Home > Uncategorized > The Quest to Prove Bisexuals Exist…

The Quest to Prove Bisexuals Exist…

…is bullshit.

Oh, sorry, do I need to provide more detail? This charming NYT piece about validating the existence of bisexuality with science is so full of rage-inducing fallacies that it was almost a week before I could make myself finish reading it.

I’m a fan of science, okay? I’m a behavioral researcher. Studies are important. They can give us a huge amount of information on a given topic, from the effects of sugary drink consumption on preschoolers to the behavioral and experiential correlates of sexuality. Granted, I don’t have access to the original article and it’s entirely possible that the NYT is just reporting science very badly. However, the abstract alone suggests that the research is based on problematic assumptions, as does the abstract of a later, related paper by some of the same authors. (By the way, if any of y’all has access to those, I’d like to read them in detail.)

So studies are useful. Bisexuality is under-researched. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to use a study to prove or disprove a person’s identity. See, bisexuality is having sexual attraction to persons of both the same and other genders. (It’s a little more complicated and for some it includes non-binary-identifying persons and for others it doesn’t and yeah, there are other sources of variability, but basically that’s the gist.) We don’t have a valid and reliable method with which to measure something as variable and nebulous as “attraction”.

Because I have access to it and it’s getting ever so much attention, I’m going to pull a few quotes from the article and tear them apart with my teeth. (Advantage of writing on the Internet: I don’t have to handle this like a professional. Angry Nic engaged.)

The A.I.B.[American Institute of Bisexuality], [Sylla] added, has moved on to more nuanced questions: “Can we see differences in the brains of bisexual people using f.M.R.I. technology? How many bisexual people are there — regardless of how they identify — and what range of relationships and life experiences do they have? And how can we help non-bi people understand and better accept bi people?”

There are exactly as many bisexual people as people who self-identify as bisexual (meaning, identify as such to ourselves. We might not tell you. We’re really unlikely to tell you if you insist on approaching us with a “sure, you say you’re bi, but…” attitude as seen above). How can we help non-bi folks accept us? Maybe start by not second guessing us every single time we tell you we’re real. Just for a start. Maybe try not giving people the idea that our statements and feelings and actions don’t count unless you can corroborate them with an MRI. I understand that bisexuals are an underserved group who can benefit from targeted research. I advocate for it. That research can’t benefit anyone if the targeting mechanism is biphobic. And it is. Looking for a physiological marker of sexuality might possibly be useful. I have issues with it (we’ll get into them later), but fine. I get what they’re going for. However, taking the existence of gay and straight people as given and running a study to establish the existence of bi people only in relation to those groups requires directly holding up the validity of heterosexual and homosexual self-identification as a usable measure. If self-identification is valid measurement of sexuality, it’s valid for all of us, not just the ones the researcher is comfortable with. This isn’t just a point of existential rage: using different measurement tools for different values of the same variable is not a reliable research methodology. If you run a food study that asks people if they eat healthy “never” “always” or “sometimes”, you’re treating all of those values the same way. If the choices are “never” “always” and “fill out this 37 page 3-day food recall and present a blood sample so we can corroborate your statements with your serum cholesterol”, you’re going to get a very different response set. Suddenly there’s added burden on one value. Suddenly one group is being subjected to greater rigor and implied distrust and greater invasion into their lives. It’s not equitable.  Seeing how arousal patterns differ among differently-identifying groups can certainly be illuminating (it isn’t usually, but maybe it can be. Later, I promise). Unless you choose to introduce bias by inconsistent treatment of your identifying groups, of course. Then it’ll tell you a lot less.

Bisexual activists told me that much of what gay and lesbian people believe about bisexuality is wrong and is skewed by a self-reinforcing problem: because of biphobia, many bisexuals don’t come out. But until more bisexuals come out, the stereotypes and misinformation at the heart of biphobia won’t be seriously challenged.

Uh, yeah. Or we could stop perpetrating them in media. Jane’s character in Coupling identifies as bisexual, but because she isn’t turned on by what we’re told is a close-up of female genitalia in a porn mag, her identity is “disproved”. (By this logic I am asexual: I have never once been turned on by live action visual pornography.) I don’t watch Sex and the City, but apparently there’s an episode in which Carrie dates a bi man and all the stereotypes come out. Captain Jack Harkness is delightfully pansexual for much of Dr. Who and Torchwood, but the portrayal settles to completely homosexual for Miracle Day. The protagonist of Lost Girl is bi, but she is literally addicted to sex, which perpetrates stereotypes unpleasantly. The possibility that Shepard could be bisexual or homosexual in the Mass Effect games freaked people the hell out. When we come out, these are the models people hold us up to. These are how people understand us no matter what we say. No amount of people coming out bi are going to change perceptions until the rest of everyone is willing to start listening. It’s ridiculous to suggest it. After all, racial, ethnic, and some religious minorities don’t have a choice about whether to “come out;” they are recognizable on sight. If visibility were sufficient to erase bigotry, racism wouldn’t exist.

According to the 2013 Pew Research Survey of L.G.B.T.-identified Americans, bisexuals are less likely than gays and lesbians “to view their sexual orientation as important to their overall identity.” That feeds into a belief among some gays and lesbians that bisexuals are essentially fence-sitters who can pass for straight for decades at a time and aren’t especially invested in the L.G.B.T. community.

Uh, okay. Or we don’t have a community that integrates our identity like gay and lesbian folks do. Have you ever heard of a bi bar? No. We go to gay bars and only act on gay attractions, or straight bars and pretty much act on straight attraction. Crossing territory lines in either setting leads to ostracization. Bisexuals are essentially expected by both gay and straight communities to practice a very careful and culturally competent mimesis in their respective settings. It’s less important to overall identity because the gay and straight communities we belong to are at best allies, and rarely that. Orientation is something we have to drag out and explain to every straight or gay partner and it’s exhausting and damn right some of us don’t want the stress of letting it be a defining aspect of our identities. It’s notable that there is general acceptance of bisexuality and fluid sexuality in the kink community, at least here. The community is still vastly heteronormative, but the pressure to conform does not seem to be present.

To test male arousal, Rieger and Savin-Williams use a pupil-dilation tracker instead of a genital monitor. The degree of pupil dilation has been found to correspond to self-reported sexual attraction and orientation.

[ . . .]

“Your pupils actually tell me that you’re more bi than gay.”

That was news to me. I felt a sudden kinship with the self-described bisexual men in Bailey’s original 2005 study, who must have been surprised to learn that they had their sexual orientation all wrong. I could imagine a potentially awkward scenario the next time someone asked me if I was into men or women. “Well, now, that depends on whether you believe the sex researchers at Northwestern or Cornell,” I might have to say.

No. No, and fuck you, and no. You don’t need a pupil dilation machine. Just answer a quick question. There’s an underwear model smiling at you. When you read that sentence, are you picturing a sculpted young man, a woman with curves in all the right places, a delightful room full of people of varying genders and sexes. . . excuse me, I’m having a distracting thought at the moment. Who do you picture? How does it make you feel? What do you like? You know better than your pupils. Are you straight? Gay? Bi? Pan? Asexual? Demisexual? Something else entirely? That’s cool. Whatever you feel about it, you’re probably right. Physical arousal is confusing, I get it. People misattribute their own arousal based on physiological response. Fear, disgust, exertion, certain kinds of pain, fever, and more can all mimic symptoms of arousal, if you will. It’s a biofeedback thing. Say I’m lightheaded, flushed, hypersalivating a little bit. Simultaneously, the friend I’m talking to laughs. It makes me happy: I like to see her laugh. Is that arousal? Nah, I’m just hungry and enjoying a friend’s company. But if I tell myself it’s arousal based on those cues, I’m going to start acting as I would if I were attracted. Trying to verify the response. I do the same thing with anxiety: Oh hell, breathing hard, elevated heart rate, I just saw a [whatever]. Fuck, I’m scared of whatever. Panic! Except I’m not scared of the whatever. Maybe I just took the stairs too fast or am on some new meds. It’s isolated. The whatever isn’t scary generally, this is just a thing that happened. It’s a bad idea to attribute a whole personal attribute to it.

He never had “emotionless sex,” he said, and the sex of the person he was interested in was less important than his romantic and intellectual connection to them. Still, he didn’t see himself as bisexual. “I really didn’t think about my sexual identity back then,” he told me.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from bi folks (and demisexual and asexuals): Sex doesn’t matter. Gender doesn’t matter. I don’t care what’s in a person’s pants; it’s the person that turns me on. A physiological measure of arousal isn’t going to pick up this kind of attraction in a laboratory setting because the attraction won’t form naturally. When people watch porn, do they focus on sexual characteristics? It’s a serious question. I don’t much go for visual porn. If a person doesn’t get turned on in a lab, but they get the feels in authentic attraction situations, surely the latter is a more valuable point of data, right?

As out gay men and lesbians, after all, we’re supposed to be sure — we’re supposed to be “born this way.” It’s a politically important position (one that’s helping us achieve marriage equality and other rights), but it leaves little space for out gay men to muddy the waters with talk of Kinsey 4s and 5s.

I hate this so hard. I don’t even want to talk about it. Thanks, gay rights movement, for systematically and consciously erasing bisexuals from conversations about equal rights for sexual minorities because we unnerve and confuse everyone else! It undermines gay rights too, by the way. Still don’t want to talk about it. Some other time.

Szymanski told me about two female friends of theirs who only dated men until meeting each other late in life. “They’re pretty militant about their lesbianism now,” Szymanski said, “but I’ll ask them, ‘Did you have really great sex with guys?’ They nod. ‘Did you have orgasms?’ They nod. ‘Could you still have them?’ They nod. But they insist that they’re lesbians, because, I think, they’re convinced it’s in their best interest to identify that way.”

“Another case of bisexual invisibility,” Sylla said.

“Yes, and it’s strange to me,” Szymanski added. “Because wouldn’t their behavior suggest something different? Wouldn’t it suggest that they’re actually, you know, bisexual?”

“I’m not biphobic/racist/sexist/whatever but isn’t it interesting that..?” No. go to hell.

You know what? These guys might be right. It’s possible they’re not mischaracterizing these women in the slightest. Maybe their conclusion that the women in question are bisexual is correct.

On the other hand, maybe not. Sexuality isn’t that simple. Was the sex with men “great”? That does probably indicate that at some point these women’s sexuality included males. Sexuality can change over time. This doesn’t invalidate it. Do the orgasms mean anything about sexuality? Good lord, no. It’s entirely possible to orgasm from sexual activity with someone one isn’t attracted to. Ever close your eyes and fantasize that someone else is doing the sex things with you? Yeah. That works pretty well. Or if that idea makes you uncomfortable, how about masturbation? That’s not narcissistic self-directed lust (for me anyway); the sexy feels come from the person/people I’m fantasizing about. Or orgasms may not be linked to sexual pleasure at all. Some folks will have a quick de-stress wank without attaching it to fantasy or emotional/romantic sexual arousal. Think of it kind of like the difference between working out a kink in your back so you can get back to whatever with some relief from pain, and receiving a sensual massage. Same physiological release, completely different context. Only one is sexual. Some people have had an orgasm while being sexually assaulted. That does not mean they were attracted to the assailant, or secretly liked it, or any other horrible traumatic implication. It means that a specific stimulus led to a specific reaction, which is not the all-defining criterion for sexuality. Wanting and liking aren’t the same thing. Erasing consent and cognition and very real mental blocks from being valid components of sexuality oversimplifies us. Really, it needs to stop.

The article is awful. We don’t need a scientific quest to prove bisexuals exist. We’re sick of having to goddamn prove we exist. Sick of it. Know what I did the other day? I fucked a cisgender male and a genderfluid person who typically uses female pronouns. I don’t do this because I’m confused or going through a phase or just catering to male fantasy, either. I do it because I’m attracted to them both, because we all want to, and because the sex is amazing. This is not a new or unique experience. Bi folks have been around a long damn time, lusting after and playing with individuals of various sex and gender combinations and generally not giving a damn about your fucking categories when we do so. These attractions exist. If a measurement tool can’t pick them up, it doesn’t mean we’re not really bi. It means the tool isn’t valid. Self-report and genital arousal measures only have a correlation coefficient of 0.66 for men, 0.26 for women. That’s from a meta-analysis of 132 studies. Only ten of them did physiological response have a correlation of over 0.75 with self-reported identity for men. Only one for women. That means 121 of 132 studies used a measurement that failed to find agreement between physiological response and identity at least 1/4 of the time. That’s really bad.

Know how we know we exist? We are sexually attracted to more than one sex and/or gender. That’s it. It ain’t hard.

We don’t have to act on it to prove we’re really bi–there are bi virgins and bi folks who choose celibacy and they’re no more confused about their sexuality than virgins and celibates who are straight or gay.

We don’t have to have an even split, either in experience or attraction, nor do the two need to match. I pure-bodily-lust after more female-bodied persons than male-bodied ones, but have had significantly more sexual experiences with males. Y’know, ’cause most folks are straight so reciprocation of attraction is a lot more likely there. Easier to approach, more likely to receive positive response.

We don’t have to exhibit a genital response. I don’t get immediately physiologically turned on by the sight of an attractive body. Not even if it’s nude, and moving sexually, and belongs to a partner. The body can be dealing with a number of stimuli at once and not feel like providing altered bloodflow and breathing and lubrication. My appreciation of and desire for that person and that body aren’t dependent on a physiological response at any given moment. Anyone who does use such a response as the sole basis for attraction, I’m a bit inclined to worry about. But that type of decision making is what such a study implies.

The science is fundamentally flawed. Because sexuality is not simple physiological response. Because wanting and liking are not the same thing. Because we are whole, complex, rational beings whose sexualities are based not only on pure physiological manifestations of lust but also on cognitive factors. If you call a bi-identifying person gay or straight because his pupils dilate at images of one sex but not the other (non binary options not included, I assume), you remove his ability to self-identify. You tell him it’s invalid to ask that man whose voice makes him weak in the knees to go for a coffee. Get over yourself, dude; you’re not bi. We had you tested.

More than that, though, it’s about consent. In conflating liking and wanting in this way, the piece diminishes the importance of consent. Arousal tells you what you want. What you like. Who you are. You’re not gay if you don’t respond in just such a way to just such a stimulus. Fuck that. I don’t care how the body responds; the body doesn’t get the final vote. Bodily response and identity may match up most of the time, but they don’t have to. Certainly a correlation between the two isn’t necessary to prove one’s existence.

The premise on which the NYT article and (as far as I have access) the research on which it is based are flawed. They’re biphobic. Oppressive. Reinforce stereotypes. It’s about time we stopped allowing cultural perpetration of the myths that keep us invisible. Behavioral researchers: I expect better. I expect cultural competence, an effort to reduce disparity, valid methods, measures and meanings. For shame.

  1. March 28, 2014 at 11:45 am

    First, here’s the original link: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/magazine/the-scientific-quest-to-prove-bisexuality-exists.html?hpw&rref=magazine&_r=0

    Next, man, did I go on a rant about this on my blog! I’m trying to understand this existence thing from the POV of others but, as a bisexual, I’m finding it hard to make sense of this because common sense – at least for me – says that if there are heterosexuals and homosexuals, there’s something in the middle of these two things… except those folks seeking to prove our existence doesn’t seem to realize how obvious this is or should be.

    Then, if someone – and usually someone famous to make the media happy – comes out as bisexual, the automatic assumption is that they’re just in denial about being gay… as if the person coming out isn’t 100% sure that they are what they are. Then there’s this… push for all bisexuals to stand up and identify themselves – pretty much as gay folks are doing – when a lot of bisexuals, myself included, respond with, “Why should we do this when we don’t have to?” I get that gays need recognition so that they can get the rights everyone else is entitled to because as a former manager I worked for once told me, “If you don’t blow your own horn, no one else is going to do it.” And he was right; if you don’t speak up for what you deserve, you ain’t gonna get it.

    But bisexuals, almost by default, don’t have to do this – that so-called privilege I’ve been reading about. I’d even go as far as to say that a lot of bisexuals are quite happy and comfortable in their lives living under the radar and that while overall social recognition is probably a good thing, as long as the people close to them have accepted their sexuality, then there’s no need for them to gain full social acceptance, not like gay folks have been made to do. They’ve had to prove themselves – we don’t have to… or we thought we didn’t have to but, of course, this quest to prove we exist says otherwise.

    I would probably be on-board with a quest to better understand bisexuality and the people who embrace it but as long as the mainstream society keeps whacking us across the head with all the misleading stereotypes and other forms of prejudice, who’s gonna wade into this smelly pile of feces? I’ve learned over the years that people are more willing to believe the perception more than the truth and, in this, they really can’t handle the truth:

    We do exist. Accept it.

    • March 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm

      Thanks. I have the link to the NYT article (it’s linked in this post, actually); what I’m looking for is access to the papers the NYT references, in Biological Psychology and the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Peer reviewed journal access is expensive.

      I guess it’s true we don’t “have to” come out–I’m married to a male-bodied person and folks assume we’re monogamous and straight generally. Of course, if Spouse had been female then the right to get married would have been denied us everywhere we’ve lived, so in that sense it is our fight. More to the point though, it’s the assumption that hurts. It’s not comfortable to be rejected, ignored, talked down to because there’s a larger cultural assumption that we don’t exist. And it does hurt. Bisexuals have higher risk of sexual assault, higher rates of depression than gay or straight people. Both of these risks are also associated with personal isolation. I suspect that the social isolation we’re subjected to contributes to this, and in that sense the biphobia normalized in our culture presents a health risk to bisexuals as a group.

      There is good research out there (the Journal of Bisexuality avoids publishing papers that make problematic assumptions very well), but it is rare.

      One thing’s for damn sure though: we are very much real.

  2. Isla Sinclair
    March 28, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Pretty much agree with all of this. And am now craving a bisexual bar, or bisexual-default meeting space of some kind. Wouldn’t it be *awesome* not to have to guess which bit of your sexuality was more likely to cause offense, and to know that your gender wasn’t going to be an issue with *any* of the possible people you were interested in? (Sure, other things would be. Plenty of them. But you’d be so much less likely to be written off wholesale just for being a girl, by either that hot girl or that sexy guy, in a bi space…)

    Ah well, a girl can dream. And stuff like this makes me worry less about being too self-indulgent when I default to making all my fictional characters bisexual. I have a hard time keeping any of them totally gay or straight! But hey. If you can’t write people like you in porn, when can you? :P

    Weirdest thing happened the other day though. Usually I don’t care which gender someone is before I find them attractive. But usually I know whether I’d like them to top me or bottom for me. There is currently one guy who confuses the everliving fuck out of me, though, like–I sat down to write out how I felt, and I kept switching in the middle of paragraphs, sentences even. So odd. And the D/s part of it was weirding me out more than the gender part, to bring it back to bisexuality.

    Confused bisexual is confused, but not by her bisexuality, at least not this week.

    (And omg that thing about physical arousal being the end-all be-all of attraction can go diaf. So much more fucking complicated than that!)

    • March 28, 2014 at 3:55 pm

      Way back in high school I used to hang out at various gay clubs and such with a handful of gay male friends. I suggested once that it would be really nice to have a more general bi/queer hangout, just somewhere that no one would make an assumption about one’s sexuality before even saying hello. Their unanimous response: “That’s homophobic.” I still have no idea why there was such instant, visceral recoil, but I can tell you it did not feel good.

      I thought you’d said that M/f was the one thing that didn’t work for you, am I misremembering? I dunno, sounds like it could be a fun confusion to play off of. Switching mid-sentence? That’s something I’d like to read!

      • March 28, 2014 at 6:35 pm

        I suppose if one’s spent a lot of time in hetero spaces and one is emphatically NOT at all attracted across gender lines, it might be a sore point? But it would be nice! For us!

        I know! M/f is the one that usually doesn’t work for me! *tears hair* LOL. So confused. :P I think maybe it’s that a guy topping me has a whollle lot higher a threshold to clear than a woman? Like he’d have to be really really awesome? So it’s like…one in a hundred attractions. IDK.

        But it was like, “I want you to bend me over the table and spank me, but ohgod I really want to hurt you and not let you come, augh which do I do first?!” I am not sure it would make coherent porn. :P I feel like it could be fun, though, if both parties were switches and were just willing to go with it and play off one another and see how it went. Hmm. For one reason or another it’s never ever going to happen with this guy, so I’m free to speculate…but it could be interesting!

      • March 28, 2014 at 7:08 pm

        But that makes this attraction even more intriguing! Being completely out of the ordinary, trying to figure out why this one’s so special…has to be fun. Anyway, who says these things need to be coherent? The headspace that comes with intense attraction is rarely articulate.

      • March 29, 2014 at 12:13 am

        That was the conclusion I eventually came to. Why try to tie myself up in knots finding a category that works? I find someone extremely, scorchingly hot–why not just enjoy that for what it is? I don’t have to buy a dozen angst-muffins to go with it. :) So that is the current plan, to just have fun with it, and (since I am an inveterate synthesizer of information) perhaps later add it in to the pool of data from which I sort out What It All Means. Meanwhile, I have some bunktime to put in, lol.

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