[Paleopsych] NYT: Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited
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Wed Jul 6 21:18:31 UTC 2005
Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited
By BENEDICT CAREY
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
In the new study, a team of psychologists directly measured genital
arousal patterns in response to images of men and women. The
psychologists found that men who identified themselves as bisexual
were in fact exclusively aroused by either one sex or the other,
usually by other men.
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
"Research on sexual orientation has been based almost entirely on
self-reports, and this is one of the few good studies using
physiological measures," said Dr. Lisa Diamond, an associate professor
of psychology and gender identity at the University of Utah, who was
not involved in the study.
The discrepancy between what is happening in people's minds and what
is going on in their bodies, she said, presents a puzzle "that the
field now has to crack, and it raises this question about what we mean
when we talk about desire."
"We have assumed that everyone means the same thing," she added, "but
here we have evidence that that is not the case."
Several other researchers who have seen the study, scheduled to be
published in the journal Psychological Science, said it would need to
be repeated with larger numbers of bisexual men before clear
conclusions could be drawn.
Bisexual desires are sometimes transient and they are still poorly
understood. Men and women also appear to differ in the frequency of
bisexual attractions. "The last thing you want," said Dr. Randall
Sell, an assistant professor of clinical socio-medical sciences at
Columbia University, "is for some therapists to see this study and
start telling bisexual people that they're wrong, that they're really
on their way to homosexuality."
He added, "We don't know nearly enough about sexual orientation and
identity" to jump to these conclusions.
In the experiment, psychologists at Northwestern University and the
Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto used advertisements
in gay and alternative newspapers to recruit 101 young adult men.
Thirty-three of the men identified themselves as bisexual, 30 as
straight and 38 as homosexual.
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.
"Regardless of whether the men were gay, straight or bisexual, they
showed about four times more arousal" to one sex or the other, said
Gerulf Rieger, a graduate psychology student at Northwestern and the
study's lead author.
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.
Since at least the middle of the 19th century, behavioral scientists
have noted bisexual attraction in men and women and debated its place
in the development of sexual identity. Some experts, like Freud,
concluded that humans are naturally bisexual. In his landmark sex
surveys of the 1940's, Dr. Alfred Kinsey found many married, publicly
heterosexual men who reported having had sex with other men.
"Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and
homosexual," Dr. Kinsey wrote. "The world is not to be divided into
sheep and goats."
By the 1990's, Newsweek had featured bisexuality on its cover,
bisexuals had formed advocacy groups and television series like "Sex
and the City" had begun exploring bisexual themes.
Yet researchers were unable to produce direct evidence of bisexual
arousal patterns in men, said Dr. J. Michael Bailey, a professor of
psychology at Northwestern and the new study's senior author.
A 1979 study of 30 men found that those who identified themselves as
bisexuals were indistinguishable from homosexuals on measures of
arousal. Studies of gay and bisexual men in the 1990's showed that the
two groups reported similar numbers of male sexual partners and risky
sexual encounters. And a 1994 survey by The Advocate, the gay-oriented
newsmagazine, found that, before identifying themselves as gay, 40
percent of gay men had described themselves as bisexual.
"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."
But other researchers - and some self-identified bisexuals - say that
the technique used in the study to measure genital arousal is too
crude to capture the richness - erotic sensations, affection,
admiration - that constitutes sexual attraction.
Social and emotional attraction are very important elements in
bisexual attraction, said Dr. Fritz Klein, a sex researcher and the
author of "The Bisexual Option."
"To claim on the basis of this study that there's no such thing as
male bisexuality is overstepping, it seems to me," said Dr. Gilbert
Herdt, director of the National Sexuality Resource Center in San
Francisco. "It may be that there is a lot less true male bisexuality
than we think, but if that's true then why in the world are there so
many movies, novels and TV shows that have this as a theme - is it
collective fantasy, merely a projection? I don't think so."
John Campbell, 36, a Web designer in Orange County, Calif., who
describes himself as bisexual, also said he was skeptical of the
Mr. Campbell said he had been strongly attracted to both sexes since
he was sexually aware, although all his long-term relationships had
been with women. "In my case I have been accused of being
heterosexual, but I also feel a need for sex with men," he said.
Mr. Campbell rated his erotic attraction to men and women as about
50-50, but his emotional attraction, he said, was 90 to 10 in favor of
women. "With men I can get aroused, I just don't feel the fireworks
like I do with women," he said.
About 1.5 percent of American women identify themselves bisexual. And
bisexuality appears easier to demonstrate in the female sex. A study
published last November by the same team of Canadian and American
researchers, for example, found that most women who said they were
bisexual showed arousal to men and to women.
Although only a small number of women identify themselves as bisexual,
Dr. Bailey said, bisexual arousal may for them in fact be the norm.
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?"
"There's a whole lot of movement and flexibility," Dr. Diamond added.
"The fact is, we have very little research in this area, and a lot to
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