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Many Shades of Bi


I once did a tally at a New Year’s Eve party at my house and realized that nearly 90 percent of the room was bisexual. (No, I don’t remember my reason for doing this tally, but I don’t recall it being particularly titillating. Perhaps I was trying to play matchmaker.) I found it interesting, though, since I’d never been active in specifically bi politics or other bi groups, and had met these folks in a wide range of unrelated places.

I hadn’t thought of this in a while, but it occurred to me again recently when the hullabaloo arose about the Northwestern University study that purports to throw the existence of male bisexuality into question. (Yes, there were plenty of guys at my party.)

For those who missed the sensationalistic New York Times article on the cover of the July 5 Science Times section, the gist goes like this: The researchers grouped their participants by orientation (straight, bi, or gay), wired them up, showed them female-female porn and male-male porn, and measured their physical arousal. Among those who got aroused (one-third didn’t), the straight guys reacted overwhelmingly to the women, the gay guys to the men. One quarter of the bi guys reacted only to the women, and three-quarters only to the men. And so, the conclusion goes, they were clearly lying about being bi.

I don’t have the space or the patience to detail every ridiculous thing about this study: equating porn enjoyment to orientation (does that mean the guys who weren’t aroused by the porn are asexual?), recruiting through newspapers (many bi guys are even more closeted than gays), the small sample size, not trying out heterosexual porn for comparison, and on and on.

Happily, many others have leaped into that breach. I’m especially thrilled to see mainstream gay organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce giving the Times and the researchers a thorough drubbing. How, for example, could a
science-section writer in the Times get away with using the utterly meaningless phrase “true bisexuality” uncritically and not in reference to anyone’s opinion, especially in an article where the nature of bisexuality is what’s in question?

(And no, I am not saying that there not some people who are gay who ease the coming out process by first identifying as bi. That doesn’t make bisexuality not exist any more than heterosexuality doesn’t exist because some people who are bi in practice continue to identify as straight.)

But there’s a piece of this that needs a little more attention. Why in tarnation do we care? Why were there so many people eager to say “Yeah, we’ve always been suspicious of those bi guys”? (Similar studies apparently have not managed to cast doubt on female bisexuality. The porn industry is safe.)

I think one reason may tie right in to the major flaw of the study: assuming that bisexuality means that at all times one is attracted to both genders in exactly the same way, and to exactly the same degree. This would be a conveniently simple third option to pair with “always likes girls/never likes boys” and vice-versa. But that describes only a tiny fraction of the bisexuals I’ve known.

There are so many variables hidden under that one term: Some bisexuals can go through phases where they are more attracted to one gender or the other. Some are on the edges of the Kinsey scale, usually attracted to one gender, but with occasional interest in the other. Some are more frequently attracted to strangers of one gender, but develop better sexual or intimate relationships with the other. Some are attracted to androgynes—feminine men and masculine women. Others go for both extremes of gender expression—girly girls and manly men, if you will. Some like one gender for vanilla sex but the other for kinky play. I could go on and on. You can see how any of the above could have skewed the Northwestern study, but they’re all bi—they all have sexual desire of some sort or another for both genders.

And here’s why this matters: That last paragraph is an awful lot like the reality of how desire works in general. Straight and gay people also differ from each other in how “feminine” or “masculine” the people who tend to turn them on are (think people who prefer queens vs. leathermen, princesses vs. female athletes, sensitive new age guys vs. jocks, lesbian butches vs. femmes). Straight and gay people experience changes over time in what turns them on, in what kind of sex they enjoy, and in their levels of libido. Some straight and gay people have a “type” they’re more likely to fling with and a type they’re more likely to settle with. Etcetera.

So I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s not bisexuality exactly that’s so darn threatening that it causes people to make the bizarre mental leap that all of the thousands of practicing bisexuals out there are somehow deluded and not really enjoying themselves.

I think it’s the fact that bisexuality in practice represents the middle of a continuum, the entire gray area between two poles that a lot of people have invested a fair amount of energy in staking a claim to, that makes it threatening. It reminds people that desire, sex, sexuality and relationships continue, despite their best efforts, to be complicated, messy, and unpredictable. It reminds people that they really do have to take each encounter and relationship on its own terms, ask questions, learn to talk about sex, and not make assumptions.

It can be an understandably exhausting reminder at times. But it can also be a liberating one if embraced—for those of all orientations.

—Miriam Axel-Lute


'the major flaw of the study: assuming that
bisexuality means that at all times one is
attracted to both genders in exactly the same
way, and to exactly the same degree’

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