Psychology is like the classic George Orwell novel 1984. Yesterday two plus two equaled four, but today two plus two equals five – and once five is declared the correct answer, any historical record of two plus two equaling four is wiped out. The psychological analogue to 2+2=4 is the idea that “you’re either gay, straight, or lying” – the idea that bisexuality, at least in males, doesn’t really exist. This belief has very effectively invalidated bisexuality, cheapening the experience of bisexual people and rendering their sexual identities invisible. And, up until very recently, the existing biological evidence supported the doubters. A highly-publicized 2005 study indicated that, among the male particpants who identified themselves as bisexual, arousal patterns in response to watching videos of same-sex activity were directed exclusively towards one sex or the other, usually towards men – but not towards both. While female bisexuality has been documented more extensively, this study appeared to be the nail in the coffin for bisexual males, cementing the idea that men who identify as bisexual must be lying, in transition, or just plain confused.
I think it’s important to be clear that the assumptions that we hold about people – particularly about members of historically oppressed groups – aren’t just benign thoughts held by individuals. Our assumptions contribute to a belief system. They provide a filter through which we view the world. And they leak out into our cultural consciousness – the media being one example of a convoy of cultural beliefs. The idea that bisexuals are liars, or that they’re concealing their true homosexuality, shows up over and over and over. Sharon Stone’s character in the 1992 film Basic Instinct embodies the stereotype of the murderous psychopathic bisexual. Fast-forward to 2011, and we have Kalinda in the popular show The Good Wife. Kalinda is a private investigator for a law firm, and her personal and work-related ethics are more than a little bit sketchy. She has sex with married men – and with married women. She manipulates people to get the information she wants. She’s a moving target – you never really know whether or not you can trust her. (Add to the mix the fact that Kalinda is also a woman of color, and this media portrayal becomes all the more negative.) Of course, both of these examples involve women, and the idea of female bisexuality has been a little easier to digest. We don’t really see media portrayals of bisexual men – because, don’t you know, there’s really no such thing as a male bisexual.
Now, another study – interestingly, by some of the same Northwestern University researchers who conducted the 2005 study – suggests that, in fact, bisexuality in males is a true phenomenon. In what the New York Times referred to as “an unusual scientific about-face,” researchers found that bisexual men, as they were watching videos of male and female same-sex sexual activity, experienced arousal responses to both videos, whereas their gay and straight counterparts did not. While many men who identify as bisexual are probably jumping at the chance to say, “I told you so,” I’m sure these researchers are eating more than a little bit of humble pie – although I give them credit for their willingness to question their original findings in the face of criticism. This is not the only study to document these findings – an earlier study published in March of this year yielded similar findings. Of course, the researchers are reporting what people who identify as bisexual already know – that they do, in fact, exist, and that their sexual and emotional feelings and desires are legitimate.
Whether we like it or not, science adds legitimacy and credibility to our personal, anecdotal experiences. And I actually think that scientific findings, when made accessible to the general public, have the power to change our perceptions and reshape our culture. Studies investigating the possibility of a “gay gene,” or of differences in brain structure, or of the effects of sex hormones, have convinced more than a few people of the viability of the “born that way” theory of sexual orientation. More importantly, these studies have established a launchpad for LGBTQ public policy efforts, providing the most solid legal argument in support of LGBTQ civil rights that we’ve ever seen. Will these findings be one of those cultural re-shapers?