The Lure of the Muscular Male

Donald Gorton. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 23, Issue 5. Sep/Oct 2016.

The muscular male physique can arrest observers’ gaze involuntarily. Research by social psychologists indicates that muscular male bodies capture and hold the attention of spectators both male and female. Whatever our æsthetic sensibilities, the unconscious mind seems to think the mesomorphic or muscular body type is worth looking at.

Since at least the mid-20th century, a drive for muscularity has spawned the activity of bodybuilding, which styles itself a sport, but some commentators consider an art form (Shusterman, 1999; Sedacca, 2015). Systematic resistance training grounded in biomechanical engineering has made it possible for modern humans to transform their bodies in ways that were previously unimaginable. It didn’t take long for gay men to notice the potential of bodybuilding to help them develop bodies that looked like those of superheroes. Muscle-bound 1950s movie stars like Steve Reeves-famous for playing the title role in Hercules Unchained-attracted a large gay following. Later, the best-known competitor in men’s bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a seven-time Mr. Olympia, posed nude in 1977 for the gay-inflected magazine After Dark.

During this era, Alan Klein, a professor at Northeastern University, conducted a six year ethnographic study (1979-85) of the bodybuilding subculture in Venice Beach, California, the Mecca for enthusiasts then and now. While he described a thoroughly heterosexual environment, he identified gay men as a crucial component of the fan base for competitive bodybuilding, especially in the early years. Gay spectators were a loyal audience who praised and appreciated sculpted musculature at a time when the wider public did not.

Research confirms this fascination with brawn among gay men. Levesque and Vichesky (2006) concluded that the muscular male image represented the dominant æsthetic ideal for the men they studied. A 2008 study by Swami and Tovée compared gay and straight conceptions of male attractiveness and found that the gay subjects tended to favor more pronounced upperbody musculature. In his 2008 book Muscle Boys: Gay Gym Culture, Erick Alvarez catalogued the various cultural contexts in which the gay exaltation of muscle has found expression, including the Greek gymnasium, Renaissance sculpture, the physique magazines of the 1950s, the circuit party phenomenon of the 1990s, the use of steroids, and today’s “muscle bears.”

Yet stereotypes have complicated the gay involvement in competitive bodybuilding. Alan Klein relates a pervasive attitude that bodybuilding is itself narcissistic, exhibitionistic, and ipso facto redolent of homosexuality: “Be it the inordinate attention paid to oneself, the preoccupation with prancing about on stage wearing as little as possible, or an awareness that for all that form there is little function behind bodybuilding, many outsiders see bodybuilders as somehow associated with homosexuality.” These comments are obviously homophobic even though they’re directed at non-gay practitioners. Indeed, organized bodybuilding has resented the attribution of homosexual undercurrents to its franchise.

To combat this stereotype, bodybuilding promoters have spun a heterosexual narrative and tried to tamp down implications of homosexuality. Even many decades ago, a series of memorable advertisements for Charles Atlas featured “Mac” on the beach getting sand kicked in his face-until he discovered bodybuilding as a way to ward off the bullies and impress the ladies. Bodybuilding magazines took pains to include photos of attractive women alongside the competitors. In the immediate postwar era, hegemonic masculinity was the absolute norm, with little room for sexual minorities in the exaggerated binary code for gender roles. Even as late as the 1980s, cinematic personæ such as “the Terminator” and Rambo presented decidedly non-erotic images of hyper-masculine warriors.

Klein found considerable homophobia among the elite bodybuilders he interviewed. Guys who were perceived to be gay might be hounded by straight bodybuilders at the top gyms. Klein also reports that there was anti-gay violence perpetrated by athletes. Schwarzenegger famously referred to gays as “fags” in the 1970s. The winner of the 1983 Mr. Universe competition, Bob Paris, came out publicly as gay only to see his career lose traction. Klein posits that these attitudes were a backlash against the burgeoning gay rights movement, which raised suspicions about homosexuals infiltrating the gyms.

Advancing knowledge in the field of evolutionary psychology offers little support for the “gay” stereotype. This discipline analyzes current patterns of human behavior and explores their origins and development as evolutionary adaptations that long predate the rise of agriculture and urban civilization some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. One of the most striking findings of this discipline concerns the role of violence in shaping human behavior. The pre-history of human aggression-as well as its avoidance-offers an evolutionary antecedent to current bodybuilding rituals.

Based on archeological and anthropological evidence, Australian professor Aaron Sell and his co-authors (2012) estimate that Paleolithic males stood a thirty percent chance of dying at the hands of another male aggressor. (In the present-day U.S., that risk stands at 0.8 percent.) Such a mortality rate would have created strong pressures on natural selection. Superior fighting ability enhanced survival and fitness odds for males. Sell identifies 26 gender-specific anatomical adaptations in men that contribute to fighting ability.

Combat between males was fueled by conflicts over access to food supplies, territory, and access to females. Such contests could be won by one adversary’s ability to inflict costs, including physical injury, upon a rival such that the latter was unable to continue competing. However, fights to the death were the exception. Evolution operates to diminish behaviors that impair the survival of the species as a whole, as this ancestral carnage might have done. Instead, the human groups that survived were those that found ways to resolve conflicts over resources without violence, even though fighting ability remained the deciding factor.

Psychologists use the term “formidability” to describe the relative capacity of an individual combatant to win fights. A corollary is “resource holding potential.” Humans, male and female alike, evolved highly refined faculties for assessing formidability based on visual cues. The contestant who looked more imposing based on physiognomy and body type had the advantage; the apparently less formidable male had a choice between combat, which might entail catastrophic injury or death, and the alternative of standing down and accepting marginal status with few mating opportunities.

This adaptation-avoiding fights with stronger competitors-made actual fighting ability less crucial than the appearance of formidability. In evolutionary history, the variable that most influenced fighting ability was brute strength. The decision to fight or flee demanded a fast and accurate visual assessment of an opponent’s strength. Upper-body musculature was the most reliable indicator, followed by stature. Research on living subjects indicates that men in general are quite good at sizing up a potential combatant’s formidability. The anthropological record is full of ritualized dominance whereby men exhibit their physical strength through displays of upper body strength. This would create an implicit pecking order within the tribal community such that actual combat was not required.

Other species have also evolved aggressive but non-injurious means of settling disputes. Chimpanzees and other great apes assert their rank by holding their breath to expand their chests. Two red deer will walk in tandem, roar, and finally antler-wrestle, but they will not stab each other from behind or from the side. Pairs of northern elephant seals on the Pacific coast of North America prepare for breeding season by pushing themselves up on their front flippers and bellowing individually distinctive sounds. Physical confrontations are avoided to the extent that individuals recognize and accept their place in the hierarchy.

Research on our hominid ancestors points to a persistent connection between superior upper-body musculature and the potential for dominance. Physical dominance conferred power and status. Power is defined by psychologists as the ability to influence others’ outcomes by virtue of control over resources, often linked to one’s status in the social structure. In evolutionary history, as now, higher status is sexually alluring. The ultimate advantage of physical superiority, indeed its raison d’être, is the ability to eclipse rivals for desirable mating opportunities. The straight women studied by Dixson (2014) and Frederick (2007) rated muscular males as the most attractive (up to a point). Factors contributing to this mating preference included the potential for acquiring and holding resources, health and fitness advantages, and the ability to protect the family against aggressors.

Interestingly enough, the women surveyed in research studies are less attracted to extremely muscular men than to the moderately muscular. Extreme muscularity can be an indicator of very high testosterone levels, which comes with behavioral concomitants like a lower threshold for anger, higher risk tolerance, and a proclivity for having multiple sex partners. Something more than fighting ability is desired. Women also assess prospective male partners for their willingness to invest in family relationships. Other variables in play include kindness and trustworthiness-qualities in which highly muscular men are rated lower than others. Accordingly, the male face most attractive to women has been found to be quite masculine on a gender continuum, but a notch or two short of the most extreme. (However, women tend to prefer more masculine faces when ovulating.)

There are obvious parallels between modern bodybuilding and primal displays of musculature intended to intimidate a potential adversary or entice a mate. The activity of flexing muscles to signal strength reprises ancestral dominance displays used to overawe a potential opponent. Men who can impress a potential mate through such displays may enjoy an evolutionary advantage through the mechanism of sexual selection, in the same way that a peacock’s plumage can attract a peahen by showing reproductive fitness-even though an impressive fan actually reduces the peacock’s ability to fight. Analogously, today’s well-developed men-whether wearing a thong in a bodybuilding context or a skimpy T-shirt on the street-can often attract the attention of females (not to mention other males) without demonstrating any skill in combat.

The spectator’s interest in bodybuilding undoubtedly relies on the same perceptual focus that’s involved in a potential rival or mate’s assessment of one’s formidability. Given the survival premium on accurate visual predictions of fighting strength, the act of watching a muscular male was promoted by natural selection. It is possible to view bodybuilding as a set of modern cultural rituals derived from instincts belonging to a much older phase in human evolution.

The fact that gay men are attracted to muscular body types cannot be explained with reference to this evolutionary dynamic, though it seems to take advantage of the propensity of human males to respond visually to this body type. The difference is that two gay men checking each other out are not interested in combat but in erotic possibilities. In this respect, gay men cruising are in the peculiar position of being both the subject and the object of the visual dance. As subjects, their position is analogous to that of heterosexual females assessing the formidability of potential mates. But they are also the object of other men’s gaze, so their own formidability is very much on the line. At the same time, gay men as objects of sexual attraction are competing with one another for admiration, just as straight males do vis-à-vis females. In short, it’s something of a free-for-all, creating a network of attraction that’s far more complex than the simple rivalry of heterosexual males competing for females- which may explain why gay men, unlike their straight counterparts, almost never get into physical fights in public spaces.

As a practical matter, the obsession with achieving a muscular physique undoubtedly subsumes a much larger proportion of gay men in contemporary society than it does straight men, as indicated by much higher rates of gym membership for gay men. While wealth and power are still the most important calling cards for heterosexual men, a sculpted physique can launch its owner into an elite position in the gay social structure. In his book Muscle Boys: Gay Gym Culture (2008), Erick Alvarez observes that a “gym-built man has the kind of power that sometimes even money cannot buy or education bestow. Wielding that kind of power guarantees examination.” Other research has shown that a preference for muscularity influences not only gay sexual desire but even the selection of one’s friends.

Needless to say, the techniques for muscle enhancement available to a 21st-century bodybuilder are beyond anything our ancestors could have contemplated. Professional competitors like the current Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath, have muscle mass that undoubtedly exceeds what would have been advantageous to our hominid ancestors. However, the latter would probably have understood the significance of what they saw, attributing superhuman or godlike status to such men.

It should not be surprising that an activity partially rooted in attracting reproductive partners would bear a heavy imprint of heterosexuality. So the proposition articulated by Klein, that bodybuilding is necessarily homoerotic, ignores powerful drives grounded in the evolution of aggression and attendant reproductive benefits. An Israeli study (2003) testing Klein’s qualitative observation that homophobia was prevalent among bodybuilders failed to support his hypothesis. One explanation, according to the researcher, is that the passage of time (since the early 1980s) has lessened the grip of prejudice in bodybuilding as it has in the larger society. The grand old man of bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger, embraced LGBT equality over the course of his 21st-century service as governor of California. Research findings correlating anti-gay feelings with latent homosexuality have been widely publicized, to the point that anti-gay prejudice is regarded as a red flag.

In recent years, the sport of bodybuilding has dramatically expanded, drawing in younger participants who connect with peers and fans through social media. Instagram and YouTube are favored platforms, and both ban explicit homophobia. Popular bodybuilders with large social media followings like Jeremy Buendia, Bradley Martyn, and Attila Toth welcome their gay fans and have spoken out against anti-gay harassment. Competitive men’s bodybuilding is evolving beyond homophobia. But it doesn’t seem very gay. Of the eleven bodybuilders that Pride.com recommends on Instagram, one is a trans man and none is gay-identified.