Different Interactions with Regard to Age: A Look at Sexuality with Regards to Touch

Jessica Zeece
The College of St. Catherine


To examine the effects of age and different types of touching, on social situations and assumptions about homosexuality, stories were produced and questionnaires were obtained from 72 female College of St. Catherine students after viewing one of four different photographs. The results show that the age of someone and the different types of touches do not play a statistically significant role in social situations. The findings highlight the significance that gender plays when assuming homosexuality in different social situations.

Different Interactions with Regard to Age: A Look at Sexuality with Regards to Touch

In our society, homosexuality is becoming more and more widely accepted and more commonly seen. Depending on the observer and the context of those being observed, many different reactions are being found. It has been found however, that if a male is observing a male homosexual couple, the observer tends to feel more uncomfortable and have negative feelings towards homosexuality (Herek, 1988; 2002). There is also a flip side to observing homosexuality though. If men are viewing two men together who are homosexuals, they tend to feel more uncomfortable and have more negative feelings towards homosexuality than if they tend to view the same exact situation with two women. Similarly, women tend to feel the same way towards two homosexuals who are women, but their feelings toward homosexuality are comparatively less negative than those of men who view the same sex homosexual interaction (Herek, 2002). From these attitudes, there have been many experiments performed to find out what makes these people uncomfortable and also what causes them to conclude that the two people are in fact homosexuals.

Herek (1988, 2002) found many different conclusions about the reactions of heterosexuals towards homosexuals and the different circumstances that promote those reactions. Herek also found that women tend to be more understanding and accepting overall of homosexuality than men. From these studies, he was able to conclude that heterosexuals feel more comfortable with homosexuals of the opposite sex than of their sex. For those who view homosexuality and feel uncomfortable, they may jump to conclusions, which create stereotypes that most likely stem from fear.

The main product of the different attitudes towards homosexuals is harmful stereotypes. In an interview about different social aspects of stereotyping and prejudices that students have, research stated that there is evidence that shows a correlation with emotional prejudices (Hackney, 2005). Because of these stereotypes, some may be more inclined to view homosexuality differently than others who have not been exposed to these stereotypes. There have been many reports and findings to suggest that those who are homosexual have had feelings of discrimination and endured acts of violence because of their sexual orientation. A study was conducted in a gay community in California. The subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire asking them if they feel that they have ever been a victim of a “hate crime” (Herek, Gillis, & Cogan, 1999). The findings showed that one-fourth of men and one fifth of women reported having experienced some type of victimization based on their sexual orientation (Herek, Gillis, & Cogan, 1999).

There are many factors that could possibly lead a person to conclude that two people of the same sex have an intimate relationship. Some of the main factors include interpersonal distance from one another, body orientation to one another, and the way that the people are touching. Experiments have been conducted to discern if people jump to conclusions about others based purely on the distance that they are from on another and what type of touch they are giving to each other. It has been found in past research that the proximity of two people is seen as “intimately tied to the perception of affective or ‘sentiment’ relationships” (Wellens & Goldberg, 1978). There are several factors that can contribute to how people reach this conclusion. One of the factors that can play a big role in concluding a relationship from proximity is the gender of the two people. Because women tend to have closer proximities than men, when men are seen in close proximity, it is easier to assume a more intimate relationship (Remland, Jones, & Brinkman, 1995). Zeece (2006) found, while looking at the different factors that have an impact on assuming a relationship for two people, that the gender of the couple does have an impact on what type of relationship is assumed. Because different factors must be taken into account when judging one’s relationship, it is important to look at the difference between gender and the context of actions.

In our past experiment, we found that the context in which two people were holding hands had no impact on people assuming their sexuality, but the gender of the couple that was holding hands did have an impact (Zeece, 2006). From these results, we were interested in what types of contact specifically led people to assume homosexuality. The main focus of this experiment is to find out if there are certain types of touches that can lead others to assume homosexuality. We can also come to some conclusions about the distance one stands from another and the assumptions that arise. Specifically, we looked at the effects of one man tying another man’s tie and one man brushing lint off of the shoulder of another man. Another factor that we examined is the age of the couple. Specifically, is it more acceptable to have certain touches with someone else if you are a certain age? Our hypothesis was that there would be a difference in the assumptions that people made based on what type of touch the people are giving each other and that it would be more socially acceptable for older people to be homosexual and seen as homosexuals than it would be for younger people. The rationale for this hypothesis is based purely on the openness that our society has today as compared to years ago.



Seventy-two females who attend the College of St. Catherine were asked to make up a story about one of four photographs that they viewed. Once they completed their story, they were then asked to fill out a short questionnaire. The females were not randomly selected; they were asked while on their way to a class or in a particular class with the investigator. However, the females were randomly assigned a photograph for examination. All participants were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Participants were not compensated in any way for their participation and they were thanked for their participation in the study.


Four different photographs were shown to participants. The photographs were of men helping each other with an everyday task. Specifically, there were four men, two in their younger twenties and two in their older fifties. These men were paired together with the other man of their corresponding age, and in one set of photographs, one man was helping the other man tie his tie, and in the other photograph one man was helping the other man dust some lint off of his shoulder. The photographs did not reveal the person’s facial expressions. The subjects were standing in a room with a neutral colored wall in the background and part of a door visible. In all of the photographs there was some sort of physical contact between the two men.

The participants were given a sheet of paper that asked them to look at the photograph and write a brief story. From the answers that were given, a specific type of coding was incorporated to be able to accurately score the participants equally. The questionnaire contained six different questions: (1) How old do the people in the photograph appear to be, (2) How much physical distance does there appear to be between the two people in the photograph, (3) How familiar to you is the social situation depicted in the photograph, (4) In your opinion, how comfortable do the main people in the photograph seem, (5) How well do you think the main people in the photograph know one another, and (6) In your story, what kind of relationship did you assume the two people had. The answers were marked on a seven-point scale; those including age and distance had a range of seven different intervals. Question number six was not judged on a seven-point scale. This question looked at the relationship that was assumed by the participant regarding subjects in the photograph and was judged on how closely the subjects were related. The coding for the relationship was the lower the number assigned, the closer the relationship the subjects in the photograph were assumed to have.


The participants in this experiment were each given a consent form that stated that all of the information that was obtained from their story and questionnaires was confidential and would be used in psychological experiment. The participants were also told that their participation was voluntary and that they could decline at any time. Once consent was obtained, the participants were randomly assigned one of four photographs and asked to fill out a story and questionnaire form (Appendix 1). After completion of these forms, the participant then placed their forms into an envelope, making it impossible to match results with participants.


Effects of Age

In comparing the difference in the ages of the subjects in the photographs, only one factor was statistically significant (See Table 1). Participants were able to judge the subjects to be within the appropriate range. This finding is important because we were able to conclude that many of the participants assumed that the subjects were of a certain age and that the other findings could be correlated back to the age difference.

There were other findings that looked primarily into whether or not the participant assumed a homosexual or heterosexual theme based purely on the age of the subjects. In Table 1, we can see that double the amount of participants assumed a homosexual theme towards the younger subjects than they did of the older subjects, yet this was not statistically significant. While the homosexual theme was doubled when comparing the different ages, the heterosexual theme was not. Heterosexuality was noted almost equally between the different ages.

The attitude of the participant was taken into account also. If the participant mentioned any type of relationship between the subjects, whether it be heterosexual or homosexual, the overall attitude was assessed (See Table 1). There was a more positive attitude when a theme of sexuality was mentioned for the younger subjects than with the older subjects but this was not statistically significant. The difference was that the participants were roughly 15% more positive in their attitudes towards the younger subjects than the older subjects.

Effects of Touch

In comparing the different types of touch, the results only show two measures that are statistically significant (See Table 2). Again, the participants showed that regardless of the type of touch that was being performed, they were consistent in identifying the age group. Despite the type of touch performed, the identification of the subject’s age was easy to assume.

Another factor that was statistically significant was the relationship that was assumed between the two subjects. The subjects who were seen as tying the tie were depicted as having a closer relationship with one another as compared to those who were brushing the shoulder. There was also a unique effect that came into play when looking at the tabulated statistics (See Figure 2). The younger subjects were seen as having the same level of relationship between one another regardless of what type of touch they had. However, the older subjects were seen as having a closer relationship when they were tying the tie as compared to brushing the shoulder.

There was a unique effect between the type of touch that was being performed and the assumed age of the subjects. When looking at the younger subjects and comparing the age of those in the tying the tie touch and those in the brushing off the shoulder touch, they were seen as consistently the same age (See Figure 1). When the older subjects were seen as brushing off the shoulder, they were seen as being older than when they were being seen as the tying the tie.

When looking at the effects of the touch, it was more likely that a homosexual or heterosexual theme was noted (See Table 2). In both aspects of sexuality, tying the tie was more likely to have the participants mention some type of sexuality between the subjects. When the participants brought up some type of sexuality, they were more than two times more likely to bring up a heterosexual theme while tying the tie than they were when the subjects were brushing off the shoulder. However, the participants were seven times more likely to bring up homosexuality when the subjects were tying a tie as compared to brushing off the shoulder.


From these results, we can interpret several aspects of age, types of touching, and homosexuality and how those relate to different social situations. We can say that, overall, our hypothesis was not supported. There was no evidence that any of the types of touch used here would lead one to assume homosexuality. In our society and culture today, it is becoming more common for people to show their affection to one another. This is very evident in the results that we found. There are different types of touches that can pass between two people and not lead to the conclusion of homosexuality. There was also no evidence to support the idea that homosexuality is more assumed based on the age of the people. Our evidence showed that people are just as likely to assume homosexuality towards older people as they are towards younger people when performing the same types of touches towards one another.

We can assume that homosexuality is seen in all different age groups in our society today. Because of the openness and acceptance of homosexuality in all different ages, it is less likely that one would jump to the conclusion of homosexuality just because of someone’s age. We can also say that people are less likely to judge others based on what type of touch passes between them. In our society, it has become a lot more common for people of the same sex to be openly affectionate towards one another. This is not seen as homosexuality as it would have been in the past. Although this has been seen in the past, the different types of touch could play a role in what is being assumed. It appears that people are less likely to label of others. Because of this ever-changing society, research should continue.

There are several ways that this experiment could be expanded in the future. One expansion would be to have male and female participants in the study. This would give more clarity on how males and females view sexuality and what is becoming socially acceptable between those of the same sex. Another aspect that could be looked into is how other cultures view touching. This would give us insight on what is socially acceptable in other cultures as well as what influences other cultures have on what is socially acceptable in our culture.


Hackney, A. (2005). Teaching students about stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination: an interview with Susan Fiske. Teaching of Psychology, 32(3), 196-200.

Herek, G. M. (1988). Gender gaps in public opinion about lesbians and gay men. Department of Psychology University of California, Davis, 1-23.

Herek, G. M., Gillis, J. R., & Cogan, J. C. (1999). Psychological sequelae of hate crime Victimization among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1-13.

Herek, G. M. (2002). Heterosexuals’ attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: correlates and gender differences. The Journal of Sex Research, 25(4), 451-477.

Remland, M. S., Jones, T. S., & Brinkman, H. (1995). Interpersonal distance, body Orientation, and touch: effects of culture, gender, and age. The Journal of Social Psychology, 135(3), 281-297.

Wellens, A. R., & Goldberg, M. L. (1978). The effect of interpersonal distance and orientation upon the perception of social relationships. The Journal of Psychology, 99, 39-47.

Zeece, J. (2006). Individual Reactions to Everyday Social Situations. Unpublished

Table 1
Descriptive Statistics: Effects of Age on the Key Dependent Measures

  Young Old F Values
Age of Person 2.11 (0.86) 5.33 (1.04) 316.83*
Distance Apart 1.75 (1.08) 1.56 (0.88) 0.71
Familiarity with Situation 4.83 (1.48) 4.64 (1.55) 0.29
Comfort of People 5.39 (1.52) 5.08 (1.59) 0.69
Know One Another 5.92 (1.27) 5.83 (1.54) 0.06
Relationship 3.22 (1.49) 3.47 (1.54) 0.54
Homosexual Theme (%Assumed) 11.11% 5.56%  
Heterosexual Theme (%Assumed) 25% 30.56%  
Positive Attitude (%Assumed) 86.11% 72.2%  

Table 2
Descriptive Statistics: Effects of Touch on the Key Dependent Measures

  Brush Tie F Values
Age of Person 4.03 (2.06) 3.4 (1.56) 11.40*
Distance Apart 1.5 (.94) 1.8 (1.00) 1.75
Familiarity with Situation 4.58 (1.59) 4.89 (1.43) 0.72
Comfort of People 5.22 (1.49) 5.25 (1.63) 0.01
Know One Another 5.61 (1.59) 6.14 (1.15) 2.55
Relationship 3.69 (1.43) 3.00 (1.53) 4.19*
Homosexual Theme (%Assumed) 2.78 % 13.89%  
Heterosexual Theme (%Assumed) 13.89% 41.67%  
Positive Attitude (%Assumed) 75% 83.3%  


Figure 1.
Cell Means for the Age of the Subjects and the Ratings They Received


Figure 2
Cell Means for the Relationship Between the Subjects and the Ratings They Received

Appendix 1
Story and Questionnaire Form

Please write a brief story about the situation depicted in the photograph. Your story might be about the events that led up to the scene, or about the events that followed the scene, or about the dialogue and other actions that occurred during the scene. Like any story, it should have a beginning, middle and end, and is likely to include who these people are, what they are doing, where and when they are doing this, and perhaps even why. Your story does not have to be any longer than one paragraph.

The following items concern your impressions of the situation depicted in the photograph. Please respond as accurately as possible about your impressions.

1. How old do the people in the photograph appear to be?

20 – 24   25 – 29   30 – 34   35 – 39   40 – 44    45 – 49    50+ years

2. How much physical distance does there appear to be between the two people in the photograph?

1 foot    1 ½ feet   2 feet   2 ½ feet    3 feet    3 ½ feet    4 feet

3. How familiar to you is the social situation depicted in the photograph?

Not at all familiar    1   2   3    4    5    6   7    Very familiar

4. In your opinion, how comfortable do the main people in the photograph seem?

Not at all comfortable    1   2   3   4   5    6   7   Very comfortable

5. How well do you think the main people in the photograph know one another?

Not very well    1   2    3   4    5    6    7    Very well

6. In your story, what kind of relationship did you assume the two people had?


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