While I’ve heard some cheering about how bisexuality is no longer being erased, I’m not celebrating the recent study that articles are brazenly proclaiming proves that “women are never straight.” This is not a halt to bi-erasure; it’s just another form of it. We’ve gone from declaring that bisexuality is not an identity to making it ubiquitous.
Moreover, it carries forward the biggest problem with sexuality research in academia. This study is not interviewing women to find out how they identify. Nor is it seeking to understand their subjective experiences around attraction and arousal.
Just like the previous studies that “proved” bisexuality “doesn’t exist,” this one relies on the manipulation of people’s states of arousal…which is then interpreted by a stranger to determine their identity. The audacity of power and privilege that assumes that a person’s individual experience of themselves in relation to others isn’t as important as whether or not you, as a researcher, can get them off is quite impressive.
Unfortunately the flaws in logic that jump from “they are/are not getting aroused” to “they must be/must not be straight/bi/gay” should be obvious. There are lots of reasons why hooking someone’s genitals up to some sort of equipment would give less than accurate readings on their sexual orientation.
If achieving arousal with pornographic material can determine sexual orientation, then what does that say about lesbians who enjoy gay male porn? Are we going to declare that they’re really gay men now? What about if a gay man watches lesbian porn?
People find all kinds of porn enjoyable without actually wanting to go out and do those things themselves. Sometimes, yes, people get ideas of things to try. But sometimes they just want to explore something that feels different and out of character. That doesn’t determine their identity, certainly not better than their lived experience of who they find attractive and with whom they would build a relationship.
Not only is determining someone’s orientation from their arousal to porn a ridiculous way of studying bisexuality, studying someone’s arousal in the lab is problematic as well. It’s an artificial environment, presumably where people know they are being studied, even if they don’t know their arousal is being studied…but who couldn’t figure that out with the measurement methods? Seriously. It’s pretty safe to assume that there would be some differences in how they respond to stimuli on their own.
The biggest flaw, though, is the failure to take into account the importance of mirror neurons and empathy. Someone who becomes aroused at certain stimuli may be aroused because they find the material hot and would want to participate. Or perhaps they just recognize that the person in the picture or video is receiving pleasure and have a sympathetic response to that. Or maybe they’re thinking about how nice it would be for their partner to do that to them.
There’s also the binary flaw of failing to take into account anyone outside of cis people. Once again, bisexuality is being reduced to a binary attraction, despite the repeatedly vocal ways that bisexual people have said that it’s not binary. Moreover, the study is trying to categorize types of arousal or behavior as “masculine” or “feminine,” with lesbians, of course, being described as more “masculine” in their arousal. Apparently sexism goes hand in hand with heterosexism and cissexism. But I didn’t need a research study to tell me that.
I don’t doubt that bisexuality is far more common than we assume, but saying “all women are” or “no men are” in direct contradiction to their stated experience simply because of a badly designed study is something that science really needs to stop doing. It’s an abuse of power and bad research. If someone really wants to study bisexuality, start with a phenomenological study, interviewing individuals about their identity and their experience with their identity. Build from there. Don’t further steal their voices and contribute to prejudice. Use science to highlight and empower who they are. Better yet, have bisexual people conduct their own research on bisexuality. Then you won’t get people who mistakenly think that genital engorgement is the end all be all of sexual orientation.