Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Does Male Bisexuality Exist?

Does bisexuality exist? No one study could answer such a complex question, since sexuality is not a strictly objective thing. Of course, that didn't keep the New York Times from reporting on one study, and doing so quite poorly. Once again, the mainstream media shows that, if you want scientific knowledge to spread, it is incapable of performing the task. Though in this case, the primary researcher, Michael Bailey of Northwestern University, didn't help much. He said some pretty stupid things, like, "There's no hint that true bisexual arousal exists, and that for men arousal is orientation." As someone who has been in the spotlight before, and at the center of a great deal of controversy due to the fact that he does research on the genetics of sexual orientation, and published a widely-criticized book on transsexuals, Bailey should know better than to give juicy quotes like that to a reporter. It's something he simply can't back up with evidence. As a result of the careless speech and sloppy reporting of Bailey and the New York Times, several bloggers have attacked (and another) the study based on what the article reports. Therefore, I feel the need to describe the study in a bit more detail than the article, and without all of its drama.

Bailey does have evidence about the existence of bisexuality in men. It's very preliminary,and hardly tells a definitive story, but at least it's some evidence. It's a shame that in his interview, he didn't stick to it, and that the reporter wasn't responsible enough to do so either. The evidence is reported in a paper titled "Sexual arousal patterns of bisexual men," by Rieger, Chivers, and Bailey (Rieger and Chivers are two of his graduate students) that is currently in press at Psychological Science. Here are the basics of the experiment. Bailey and his students recruited 30 gay, 38 straight, and 33 bisexual men through "gay-oriented" and alternative magazines in the Chicago area. Sexual orientation was measured entirely through self-report, using the Kinsey scale, with 1 indicating homosexuality, 5 indicating heterosexuality, and 2-4 indicating bisexuality. They had these men view six 2-minute videos of sexual material, along with videos of sexually-neutral material. Two of the sexual videos showed male-male sex (oral and anal), two showed female-female sex (oral and vaginal penetration using a strap-on dildo), and two showed male-female sex (oral and vaginal). They measured physical arousal using a technique called plethysmography that measures changes in the circumference of the penis. This is a fairly widely used technique, and short of neuroimaging (which comes with its own set of problems), it's the best way to measure physical arousal. In addition, they had the participants rate their subjective arousal continuously, using a lever that could be moved in a 180 degree arc, with 0 meaning no arousal, and 180 meaning orgasm-level arousal.

After weeding out several participants due to insufficient levels of arousal to any of the sexual videos (plethysmography is notoriously bad at detecting low levels of arousal), they compared the physical and subjective arousal of the 22 remaining self-reported bisexual to the 21 straight and 25 gay men who made the statistical cut. The question was, do self-reported bisexual men show and report significantly more arousal to male-male sex videos than straight men, and to female-female videos than gay men*? This is what we would predict if bisexual men are attracted to both sexes. This is in fact what they found for the subjective arousal measure. Bisexual men showed high levels of subjective arousal to both male-male and female-female videos. However, the measures of physical arousal were not consistent with bisexual attraction to both genders. Instead, the bisexual men showed high levels of arousal to either the male-male or female-female videos, but not both. Most of them showed high levels of arousal only to the male-male videos. Bisexual males were the only ones in the study whose subjective and physical arousal levels did not show high positive correlations.

What does this mean? Here is what the authors of the study concluded:
[O]ur results suggest that male bisexuality is not simply the sum of, or the intermediate between, heterosexual and homosexual orientation. Indeed, with respect to sexual arousal and attraction, it remains to be shown that male bisexuality exists. Thus, future research should also explore nonsexual reasons why some men might prefer a bisexual identity to a homosexual or heterosexual identity.
Now this is a carefully worded paragraph at the end of a discussion section in a scientific paper (the emphasis is all mine). Their results don't say anything conclusively, they merely "suggest," and while the authors clearly believe that bisexuality doesn't exist, they only say that its existence "remains to be shown." In addition, they don't suggest that further research on the existence of bisexuality should not be conducted, but that researchers should also study alternative explanations for self-reported bisexuality.

Now there are problems with this conclusion. First, they offer no justification anywhere in the article for equating sexual attraction with sexual arousal as measured by changes in the circumference of the penis. In fact, they do have evidence that bisexual "attraction," if not arousal, exists. The evidence is in their measures of subjective arousal. If subjective arousal doesn't measure attraction, then I have no idea what it measures. What they did find, it appears, is a dissociation between attraction and arousal for bisexual men. What this means, however, is a question that will have to be answered by future research. Bailey and one of his undergrads are actually conducting more research, this time using neuroimaging to measure arousal, a technique that they suggest in this paper. The results of that study are not currently available, though.

In addition to the problems with the conclusions they draw from the study, there are problems with the study itself. The biggest problem is that all of the men were recruited through gay and alternative magazines (though they do not report how many were recruited from each). It's quite reasonable to assume that bisexual men who regularly read gay magazines are more aroused by men than women. This is another instance of the recruitment problem that plagues much of the research on sexual orientation. With a relatively small and likely unrepresentative sample, it's not clear how generalizable the results are. Another problem, which they do mention, is the crudeness of their measure of arousal. While plethysmography is the most reliable method currently available, roughly one third of the men in this study (and others that use the method) had to be excluded due to failure to detect significant differences in arousal between the sexual and non-sexual videos. Better measures might show more subtle differences in arousal levels between gay, straight, and bisexual men. Imaging techniques, if they show converging results, could help, though imaging data would be difficult to interpret.

The point, then, which is completely lost in the NYT's article, is that the question, "Does male bisexuality exist?" is not answered by this study. The results are interesting, and certainly make the case for further research, but that's about all they do. It would be a serious mistake to dismiss self-reported sexual attraction and orientation based on one preliminary study. Instead, we should do what scientists should always do, and what the authors suggest: explore all of the possible explanations for the data, while continuing to attempt to gather better data.

UPDATE: One more comment on Bailey's quote in the NYT article, in which he said, "For men arousal is orientation." This seems to be a hypothesis, derived from the evidence showing that for both gay and straight men, self-reported sexual orientation, subjective arousal, and physical arousal are all highly and positively correlated (the correlations are up around .95). However, this theory makes a prediction about the correlation of self-report, subjective arousal, and physical arousal for bisexual men, and this prediction was not supported by the data. Instead of admitting this, Bailey instead sticks to his hypothesis, and offers an explanation for the bisexual data that is not justified by that data -- that male bisexuality does not exist. A more scientif approach would be to note that the prediction is not supported by the data, and then call for further data to attempt to either bridge the gap between the hypothesis and the data (as the research article actually does) , or suggest alternative hypotheses. Given the data we do have, from Bailey's own experiment, the hypothesized identity between sexual orientation and arousal in men has no more, or depending on your interpretation, less support than the existence of male bisexuality (which is supported by self-reported sexual orientation and the subjective arousal data).

* The male-female videos were only included to ensure that straight men were not simply averse to homosexual sex. Since all males (gay, straight, or bisexual) showed physical arousal to all types of video, and since straight men showed high arousal to the female-female videos, the male-female condition is really unnecessary. The female-female video is a better for comparison to the male-male video, because it does not involve any member of the unpreferred sex for straight men, or the preferred sex for gay men.

21 comments:

Heather said...

Yep, science reporting frequently sucks. Yours is by far the best response I've seen to the Times article. Very smart and thorough. You should link to it on some of the other blogs so that everyone can be better informed.

Where did you get the original article? I have access to research databases through my university, but they don't include articles that are in press...

Chris said...

heather, I got the article from Bailey. I'd be happy to send you, or anyone else, the file, since Bailey freely gave it with no restrictions. It's not on any article databases yet, because it's still in press, so getting it from Bailey (or me) is really the only option.

coturnix said...

I'd like a copy, if you don't mind....

stand_up_philosopher said...

"Six two-minute videos": wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am, or Sir! What if some of the subjects needed to see some foreplay to get enough blood to the penis to be measurable? What if they don't like videos at all? What if the videos were poor quality, grainy, cheezy 70s porn?

Chris said...

Evanston only has high quality porn.

stand_up_philosopher said...

a serious comment after the last fun one. we'd have to have some idea about the singularity of sexual response before we can talk about using porn, which can only represent singular subjects. i don't know, but i think it's reasonable that the 1/3 of the subjects who didn't respond didn't like the specifics of the video in a lab set up. maybe they don't like labs. maybe they only dig asian chicks while the videos had white girls. or black girls. or tall and slightly pudgy but fairly butch white girls. or skinny white boys. or skinny and short dark skinned black guys. or tall and muscular light skinned cabalasians who vaguely look like tiger woods, but not too much, because that would be a little creepy you know, especially if he didn't take off his golf spikes. and so on, into the infinity of kink that turns people on or off. or maybe it was the time of day? or time of the week / month / hormonal cycle? too soon or too long from the last "real" sex the subjects had? maybe the lights were glaring in the videos and our subjects prefer twilight? maybe the music was hideous? maybe it wasn't on satin sheets, which is the only thing that works for that person?

what i'm trying to get to is this: it seems to me sexual response / "orientation" is a complex evolutionary system in the technical sense of the term, using Peter Allen's work: 'The Dynamics of knowledge and ignorance: learning the new systems science,' in Matthies, et al., Integrative Systems Approaches to Natural and Social Dynamics, NY: Springer-Verlag, 2001.

If this is so, the real problem is Bailey's epistemology. bailey seems to have a classic architecture to his study: do whatever you can to isolate a one to one relation between independent and dependent variables, in this case, penile blood flow, which Bailey tries to provoke by different types of videos, and a generic "sexual orientation," which is self-reported and then correlated with the blood flow. "orientation" is then said to explain physical arousal which then determines the truth or falsity of subjective reports. but an epistemology taking its lessons from complexity theory would have to acknowledge multiple causes that cannot be factored out to find a single determining cause. not that you can't do science with multiple factored systems, but you can't do it by searching for the single factor that provides a truth value for the dependent variable.

stand_up_philosopher said...

please send me a copy of the file if you would. thanks!

Chris said...

I have to admit that I don't think the porn is a problem. It appears that the failure to detect arousal in 1/3 of the male participants is an artifact of the measuring technique, and one that the experimenters recognize. In other studies, the difference between the number of males who have to be dropped due to failure to meet statistical thresholds of arousal, and the number of females (and transsexuals) who are dropped for the same reason, is highly statistically significant. It's hard for me to imagine (and I can't think of any evidence that would support the idea) that this is because men are pickier about their porn, or find the conditions more uncomfortable. There is a long history of using videos in these sorts of studies, and they consistently get arousal out of most men, while the failure to get arousal in some men appears to be primarly due to the inadequacy of the measuring techniques.

On the epistemological issue. As anyone who's taken a course on experimental methods in the social/behavioral sciences will tell you, this is the foremost problem researchers face. Human behavior is complex, and we know this. It is simply impossible to remove all the potential confounding variables from an experimental context. The goal, then, is to do your best to limit the trouble that confounds cause through the inclusion of control groups/conditions that differ only in one theoretically-relevant way. In the present study, this is done through contrasting responses to sexual videos and nonsexual videos, and through contrasting the responses of gay, straight, and bisexual males. This doesn't rule out alternative causes of bisexual behavior (it's not meant to; it's simply meant to contrast their behavior as described in the previous sentence), and the method thus in no way violates the epistemological lessons that we might learn from complexity theory.

Chris said...

stand up (great name, by the way... "I coalesce the vapors of human existence into a viable and meaningful comprehension"), I'd be happy to send you the article, but I will need an email address to send it to.

stand_up_philosopher said...

sorry, it's john@protevi.com.

"stand_up_philosopher" comes from Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I where "Philosophus" is a "stand_up_philosopher." Is that where your quote comes from? It's been so long since I've seen the movie.

I need to read up more on the use in psychology of porn and penile plethysmography for a project I'm working I'm calling "political physiology." it might be better to continue that discussion offline, via email. I appreciate your remarks very much, though I'm not entirely convinced you can solve the complexity problem by factorial analysis. but more on that later. thanks, JP

dfeuer said...

Along with the limitations of plethysmography, I think the study suffers from its exclusive reliance on visual stimuli. Some bisexuals report being attracted differently to men and women: one possibility is that multiple senses (I would guess vision and smell) are involved in bisexual arousal.

Chris said...

dfeur, that's an interesting possibility that I hadn't considered. It would be an interesting line of research, too.

standup, yes, it's Brooks' description of what a "stand up philosopher" is, from the movie, to which the unemployment worker replies, "Oh, a bullshit artist."

Manduca said...

Hi Chris -


I appreciate your breaking down the article.

You said "The evidence is in their measures of subjective arousal. If subjective arousal doesn't measure attraction, then I have no idea what it measures." What about subjective arousal measuring what a person thinks he or she should find arousing?

I'm thinking also that arousal in response to a video of women having sex with each other might not correlate with attraction to women for bisexual men the same way it could for straight men. For example, bisexual men, presumably having had gay sexual experiences and possibly having more connections to lesbian and bisexual women, might see lesbian sexual experience as something that exists complete without male participation and thus find it less sexually evocative and arousing. Straight men might have a more conventional porn-narrative interpretation in which lesbian sex is only a warm-up and inevitably leads to heterosexual sex.

These complications don't lend themselves to a simple resolution I can identify. So I'm just sayin'.

Ciao

Bryan Cruickshank said...

Here's my take:

1. I realize plethysmography is all the rage, but it seems to me kind of funny that the entire world jumps on a study that just happens to prove male bisexuality doesn't exist but female bisexuality is left out. Why? Because yet again society cannot handle any homosexual behavior by men, without it becoming an orientation, but with women, it's acceptable because it plays into male dominated hetero culture. I realize this scientist didn't consciously plan it this way, but it nevertheless seems to me a suspicious turn of events that this study exactly correlates with general American societal mores and stereotypes.

2. The idea that a bunch of self-proclaimed bisexual men have a greater response one way or the other to either sex is simply not a surprise. Get any group of bisexuals together, and you will find that none have a sexuality that really matches. I have only met a couple of folks who seemed to have parallel proportions of tastes to mine. The reality is all self-proclaimed bisexuals are different, but what you will find in each of them is that, despite an entire society attempting to keep them from existing, and receiving anything but a so-called privelege from the society, they recognize they have just enough of a preference for either sex that they feel compelled to acknowledge it. This idea of the bisexual equally attracted to both sexes cracks me up; it's as much of an obsession amongs society at large as polarity as some kind of God-dictated natural state. This is a fucking human conceit.

3. How about putting one of these dick measurers on the Bonobos and the Chimps, hmm? Our closest genetic relative fucks everything that moves all day long. You got primarily gay monkeys, primarily straight monkeys, and some monkeys in between. Assuming these animals are pre-freudian -- could this scientist please explain what their "non-sexual" reasons are for humping each other non-exclusively?

4. Am I the only one that thinks 101 people out of 6 billion is a little small for a sample?

5. Last -- the reality is, not to be coy, but in my own experience, when I have fallen for girls, though I lead a primarily gay lifestyle, I can't tell you exactly what has happened, but I found myself with crushes on women now an then with all the accoutrements of the usual fantasies. And yet, I love sex with men! Were these crushes entirely non-sexual? No, I don't think so. But were there non-sexual elements to the crushes? I'm sure. Were there sexual elements? Yes, I think so.

6. I've also been attracted to transgendered women - chix with dix. I love dick, but I have found myself attracted to specifically to these gorgeous transexuals -- even more than to men. Is it years and years of repression simply allowing me a composite of my physical attraction in the disguise of the more acceptable societal object for male attraction. Probably. But I wonder when it gets to the point where I have no attraction to masculine men whatsoever, yet I know I like that penis. Did he show films of really hot transexuals?

7. See I think what is going on is that it's not just that this guy is getting the answers to the questions he wants, it's the way he is asking the question that is the problem. For example -- what is the reaction to the average straight man to two girls doing it by themselves without any guys for a few minutes? What is their reaction to a guy and a girl doing it? I think most of my straight guy friends would be more attracted to the one with the guy in it. Does that make them more gay? The reality is they find the penetration exciting. But according to this study, it seems the presence of dick is a serious issue that changes everything. And what about my gay friends, and me for that matter, who are more turned on by straight porn but would never even dream of sleeping with a woman? The reality is there are a lot more genuine sexual questions and reasons this guy has not bothered to explore. It's a simplistic study. It's not off-base in assuming that there are men out there claiming to be bisexual who are simply covering up a near total penchant for gay sex. This is a fact. But the problem is there are so many questions left that weren't asked that are nevertheless purely sexual -- not non-sexual.

Chris said...

bryan, nice comments. let me just quickly say that the sample size is not, itself, a problem. The problem lies in whether the sample is representative. Our statistical tools are designed to measure probabilities based on relatively small samples (the old joke among statisticians is that for most parametric statistics, infinity = 30), and can produce a valid picture of the population if the small sample is representative.

Anonymous said...

Great response, and thread. To add to what stand_up_philosopher wrote, I've read first-person accounts of men who claim that blonde women give them a 'soft on' and they're only aroused by women of x ethnicity. This is not in itself a problem with the present study if ethnicity of the video subjects was randomized... which brings me to my request to be emailed the article to doonbrat at yahoo dot com.

Oh, and yeah my 1st person anecdotal datum as a bi male - there's much more to my orientation than arousal. Not for me either the typical gay porn (sweat muscle jockstrap grunt grunt in twos threes and more by the pool or on the bed/couch/hay) OR straight porn designed for consumption by straight men (with the obligatory 'lesbian' scenes featuring uberfemmes whose fingernails should never be brought close to such sensitive parts). But the sight of a slender man on his knees making ardent love to a dildo before he surrenders to the attentions of the woman who's strapped it on...

Oh and I do have a general physical preference - for femmy bois of all genders/sexes/orientations. But there are so many other turn ons besides looks and plumbing - an astute point made, a politics aligned with mine, a poem startling in its honesty...

Dev Amrit

Anonymous said...

It really amuses me how researchers believe that by finding a statistically significant result that they can come to definite conclusions. Self proclaimed people live bisexual lives day in and day out, reality makes that clear. Of course bisexuality exists. It is also a known fact that research is often initiated with the researcher having preconceived outcomes to their hypothoses and whether subconciously or otherwise the resluts will often be coherent with their initial assumptions of the truth. Just open your eyes, look around and step away from paper based results, the world is a much better teacher an identifyer of trends and realities.

Anonymous said...

I just have to say one thing, just because someone says they are bisexual does not mean that they will be attracted to men and women equally. Just because the "bi" is in there does not mean it is a fifty fifty sort of situation. True bisexuals are rare to find, many bisexuals say they are bi because THEY feel it is better being bi than to be gay, but in reality they are gay. But come on guys, if you are gay I would hope that by this time and day in age you would know that there is no changing who you are, so once you accept it yourself you will be much happier. And one last thing, most bisexual people don't care who they end up with, be it a man or a women, as long as they are happy in the long run, but unfortunately there is more stigma towards bisexual men than there are to women which makes it a bit harder for bisexual men to be comfortable in their own skin...
craziefull@hotmail.com

Anonymous said...

Wow, so much ignorance, spurious stereotyping, so little time...

"True bisexuals are rare to find"

False. True bisexuals are extremely easy to find, in my experience. All sorts of people get turned on by both men and women. I find them easily, and I'm one of them. Why is this so hard for some people to accept?

"Self proclaimed people live bisexual lives day in and day out, reality makes that clear. Of course bisexuality exists. It is also a known fact that research is often initiated with the researcher having preconceived outcomes to their hypothoses and whether subconciously or otherwise the results will often be coherent with their initial assumptions of the truth. Just open your eyes, look around and step away from paper based results, the world is a much better teacher an identifier of trends and realities."

Bingo. Bailey is a charlatan. If he's a scientist, that is only further evidence that science is full of charlatans.

Chris:
"bryan, nice comments. let me just quickly say that the sample size is not, itself, a problem. The problem lies in whether the sample is representative. Our statistical tools are designed to measure probabilities based on relatively small samples (the old joke among statisticians is that for most parametric statistics, infinity = 30), and can produce a valid picture of the population if the small sample is representative."

Well, Chris, there must be something very wrong with his study, because the results are ridiculously out of line with reality. "Do bisexual men exist" is as stupid (and bigoted) a question as "Do black people have intelligence?" The world is full of men (and women) who are sexually turned on by both sexes, and who are open about this. Anyone who denies this clearly has an agenda that involves ignoring reality in the first place.

Bryan Cruickshank:
"For example -- what is the reaction to the average straight man to two girls doing it by themselves without any guys for a few minutes? What is their reaction to a guy and a girl doing it? I think most of my straight guy friends would be more attracted to the one with the guy in it. Does that make them more gay?"

A minor quibble: there can be penetration between women (fisting, dildos, etc). I find it hot, and penetration is indeed hot.

Good comments, though. Like I said, Bailey is an utter charlatan. He's interested in distorting and concealing the truth outright. He's not interested in revealing it.

Manduca:
"I'm thinking also that arousal in response to a video of women having sex with each other might not correlate with attraction to women for bisexual men the same way it could for straight men. For example, bisexual men, presumably having had gay sexual experiences and possibly having more connections to lesbian and bisexual women, might see lesbian sexual experience as something that exists complete without male participation and thus find it less sexually evocative and arousing. Straight men might have a more conventional porn-narrative interpretation in which lesbian sex is only a warm-up and inevitably leads to heterosexual sex."
Speaking for myself (a bisexual man) and other bisexual men I know, I find purely F-on-F scenes to be a big turnon. I also find them a turnon when they have male participation. Please don't fall into the pit of false dichotomies. I can honestly tell you that from my experience, bisexual men aren't any less into lesbian porn than self-proclaimed straight men. Bailey's study supposedly found otherwise, but he's a dogmatist with an agenda.

dfeuer:
"Along with the limitations of plethysmography, I think the study suffers from its exclusive reliance on visual stimuli. Some bisexuals report being attracted differently to men and women: one possibility is that multiple senses (I would guess vision and smell) are involved in bisexual arousal."

I (and all the other bisexual men I know) are VISUALLY aroused by both men and women. Of course, being a self-serving crank, Bailey would ignore this.

Anyway, I just want to reiterate that bisexual men exist; I'm one of them, and I know many others. Bailey is full of sh*t. Anyone who takes him seriously is simply clueless.

Anonymous Bisexual said...

It think it's up to the person experiencing those feeling, if male bisexuality exists. People know for them selves what turns them on and what not.
Most of the times researchers produce statistics. And statistics can show an incorrect version of the trueth. How large was the sample? Was it a representive sample? How can there be something like a representive sample of humanity anyways.
The reality of the world shows that some men like to have sex with girls and boys, and that some women like to have sex with boys and girls. How much scientific research do you need to do to realise this world is real?

Nick said...

Hi,

I'm very interested in this study, but I have been unable to find an actual copy of it. Is there anyway you could send me a copy?
ourhomeplanet@gmail.com