Ep. 3: Dear Science, Bisexual Men Exist
Special guest Sam Simon joins us for another episode where we talk about her experiences as a bisexual person, and about the harmfulness of bisexual erasure. R and Bri also share their frustrations with a biphobic research paper that was published in a major scientific journal this summer.
Sam Simon, MA.Ed., LCMHCA, NCC is a bisexual identifying clinical mental health counselor, and Ph.D. student studying counselor wellness with a history of working in outpatient, hospital, agency, and college counseling settings.
Transcript (click to show/hide)
Bri: Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of Queer Science! I’m Bri, one of your cohosts and yes, my name is a type of cheese.
R: And I’m R – the 18th letter of the alphabet, and your other cohost for this podcast.
Bri: Queer Science! explores the intersection of science, society and queerness in order to think critically about the ways in which science is done.
Bri: So R, I have a question for you? Do you think bisexual men exist?
R: What kind of question is that? Of course they do!
Bri: Because apparently some scientists feel as if they need to scientifically and objectively discover our own experiences, which we as queer people have known the whole entire time. If you’re unsure of where I’m going with this, then I’ll give you some context. This past summer, a scientific journal named the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America” published an article titled “Robust Evidence for Bisexual Orientation Among Men.” And if that already doesn’t sound problematic, let’s have R read to you the significance section of this paper:
R: *Speaking sarcastically in a snobby voice* Ahem… “There has loooong been skepticism among both scientists – and lay persons – that male bisexual orientation exists. Skeptics have claimed that men who self identify as bisexual are actually homosexual or heterosexual, the existence of female bisexuality, by the way, has been less controversial. This controversy can be resolved using objective, genital responses of men to male and female erotic stimuli. They combine nearly all available data – from 8 previous American, British, and Canadian studies… to form a data set of more than 500 men, much larger than any previous individual study – and conducted rigorous statistical tests. Results provided compelling evidence that bisexual identified men tend to show bisexual genital and subjective arousal patterns. Male sexual orientation is expressed on a continuum rather than dichotomously.”
R: It was just sort of like, why, why are they saying it like that? Like I get it, you have to be official, but like, it’s just so awkwardly phrased –
Bri: That we couldn’t help, but awkwardly phrase it, right?
R: It’s not even that we’re not awkwardly phrasing it. We’re reading what they already said.
Bri: Last episode, we spoke with Sam Simon, mental health counselor and PhD student at NC state. Not only did we talk about the field of psychology and queerness, but we also talked about her experiences as a bisexual person and problems with bisexual erasure. Bisexual erasure, otherwise known as bierasure or bisexual invisibility is when the existence of bisexual individuals is ignored, questioned, removed, or constantly having to be re-explained. This article that R and I were just discussing is an example of bierasure at work within academia. Bi erasure is incredibly invalidating, and oftentimes pervasive within both straight and queer communities.
Sam: So bierasure, I feel like is way more common than people think from the, um, I would say heteronormative group, but also the LGBT group as well. So me personally, I can speak to it just like feeling like I didn’t belong in a lot of spaces like, oh, I wasn’t like queer or gay enough for this space, but I’m also not like straight enough either.
Sam: So where do I go? I’m just kind of here. And I had a formative experience where I was actually in a gay club -identified gay club or queer club – and they told me -I was actually talking to someone – to pick a side… it’s not a loophole and that if I didn’t want to pick a side, I needed to get out. I was like 16. And so having those formative experiences, that, that’s what biracial means to me. It is just like saying, we’re, we’re… not going to accept you because you don’t fit into this specific box. And I think also it means people not understanding bisexuality and saying that it has to be binary. Um, just like it has to be you like men or you like women. And I think different people have a lot different understandings of what that is. And bi just means two. And so for me, my personal definition of bisexuality is, um, liking people who are cis and liking people who are not.
Sam: Um, and so, but for different people that might be different things and that we see it more often than, than we think. And, um, yeah, and I follow, I don’t know if you guys know Gabby Dunn, she’s an amazing bisexual advocate and person. And she, uh, really helped me identify what bisexuality was for myself. But I think there’s a lot of bierasure even in the medical community, we were talking about a lot because I would say, Oh, I, you know, I am married and they would write down that I was like heterosexual or straight. Um, if I say I was married to a man on my intake forms or something that… And so it’s just like, Oh, because you are with this one person, it negates your entire sexuality, and that’s super invalidating. You know, when some people hear bisexual, they hear that it is against trans people or, you know, non-binary people because historically, you know, there was a lot of that within LGBT population.
Sam: And, and so I think it goes back to what you were saying, R – is listen to someone, sit down with them. Um, how do you know you don’t agree or you are, uh, not at the same at all, if you don’t listen. And going back, like, I, I am straight passing with my partner now, and it’s weird for us, um, feeling valid enough to go places that are queer places. I, I feel like I have to like, okay, I have to wear my bi pin, or I have to like, look really gay today to just feel validated in the fact that I have to think about that. I shouldn’t have to.
R: Yeah and there’s a stereotype that bi people are promiscuous. Like they’re just going to sleep around with everyone because “I like everyone.” Like, that’s not, that’s not how this works. Like why, why do people continue to show that as well… is another question that I have to ask. If we’re learning so much and we’re adjusting, why are the people that are in charge of making popular media still like perpetuating those stereotypes?
R: Like, it’s an active choice to sit down and write that story. It’s not like it doesn’t happen by accident. Um, as an artist, like I look at paintings and I know that things are very deliberate. Like the person picked up the paintbrush, dipped it in paint and painted that. Like, it wasn’t just a, Oh no, I tripped and fell. And all the paint fell on the canvas and this magical masterpiece showed up. Like, it’s a very deliberate decision. So writing characters who are playing that promiscuous, bisexual character, it, it was a choice. Like you had to pick a character and you had to cast that character and you had to give casting orders. Like we’re looking for this person, who’s this, this, this, and this, like, you’re setting up that standard.
R: In 1948, Dr. Alfred Kinsey and several other scientists developed the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale. You’ve probably heard of this as “The Kinsey Scale.” Participants were ranked 0-6, with 0 being exclusively heterosexual and 6 as exclusively homosexual. His goal was to show that bisexual does indeed exist, there can be attraction to more than one gender, yet he continuously defined it in terms of being “predominantly heterosexual” or “more that incidentally homosexual” (which is a 2 by the way). Essentially this is a more quantitative way to say “pick a side.” Kinsey, as well as this paper, have shown that sexuality exists as a continuum, an indefinable spectrum, but why did this need to be proven? Bisexual people have been saying this since forever. Bisexuals are real. Human experience is valid data. We didn’t need some PNAS paper to tell us any differently.
Bri: It’s just, it’s a lot. There’s lot that you could go into here. I think for me, the sentence that stands out the most to me is “This controversy can be resolved using objective genital responses of men to male and female erotic stimuli.” How can you judge someone’s sexual orientation based on their arousal patterns? To me that doesn’t really add up, you know, our sexual orientation or sexual identities are a lot more complex than that.
R: Well, and like, and they specifically, they talked about how it was bisexual men who had less difference between male and female stimuli. Like the, the arousal difference was less significant than with men who ranked zero or six who ranked heterosexual or homosexual on the Kinsey scale. So it’s essentially saying that, like, they didn’t have as much physical blood flow difference. And I’m like, that’s not, that’s not representative of what orientation is.
Bri: Again, it’s that whole, it’s the whole issue of objectively trying to study this and trying to quantify this. So if you’re trying to quantify anything that is taking something and putting it into numerical terms, and I feel like something like bisexuality, for me, it doesn’t do me any justice if you can quantify my sexual identity. I don’t need to read a paper.
R:Yeah. Like existence is validation within itself. Like the fact that this occurs makes it a valid phenomenon. You don’t need to put a numerical value to it. Like, it’s nice, like in terms of like personal identification, being able to say that like, Oh, I’m a three on the Kinsey scale. Like, that’s nice for me, but it’s not good to classify people based off just that. Based off this arbitrary scale that some dude made in the in the 1940s, like it’s not a good way to measure orientation or attraction or arousal, or just anything like it’s an attempt, but to put it in terms that are saying that, like I have clearly said that like bisexuality exists or it doesn’t exist, like just entering that discussion with that sort of confidence about something that you can’t ever really measure. That’s hugely problematic.
Bri: I am afraid that it could feed into stereotypes as well.
R: It’s also limiting the term bisexuality to being a 50 50 split. So like, first of all, it’s not a binary system. So it can’t just be 50 50, like to limit it to just two categories of attraction, two genders to focus on, that right there is flawed. But then to say that true bisexual arousal is being that 50 50, having a similar response to male stimuli versus female stimuli. Like you can be 99.9, 9% attracted to men and still have that 0.01% attracted to women. And you’re still bisexual. That’s valid. It’s, it’s putting it as terms of, you have to be this equal distribution, for lack of a better word of attraction and arousal. Like that’s not what bisexuality is, is.
Bri: So I find it interesting if you’re going to measure that then. So I’m looking, you know, I’m looking at the results right now, and obviously they used the Kinsey scale, which is problematic in and of itself, you know-
R: But it’s pretty much the best tool there is at this point to measure something like this.
Bri: Yeah. They use it as a measurement tool. I guess you might as well use it, if you’re going to have a study, that’s going to try to quantify this anyways. But, um, like to me, I’m just like, how like, do you have to be aroused 50% of the time, like 75%, a hundred percent of the time to both the stimuli for you to be considered bisexual? Where is that line being drawn? It says only participants who produced adequate arousal for our main analysis were, were included. The figure shows that relative response to female and male stimuli closely track the Kinsey scale on the whole.
Bri: So apparently here in the results that says exclusively heterosexual and homosexual men who have Kinsey scores of zero and six showed larger mean differences in the arousal to male and female stimuli compared with men who have intermediate Kinsey scores. So scores one to five. So one to five is now intermediate. Uh, so they are associated with relatively bisexual arousal patterns… I don’t know how you can be relatively bisexual.
R: And then like I wrote down this thing that was like “patterns of arousal consistent with their stated, uh, stated attraction”, implies that there is a certain way to be bi – like a consistent arousal. So who made that consistency? Like who said that this is within the realm of bisexuality and if you’re outside of that, then you aren’t this like,
R: Yeah. Why does bisexuality have to be consistent?
R: I mean, by definition sort of is the flux between being solely attracted to one gender. Like it, itself is the gray areas. So how can you say some things are more gray or less gray? Like it’s just that continuum, like the, like the good part is that the article does mention that it’s on a continuum, it’s on a spectrum, it’s on a big, massive color wheel and not just a check boxes of one or the other. So there is that benefit to it, but to still limit it, to just having like one pattern of how to be bisexual, like, and if you don’t fit that one pattern of being that perfect, 50, 50 split of genital arousal, then you’re like, no, one’s, I feel like this is just my personal thing, but I feel like no one is that perfect. 50, 50 split. Like you can be pretty darn close, in theory, but no one’s going to fit that archetype of being perfectly bisexual, that true bisexual arousal, like, that’s just some bullshit.
Bri: So the senior author of this study – J Michael Bailey – who has in the past written an incredibly problematic and transphobic book – this is not his first time writing academic papers about bisexuality. In 2005 he published a paper which essentially argued that bisexuality in men doesn’t exist – which was discussed in a New York Times article that same year titled “Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited”
R: So halfway through the article, there’s a quote from Dr. Bailey that says “I’m not denying that bisexual behavior exists, but I am saying that in men, there’s no hint that true bisexual arousal exists. And that for men, arousal is orientation.” Uh, nothing about that is right. Um, just the idea that there is true bisexual arousal, like what does that even mean? A physical reaction is not consent and it’s not attraction. Like sort of bringing up like other examples is the whole, like, is it cold? Or do you like me? Like no, my nipples do not dictate how I feel about you. Like, it’s a simple physiological response to certain stimuli, like, be that it’s temperature, it’s watching pornography, like porn. Like it’s just a physical response. It doesn’t equate orientation or attraction. So…
Bri: And it’s frustrating too, because it’s again prescribing that notion to men.
R: So it’s, it’s sort of dumbing it down so that men are purely physical beings. And so it just counts as this whole mental aspect of orientation and attraction and just relationships in general, like to say that arousal is all that you are like having this hyper-focus on men and what their penis happens to be doing any moment, like to say that defines them is just it’s… I can’t even think of the right word to describe it. Like, it’s just, it’s having this hyper focus on men being sexually defined beings.
Bri: And the thing is that this author, he, you know, he wrote this paper in 2005 and then apparently in 2011, there was another paper that was like, Oh no, bisexual men do exist. And then we have this paper that comes out by the same guy and he’s saying, Oh yeah, no, they definitely exist. And it’s just back and forth. And it’s like, we didn’t ask for this. We don’t need this study. Like we just don’t need it. You know? And the interesting thing is when you look at this paper that he published in 2005, his sample size was ridiculously small. So it’s hard to even have, if you want to even have robust evidence like that, you can’t do it with a sample size that small,
R: How small was the sample size?
Bri: So the sample size was 30 heterosexual, 33 bisexual and 38 homosexual men.
R: So essentially he went to a freshmen college lecture and said, you were representative of the entire population of humanity.
Bri: This episode is a reminder that sometimes being “unbiased” or “objective” – these sort of pillars to scientific research – can be harmful to certain marginalized groups. I think its a reminder not only of the types of questions we are asking, but who is asking them. What are their motivations? What are they trying to prove?