In an infamous 2005 article titled “Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited,” the New York Times reported on a Northwestern University study that claimed that bisexuality in men does not exist:
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… 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.
There are plenty of problems with this study. Chris O’Guinn, a writer for AfterElton.com, breaks down the various issues with it: the small sample size, the unreliability of the device used for measuring “arousal,” the assumption that only Kinsey 3s count as “real” bisexuals, the fact that it pulled many of the participants from ads in gay magazines (skewing the results toward gay-leaning bi men), and perhaps most importantly, the assumption that arousal is the only important part of sexual orientation. (The Klein Grid, for example, lists it as only one of seven factors that determine one’s sexual orientation.) The study was also denounced by both GLAAD and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, as well as by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting).
Yet, it’s often difficult (at least in my personal experience) to talk about bi men without someone quoting this study like it’s incontrovertible truth — even if we’re just speculating on the sexuality of classmates or famous people. And since myths about female bisexuality tend to run the opposite way (i.e., that all women are bisexual), I’m not always in the best position as a bi woman to tackle this. After all, I’m not a sex researcher, and I’m clearly biased toward the belief that my sexual orientation is real. While the 2005 article is careful to quote one professor, Dr. Randall Sell of Columbia University, claiming the study doesn’t say anything conclusive and noting the problems that would arise if therapists take the study too seriously, the author makes his conclusion clear with phrases claiming the study “casts doubt on whether true bisexuality exists, at least in men” and “lends support to those who have long been skeptical that bisexuality is a distinct and stable sexual orientation.” The popularity of this article is, in many respects, a perfect example of the problems with bad science reporting.
But luckily, even if some fans of the Northwestern study won’t listen to its critics, the people who carried it out did. J. Michael Bailey, the Northwestern psychology professor behind the earlier study, is one of the authors of a new study claiming that, indeed, some men do have bisexual arousal patterns. As reported by The Advocate:
In both studies men watched videos of both male and female same-sex intimacy while their sexual response was monitored. The results [of the new study] showed that while bisexual men responded to both male and female videos, gay and straight men did not. “Someone who is bisexual might say, ‘Well, duh!’” lead study author Allen Rosenthal, a doctoral student in psychology at Northwestern, told The New York Times. “But this will be validating to a lot of bisexual men who had heard about the earlier work and felt that scientists weren’t getting them.”
While the current study has the same issue as its predecessor with small sample size and excessive focus on arousal, it was much more careful about recruiting men for the study. For starters, it advertised more on sites and in publications focused specifically on a bisexual audience. It also used more stringent criteria in deciding which men should be included in the study: “This time, instead of relying on self-reporting of sexual orientation, men only qualified as bisexuals if they had had sex with at least two members of each sex and had carried on a romantic relationship of at least three months with a member of each sex.”
Obviously, this comes with its own set of unfortunate implications. I am bisexual and I don’t fit those criteria, and I consider myself a Kinsey 3. The results would obviously leave out a lot of bi people who lean more toward one side or another, or people with diversity in their romantic vs. sexual inclination — for instance, a man who’s bisexual but heteroromantic might have only dated women. Personally, though, I don’t think the people who conducted the study are necessarily saying that only men who fit their criteria are “truly bisexual,” despite the poor choice of language from the author of the Live Science article. Indeed, the end of the article indicates that at least one of the authors, lead author and psychology Ph.D. student Alan Rosenthal, understands just how wide the bisexual umbrella is: “‘I think that both studies are correct, but about different populations of bisexual men.’ …If they can generate funding for such an experiment, the Northwestern psychologists will scale up their study in order to profile bisexual males of all types.”
The thing is, there are some people who use a bisexual identity as a stepping-stone to coming out as gay or lesbian — or as an experimental phase before deciding they’re actually straight — and requiring study participants to have significant romantic and sexual histories with both men and women is going to filter most of those people out, along with filtering out many genuine bisexuals. But unlike the previous study, they’re trying to prove a positive here, not a negative, so it’s not necessarily essential that they represent the full range of bi men in this study. The fact that male bisexual arousal happens at all proves its existence against people who believe men are only “straight, gay or lying.”
Of course, some people still used this to draw the conclusion that it’s ok to judge “inexperienced” bi people as lying about their orientation. For example, Dan Savage, who, after first claiming his bisexual critics treat him like “Gaydolph Hitler” by accusing him of biphobia, had this to say about the study:
How’s that for irony: once researchers controlled for the young-and-temporarily-bi-identified or the gay-and-kidding-themselves-about-being-bi — once researchers refused to accept the professed sexual identities of the bi-identified men they recruited, once researchers acted like biphobes and bigots — they were able to demonstrate that “bisexual arousal patterns” actually exist…Feel free to print out a copy [of the study] and wave it in the faces of any gays or straights who claim that bi guys don’t exist and any bi guys who insist it’s a crime against humanity to point out that some bi-identified guys are lying.
Yet, as I said before, I fail to see where the study’s authors are claiming one should automatically be skeptical of young, “inexperienced” bisexual people, as Savage is when he says things like “I meet someone who’s 19-years-old who tells me he’s bisexual and I’m like, ‘Yeah, right, I doubt it. I tell them come back when you’re like 29 and we’ll see.’” That’s a much stronger sentiment than just “some bi-identified guys are lying.” Additionally, the study did not control for age, only experience; that hypothetical 19-year-old bi guy would have been eligible had he dated and had sex with both men and women. There’s no reason to suspect the researchers view youth and bisexuality the same way Savage does. But most importantly, while it’s essential to the authors of this study to make sure those participating are who they say they are, it isn’t Dan Savage’s business to pester people to “prove” their sexual orientations to him. We’ve all met people whose stated sexual orientation seemed questionable — but the right thing to do, as an ally and a friend (and especially as someone who is committed to making LGBT teens feel better about themselves) is to keep that skepticism to yourself, to wait for that person to come to that conclusion (or not!) on their own. You’re not a sex researcher, either — for civilians, there’s no need to take up proving or disproving these things.
In more good news for bi men, the Northwestern study is not the first this year confirming that bisexual arousal is real. From the New York Times article:
In March, a study in Archives of Sexual Behavior reported the results of a different approach to the question. As in the Northwestern study, the researchers showed participants erotic videos of two men and two women and monitored genital as well as subjective arousal. But they also included scenes of a man having sex with both a woman and another man, on the theory that these might appeal to bisexual men. The researchers — Jerome Cerny, a retired psychology professor at Indiana State University, and Erick Janssen, a senior scientist at the Kinsey Institute — found that bisexual men were more likely than heterosexuals or gay men to experience both genital and subjective arousal while watching these videos.
Clearly, at least some scientists recognize now that bisexual men exist. Now we just have to get our whole society on the same page.