First published August 3, 2005, in the Chicago Free Press.
Most of us realize that there are many people who have had sex with both sexes but that that does not necessarily means they feel equal desire for both sexes. As Masters and Johnson wryly observed, "The label of bisexual often means whatever the user wishes it to mean."
Now a new study published in Psychological Science by Northwestern University psychologist J. Michael Bailey and two Ph.D. candidates claims to advance science by reporting that none of the men in their study of male bisexuals experienced "strong" desire for both sexes and that most experienced much stronger sexual arousal by men than women.
Whether or not Bailey's conclusions are true, the study fails to demonstrate them effectively. Bailey has repeatedly in the past employed problematic research procedures and this study is no exception.
Bailey and his team recruited 33 "bisexuals" as well as control groups of homosexuals and heterosexuals by advertising in the gay and "alternative" press. They then showed all three groups of men "several" two-minute-long erotic films, including two of two men having sex and two of two women having sex. The subjects' genital arousal was determined by a device placed around the penis that measured any increased circumference. Bailey says, "For men arousal is orientation."
It turned out that one-third of each group of subjects had no significant genital arousal at all from the films, which means that either they had no sexual orientation or else the technique for testing orientation was flawed. But Bailey ignored that possibility, simply eliminated the non-responders and used the 22 bisexual who did have an arousal response.
It also turned out too that three of the 25 gay men who had measurable genital arousal were more aroused by the female films than the male films. Bailey should conclude ("arousal is orientation") that they were heterosexual but does not and does not say why. This interesting fact is buried in a footnote in a manuscript version of the study but I missed it in the uncorrected page proofs Bailey kindly provided.
In any case, the final result was that although all the bisexual men reported equal subjective (mental) arousal to both types of films, all of them "had much greater genital arousal from one sex than to the other" and three quarters of the 22 men had stronger genital arousal from the all-male films than the all-female films.
It is noticeable that there is no mention of heterosexual films - a man having sex with a woman. The study assumes that a film of two women having sex will always generate a heterosexual arousal response but offers no evidence or argument for the claim. No doubt some men are titillated by lesbian sex but whether it is as uniformly effective a heterosexual arousal agent as a heterosexual film seems questionable.
Some bisexual men, for instance, are far more interested in their own performance, their impact on the other person, than the gender of the partner. Masters and Johnson call them "ambisexuals" and C. A. Tripp mentions that some researchers describe them - somewhat inaccurately - as ready to "stick it in anywhere." If such men are to be aroused by brief films it would more likely be one of a man having sex with another person, male or female, than by a film lacking any male participant. This could help explain the greater number of men aroused by the all-male films.
Since the bisexual men did report substantially equal subjective (mental) arousal to both types of films, someone might wonder if two-minute films were long enough to generate genital arousal particularly for the female films since they presumably did not involve specific arousal cues such as copulatory activity. As psychologist Murray Davis points out, the move from everyday life to erotic reality can take time, the right mental set, and the right cues.
Finally one might wonder if the recruitment ads were specific enough. If Bailey had advertised for men with "equal sexual desire" for men and women he might have obtained a more interesting study group. As it was, he defined "bisexuals" as people with Kinsey ratings of 2, 3 and 4 thus including people with stronger heterosexual responses (2s) and stronger homosexual responses (4s).
One might also wonder if most of the bisexuals solicited through ads in gay publications might lean toward the gay side of bisexuality - which could be why they were reading gay publications and saw the ad. That in turn might help explain the larger number of bisexuals who were more aroused by males than females.
These and related difficulties lead to me wonder why Bailey continues to try to do sex research when he demonstrates so little understanding of the human psychology involved in sex and sexual arousal and seems so unself-critical about research designs that include sample bias, dubious testing procedures, built-in assumptions, unaccountable anomalies, etc. Whatever he is doing, it is not psychology and it is not science.