Does this reusable bag make me look gay? Perhaps, study finds

“This isn’t just toxic masculinity, this is literally toxic," TV host Stephen Colbert said of the study's findings.
Image: Recycled cartons at the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility in Brooklyn, New York, on April 22, 2015.
Recycled cartons at the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility in Brooklyn, New York, on April 22, 2015.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file
By Julie Moreau

In a recent monologue, television host Stephen Colbert mocked heterosexual men and said a new study found some of them avoid environmentally friendly activities, like recycling, to avoid being perceived as gay.

“Really, men? Is there no limit to straight male fragility?,” he asked mockingly. “This isn’t just toxic masculinity, this is literally toxic.”

To ostensibly solve the problem, Colbert, who jokingly referred to himself as a “ruggedly heterosexual male,” invited fellow “man-bros” to the “testosterzone” where he reimagined recycling bins with “a nice pair of boobs” to be sexually appealing to straight men.

“Oh, that’s some bulky waste I wouldn’t mind kicking to the curb, because it’s Tuesday, ‘cause you’re a man in the testosterzone, and Mother Earth is so hot. Literally, it’s very hot. We need to do something,” he continued.

The study that inspired Colbert’s laugh-out-loud monologue is no joke — and neither is climate change, which a 2018 federal report concluded will cause hundreds of billions of dollars in damage by the end of the century if more preventive measures aren’t taken now.

Published in June in the journal Sex Roles, the study explored the “gendered nature” of pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs), such as recycling and carrying a reusable grocery bag; the inferences made about a person’s sexuality based on what types of PEBs they participate in; and the social consequences for engaging in PEBs inconsistent with one’s own gender.

“Pro-environmental behaviors reflect individual and household contributions toward making the planet more livable for all life on earth, now and in the future,” said Janet Swim, a psychology professor at Penn State and the study’s lead author.

"Recognizing the social consequences of gendered PEB choices," her report states, "potentially can move humanity farther along with efforts to create a more sustainable future."

Gender-Benders

There are many things people can do to help protect the environment. Each of these actions, or pro-environmental behaviors, has features that make it more or less likely people will choose to do them, according to the study’s authors.

One of these features is whether or not an action is associated with men’s or women’s traditional gender roles. For example, researchers found using a reusable shopping bag is more associated with women’s gender roles, whereas caulking windows is more associated with men’s gender roles.

When study participants performed a PEB associated with their own gender, Swim and her co-authors refer to this as “gender-conforming,” and when participants performed one that defies gender role perceptions, they called this “gender-bending.”

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Swim’s study builds on insights from previous research that found individuals take cues about someone’s sexuality based on how closely their behavior conforms to their ascribed gender role. For example, people often ascribe homosexuality to feminine men or masculine women. Swim’s study extends this idea to pro-environmental behaviors.

“People may judge a man who engages in feminine PEBs not only as feminine, but also as gay,” Swim explained.

The study combines a trio of experiments to understand the social consequences of engaging in gendered PEBs. The first two studies “asked people to judge the gender traits and sexual identities of others who engaged in gendered PEBs,” the report states.

In the first two experiments, a total of about 650 participants read about a day in the life of either “David” or “Diane,” who engaged in a set of feminine, masculine or neutral PEBs.

The researchers found, “participants made judgments about women’s and men’s sexual identity based upon whether the target was engaged in gender-bending versus gender-conforming PEBs,” indicating that “participants were using gender-role violations as clues to sexual identity,” the study states.

Social Consequences

The point of the third study was to examine whether people avoid “gender benders” and gravitate toward “gender conformists.” Specifically, the researchers looked at whether the desire to engage in conversations with others was affected by the other person’s interest in gendered PEBs. Would people rather have a conversation about environmental topics with someone whose choice of PEB aligns with or defies their expected gender role?

Swim and her co-authors found female participants were most likely to avoid men who engaged in PEBs that aligned with their gender roles, and most preferred a conversation with gender-conforming women.

Men did not demonstrate a strong preference for conversation between gender-bending men, gender-conforming men or gender-conforming women. However, male participants demonstrated an aversion to gender-bending women.

According to the study, these results show possible negative consequences for gender-bending women more so than men when it comes to social rejection, particularly by men.

So do straight men, as Colbert implied, really refuse to recycle because it will make them “look gay”? Not exactly, Swim said.

“The paper does not show men don’t recycle because they are afraid they are going to look gay,” Swim clarified. However, she did say that is one potential implication of her research.

“People might have subtle things that are influencing their behavior,” she explained.

Consciously or not, those men and women who are concerned about being perceived as heterosexual may not choose certain behaviors out of this fear.

There may also be other social consequences that could prevent people from engaging in as many environmentally friendly behaviors as possible.

“If I [as a woman] go in the hardware store and ask for caulk and insulation, and the service people don’t really want to talk to me, I might not go back again,” Swim said.

Environmental Impact

Research has shown that engaging in PEBs such as weather-proofing your home, using a clothesline instead of a dryer, and maintaining your car can slash U.S. carbon emissions by up to 7.4 percent over 10 years, or the equivalent of France’s total carbon output. However, if people use congruence with gender roles as criteria for choosing PEBs, they may skip the clothesline or the auto shop and not engage in behaviors that could have an important impact on the environment.

To cite another example, switching from single-use plastic bags to reusable totes, a behavior associated with women’s gender roles, can help to drastically decrease the amount of plastic waste affecting ecosystems everywhere. According to the United Nations, between 1 and 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. The upper estimate amounts to 10 million plastic bags used per minute, or a ream of plastic that could be wrapped around the globe seven times an hour.

“If we only take responsibility for part of our contribution to creating a more sustainable planet, we are only going to get part way there,” Swim said. “Partial sustainability is not sustainable.”

Picking and choosing also adds to the current gender gap in planet-saving activities. “Women take on the tasks but men don’t,” Swim said. “It becomes one of these extra burdens that women have.”

For Swim, if the bottom line is to save the planet, everyone must engage in as many pro-environmental behaviors as possible. It is therefore important to remove obstacles for people — gender role stereotypes among them.

“If we can better understand possible social consequences [of choosing certain PEBs], we can better address barriers and opportunities for change,” Swim said.

Becoming aware of these impediments, perhaps even through Colbert’s gentle mocking, might lead more people to engage in pro-environmental activities.

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