Oh, the old chestnut—does bisexuality exist? A couple of months ago, this New York Times article doesn't seek to prove it exists or not (there seems to be some a priori understanding that it does) but rather, it looks at those who are dedicated to proving it within certain fields of research and in turn, to sharing that knowledge with the public.

Some of Bailey's most vocal critics are bisexual activists, who were angered by a 2005 study he co-wrote titled "Sexual Arousal Patterns of Bisexual Men." Bailey had long believed that women were more "bisexually oriented" than men. A 2004 study he did with Meredith Chivers (an associate professor of psychology at Queens University) showed that it didn't matter so much whether a woman identified as straight or lesbian; most showed genital arousal to both male and female pornography. Men, in contrast, were more "bipolar," as Bailey put it. Their arousal patterns tended to match their professed sexual orientation. If they said they were gay, usually they were aroused by male erotica; if they said they were heterosexual, female erotica turned them on.

But when Bailey and others tested self-described gay, straight and bisexual men the following year, they found one group — bisexuals — for whom identity and arousal didn't appear to match. Though the men claimed to be turned on by men and women, in the lab their bodies told a different story. "Most bisexual men appeared homosexual in their genital arousal . . ." the authors wrote. "Male bisexuality appears primarily to represent a style of interpreting or reporting sexual arousal rather than a distinct pattern of . . . sexual arousal."

The New York Times summarized the study's findings with a headline that read: "Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited." "It was so disheartening," recalled Ellyn Ruthstrom, the president of the Bisexual Resource Center in Boston. "It was this terrible moment where we all wondered, Do we really have to keep debating whether bisexuality exists? It fed into so many of the stereotypes that people believe about bisexuality — that bisexual people are lying to ourselves or to others, that we're confused, that we can't be trusted."

Continue reading the main story

While some bisexual activists filled Bailey's email inbox with hate mail, Sylla invited Bailey to dinner. "I wanted to work with Mike and help him design a better study," Sylla told me. "What I said to him early on was: 'Of course there are bisexual men. You just haven't found them yet.' " Bailey said he was skeptical, but he was impressed with Sylla's civility and decided to hear him out. That turned out to be a smart decision: A few years later, A.I.B. became an important source of funding for research on bisexuals. Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who receives A.I.B. support, told me, "It's difficult to get funding to study sexual orientation for its own sake, unless you're linking it to mental or physical health issues like H.I.V. or suicidality."

At A.I.B.'s suggestion, Bailey did a second study in which he used more stringent criteria to find bisexual-identified test subjects. Instead of advertising in an alternative newspaper and gay magazines, Bailey's team recruited men who placed online ads seeking sex with both members of a mixed-gender couple. The men also needed to have had romantic relationships with both men and women.

To Bailey's surprise, the new study — published in 2011 and called "Sexual Arousal Patterns of Bisexual Men Revisited" — found that the bisexual men did in fact demonstrate "bisexual patterns of both subjective and genital arousal." Their arousal pattern matched their professed orientation, and A.I.B., which had been criticized by some bisexual activists for working with Bailey, was vindicated.

It is always challenging for me to see positivist and post-positivist research looking at proof of my sexuality when I'm a dedicated social constructionist because I don't like the privileging of certain scientific methodology. In layman's terms, I find it problematic to privilege scientific methodology in order to find out if something is true or not. I am not primarily concerned with an objective truth, b/c I doubt scientific inquiry will reach that truth—rather, I am more interested in the social meaning of things. Not only was the research flawed—I think the question about using arousal to find out something as complex as a sexual identity oversimplifies what sexual identity entails, reducing it to genital arousal. There is the sexual arousal but then there then there is a social identity and how those interact to become a sexual identity is much more complicated.

(wonky social science sidenote: I think it is more suitable when using qualitative methods-and thinking about ideas like symbolic interactionism)


I mean, I'm a believer in research but searching for truth is always privileged over searching for meaning. That's part of the problem when we start studying sexuality in the way that is written above. I'm not alone in that belief, btw.

The question I'd wonder is how what people would think be a more suitable research questions to look at bisexuality? And what types of truths would you privilege when talking about sexuality?