Thursday, August 25, 2011

Little Boxes

I wasn't blogging in 2005, when the Northwestern University study on (male, natch) bisexuality was published, or I'd have had some things to say about it. Supposedly the researchers -- under the direction of the notorious Michael Bailey, which should have been a tip-off -- found that men who identify themselves as bisexual aren't really turned on by both sexes, with turn-on measured by having subjects watch various kinds of pornography while wearing a penile plesmograph to chart their arousal. The study got a lot of publicity, such as a New York Times article with the charming title "Straight, Gay or Lying?", angered a lot of bisexuals and pleased a lot of gay men and lesbians who'd always claimed that bisexuals were just closet cases. Quoth the Times,
The study is the largest of several small reports suggesting that the estimated 1.7 percent of men who identify themselves as bisexual show physical attraction patterns that differ substantially from their professed desires.
That may be true, but a representative study of gay men or straight men might come to similar conclusions. In my own experience, for example, I've been surprised how readily and effectively straight-identified men are able to be aroused by other men when they feel like it. (Impotence, when I've encountered it, has usually been a problem for gay-identified men.) And there are a lot of gay fathers out there who made their sperm deposits directly, so to speak. The Kinsey data, outdated though they may be, and about overt behavior rather than "identity," pointed in the same direction: the number of men who had sex with other men, often on an ongoing basis, was far greater than those who were exclusively homosexual throughout their lives. More than half of the ten percent of Kinsey's male subjects who were touted by gays as "gay" in fact had significant heterosexual experience. Whether they thought of themselves as gay or bisexual is something we'll never know, but it says something that gay people retroactively claimed a sizable population of bisexuals (going by what they actually did) as gay.

So, the new study, also reported in the Times (via) and also done at Northwestern, found that bisexual-identified men were aroused by hopefully erotic images of both men and women, "while gay and straight men in the study did not." The article also reports another study by researchers in Indiana which showed bisexual-identified men videos depicting "a man having sex with both a woman and another man, on the theory that these might appeal to bisexual men." This study also found that bisexual men exist. I can report, however, that scenes of a man having sex with both a woman and another man often turn me on, though I'm not bisexual, presumably because they depict men having sex with each other. For that matter, I can report arousal from watching heterosexual scenes, presumably because they depict men in sexual situations. These researchers are using blunt instruments to examine a complex phenomenon, but what else can they do?

Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, praised the 2005 study, but seems more critical of it in retrospect. Now she tells the Times,
“I’ve interviewed a lot of individuals about how invalidating it is when their own family members think they’re confused or going through a stage or in denial,” she said. “These converging lines of evidence, using different methods and stimuli, give us the scientific confidence to say this is something real.”
Is it "something real"? Reality is a tricky category where human psychology is concerned. "Sexual orientation," for example, describes a pattern of behavior and desire that can really be observed in human beings, but what does it mean to call it "real"? Is a pattern of behavior a trait? There has never been any doubt that many people have sexual relations with people of both sexes; the question has been what it means. The earlier Times article referred to something called "true bisexuality," but never explained what it meant. Did it mean equal numbers of male and female partners? How far can a person stray from 50/50 before they cease to merit the bisexual label? (I once asked an anti-bisexual gay man that question in an online debate, and he angrily refused to address it, but it is certainly a question worth asking, and answering.) The earlier article also raised the question of whether bisexuality is "a distinct and stable sexual orientation," but it's not certain that monosexuality is stable either. As I've argued before, what psychologists study as "sexual orientation" isn't really "sexual orientation" at all.

The new Times article is more attentive to the reactions of bisexual persons, who are ambivalent about it. Some have even figured out, apparently, that they don't need to be validated by scientific studies, though it's certainly gratifying when it happens.

Ellyn Ruthstrom, president of the Bisexual Resource Center in Boston, echoed Mr. Larsen’s discomfort.

“This unfortunately reduces sexuality and relationships to just sexual stimulation,” Ms. Ruthstrom said. “Researchers want to fit bi attraction into a little box — you have to be exactly the same, attracted to men and women, and you’re bisexual. That’s nonsense. What I love is that people express their bisexuality in so many different ways.”

I've encountered this line before, and it still annoys me. Of course "sexuality" can be reduced to "just sexual stimulation." It's not all there is to sexuality or relations, but it's a necessary component. It does seem to be surprisingly difficult to get people to remember that just about every component of human experience has to be viewed in its context, but when people get defensive, they just confuse matters more. "Sexuality" is that aspect of human life that involves "sexual stimulation," but since human beings assign complex meanings and emotional associations to everything we do, any serious discussion of sexuality has to cover a lot of other ground. I reject reductionism too, but usually the response to it is to be reductive somewhere else -- or to water down the concepts involved until they no longer mean anything.

Then there's the matter of "identity." Of course bisexual identity exists. If someone says "I'm bisexual," that's an identity and it therefore exists. What it means, if it means anything, is another question altogether. Many, perhaps most people, who have sexual relations or even relationships with persons of both sexes do not "identify as" bisexual. People tend to lie about their erotic behavior, no matter who it's with. There are a lot of reasons for that, and I think that mere avoidance of stigma is one of the most salient.

I hope I'll live long enough to see a day when "identity" is recognized as a largely meaningless and useless concept, but even if that happens, researchers and scholars will just find some other meaningless and useless concept to replace it with.