science, activism, bisexuality

So, the good news is that there’s actual evidence of bisexuality in men, as measured by physiological response to erotic stimuli. This is good news because the myth of bi men as “gay men not ready to come out” and bi women as “straight girls with a wild side” persists, and it’s time to put it to rest.

(I actually did a Q and A back in Indiana with the GLBT student group on campus, and one kid said, “I think that when gays are more accepted, there won’t be anyone who identifies as bisexual.” To which I replied, “I think that when gays are more accepted, hardly anyone will identify as either gay or straight and most of us will just be fluid or bi- or pan- or omni-sexual.”)

The irritating news is that apparently the community of bisexual men is responding to the evidence in a stupid way – at least according to the New York Times.

“It’s insulting,” says one guy in the NYT article. Another person says, “Researchers want to fit bi attraction into a little box — you have to be exactly the same, attracted to men and women, and you’re bisexual.”

Yeah… researchers want to fit it into a box; it’s not that the way to measure stuff is to standardize it. It’s not that operationalizing a variable necessarily means simplifying it (anyone who has taken high school physics knows about the role of the frictionless, spherical cow). It’s that researchers WANT to reduce sexual orientation to psychophysiology, they WANT clusters of homogeneous people, researchers believe that actually all people in a particular category are just alike. Yeah.

What?!

Did Kinsey have to deal with this? He pursued his interviews with the explicit goal of SHOWING THE WORLD what diversity existed. Did people say, “It’s insulting that he thinks you can conclude something about sexuality just by asking a lot of people a lot of questions”?

I agree that the world shouldn’t need evidence that something someone says about their internal experience – e.g., “I am turned on by people with penises and by people with vaginas,” or “I feel attraction to people without reference to their gender expression” – is true. But the world is incredibly ordinary, insofar as it tends to believe that anything that isn’t true about its own sexuality must either be a lie or pathology; any other conclusion is apt to make the world feel there is something wrong with ITSELF, and the world will simply not have that.

Therefore we find something plausible (if limiting and flawed) to measure – in this case, genital response – to show that, look, here are folks who get tumescent in response to boys AND girls. There are other folks who only get tumescent to one or the other, so it’s important that some respond to both. And thus the world is forced to acknowledge that yes indeed, there must be bisexuals.

Because bisexuals face discrimination at least as much from gays and lesbians as from straights. They violate the simple black-and-white clarity of sexual orientation and thus threaten the importantly simple message of the gay community to the straight community: “We’re just like you, only we love people with the same bodies as ourselves.” Bisexuals make it seem like all bets are off, there are no rules, it’s not simple.

And it’s NOT simple.

But before we can talk about that productively in the public sphere, we have to agree that bisexuality EXISTS, and we need to do it in a way that people will buy. Hence psychophysiology. If we could do it affordably with fMRI and produce pretty pictures of colorful brains, we would, because people fucking LOVE that shit and they’ll believe anything with a brain magnet involved.

There’s an episode of “This American Life” called 81 Words about the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. My students listen to it when I teach about sexual orientation. Why? Because it’s a story of how science interacts with social movements, and how social movements reject the science (and the scientists) trying to support their cause.

Sometimes I wonder if the dichotomy between science and political movements isn’t as great as the dichotomy between science and religion.

18 responses to “science, activism, bisexuality

  1. I actually think that Kinsey did get a lot of criticism from people who thought his methods were weird and not very credible. Still, he was doing research during a period in time when Americans were primed to accept the authoritative voices of American scientists to a far greater extent than today. Scientific authority has way less automatic credibility than it did in the post-war period (I’d argue that’s a good thing), but the downside is that people who percieve the medical establishment as contributing to their marginalization are VERY skeptical about the good faith efforts of scientists to support, via research, their political causes.

    • I’m all for critical readings of science! I wish, though, the critiques were relevant (like, “How did you recruit subjects? What was your response rate? How many participants did you have? What statistical methods did you use?” rather than personal (“I’m insulted by this!”) or arbitrary (“But it’s so much more complicated than that!”)

      • “I’m all for critical readings of science! I wish, though, the critiques were relevant (like, “How did you recruit subjects? What was your response rate? How many participants did you have? What statistical methods did you use?” rather than personal (“I’m insulted by this!”) or arbitrary (“But it’s so much more complicated than that!”)”

        But “I’m insulted by this” and “But it’s more complicated than that” can be valid critiques. For example, I think they’re the perfect response to studies that look at the correlation between homosexuality and finger length. (Or face types and prostitution, to jump back a century or two.) Yeah, their methodology is screwed up too, but it goes beyond that. The same goes for studies that take a fact like that women like pink more than men do and come up with evolutionary explanations (“See, women had to look for pinkish berries while men were out hunting colorless moving things.”) I mean, that is just insulting. And it is more complicated than that. Like maybe taking into consideration the fact that we’re socialized to believe pink is for girls and boy is for blues? If I say that I’m going to do a study to see if blue eyes are correlated with high test scores in math, and people respond, “What the hell. That’s insulting. And it’s more complicated than that anyway,” I think they’re totally right.

      • If a stupid, incompetent researcher tries to tell an evolutionary story about women liking pink, to take your example, it’s just stupid and wrong and nonsense. If someone is insulted by their stupid, wrong, nonsensical work, that’s an individual experience, not a critique of the science. Lots of people are insulted by the idea that human female orgasm is an evolutionary byproduct with no adaptive function; that doesn’t make it wrong or bad science. Sometimes that gut, “Urgh!!” is a useful starting point for a critique, but it’s not, in itself, a critique.

  2. Science is messy and problematic, because it doesn’t exist in a void. I think it’s fine — no, important — for people to voice the issues they find with scientific studies, but I don’t think anyone here was saying that the study should not have been done. (At least my view is: OK, it’s sad that studies like this have to be done, and there are some issues worth discussing about the methodology, but it’s good they did this study.) Particularly in light of the earlier study it challenged, the one that was bandied about all over the Internet and newspapers to “prove” that bi men are actually “gay, straight, or lying.” One of the major critiques of that study that I read on the blogosphere was that measuring physiological response to erotic stimuli is not an adequate, or appropriate, way of measuring sexual attraction or orientation. (But even when you take that into consideration, the results showing that the bisexual men only responded to one set of stimuli were still questionable.) And that critique is still relevant in this latest study, though, as you point out, they had to measure something. But I wonder what would happen in a similar study looking at women, since, according to some work you blogged about a while ago, women’s genitals often respond to any sexual stimulus the women are exposed to, regardless of whether the women themselves are actually turned on by it. What are your thoughts?

    • The Northwestern folks are the same ones who did the women-respond-to-images-of-monkeys-fucking study that inspired this one. The problem they had – and had had since at least 2003, when I first heard them talk about their work – was the rarity of male subjects who responded to a variety of stimuli. Rare phenomena are hard to measure.

      Psychophysiological response is not a perfect predictor of desire, but it is really good in men, really useful. It’s a reasonable and legitimate measure for males. It’s both an adequate (though imperfect) operationalization and an appropriate (though not the ONLY appropriate) way to measure sexual orientation in men.

      I think what bugs me is that people take the study PERSONALLY. To say that experimental results are “insulting” just… I mean it SO misses the point.

  3. How do you think a “Let’s see if bisexual women really exist too” study could be reasonably done, considering the issues with measuring physiological response in women? If you were to design such a study, what would you do? (Roughly.)

    • I don’t think it could be done the way they did with men. Women’s sexuality is a different phenomenon that requires different methodology. The entire conceptualization of sexual orientation needs to be different when you’re thinking about women. As with “female sexual dysfunction,” there isn’t a useful physiological correlate, so you end up going by self-report and then use population-level variability to conextualize individual experience.

  4. I’m kind of shocked that you (or anybody) is taking anyone seriously as speaking for the “community of bisexual men” (not a community that exists), but beyond that: OF COURSE. Of course people who spend their lives fighting to open up categories, to make breathing room in all those little boxes, who want to get rid of those boxes all together because their oppression comes from our obsessive need to sort everybody and someone is always left out, marginalized, invisible, or crammed in by that sorting process, are not terribly happy about any scientific study that people will use to explain who they are or prove that they exist.

    Sexuality may have empirical effects, but it is incurably non-empirical. We could say the same of humanity. And political movements are there to defend humanity. Science may occasionally provide a useful tool in that process, but it’s a different way of knowing.

    What’s more, there’s a power dynamic at play that you’ve alluded to here:

    “But the world is incredibly ordinary, insofar as it tends to believe that anything that isn’t true about its own sexuality must either be a lie or pathology; any other conclusion is apt to make the world feel there is something wrong with ITSELF, and the world will simply not have that.”

    The “world” decides. External bodies determine, however partially, who you are and whether you’re real. That’s the effort behind any experiments, too. The sentence might read, “Scientists are deciding whether or not bisexual men exist.”

    And on that front, it doesn’t matter what conclusions scientists come to. The fact that they are in the position of deciding, the fact that the sentence is anything other than “Bisexual men declare that they exist” is the problem, and OF COURSE you’re going to find plenty of bisexual men–radical though it may sound, unreasonable though it may be–unhappy that it’s not happening the right way.

    • Lestin:
      “And on that front, it doesn’t matter what conclusions scientists come to. The fact that they are in the position of deciding, the fact that the sentence is anything other than “Bisexual men declare that they exist” is the problem, and OF COURSE you’re going to find plenty of bisexual men–radical though it may sound, unreasonable though it may be–unhappy that it’s not happening the right way.”

      I second this.

      The issue isn’t that there was a study to see what happens if you take a group of men, show them sexual videos, and monitor their penises. The issue is that you have people saying, “Hmm. Do bisexual men exist? Well, based on this study, we say yes.” And then you have the public debating this question. That is problem, and of course that’s offensive.

      Again, science doesn’t exist in a void. You don’t have something pure and magical called science and then far over there you have activism and politics and opinions. (And it’s not like categories and narratives of sexual orientation aren’t socially constructed in a way that may not best reflect reality, something Lisa Diamond has explored in her research.) It’s way more intermixed than that, and I think it’s just plain wrong to suggest that science isn’t political. The politics of science might be manifested in the motivations behind a study, its methodology, its conclusions, its framing, its impact. In this case you have a study whose conclusions are VERY political. Of course you’re going to have people who are offended. Saying, “Guess what—You exist! We proved it!” is inherently offensive.

      I don’t think it’s fair to be angry at anyone for being insulted by a study that’s…well… insulting. I think it’s good they did the study, because it’s better than the other terrible studies out there, but it’s still offensive that the question of whether a socially constructed group exists is a matter of debate, and that science is deemed the *only* reasonable way of answering it.

      It’s not that you have all these unreasonable political people who just don’t “get” science.

      If you want science, ask scientific questions. “Do bisexual people exist?” isn’t a scientific question; it’s a political one.

      • I just needed to say, Melinda, that I second pretty much everything you’ve written in this comment and have nothing to add because you said it so damn well!

      • And can I also add that I have the smartest, most thought provoking commenters in the universe?

  5. My daughter is studying brain and cognitive science. I had to read her your little rant about fMRI and pretty brain pictures, and she liked it as much as I did.

  6. Sometimes I wonder if the dichotomy between science and political movements isn’t as great as the dichotomy between science and religion.

    Why wonder? There is no difference. Politics is only another religion. It’s just they define their “god creature” differently. :-)

  7. I think part of the problem is that there isn’t enough overlap between social activists and “natural-sciency people” (to keep it very broad). I may be wrong, but it seems that people who have an interest in social activism is rarely interested in scientific subjects and vice versa which makes the other side a bit of a mystery, an other if you will. Even though natural sciences aren’t my forte or anything I wish I knew more about their methodology and just what’s happening in those fields in general.

    There is a really interesting article that touches upon the subject of antagonism between social justice/natural science here: http://www.stumptuous.com/rant-61-april-2011-guess-whos-coming-to-dinner

  8. Emily:
    “If someone is insulted by their stupid, wrong, nonsensical work, that’s an individual experience, not a critique of the science.”

    OK, that’s true. It isn’t a critique of the science. I think it’s a valid response though. The critique part could follow: “This isn’t science, wtf are you doing?” (only more articulately and with more details).

  9. anyrandomname

    At the time of the last study (2005), did anyone ask why the hell they recruited subjects for a study on bisexuality from gay publications?

    That’s one hell of a sampling error.

  10. Pingback: “I’m Not Straight, I’m Not Gay, I’m With You”: What Does Orientation Mean to YOU? - The Pursuit of Harpyness

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