Sunday, July 10, 2005

Is Male Bisexuality a Myth?

A few days ago the New York Times came out with an article that reported on the findings of a study done at Northwestern University (with help from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto) that investigated male bisexuality. I have problems with the study itself, but first I want to deal with the article. It is entitled, "Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited" and can be read here, although registration is required so I'll paste the relevant excerpts below. Firstly, nothing like a nice scandalous title to draw the reader in. No time for a simple and reasonably accurate title, such as "Study Casts Questions on Male Bisexuality" or "Researcher Claims Bisexuality a Myth." Instead, the reader is automatically told that people are either gay, straight or lying and there is also no mention that the study refers to males only and has not attempted to deal with female bisexuality.

The article states:

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.

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 professed desires.


The discrepancy between what is happening in people's minds and what is going on in their bodies, [Dr. Lisa Diamond] 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."


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.


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.


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.

First of all, it's almost impossible to tell what occurred in the actual study through this reporting. All I know is a "monitor" was used to measure "sexual arousal" and found that bisexual men were aroused by one sex or the other, but showed "little" arousal to the other sex. That's incredibly vague and really doesn't tell me anything of importance. I know the Times isn't going to reproduce the article, but one would think that they could do a much better job of explaining what happened.

While browsing the internet in an attempt to find the study online, I stumbled across a blog which explained the study in this post. Chris explains the study very well, so I will now quote what he wrote:

The evidence is reported in a paper titled "Sexual arousal patterns of bisexual men," by Rieger, Chivers, and Bailey (Rieger and Chivers are two of his graduate students) that is currently in press at Psychological Science. Here are the basics of the experiment. Bailey and his students recruited 30 gay, 38 straight, and 33 bisexual men through "gay-oriented" and alternative magazines in the Chicago area. Sexual orientation was measured entirely through self-report, using the Kinsey scale, with 1 indicating homosexuality, 5 indicating heterosexuality, and 2-4 indicating bisexuality. They had these men view six 2-minute videos of sexual material, along with videos of sexually-neutral material. Two of the sexual videos showed male-male sex (oral and anal), two showed female-female sex (oral and vaginal penetration using a strap-on dildo), and two showed male-female sex (oral and vaginal). They measured physical arousal using a technique called plethysmography that measures changes in the circumference of the penis. This is a fairly widely used technique, and short of neuroimaging (which comes with its own set of problems), it's the best way to measure physical arousal. In addition, they had the participants rate their subjective arousal continuously, using a lever that could be moved in a 180 degree arc, with 0 meaning no arousal, and 180 meaning orgasm-level arousal.

After weeding out several participants due to insufficient levels of arousal to any of the sexual videos (plethysmography is notoriously bad at detecting low levels of arousal), they compared the physical and subjective arousal of the 22 remaining self-reported bisexual to the 21 straight and 25 gay men who made the statistical cut. The question was, do self-reported bisexual men show and report significantly more arousal to male-male sex videos than straight men, and to female-female videos than gay men? This is what we would predict if bisexual men are attracted to both sexes. This is in fact what they found for the subjective arousal measure. Bisexual men showed high levels of subjective arousal to both male-male and female-female videos. However, the measures of physical arousal were not consistent with bisexual attraction to both genders. Instead, the bisexual men showed high levels of arousal to either the male-male or female-female videos, but not both. Most of them showed high levels of arousal only to the male-male videos. Bisexual males were the only ones in the study whose subjective and physical arousal levels did not show high positive correlations.

Now, thanks to that excellent summary I know exactly what happened during that experiment. I have a couple of minor quibbles with other parts of reporting in the article, but I am going to proceed to talking about and critiquing the experiment itself.

My first problem with the study is why did the researchers target young men, and not middle-aged men? I don't know what their justifications were for this, perhaps related to sex drive, but this point seems suspicious and almost certainly bound to skew the results of the survey. As was noted in the Times article, many gay men go through a phase where they self-identify as bisexual. This especially seems relevant as the ads were run in gay magazines, seemingly raising the chances the individuals who responded were gay men who were still questioning their orientation. Growing up homosexual is certainly not an easy thing to go through and it only makes sense that many gays rationalise their attraction towards other men by telling themselves that they are bisexual, which still gives them the possibility of having relationships with women and living a "normal" life. That fact is hardly controversial and I would be surprised if many people would argue against it. It also partially explains, but does not really justify, a lot of the scepticism and hostility bisexuals face from both the gay and straight communities.

I don't know how Dr. Bailey and his team defined young, but I imagine it was something like young men aged 18-25. Now, it really shouldn't be surprising that a noticeable percentage of 22 young, self-identifying bisexual men are actually homosexual. It's to be expected that amongst those men there are likely several individuals who have either not yet realised or failed to come to terms with their homosexuality. In fact, I'd be quite surprised if a number of these men were not living as homosexuals in a decade. I'm quite curious as to whether a study of 25 middle-aged bisexual men who had lived in committed relationships with both men and women would have reached the same results. Nevertheless, this still does not explain why every single person studied failed to show the expected arousal to both sexes, because even accounting for the above point there should still be some who are truly bisexual individuals.

Secondly, the aforementioned blog says that plethysmography is the best method of measuring arousal, but still the fact that a full one-third of the study’s participants had to be disqualified for arousal levels too small to be measured seems troubling. If a DNA testing method was faulty one-third of the time, it would be laughed out of court. Yes, this isn’t a life-and-death matter like some criminal trials are, but the fact that one out of every three times the study has to say, “Well, you’re likely aroused in some manner but we can’t measure it,” doesn’t leave me thinking this method is very reliable. Plethysmography is notoriously bad at detecting low levels of arousal apparently. It is also true that most bisexual people aren’t equally-bisexual in that they are attracted in equal parts to both sexes. Most probably find one sex more attractive on average than the other, but may find certain males or females attractive. It seems plausible that the bisexual people were perhaps slightly aroused by the pornography of their non-preferred sex, but to an extent where the machine could not detect it properly.

Third, pornography does not always equal real-life arousal in any case, either. There are numerous people with some extreme fetishes which likely arouse them when they view them in porno movies or magazines, but who would actually not be aroused in reality when this happened to them. One example that comes to mind is the rape fantasy, which doesn’t appear to be incredibly uncommon among women. These women may be aroused when watching porno movies that involve a rape scene or when they imagine themselves in a rape scenario. However, if they were actually in a situation where they were about to be raped, I imagine most of them would be completely scared shitless and not aroused in any manner. What one likes in pornography does not always equal what one likes in day-to-day sexual situations.

Finally, in what maybe the most important point anyway, arousal does not always equal attraction, and vice-versa. This was mentioned in the article when some sexual researchers stated their problems with the fact the study did not capture the “richness” which is sexual attraction. Although, the Times made them sound somewhat self-defensive, as it was mentioned that some of them were bisexuals themselves. Regardless, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that sexual attraction is a somewhat mysterious thing. Maybe I’m not the best person to be talking here, but who can explain why someone is attracted to one person but not the other, when there are great degrees of similarity between the people. When I’m attracted to someone I could list any number of qualities that make that person attractive to me, but yet I couldn’t really say why I’m not attracted (or not nearly as attracted as I am to Person A) to another person who possesses very similar attributes and features.

It seems completely unreasonable to say that just because a man was significantly more aroused by gay pornography that he couldn’t be attracted to a woman in the right situation or vice-versa. Long-lasting relationships and marriages work because of a number of factors, of which sexual arousal is just one of the parts that constitutes the overall attraction to the person. Bailey’s claims that arousal equals attraction is completely absurd in my opinion. Sexuality is such a complex thing and exists on such an imprecise spectrum that it’s inconceivable to me that Bailey can just decisively claim that whatever arouses a man is what he’s attracted to, and is the only thing he’s attracted to.

Many women are attracted to “bad-boy” types, but also realise that these guys often aren’t the ideal person to enter a long-term relationship with and after a few short-lived dating disasters begin to date different sorts of individuals. The same thing exists with men dating, for lack of a better word, “bimbos.” As hot as the girl is, some guys realise that this isn’t a person they want to enter a serious relationship with. So is it completely unreasonable to postulate that some men are more attracted to men, but also find it better emotionally to enter a long-term relationship with women. It seems like this sort of thing could explain why there are a number of men who have sex on the “down-lo” with other men (both before and after marriage), but who do not have dysfunctional relationships where they are obviously homosexual and instead have great sex and lots of passion with their wife.

I don’t mean to sound dogmatically anti-science, but there are so many problems with this study I can’t fathom how it could be taken seriously by anybody who is seriously interested in the study of sexuality. The only thing that can be taken from the study is that there appears to be a disconnect between physical arousal and attraction in bisexual males. However, that is still subject to all the caveats about the sample size, the problems with young bisexual males, the problems with pornography, the problems with plethysmography, etc… etc…

Besides, if what Bailey says is true, we can also safely conclude that homophobic men are usually closeted homosexuals.

Before and after each type of videotape, which subjects watched individually in a soundproofed room, arousal was measured using penile plethysmography. In addition, subjects provided a subjective rating of their sexual arousal using a 10-point scale following each of the three tapes.

The men in both of the groups had similar degrees of arousal after viewing the videos showing the heterosexual couple and two women having sex. A significant difference between the two study groups appeared, however, following the video depicting male homosexual acts.

According to researchers Henry Adams, Lester Wright Jr., and Bethany Lohr of the psychology department at the University of Georgia, the men in the homophobic group displayed significantly greater increase in penile circumference after the all-male videos, while the nonhomophobic subjects showed dramatically lower arousal levels. They report that 24 percent of the nonhomophobic men, but 54 percent of the subjects who scored high on the homophobia scale showed some degree of tumescence in response to the homosexual video. In addition, 66 percent of the nonhomophobic group showed no significant increases in tumescence after this video, but only 20 percent of the homophobic men failed to display any arousal.


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