Recently, the internet erupted a bit over the scientific "discovery" that women are "bisexual or gay, but never straight." The statement is based on a study at the University of Essex which measured pupil dilation and genital arousal of women looking at porn. (Yeah, sometimes academics take ideas like "sexual experimentation" very literally.)
Straight women protested. Straight men got a little too excited. Queer women wondered why they were still single. Bisexual men found it mildly refreshing that heterosexuality was being questioned for a change.
But did anyone actually read the study?
Some people have rightly expressed skepticism about the conflation of arousal patterns and sexual orientation. Obviously, there is a lot more to sexuality than pupils and genitals. Arousal non-concordance -- a discrepancy between genital response and the subjective state of arousal -- is known to be particularly common in women. Besides, many people would attest that what you like to look at is not necessarily what you like to do.
But, beyond that, the actual study never even suggested that physical arousal in response to men and women indicates bisexuality. In fact, the hypothesis of the study wasn't about that at all.
Let's take a look:
The study merely mentioned that arousal in response men and women had been previously established as the "female-typical" pattern (yup, this is old news), and the new results fit this trend. The main hypothesis was that arousal patterns are related to measures of masculinity/femininity-which, by the way, was not supported by the results at all.
But I guess "STRAIGHT WOMEN DON'T EXIST!!!" makes for a flashier headline than "Researchers Fail to Relate Gender Expression and Arousal."
Sure, there is plenty reason to be skeptical of the research itself (after all, these are some of the same people who published that much-publicized -- and discredited -- study denying male bisexuality).
- I question the assumption that porn viewing somehow reveals the fundamental essence of human sexual nature.
- I wonder whether the people who sign up for sexual arousal studies are representative of the general population.
- I look with suspicion toward a line of research which too often assumes that people -- especially women -- "don't know what they really want" sexually.
- I take issue with the values of a field which invests more resources in questions like "Why does [X orientation] exist?" than "Why do [people of X orientation] suffer disproportionately from mental health problems?"
- I reject the recurring mindset which places the existence of fluid sexualities in opposition to the existence of other orientations.
But bad journalism takes questionable science and bumps it up to dangerously exaggerated pop-pseudoscience. This is particularly true in cases in which the terrible media representation of science overlaps with terrible media representations of gender and sexuality. (All it takes is a serious-looking fMRI image to convince people that men are "hard-wired" to cheat.)
This time, the "bisexual or gay" line first appeared in a press release from the university itself, then circulated (and inflated -- "rarely" straight became "almost never" and "never") through sources ranging from the Daily Mail to respected science blogs.
In this case, I don't think that the social acceptance of female heterosexuality is in serious danger. But it is evident that a reporter's words can have a much bigger impact than a researcher's words, regardless of how much expertise or truth is behind them. And I believe that this great power needs to come with some greater responsibility, particularly when making claims about people's identities and desires.