Progressive. Queer. Feminist. Opinionated.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Lying to us, lying to them

Recently rm on livejournal linked to an article in the New York Times, Gay, Straight, or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited. (Subliminal: Read her post and the comments following it. You won't be sorry.)

The lowdown:
Some people are attracted to women; some are attracted to men. And some, if Sigmund Freud, Dr. Alfred Kinsey and millions of self-described bisexuals are to be believed, are drawn to both sexes.

But a new study casts doubt on whether true bisexuality exists, at least in men.

The study, by a team of psychologists in Chicago and Toronto, lends support to those who have long been skeptical that bisexuality is a distinct and stable sexual orientation.

People who claim bisexuality, according to these critics, are usually homosexual, but are ambivalent about their homosexuality or simply closeted. "You're either gay, straight or lying," as some gay men have put it.

I like that little push from "our" side, as it were. Like, "See? Even the gay guys think this is bull."

The researchers asked the men about their sexual desires and rated them on a scale from 0 to 6 on sexual orientation, with 0 to 1 indicating heterosexuality, and 5 to 6 indicating homosexuality. Bisexuality was measured by scores in the middle range.

Seated alone in a laboratory room, the men then watched a series of erotic movies, some involving only women, others involving only men.

Using a sensor to monitor sexual arousal, the researchers found what they expected: gay men showed arousal to images of men and little arousal to images of women, and heterosexual men showed arousal to women but not to men.

But the men in the study who described themselves as bisexual did not have patterns of arousal that were consistent with their stated attraction to men and to women. Instead, about three-quarters of the group had arousal patterns identical to those of gay men; the rest were indistinguishable from heterosexuals.

Here we see that a man's physical reaction to porn is really the measure of his sexuality. Forget context, emotional charge, the mental constructs, even the more strident definitions of bisexuality as being "about the person, not the body" -- really, it's all about the penis engorgement.

Although about a third of the men in each group showed no significant arousal watching the movies, their lack of response did not change the overall findings, Mr. Rieger said.

Or maybe not. I understand the principles behind statistical insignificance, but perhaps this shows (as if nothing else did previously) a problem with the experiment itself. If you have to throw out a good third of the information... well, frankly, it makes it sound as if they were looking for a specific answer, and one third of the results just didn't add up to what they wanted. Which was:

"I'm not denying that bisexual behavior exists," said Dr. Bailey, "but I am saying that in men there's no hint that true bisexual arousal exists, and that for men arousal is orientation."

Arousal is orientation? Does that mean I'm bisexual? No, wait, I ain't male. I, as a woman, can claim to be anything I please and have that be fine and dandy. Men, on the other hand, are governed by their, uh, baser instincts.

Then there's the fascinating division: Bisexual behavior vs bisexual arousal. One makes a real bisexual, the other doesn't. Where's the line drawn? And, more specifically, for whom is it being drawn? I'm reminded of the subculture of married men who go out and secretly have sex with other men, but still identify as "straight." Are they afraid of coming out? Hating the idea of being gay? Or are they bisexual, and afraid/hating coming out as that? Bisexuals being, you know, totally unable to make up their minds, not really real, and, as we have cause to know thank to the NYT, probably lying to themselves.

But wait! Dr. Bailey helpfully tells us that women have nothing to fear on the reality side (though hell, we still may all be lying to ourselves) -- conveniently enough, most women, whether they identify so or not, are probably bisexual! Even the straight ones! Even the gay ones!

Researchers have little sense yet of how these differences may affect behavior, or sexual identity. In the mid-1990's, Dr. Diamond recruited a group of 90 women at gay pride parades, academic conferences on gender issues and other venues. About half of the women called themselves lesbians, a third identified as bisexual and the rest claimed no sexual orientation. In follow-up interviews over the last 10 years, Dr. Diamond has found that most of these women have had relationships both with men and women.

"Most of them seem to lean one way or the other, but that doesn't preclude them from having a relationship with the nonpreferred sex," she said. "You may be mostly interested in women but, hey, the guy who delivers the pizza is really hot, and what are you going to do?"

Yeah, what are you gonna do? I mean, here's this pizza guy, and whoops, there's the camera crew of "True Lesbian Encounters" behind him, and you're a square-cut dyke with a hidden feminine side (lacy underwear, perhaps?) just waiting to have a man swoop in and take care of that little itch no female has yet to scratch.

So leaving aside the fact that they're comparing the results of one study to the results of a study conducted in an entirely different manner, and then saying there's some correlation between them... who are the people who get to decide the sexual identity? Apparently when we, the humble people, try to work this out in our own lives, we're either lying to ourselves or to everyone else. The doctors, on the other hand, have this completely under control and are in a much better position to tell us what's going on in our own minds than we ever will be.

That's the mind taken care of, now. They already fixed the body. Next stop: the cultu-- Oh, wait. No need there. Bisexuality is already the terror that everyone, gay and straight alike, apparently fears like nothing else.


Anonymous vt_slayer said...

I really don't know how to respond to this other than to say that I find it beyond offensive to have my sexuality reduced to simply a matter of my response to pornography.

2:14 PM

Anonymous Wherdragon said...

I think that deciding sexuality of any stripe purely on the basis of physical response to pornography is incomplete at best. As you said, Cass, there are so many other factors, and this study seems to have been done with... shall we say, interesting standards (e.g. a third of the data NOT MATTERING to the result). So did the other one, since it is not clear to me that one relationship with a man makes a lesbian into a bisexual, or vice-versa for a straight girl. Perhaps this is all best put down as an example of how scientists are also human, with human/cultural biases that can skew their results.

It is kind of upsetting, though, to have the NYTimes print something that says bisexuality is just lying to yourself in men, and that actually, all women are, whether they say so or not.

6:46 PM

Blogger the roommate said...

so. I find porn amusing or gross, but really, it just doesn't turn me on.
Therefore, I must conclude that despite any emotions or attractions I may have felt indicating otherwise, I am in fact asexual.
Thanks NYT, for letting me know. Otherwise I would have foolishly continued to believe lies about loving a partner or being attracted to him/her that I currently feed myself and society.

It really does seem that both studies were focused on specific goals. Why? Is it the lesbians are sexy/gay men are scary? or rather, lesbian sex good, gay guy sex bad. For sitcoms/tv/movies/books , however, we want guy-on-guy. Well, not so much on, as professing to enjoy being on without actually bringing up sex or anything, cuz it is icky and wrong.
[lesbians can have poetry. only weird people like english majors read taht anyways]

7:10 PM

Blogger Cass said...

For sitcoms/tv/movies/books, however, we want guy-on-guy.

So true. The number of happy lesbian romantic comedies? Like, maybe five. Tops. And I'm counting the international ones. And the ones that are miserable, but at least have a happy ending.

Happy gay guy movies? Dozens.

This made finding queer films for an all-female, largely lesbian or bisexual (ahem) audience somewhat daunting.

7:36 PM

Anonymous alicamel said...

Surely the fact that they had to throw out a third of the data shows that sexuality is a hell of alot more complicated than just being about gender? If arousal is the same as sexuality, surely 1/3 of the male population are completely sexless. Well, that's a much more interesting result!

9:29 PM

Anonymous Johnicholas said...

I think the real issue is the blank slate. Certainly we can imagine a male who is equally aroused by images of males and females.

If we were blank slates, able to be molded by Culture, then that pleasantly egalitarian situation would be achievable. And presumably some of the guys in the study could at least have come close.

The blank slate (claimed to be a fact about biology) is used moderately often as a justification for various political or ethical positions.
See "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker.

11:02 AM


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