Yep, it had to come sooner or later – my angry launch into some of the work done by Professor Michael J Bailey, professor of psychology at Northwestern university, USA. You know, that research heralded in the New York Times with the headline "Gay, Straight or Lying". The research that allegedly showed that true male bisexuality doesn't exist. That men either fancied men, or women, but not both, even if they said they were bisexual. I know that this research came out in 2005, but I wasn't blogging then. I know, too, that the best response to a lot of this twaddle is simply to ignore it and hope it fades away, but unfortunately this research hasn't. Indeed, a commenter on my blog has cited it within the past month.
Where the blood flows
Michael Bailey and his researchers measured "genital arousal patterns in response to images of men and women". Apparently, even those men who identified as bi (although it's more complicated than that, see below) were only – or near as dammit – attracted to one sex or the other, usually men. They assessed this genital arousal using a plethysmograph – which measures blood flow to the penis and is apparently not admissable as evidence in US courts (although the mind boggles as to what it would be needed for).
So, why does this research have more holes in it than a leaky sieve:
* He used a tiny number of men – 104, of whom only 33 identified as bi. Only 22 of the 33 whom had "sufficient genital arousal for analyses"
* Although it's hard to figure out exactly what happened – without reading the extensive report - it seems that their self-identity wasn't used after the recruitment process. Instead, the researchers rated men as gay, straight or bi according to answers they gave to questions about their sexual desires
* Not everyone, even male everyones, is turned on by porn, particularly not in lab conditions. A third of all his research subjects (however they identified) were not aroused at all. So does that mean they are really asexual? Excuse me while I roll my eyes. What about the fact that (many? some?) lesbians like gay men's porn? What would that make them in his eyes? Or bi porn for that matter. And some people don't like some sorts of porn/some scenarios / some physical types, all of which might turn them off. Apparently, the bi men's subjective response – whether they thought they were turned on – did tally with their stated orientation. There is far more to sexuality, sexual identity, orientation and desire than simply physiological response. Surely this is common sense. Not in this study, however.
* An important element of sexuality is emotion, which isn't even alluded to here. What about all those men who are strongly sexually interested in men, but only fall in love with women?
* "I'm not denying that bisexual behavior exists," quoth The Man "but I am saying that in men there's no hint that true bisexual arousal exists, and that for men arousal is orientation." Erm, why? Seems like a leap over a huge great gulf to me. I would have thought that the differences in number between men saying they were bi and their penises saying something else precisely showed that arousal did not equal orientation. If you even buy that measuring blood flow to the penis really tells you anything useful.
Proof of what, exactly?
However, this flawed research is still currently cited and re-cited as "proof" that bi men don't exist. It's so popular because it says what people want it to say. Huge swaths of society seem to have a vested interest in implying that no men are really bisexual and all women are. Society (specifically, but not exclusively, straight men) is frightened of bi men – who are a bit too much like them - but they can push gay men over to one side and think of them as "other". They can even allow them a few rights now and then.
On the other hand, the daft idea that women are much more likely to be bisexual - to be specific, have "bisexual arousal patterns" - was allegedly demonstrated by the same team of researchers. Not in my experience, they don't, unless of course I have come across the world's largest collection of biphobic prudes.
Of course, Bailey doesn't even attempt to address the social factors making bi men differ from bi women. It is very much harder (in the West, in 2007, although not in other times or places) to be a bi man than to be a bi woman. It's also self-fulfilling: if you are a young man told you can't be bi because all bi men are really gay, chances are you will go along with that. If you are a young woman told all women are bi, you might well think your affectionate responses to your female friends should be more sexual than they are. Simple result: more women than men say they are bi.
What the papers say
While the mainstream press gave the original research a lot of favourable press coverage when it was published, the queer press was more – and sometimes highly – sceptical. It was comprehensively trounced on this blog post. In fact, this blogger has plenty of other information about why Bailey and his research shouldn't be trusted (his appalling work on transsexuals, to start with), along with some great comments. He also links to this fact sheet from the Gay and Lesbian Task Force Foundation which says a lot of what I have covered in this post, but better and with footnotes.
Ron Jackson Suresha, who co-edited Bi Men: Coming Out Every Which Way, writes here about some of the political reasons why the media likes anti-bi research, and ignores pro-bi information. And Mark Simpson wrote a brilliant – and funny - dissection of this research on his blog back in April. It's a long post, but it shows that – in his experience as a gay man sleeping with bi men – that there are a lot of men who will enthusiastically sleep with other men without having the remotest interest in making it a full-time job.