. But contrary to a lot of media write-ups, these same participants did not rank anyone as gay for engaging in gender-bending behaviors.
"Counter to predictions and on average, participants did not perceive the target as lesbian or gay in any of the conditions," reads the study. The fictitious people engaging in gender-conforming activities were ranked higher on the heterosexuality scale, but neither gender-bending men or women were ranked as gay by participants.
In the third activity, women were most likely to pick gender-conforming women as their most preferred discussion partners, and least likely to pick gender-conforming men as their partner. Men were equally likely to pick other men as discussion partners, regardless of whether they were gender-conforming or gender-bending.
Let me quote the study: "men's preferences did not reflect preferences for one gendered topic over another gendered topic nor preferences for one gendered partner over another gendered partner. Their preferences also did not seem to be a function of prejudice against [gays and sexual minorities] or being concerned about misclassification as gay."
The whole purpose of the ranking of discussion partners was to tease out whether participants' gendered perceptions of different behaviors led them to stigmatize people for engaging in those behaviors. In other words, if men thought carrying a reusable bag was feminine or gay, would they ostracize men who carried reusable bags?
The answer from the study appears to be a definitive no. The headlines about the study are an unambiguous yes.
Indeed, you could make the case that the study suggests an incentive for heterosexual men to carry reusable bags or engage in other "feminine" environmental behaviors, as the women were more inclined to pick those men as discussion partners.
Frankly, the study itself seems to be a convoluted and indirect way of answering the questions it asks. One could also take issue with asking participants to rate these behaviors on binary scales in the first place. And some of the supposedly pro-environmental activities it discusses are actually not so great for Mother Earth.
But regardless of the study's merits, it has clearly been misreported by almost every outlet that's picked it up.