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Do Our Voices Give Away Our Sexual Identities?

Research explores the role of vocal tone in perceiving sexual orientation.

Key points

  • "Auditory gaydar" is the supposed ability to detect someone else's sexual identity from their vocal tone and pitch.
  • Men who believe that sexual identity can be detected from another man's voice are more likely to report a desire to avoid men who "sound gay."
  • Our assumptions about voice, gender, and sexuality are informed by femmephobia and the societal devaluation and rejection of femininity.

This post was co-authored by Laura Orchard, a recent Trent University graduate.

Do you remember the first time you heard a recording of your voice? Chances are that if you are like most, it was a bit disconcerting. For most of us, what we sound like to ourselves is different than what we hear when a recording of our voice is played back. As a result, you may feel some awkwardness when first coming to terms with the natural sound of your voice.

Such apprehension makes sense. Our voices can communicate a great deal of information to those around us before we even consider what words are being said. The tone and pitch of our voice give hints about our identity, such as our age, gender, and where we come from. The tone of our voice can also give away our innermost feelings at any given moment. But, for some, navigating the outward perceptions of one's own voice can be even more challenging. When voices give away too much of an identity or signs of an undesirable identity, vocal cues can even put people in danger.

"Auditory gaydar" is a term used to describe the supposed ability to detect the sexuality of another person through the tone of their voice. In other words, auditory gaydar rests on the belief that tone of voice differs in meaningful and detectable ways based upon one's sexual identity. But what exactly does it mean to "sound gay"? New research has sought to uncover the mental mechanisms through which associations between specific vocal cues and presumptions of sexuality are formed.

Perceiving Sexuality From Vocal Cues

Researchers have concluded that although the sexuality of men and women is often judged based on their voice, sexuality is most often judged when it is associated with a man's voice, and such perceptions are more commonly made by men themselves, rather than by women. Two reasons for this gender difference in relying on vocal cues to presume sexuality have been identified by researchers. First, the depth and range of male speaking voices make it easier for different vocal tones to be detected, thereby simply providing more opportunities to categorize people on the basis of subtle tone differences. Second, men are more likely to hold specific beliefs or stereotypes/assumptions about what a man's voice should sound like. Deviations from such expectations are therefore classified as somehow deviating from maleness and masculinity, and can consequently lend themselves to presumptions concerning sexuality.

Attributing assumptions about sexuality to one's vocal cues and assuming that a "man's voice" has clear and specific characteristics is an essentialist form of thinking—assuming that one's inherent sex and presumed gender dictate other specific traits without question. To explore the link between such essentialist thinking and responses to male vocal cues, researchers asked a group of men whether they believed that a man's sexual orientation could be detected from the tone of his voice. In other words, participants were asked whether or not it was possible to "sound gay."

Interestingly, it was the participants who responded in the affirmative that were also more likely to say they would avoid men who sounded gay. This finding is in line with a great deal of other research that often finds essentialist thoughts about gender and sexuality to be strongly associated with negative attitudes concerning sexual and gender minorities. On the surface, such rejections may seem benign, but linking presumed sexuality to vocal tone opens the door for a wide range of discriminatory acts, such as not hiring a man who "sounds gay" or denying other services to those whose voices do not adhere to stereotypical gendered expectations.

Awareness of Stigma

LGBTQ+ individuals do not live in a social vacuum in which they are unaware of how others in society perceive them. In fact, often the negative stereotypes and attitudes held within society become internalized by members of the targeted community itself. For gay men and lesbians, this is sometimes called internalized homophobia. Consequently, gay men are not immune to internalizing societal stereotypes about what a heterosexual, masculine voice should sound like. To explore the impact of this information, Fasoli and colleagues explored the extent to which gay men believed they would encounter discrimination and rejection from others as a result of their voice. Gay men who reported that they had voices that sounded gay were more likely to expect rejection from others because of their voice.

Expectation of Rejection and Efforts to Change

 Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
For men and women, regulating one's voice to avoid negative judgments by others often involves trying to sound more masculine.
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Just as you may have been tempted to take vocal lessons after you heard your recorded voice for the first time, anyone who expects to be treated or judged poorly because of their voice is likely to make efforts to change their voice. It is not uncommon within LGBTQ+ communities to hear stories of individuals trying very hard to change their voice in one way or another in order to have that voice align more closely with how they want to be perceived within the world.

Unfortunately, many of these efforts are driven by unfounded gender stereotypes that dictate the confines of proper masculinity and femininity. Femmephobia, or the societal devaluation and regulation of femininity, exerts a strong force within society to shape masculinity and men in a manner that rejects all signs of femininity. It contributes to young gay (and straight) men spending hours trying to lower their voices and remove all potential indicators of femininity. Indeed, even women are not freed from such expectations. Our general devaluation of femininity encourages women (e.g., Margaret Thatcher) to seek vocal training to sound more masculine and, consequently, more authoritative, confident, and intelligent.

Auditory gaydar appears to hinge more on our perceptions of gender stereotypes and judgments of femininity and masculinity than it does on a true ability to detect actual sexual identity. Nonetheless, negative attitudes toward misplaced femininity and lingering homophobia contribute to negative evaluations of men's voices that stray from stereotypical masculine vocal ranges. Expanding our perceptions and expectations for what "sounds" like a man's voice or what "sounds" like an authoritative and intelligent voice may go a long way toward reducing stigma and societal rejection, not just for gay men but also for individuals of all genders—and vocal ranges.

References

Fasoli, F., Hegarty, P., & Frost, D. M. (2021). Stigmatization of ‘gay-sounding’ voices: The role of heterosexual, lesbian, and gay individuals’ essentialist beliefs. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(3), 826–850. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12442

Fasoli, F., & Maass, A. (n.d.). Voice and Prejudice: The Social Costs of Auditory Gaydar: Atlantic Journal of Communication: Vol 26, No 2. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15456870.2018.1432617

Meredith, N. (2021, February 15). Gay men who ‘sound gay’ encounter more stigma and discrimination from heterosexual peers | University of Surrey. University of Surrey. https://www.surrey.ac.uk/news/gay-men-who-sound-gay-encounter-more-stig…

Shariatmadari, D. (2015, July 17). Do you sound gay? What our voices tell us – and what they don’t. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/17/camp-the-voice-ga…

Vedantam, S., Lu, T., Boyle, T., & Cohen, R. (2019, July 15). Finding Your Voice. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/07/15/741827437/finding-your-voice-how-the-way…

Hoskin, R.A. (2020). “Femininity? It’s the aesthetic of subordination”: Examining femmephobia, the gender binary, and experiences of oppression among sexual and gender minorities. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(7), 2319-2339.

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