No longer will bisexuals be considered mythical creatures akin to griffins, dragons and leprechauns. While this research seem trivial, it’s considerably important because past studies have conversely suggested that self-identified bisexuals may be… well, wrong. That is, they could be lying, or just “confused” about their sexuality. Human sexuality is fascinatingly complex, and indeed there are people who find themselves admittedly “confused”… but at least now science has given support to the notion that there are people who truly are attracted to both men and women. So why did it take us until 2011 to figure it out?
In 2005, a team of psychologists – from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, and Northwestern University in Chicago – recruited 101 young adult men from advertisements in gay and alternative newspapers. First, they asked men about their sexual desires, and gave them a 0-6 scale rating of homosexuality (0 or 1 is heterosexual, 2 to 4 is bisexual, and 5 or 6 is homosexual). Then they had the participants sit alone in a room, watching a number of erotic videos involving only women or only men.
Researchers monitored sexual arousal with a sensor, and to no surprise, the homosexual participants were more aroused by all-male videos, and heterosexual participants were more aroused by all-female videos. However, three quarters of the participants who self-identified as bisexual responded just as the homosexual participants did, while the others responded just as the heterosexuals did. So I hear you asking “all right, what’s the flaw in the study this time?” Well of course it would be nice to have things like a larger sample size (101 surely isn’t enough to go on for such a substantial question), but this isn’t a simple case of forgetting to carry the two, or neglecting to have a control group. No. Like a fine magic trick – the game was over before it even started.
Before I divulge the problem, compare this excerpt (from an article by Slate) regarding the recently published 2011 study:
Researchers observed a pool of 100 men – divided nearly evenly between self-identified heterosexuals, bisexuals and homosexuals – and monitored them for erectile arousal while watching videos of male and female same-sex intimacy. They found that only bisexual men were aroused by both sets of videos.
In other words, the actual methodology of the study was very similar. The real problem is in how you define “bisexual.” Whereas the 2005 research recruited people through gay and alternative means, the 2011 study recruited people through websites specifically appealing to bisexuals. Also, the new study required that participants had had sexual encounters with at least two people of each sex, as well as a romantic relationship that spanned at least three months with someone of each sex. To put it bluntly, the 2005 study gathered a bunch of gay people and asked them to rate how bisexual they were, while the 2011 study asked the same question to a bunch of bisexuals.
Black and White
Sexuality isn’t black and white; and it’s not black, white and grey, either. When I say “sexuality is complex,” I mean the psychology of sexuality is mind-blowing. In fact, our concept of sexuality may be so outdated that words like “bisexual” are effectively meaningless. Unfortunately, this isn’t something you can prove or disprove with a few simple studies. Psychologists are going to have to work on this for years, even generations, and it will probably be necessary to entirely change the way we view sexuality – something that cultural seems to resist.
In fact, sexuality is much more than a simple measure of sexual arousal, which is basically the only thing the studies measured, aside from the self-report. According to the “Klein grid,” that’s only one or two aspects of sexual orientation. Chris O’Guinn wrote an in-depth critique of the 2005 study on AfterElton.com, essentially debunking four beliefs of bisexuality.
When the great sex-research pioneer Alfred Kinsey conducted his famous sex surveys in the 1940’s, he concluded “Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats.” In fact, we may need to throw out the terms homosexual and heterosexual and just embrace an all-encompassing term that emphasizes sexuality on more of a continuum, instead of fitting us into arbitrary categories.
For the time being, we can simply say that we acknowledge bisexuals; and they exist as much as everyone else.