Bisexuality. It's an ambiguous label. Its meaning is highly debated among critics in both straight and gay communities. Some have called bisexuality a transition phase between being straight and gay. Others say it is simply an indication of a person's sexual confusion. And then there is the phrase coined by some members of the homosexual population: "You are either gay, straight or lying."
Despite these skepticisms, studies reveal millions of men and women in the United States identify themselves as being bisexual.
In 1948, IU sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey conducted studies using a "sexual continuum" to conclude that the majority of American males are bisexual to some extent. A 2002 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 1.8 percent of adult males ages 18 to 44 identify themselves as bisexual.
People identify themselves with specific sexual identities for many different reasons, such as behavior, desire and emotion. Last summer, a group of psychologists published a study that looked at only one specific aspect: sexual arousal patterns in bisexual men. The study's results have cast even more doubt on whether, as far as physical arousal is concerned, true bisexuality exists in men.
Now, months after the study's publication, members of various gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities are still skeptical of the experiment's results and possible significance.
"The research was so based on physical reactions," said Michaela Martin-Almy, a May IU graduate and the immediate past president of IU's GLBT student union OUT. "And we know it to be true that is never the sole indicator or attraction and emotions and sexual feelings."
In light of this backlash, the study's lead author and experts from IU's Kinsey Institute explain what the research can and cannot prove and its implications for future studies about bisexuality.
Breakdown of the Study
For the study, a team of psychologists from Northwestern University and Toronto examined 101 men: 30 heterosexual, 33 bisexual and 38 homosexual. Men rated themselves on the seven-point Kinsey Sexual Attraction Scale -- heterosexuals score from zero to one, bisexuals from two to four and homosexuals score five to six.
Each man viewed a set of 2-minute, sexually charged films sandwiched between neutral, relaxing videos. The erotic films depicted either two men or two women having sex.
If the men became genitally aroused, mercury-in-rubber gauges worn around the mid-shafts of their penises like rubber bands would measure increased penile circumference. The men also had levers to indicate when they felt subjectively aroused. Even if the gauges didn't measure an erection, the men could still account for feeling stimulated by moving the levers forward or backward.
As the researchers expected, heterosexual men were only aroused by the videos involving women, while homosexual men were only aroused by the videos of men. When it came to the results of the bisexual men, however, the study revealed a strong disconnect between the men's genital arousal and their indicated subjective arousal.
In fact, while some bisexual men expressed stimulation to both men and women using the levers, the results showed no signs of bisexual genital arousal.
Physically, the results showed bisexual men as completely bimodal -- aroused by men or women, but not both. About 75 percent of the bisexual men tested showed arousal patterns identical to those of homosexual men. The others' arousal patterns were indistinguishable from those of heterosexual men.
Eric Demporio, a graduate student studying psychology and cognitive science, said although he had a girlfriend in high school, the idea of being with a man never bothered him. When he was an undergraduate at Arizona State University, he realized there was more to this mentality than simply being open-minded.
"I realized that it was more than just not having a problem with it," he said. "There was an actual attraction there."
However, Demporio said it wasn't until about a year ago, after he came to IU for his graduate studies, that he began to identify as bisexual. Now he facilitates a biweekly bisexual support and social group that meets on Wednesdays. After reading this study, Demporio said he was skeptical of whether its findings really had any significance.
"Arousal isn't the only thing that defines a person's sexuality," Demporio said. "It is a piece of it. But there are pieces that might involve attraction and desire that don't play themselves out in physical arousal."
He is not alone in doubting the study's possible significance and methodology. Some people have questioned how representative this study can be of the entire bisexual population with a sample size of only 33 bisexual men.
However, Erick Janssen, an associate scientist at the Kinsey Institute, said this sample size is typical for sexual research.
"Some people want larger sample sizes if you are to answer questions to see how often this is happening in the population," he said. "But for more basic physiological mechanisms, if you can find it in 20 people, why be impressed by larger numbers?"
However, Janssen said he is skeptical of other aspects of the study: how the men categorized themselves on the Kinsey Scale, how the results were reported and the videos used as stimuli.
"The Kinsey Scale, for me, it is just six numbers," he said. "People use it in different ways. The Kinsey Scale almost doesn't even exist in some ways."
He said the reasons people place themselves at different degrees of the scale vary. One man might base his rating on pure physical arousal. Another might rate himself based on emotional connections. Yet a different man might base his rating on past sexual experiences and behaviors. This range of how people subjectively rate themselves could lead to inconsistencies in how people's sexual identities present themselves physically in studies.
Also, Janssen said a person's physical arousal to a movie might not be indicative of a person's real-life arousal responses.
"If in the lab they only respond to men and not to women," he said, "that doesn't mean they couldn't have sex with a woman and be heterosexually aroused."
Janssen also questioned whether the types of videos used in the experiments were adequate stimuli since participants didn't watch any films with a man and a woman having sex together. He said it might be possible that bisexual men didn't get aroused to the films of two women having sex because there weren't any men in the films to relate to.
Finally, Janssen said he wished the authors provided the actual data of each participant's penile circumference measurements with specific numbers and measurements. Instead, the authors used hand-drawn graphs to represent their overall findings.
"They truly believed that this is the best way to represent the data," he said. "I am more used to working with exact measures: What was the penile circumference? What was the rigidity? When you look at the article, you don't know how aroused they really are. I cannot judge it."
Implications for Future Research
Interpretations of this study's findings vary. One possibility is the bisexual participants whose arousal patterns were identical to homosexual men are actually gay, explained the study's lead author Gerulf Rieger, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University. This study, he said, might help them "accept their true feelings."
It could be that for the men in this study, bisexuality was a "transition phase," a step taken before identifying as homosexual, Rieger said. This phenomenon is not that rare. A 1994 survey found that 40 percent of homosexual men surveyed said they defined themselves as bisexual before identifying as gay. Rieger, who is gay, said even he initially identified as bisexual to test how the straight world would react to his homosexual intentions.
Janssen offered another explanation. He said maybe bisexual men are like women in that their "lifestyles are maybe not extremely related to what turns them on the most." Other studies of Rieger's have shown that women, regardless of their sexual identities, are genitally aroused by both heterosexual and lesbian pornography. So women's physical arousal seems to play a very small role in how they sexually identify themselves.
Rieger said whatever interpretation a person might have, the study was not intended to be proof of the nonexistence of bisexuality. But he said he was prepared by the mere nature of the study for the possibility that the results might upset people.
"As a researcher, you have to go with whatever you find. You cannot be politically correct," he said. "You cannot try to please anyone. Do we think bisexual men are lying? Of course not."
In fact, Rieger's research is not the first to find a nonexistence of bisexual genital arousal in men. In 1979, a study of 30 men -- 10 heterosexual, 10 bisexual and 10 homosexual -- found that men identifying as bisexual had genital arousal patterns identical to those who were homosexual.
Even when taking into consideration the findings of this 1979 study and Rieger's current research, Janssen said many more tests are necessary before coming to any solid, scientific conclusions regarding bisexual arousal patterns.
"It's just one piece of research, not the ultimate or final answer," Janssen said. "It is interesting and intriguing, but it is not a definite answer to the question of how sexual orientation is related to sexual responses and desires. It is a complex question and you always need more studies."
In fact, Janssen said he is currently working on a publication where he has so far found evidence of bisexual genital response patterns in men.
In the meantime, Martin-Almy said simply talking to people about their sexualities is one guaranteed way to understand different sexual identities.
"People's identity is something that only they can describe to you," she said. "Just because two people claim to have the same sexual orientation doesn't mean they feel the same. No two people are alike when it comes to sexual orientation. They are just names, just labels. You can't read anything into them without talking to the person"
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