Scrap the Kinsey Scale!
We need better ways of researching bisexuality
As a young and impressionable undergrad, the first academic book on bisexuality I came across in my university library (I have carefully blanked both the author and the title from my mind) argued that being abused as a child led to women becoming bisexual as adults. Even as recently as 2011, researchers at Northwestern University in the US felt the need to “validate” the existence of bisexual men – a move which prompted much snark from said bisexual men.
The outputs of research on bisexuality are often questionable largely because the assumptions and methods behind them tend to be flawed. As an academic in a related field, I occasionally get a glimpse at how the sausage is made: Researchers often circulate their questionnaires on various scholarly LGBT mailing lists in the hope of attracting more respondents, and I have got into the habit of vetting them before inflicting them on my unsuspecting queer friends and acquaintances. Surveys ostensibly aimed at the LGBT community almost invariably will contain a question along the lines of “When did you realise you were gay?” (I tend to return essay-length responses on why I am not “gay” and bin the link.)
The persistent use of the Kinsey Scale is another issue. Originally asking about the genders of people you have had sex with, more recently it gets deployed in more sophisticated ways which distinguish between sexual attraction, romantic attraction, and sexual activity. Nonetheless it is woefully inadequate in accounting for attraction to genders other than male and female – a key part of many bisexual people’s experience. Informal conversations with researchers using the Kinsey scale reveal that some of them are fully aware of the flaws but are stuck with it because it is the most established of the handful of statistically validated ways of measuring sexuality.
This of course begs the question why we feel the need to measure sexuality in the first place. Surely there are more interesting questions we should be asking here – questions about bisexual people’s lived experience. Luckily, at least some research of both the academic and the activist kind has started moving in that direction. The turning point was arguably the Bisexuality Report. Published in 2012, it was a collaboration between several UK bisexual academic and activist organisations and the Open University. It reviewed both UK and international academic research on bisexuality with the aim to influence government policy. The report highlighted the exclusion and erasure of bisexual people’s experiences from much academic work on sexualities, and covered issues such as biphobia (as distinct from homophobia) in a range of settings; bisexuality and health; and how being bisexual intersected with other factors such as race, culture, age, and ability.
For me personally, the Bisexuality Report was a revelation. Its publication coincided with a time in my life when I was becoming more confident about bi activism as distinct from LGBT activism, and it gave me the language I needed to name a lot of my own clashes with biphobia over the years. Politically, the report has also been influential, with BiUK – the network of academics behind the publication – being invited to comment on government policy in the areas of health and equalities.
Shortly after the Bisexuality Report, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner was released. This is an activist book with academic underpinnings, exploring the political meaning and implications of bisexuality for the power structures of the world we live in. In January this year, Bisexuality: Identities, Politics, and Theories by Professor Surya Monro of Huddersfield University was launched in Manchester. It is an ambitious work, applying social and political theories to the experiences of bisexual people in the UK, Colombia, India and the US. Finally, later this year will see the publication of Purple Prose – a guide by and for the UK bisexual community, of which, in the interests of full disclosure, I am contributing editor. While this is a predominantly activist book, it also incorporates work from academics and builds on academic research.
What all of these works have in common is the fact that they centre the lives and experiences of bisexual people. Rather than trying to prove the existence of bisexuality, or measure it, they recognise the ways in which bisexual people’s experiences are different and distinct from those of lesbians and gay men. Rather than including us as a throwaway letter in a growing acronym, these works foreground bisexuality. They try to make sense of our complex, messy, human, non-Kinsey-Scale-conforming lives. It is encouraging to see this new trend in bi research and activism, and given that bisexual people form the largest sub-group within the LGBT community, I very much hope we see more of it.
Milena Popova tweets as @elmyra and blogs at milenapopova.eu
What’s this “Kinsey” stuff all about? Pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey categorised sexual orientation on a 0-6 scale as shown.
You’ll notice no position is marked as bisexual (some would say only 3 is bi, others anything from 0.1 to 5.9). But it relies on everyone being fixedly male or female and your sexual interest just being about that, not for example reflecting fetishes or BDSM.