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The folly of putting labels on sexuality

Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist living in Los Angeles.

For a few moments two weeks ago, everything seemed exhilaratingly clear. On July 5, the New York Times published an article titled “Gay, Straight, or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited.”

The article reported on the findings of a study in which psychologists from Northwestern University and Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health observed arousal responses in 100 men who identified themselves as either straight, gay or bisexual.

The study was conducted by hooking electrodes up to these men and monitoring their responses as they watched various forms of pornography.

And the result: Straight men liked straight porn and the gay men liked gay porn. As for the self-professed bisexual men, a third liked straight porn and two-thirds liked gay porn. None of them responded to both. In other words, the research suggested, male bisexuality, like Bigfoot, the Easter Bunny and possibly the real estate bubble, is a myth.

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The story, which went out over the wires that day and remained at the top of the New York Times’ “most e-mailed stories” list for several days after that, had the qualities of that most delicious form of news, which is to say the kind of news that lends credibility to preexisting biases and unstated politically incorrect views. On behalf of the millions of straight, single women for whom dating can mean navigating the murky waters of men who purport to be straight but whose interests and behavior sometimes suggest otherwise, I’ll admit my initial response was a resounding “duh!”

The fact that the article also acknowledged that bisexuality may actually be the norm in women (although just 1.5% of women identify themselves as such) was even further validation of the double standard that so many women (and men, when they have occasion to think about it) share.

The crux of the double standard is this: Bisexual curiosity is seen as perfectly natural and normal in women and is even (largely by virtue of its appeal to men) an asset in attracting a mate. After all, tons of independent movies are made on the subject, some of which aren’t even kept hidden at the video store. And what about all those teenage girls who now use the lesbian kiss as a way of exciting teenage boys? Back in my day, we relied on Love’s Baby Soft perfume (talk about old technology).

But heterosexual men who admit that they also are attracted to other men are not so lucky. Instead of being thought of as open-minded or even trendy, these poor saps are viewed as merely self-deluding passengers on the slow (and late) train to gayness. If you don’t believe me and all my girlfriends, it’s right there in the New York Times. Or at least it was on July 5.

But then July 6 came, and with it the news that the study’s lead author, Dr. J. Michael Bailey, is a controversial figure who has been accused of ethics violations in his research practices, has ties to at least one “neo-eugenics” outfit that studies and promotes “artificial natural selection,” and despite describing himself as “very pro-gay,” is a favorite son of gay “recovery” groups. The author of a much-criticized book about transsexuals, Bailey also is associated with the notion of homosexuality being an “evolutionary mistake.”

In fairness, I read an interview with Bailey that mounted a fairly cogent defense of the “mistake” concept. He asserts that in evolutionary terms, any behaviors that do not directly propagate an individual’s genes -- many of which are quite positive, like giving large sums of money to the poor -- could be considered a “mistake” (perhaps “aberration” would have set off fewer alarm bells). So the sins of omission committed by the New York Times were soon made up for in cyberspace. Countless blogs decried the study, and the online magazine Nerve.com responded by speedily putting together a bisexuality issue featuring an essay from a bisexual man, a bisexuality timeline from Zeus to Alexander the Great to Mischa Barton’s character on “The O.C.,” as well as a full-force attack on the New York Times article. There’s even a reader poll asking, “Where do you fall on the spectrum?”

Still, the question for which there are still no satisfying answers has to do with the degree of comfort we take in labeling things, especially things as amorphous and taboo-prone as sexuality.

Using a sample roughly the size of Bailey’s, I asked a bunch of my friends -- male and female, gay and straight -- if they thought bisexuality truly existed. Most of them (myself included) agreed with Alfred Kinsey that we all fall somewhere on the scale between entirely heterosexual and entirely homosexual. Most of us also agreed that sexual attraction is far too nuanced and subjective to withstand the kind of crude statistical analysis Bailey’s study seems to put forth.

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Oh, and most of us also thought that men who say that they are bisexual are pretty much kidding themselves.

Why this attitude? Who knows, but it would be interesting if someone studied it, particularly someone whose research methods are a little more comprehensive than Bailey’s or mine. Until then, bloggers, start your engines.


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