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
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.
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’