‘Bi Men: Gay, Straight or Liars’?

It’s now official – according to some psychologists, half of BCN readers and BiCon-goers are kidding themselves and just wasting their time

There’s an old story, probably apocryphal, of a civil servant demanding of a politician: “It’s all very well saying that it works in practice. But does it work in theory?”

From that very school of thought comes news that there is no such thing as a bisexual man.  Researchers have proved it, apparently, so any of you who were convinced you were a bloke who fancied boys and girls have just been kidding yourselves.

Led by the New York Times but splashed all over the media in July were stories based on the first attention-grabbing press releases for a research article as yet unpublished which is due to appear in Psychological Science magazine later in the year.  The research, by psychologists at Northwestern University and the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, claimed to show that men who identify as bisexual are deluding either themselves or others: tests on their physiological sexual response showed that they were really far more attracted, if not exclusively so, to one sex or the other.

Now, it won’t come as a surprise to many readers that a piece of research that claims to do the sexual equivalent of proving the world to be flat is rather riddled with holes.  But what was wrong with this one?

To begin with, the project worked on a remarkably small sample of people, and took their choice of sexual label as a reliable guide.  That’s not to say that because someone says they are gay, or bi, or straight, that it ain’t so: simply that until various sections of society cease to attach differing values and acceptability to each, there will be people who call themselves bi because it is easier where they live and socialise to be bisexual than gay, and vice versa.  A large sample size from diverse social backgrounds can counteract this effect to some degree: when you’re only working with a hundred and one people in the first place it really is pot luck.

Next was the dubious technique for research.  The lab equipment basically measured how much of an erection the subject had whilst viewing porn films with male and female subjects.  Any Viagra sales rep could tell you that good cause for arousal and erection are not directly linked; indeed if they were then there would be a lot of men out there who would have to confess to ‘first thing in the morning’ fetish.

And let’s look at the raw maths of the survey.  There were just 101 participants of whom 33 identified themselves as bisexual, and this project shows that in a laboratory, under observation, with sensors attached to their penises, 28 of them were not turned on by porn showing two women going at it.  (Perhaps the other five were actually turned on by the being wired up part, who’s to say?)

Of these 33 bi subjects, some 16 didn’t get it up looking at porn showing two men in action.  That’s a better proportion being turned on by the gay porn, but then self-labelling is unlikely to obediently follow a Kinsey scale distribution when heterosexuality is still such an accepted norm.

The bias of the researcher shows up in the choice of results to quite: surely the fact that across 101 participants, one in three men showed no sexual arousal whatsoever is more of a finding than individual tendencies to find one sexual scenario or another more appealing.  A widespread agreement with the Boy George cliché about rather having a nice cup of tea surely does more to unsettle received wisdom about male sexuality and an unbiased research group might have paid more attention to those parts of the findings.

Gerulf Rieger, a psychology student involved in conducting the research told the New York Times that  “Regardless of whether the men were gay, straight or bisexual, they showed about four times more arousal” to one sex or the other.  That’s four times more arousal, not infinitely more, so these must be fairly liberal interpretations of the categories gay and straight.

As with the same researcher’s previous work on trans, one can but conclude personal prejudices leading research results to be contorted to suit a desired outcome.

There are other holes too.  The porn videos were chosen by the researchers, not the participants.  If someone is not responding sexually to a porn film that might be a sign that an individual research subject doesn’t get turned on by orange skin, or blond(e)s, or obvious boob jobs, rather than that they don’t generally fancy someone with that shape of genitalia.

So there we have it.  There are bisexual men, after all, and they might not all be perfectly 50/50 in their split of attraction to men and women all of the time.  But a small group of men have been proven – on a particular day, in a laboratory, with electrodes attached to their genitalia – to be somewhat more aroused by one porn film than another.

However could we have gone on another day without knowing?