I first realized I was bisexual in high school but didn’t come out until fifteen years later because I thought it was just a phase. As a teenager during the late ‘90s, most coming out stories I saw on TV involved gays and lesbians, so I didn’t think I was “queer enough” to come out. When I did come out a few years ago, though, I found that not only did the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement still focused exclusively on gays and lesbians, but also that some gay people don’t believe bisexuality is a thing. Sex columnist Dan Savage is known to respond to young bisexuals with, “I was, too, at your age.” The TV show Glee, despite its positive portrayals of gay and lesbian teens, had a few episodes that suggested bisexuals are either liars or cheaters. Even my first boyfriend was convinced he could end my “addiction to pussy.” I know Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” but I didn’t think being able to love people regardless of gender was too extraordinary of a claim.
Apparently it is, though, because in 2005 three researchers published a paper that casted doubts on bisexuality in men. For this study, the researchers picked 30 straight men, 33 bisexual men, and 38 gay men to measure how they reacted to erotic visual stimuli. First the participants filled out a form where they described how they identify sexually, and then the researchers attached sensors to their penises and showed them porn. Some of the porn featured two women, and some featured two men. According to results, the majority of bisexual men shared the same reactions (i.e. amount of erections) to the male-on-male porn as did the gay men. Thus, as many interpret, most bisexual men are really just gay.
However, as bisexual blogger Sue George pointed out, the study had flaws. The sample group was too small, only 22 out of the 33 bisexual men in the study had “sufficient genital arousal for analyses,” everyone has different reactions to porn, and the study didn’t look at romantic attraction. So why did people take the study as “proof” that bisexuality in men doesn’t exist? “It’s so popular because it says what people want it to say” George wrote. “Huge swaths of society seem to have a vested interest in implying that no men are really bisexual and all women are. Society (specifically, but not exclusively, straight men) is frightened of bi men—who are a bit too much like them—but they can push gay men over to one side and think of them as ‘other.” They can even allow them a few rights now and then.”
In her book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, Shiri Eisner criticized the study as another form of medicalization, which is “the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment.” According to Eisner:
[The] study about bisexual men was conducted using medical techniques (physical erection measures, Kinsey-scale sexual assessments, etc.). It also discussed bisexuality in “scientific” terms, using charts and numbers. In addition, it quite obviously viewed bisexuality as a “problem” to be studied and “understood.” This can be seen in sentences such as, “Although bisexual behavior is not uncommon in men, there has long been skepticism that is motivated by strong sexual arousal and attraction to both sexes,” or, “Skepticism about male bisexuality must … concern claims about bisexual feelings, that is, strong sexual attraction and arousal to both sexes.”
In other words, by trying to use science to prove/disprove male bisexuality, it makes it sound like loving people regardless of gender is somehow an extraordinary claim that needs extraordinary evidence.
Having said that, though, a recent study suggests that, yes, bisexuality does in fact exist. An article that was published in February of this year details how researchers from Northwestern University used neuroimaging to measure the responses gay, straight, and bisexual men had to erotic images. The results were the straight men showed more ventral striatum response to erotic images of women, the gay men showed more to men, and the bisexual men had a more neural response. In other words, as researcher Adam Safron explains, “We found that desire-related brain activity corresponded to men’s self-stated orientations.”
Although the science behind sexuality is fascinating, I can’t help but think, “Does it really matter?” On one hand yes because, as I mentioned in a previous article, science can help debunk bigoted myths that sexual orientations and gender identities are just “choices” people make to either rebel against gods or be “special snowflakes.” But on the other hand, if you need a peer-reviewed scientific article to convince you LGBTQ people have the same worth and dignity as anyone else, you need to check your moral compass. As Bill Nye said in his new Netflix series, “Just get over it, will you?”
Trav Mamone is a queer trans blogger who writes about the intersections of social justice and secular humanism at Bi Any Means. They also host the Bi Any Means Podcast and co-host the Biskeptical Podcast.