Gayness is hard, lesbianism soft

Fascinating. This NYT article bears out a suspicion I’ve held for a long time about the plasticity of sexual orientation. The crude one-sentence summary is that, if you go by physiological arousal reactions, male bisexuality doesn’t exist, while female bisexuality is ubiquitous.

I’ve spent most of my social time for the last thirty years around science fiction fans, neopagans, and polyamorists — three overlapping groups of people not exactly noted for either sexual inhibitions or reluctance to explore sexual roles that don’t fit the neat typologies of the mainstream culture. And there are a couple of things it’s hard not to notice about them:

First, a huge majority of the women in these cultures are bisexual. To the point where I just assume any female I meet in these contexts is bi. This reality is only slightly obscured by the fact that many of these women describe themselves and are socially viewed by others as ‘straight’, even as they engage in sexual play with each other during group scenes with every evidence of enjoyment. In fact, in these cultures the operational definition of ‘straight female’ seems to be one who has recreational but not relational/romantic sex with other women.

Second, this pattern is absolutely not mirrored in their male peers. Even in these uninhibited subcultures, homoerotic behavior involving self-described ‘straight’ men is rare and surprising. Such homeoeroticism as does go on is almost all self-describedly gay men fucking other self-describedly gay men; bisexuality in men, while an accepted and un-tabooed orientation, is actually less common than gayness and not considered quite normal by anybody. The contrast with everybody’s matter-of-fact acceptance of female bisexual behavior is extreme.

It is also an observable fact that many women in these cultures change either their sexual orientation or their sexual presentation over time, but that this is seldom true of men. That is, a woman may move from being sexually involved mostly with other women to being mostly involved with men, and back, several times during her adolescent and adult lifetime; nobody considers this surprising and it doesn’t involve much of a change in either self-image or social identity. Not so for men in these cultures; they tend to start out as straight or gay and stay that way, and on the unusual occasions that this changes it tends to involve a significant break in both self-image and social identity.

Until I read the abovementioned NYT article, I thought these were peculiar, contingent traits of this group of subcultures (which are influenced by each other). That is, I thought that (in the jargon of postmodernism) SF fans, neopagans and polyamorists had arrived at a common social construction of sexuality with no privileged relationship to the biological substructure.

Now I wonder. If the studies the article references are correct, the distribution of behaviors I’ve been describing is exactly what you see when you bypass self-consciousness and social construction entirely, and just measure how aroused people get when they look at pictures of other naked people. This actually is how our biology ‘wants’ us to be! Who knew?

Categorized as Sex


  1. While not scientific by any means, in my own observation I’ve met several women who are bisexual, but no bisexual men, except for one who finally changed his tune one day and said he was gay.

  2. Well, pictures (any kind of pictures) don’t arouse me worth mentioning, and I’ve had romantic/sexual relationships with members of both sexes. So which am I: straight, gay, or lying? As the guys mentioned on page 2 say, this measurement is way way too crude.

    “I don’t think I’ll read the Kinsey book: I’ll wait until they make it a movie.”

  3. In other words, the uninhibited and open-minded subculture of neopaganism and polyamory actually has the sexual worldview of a Hustler-reading lower working class man, just dressed in a more sophisticated guise. “Open-mindedness” and “experimentation” that the enlightened and sensitive new agey guys promote are just code for the girls having hot XXX lesbo sex for the men to enjoy. Geez, I never would have guessed. But it’s a nice scheme, if it works. Stands to reason that the nerd guys would come up with something like that.

    You can try to fight sociobiology only so much with cultural constructions: men will always be men and behave as such. In this light, another humorous and probably equally revealing take on the true nature of the polyamory community is Mistress Matisse’s “Polyamory – English Dictionary“.

  4. Ilka, your response ignores the will of the women, who in all three cultures are rather clearly doing what they want rather than merely what fits male desires. You could fairly accuse SF fandom of being an invention of nerd guys (60 years ago, anyway), but that description fits neopagans poorly and the poly crowd not at all — most of their organizers and theorists are women.

    “You can try to fight sociobiology only so much with cultural constructions.” You know, that was sort of my point. You can sneer at “Hustler-reading lower working class men” if you like, but their sexuality may well be less “constructed” — more natural — than yours. I’m not going to make a value judgment about that, but you might want to think about the two rather mutually contradictory ones your response implies.

  5. From Mistress Matisse:
    Poly phrase: “So, which conventions do you like to attend, what kind of
    books do you like to read, what are your spiritual beliefs, and what is
    your ideal occupation?”
    English translation: “Which science fiction conventions do you like to
    attend, who is your favorite fantasy author, what form of neo-paganism do
    you ascribe to, and where in the computer industry would you like to

    There’s something that rings a bell there, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…

  6. John, one way to interpret the evidence in the article is that there are at least two kinds of sexual response — one trainable and to a significant extent willed, and the other (which they were measuring) not. This wouldn’t surprise me, as I think I’ve seen evidence of this kind of dichotomy in women. Quite recently, in fact.

    A few months ago at an SF convention I was standing by a woman I know to be a very hard-core lesbian with whom I’ve been friendly for a few years, both of us watching some event. Because it seemed like the friendly thing to do, I put an arm around her. She reciprocated and cuddled into me for a bit. After a comfortable interval, I said “You know, if I didn’t know you are as gay as a tree full of parrots, I think I’d have to offer you a tumble.” She smiled and said “If I weren’t as gay as a tree full of parrots, I’d probably have to accept.”

    I’m pretty sensitive to the body-language differences between bi women and lesbians, the different ways they react to men, pupillary dilation and that sort of thing. This woman’s presentation is very consistent; on the instinct level that the researchers in that NYT article were measuring, I don’t doubt that she has zero interest in men. I was not…repeat not…making a proposition that I expected she would accept. Yet…she said what she said, and her smile was not without an element of sexual warmth.

    I think I was seeing a sort of self-constructed heterosexuality for a moment there, a willed openness opposite to her thalamic response. It was noticeably different from the way bisexual women or even most other lesbians respond — I say “most other lesbians” because, at least where I hang out, most lesbians have a bisexual affect towards men; had she been one of those, she would have likely said “I might take you up on that sometime!” even while continuing to use “lesbian” as a social and political label for herself.

    If a lesbian as hard-core as this woman can construct a response that is not thalamically natural to her, hacking her sexuality with her forebrain because she groks that to do so is what her affectionate feelings require, why not a gay male or a heterosexual of either sex? And why not you?

  7. Eric: “Ilka, your response ignores the will of the women, who in all three cultures are rather clearly doing what they want”

    It may be so, but it doesn’t make the guys and their motives any less transparent. But hey, like I said, good for the sci-fi nerds if it really works.

    “You know, that was sort of my point. You can sneer at “Hustler-reading lower working class men” if you like”

    Actually, I wasn’t. We are not in disagreement. Even though I don’t particularly like those men myself (an insurmountable chasm separates our side from the left half of the Bell curve, especially those who have never e.g. voluntarily read a book), they and their sexuality are indeed more honest, compared to some enlightened sf/neopagan/poly man who believes himself to be free of traditional inhibitions and reluctance to try out new things, but then in reality behaves in perfectly traditional, inhibited and reluctant ways. Or as you succinctly put it, “Even in these uninhibited subcultures, homoerotic behavior involving self-described ’straight’ men is rare and surprising.” The sociobiology-loving cynic in me easily understands why this would be so.

    Oh heck, of all people even Andrea Dworkin herself understood this phenomenon in one of her few moments of lucidity. Quote: “Male homosexuality was toyed with, vaguely tolerated, but largely despised and feared because heterosexual men however bedecked with flowers could not bear to be fucked “like women”; but the dream lived on.” (Only the first page or so of this article is relevant here, as I am not claiming that scifi or poly communities consist of rapists.)

    As a related humorous anecdote, a while ago I read a comment in some blog which I unfortunately no longer remember. It was about a male artist who was, like, really uninhibited and not bound by traditional mores and restrictions and who liked to draw naked people in sexuality-themed pictures. The commenter approached the artist and offered him $5 on the spot if the artist could show her one penis anywhere in his works. The money didn’t change hands. I thought that was pretty funny and revealing at the same time.

  8. “…but that this is seldom true of men.”

    Thank goodness for that “seldom!” Geeks often talk in absolutes — even their brains are binary.

    That said, I totally agree with Eric — my aunt is gay, and she told me that she doesn’t know a single gay woman who wasn’t at one time heterosexual, or who thought of herself that way.

    As he says, there aren’t very many cases of genuinely bisexual men. But, I would definetly say there are a few — I happen to know a man (yes, one single man) who, in my observations, gets really horny by images and fantasies of both genders, but who bangs both genders as well (and appears to enjoy it).

    Now, I can’t guarantee that this isn’t an affectation on his part — some kind of self-manipulation of his biology. But, as Eric states, this is unlikely.

    Anyway. I’ve rambled on. Suffice to say everything’s cool; I agree with Mr. Raymond (unless I didn’t read carefully enough — RTFM).

  9. Ilka. where I still part company with you is in the implication you seem to be making that the men in these cultures are somehow being frauds — more inhibited than they pretend, or getting chicks by pretending to be more “liberated” and less inhibited than they are, or manipulating their cultural surround to express ideals they don’t feel, or just deceiving themselves about their own openness.

    The really thought-provoking possibility is that the men in these cultures are exactly as free of traditional inhibitions and as novelty-seeking as they say they are — and I suggest that is true not just of the bisexuals and gays but of the straight men as well. We wouldn’t normally think of a gay man who finds the idea of sex with women repellant as “inhibited”, so why write or think as though a man who doesn’t want to be on either end of a butt-fuck is somehow inauthentic or an unwitting slave to repressive convention?

    It all depends on whether we are all “naturally” polymorphous-perverse but socially channeled into narrower orientations (as Freud claimed), or whether many of us are wired for monosexuality. I used to be with the Freudians with this one intellectually, even though I’ve always found the idea of sex with other men viscerally revolting — at times I actually thought of that revulsion as a sort of flaw in my character. But long experience of how people actually behave has been gradually changing my mind, and I think this article has tipped me over. I’m concluding that, rather to my own surprise, the behavior of my peers in fandom/neopaganism/poly does have a “privileged relationship to the biological substructure”. Fuck me…who knew it would turn out like this?

  10. Frankly, I can honestly say that I have known more than a handful of truly bi-sexual males, but I agree that they are, by far, not the norm. I used to self-identify as bi, but generally don’t these days, just to avoid having to explain that because I am attracted to women does not necessarily mean that I am willing to date them. Tumble them, cuddle them, etc., yes, possibly, maybe, but rarely, anymore. Date them? Absolutely not.

    I was not always this way, and my reticence is due to a past relationship gone sour. Of course, I was pretty soured on all notions of a solid, committed relationship, for many years, until a few years ago, only to have all my old trust issues revalidated. While you are familiar with the developments of the greater part of the past year, I doubt you knew that I lived in a stable, committed relationship with a woman for quite some time, in my nefarious past.

    In short (wait? that was brief?), I don’t think that women change their orientations, so much as they change what flavor of bullshit they prefer in their relationships. I can handle the male brand of the relationship game-play that occurs, whether one or both parties are aware of and/or agree to it, subconsciously or otherwise. My capacity, however, to trust a woman to be forthright is substantially diminished from what it used to be.

    I merely recognise that most women have a harder time being honest with themselves about their own motivations, and therefore, will have a more difficult time being honest with me. Most men have motivations that are fairly easy to figure out and even when they are dishonest with me, they are generally quite honest with themselves. That, I can live with.

    Also, hugs to you and your sexy woman! Sorry that I seem to exhange comments with her more often than you, but it’s not due to anything other than school dominating my life. *smooch*

  11. Eric: “The really thought-provoking possibility is that the men in these cultures are exactly as free of traditional inhibitions and as novelty-seeking as they say they are — and I suggest that is true not just of the bisexuals and gays but of the straight men as well.”

    Point taken. We wouldn’t assume that even a perfectly uninhibited man would do everything, say, wear shoes on his hands and gloves on his feet, simply for being so uninhibited.

    But my inner cynic still remains unconvinced for at least a significant percentage of those men, so I guess we have to disgree. I also wouldn’t say that a straight man wanting to have sex with several women is some kind of uninhibited or nontraditional or rebellious act, since this is a perfectly mainstream and traditional desire for men since the Pleistocene. I therefore now find these terms somewhat puzzling, if used to talk about sf/neopagan/poly straight men. They may be those things, but their sexual behaviour does not really demonstrate this.

    To get back to the original question whether bisexual men really exist, perhaps the phenomenon of “down low” would also be illuminating. Now, if I could just find some concrete percentages somewhere instead of the vague weasel-word “many”…

  12. My totally unscientific experiences bear this out, too. I’ve always like both men and women, which confused me in a society that *does* say Gay, Straight or Lying. I figured out a long time ago that I wasn’t straight, and couldn’t see how I could be gay, so where did that leave me? In the mostly-pagan, mostly-poly, definitely geeky group of friends that I’ve developed through my adult life, I have known one bisexual man. I lived with him for a year and a half, so I’m pretty sure it was sincere with him.

    But every other man I’ve known has had a very marked preference. And … every single woman I know well is either bisexual to one degree or another, or I have money down on the bet that they’ll eventually come out as bi. Based on experience, I tend to assume that women are bisexual unless shown otherwise. (Okay, in some circles, like strict Christian/Jewish/Muslim groups, you’re best assuming heterosexuality, because even if they’re not hetero, they ARE hetero.) That said, I think we women show varying degrees of attraction to either sex. I like women much more than men, for instance, but I’m totally capabale of loving my husband.

    Anyway, interesting article, and I’m glad it bears out what I’ve always seen. Men tend to be monosexual, women tend to be bisexual, and that’s just the way we are made.

  13. Your opening title, ‘Gayness is hard, lesbianism soft’, reminded me of a document I read some ten years ago which stated, ‘Real Programmers Don’t Use Pascal’, which went on to talk about ‘Real Men’ and ‘Quiche Eaters’. In this day and age then it looks very much like the ‘Real Men’ are infact probably all Gay and the ‘Quiche Eaters’ as being mostly Lesbians.

  14. Not educated in phobia’s and other brain squezzing study ,I would venture that my life of enjoying the pleasure of fulfillment and others is of more value then quasimoto studies.The so called experts are like I and others,limited to liars and dreamers the life cycle goes on in spite of “teachers”.

  15. I wore a penile plethysmograph for several nights running back before I had my penile implant, to try to see if my problem was psychological or physical. It’s physical, but the PP wasn’t very informative: the *@#$* thing fell off every single night.

    (Was the operation worth it? Maybe. It was a trade-off.)

  16. There’s a t-shirt out that reads “I’m against gay marriage! (Unless both chicks are really hot.)” The double standard in a nutshell. I’ve also noticed that many countries in the world have active laws on the books prohibiting male homosexuality, but not female.

    Following the lead of Queen Victoria, I suppose; she didn’t believe in lesbians, after all.

  17. I’ve noticed that there are several countries that have laws prohibiting homosexual male conduct, but nothing against women doing the same. Following Quenn Victorias lead, I suppose: she didn’t believe in lesbians, after all.

    There is a rather sharp t-shirt out there that reads something to the effect of: “I oppose gay marriage! Unless both the chicks are hot.” Double standard in a nutshell.

  18. Having grown up in a vastly different subculture, I think I can say that I’ve seen the effect you’re talking about, Eric.

    The sub-culture I refer to puts a much stronger emphasis on sexual self-control (…some would say inhibited…). During my teen years, I noticed several instances of women responding to each other’s beauty/sexual attractiveness. The response was usually verbal, though other things stood out: I noticed that these young women were much more prone to hug, caress, etc. The overall effect was of women responding to each other with the untrained response.

    On the other hand, guys never talked about each other’s looks. And they didn’t go out of their way to touch each other when relating. The most common form of touch that I observed (and took part in) between these guys involved contact sports. And guys talked about girls–some guys had a general eye for “hotness” in girls, others only had an eye for their girl.

    The funny part is, this was a culture that openly discouraged most forms of sexual behavior. But it recognized human nature, and didn’t try to deny (or repress) these instinctive responses.

  19. “Fascinating. This NYT article bears out a suspicion I’ve held for a long time about the plasticity of sexual orientation. The crude one-sentence summary is that, if you go by physiological arousal reactions, male bisexuality doesn’t exist, while female bisexuality is ubiquitous.”

    What a lot of rubbish. So an article in a newspaper quoting an unscientific study run by straight people confirms your own prejudices. Which happen to the be the prejudices of a lot of homophobic men.

    “I’ve spent most of my social time for the last thirty years around science fiction fans, neopagans, and polyamorists — three overlapping groups of people not exactly noted for either sexual inhibitions or reluctance to explore sexual roles that don’t fit the neat typologies of the mainstream culture.”

    Grow up please. We’re not all New Age hippy twerps. I wouldn’t touch those poseurs with yours. Unlike them, I don’t need to pretend to be bisexual to get laid.

    I had terrible problems with the “either / or mentality when I was younger, coupled with the casual “we’re all straight men here” type homophobia I didn’t work things out sexually until I was 22. Now, of course, I’m fine but I really get sick of people who don’t know what they are talking about telling me that I don’t exist.

    What’s your interest in this anyway? Why the prurient obsession with other people’s sex lives? I humbly suggest you have sex with someone soon.



  20. You may wish to do some investigation into the principal author. His work is highly questionable.

    Also, they used genital response as their measure. Has it been shown anywhere that genital response is a reliable indicator of sexual arousal independant of societal conditioning? I’ve never seen anything that says that, and I suspect that the exact opposite is true.

    But, hey, they found “exactly what they expected”, after all. Pre-bias, or just shoddy research?

  21. So how do they explain the millions of men who have intercourse with both sexes? For instance, male prison inmates. Or Moslem Arab men: “children, both boys and girls, are routinely orally and anally raped by male relatives” (see Or the ancient Greeks. Are they all homosexuals pretending to be hetero? If not, why do they swing both ways? And if arousal is only one or the other, then how do such men swing both ways?

  22. No one has quite gotten around to mentioning the social structure of gender dualism (or some other pretentious phrasing). In my opinion, the display bi women aren’t actually bi but are putting on a show for the male audience. In other words, it’s a simple mate-attraction ritual in a male-dominated sexual arena. Either that or the result of some misguided sense of “female empowerment”.

    As for the genital responses, it would make evolutionary sense for men to be very restrictive; getting erect while hunting is a painful disadvantage that could cost you dinner. Whereas women who need a lot to get aroused are less likely to mate thus less likely to breed. Odds have it: men need a lot to get started while women need little.

    Btw, I’m a plushophile. Where exactly do I fit in to all of this?

  23. I think I’m in the crowd who must insist that things are rather more complicated than you posit, Eric. I think there is room, in certain human psyches, for a significant role in sexual imprinting. There are certainly enough paraphilias known to speak to that. What point for biology to cause a man to imprint on underage boys? What point for biology to cause any number of symbolic fetishes?

    I’ve known a good number of bisexual men and varying levels of intimacy, and they are honestly different people. They manifest an unusual blend of animus and anima, but both forces are definitely present in their heads. Some of them describe their sexuality as ‘switching’, where in one instance they may find themselves resonating to a male stimulus, and in another to a female one, but seldom both concurrently. I think of this as evidence for some degree of instability in the ‘thalamic’ response. Others describe themselves as being attracted to some abstraction of personality or body that does not necessarily belong to one gender. They are ‘attracted to the person’.

    This study showed that 3/4 of the self-identified bisexual males had reportedly exclusive response to male images, and 1/4 to female, but it did not establish that the 3/4 who responded to male images during the course of the study might not in a different time or context switch to the minority set, or vice versa. They also did not establish what would happen if those individuals met a member of the purportedly ‘atypical’ object gender who exhibited certain preferred personality characteristics, of whatever sort.

    I’m sure it is true that male sexuality tends to be different from female sexuality, but people come in _all_ kinds of psychological shapes and sizes, and attempting to make any kind of universal statement as some people are inferring from this study seems fool hardy at best.

  24. FWIW, I know quite a few bi men. I’m also told by bi friends that the gay subculture looks down on bisexuals (and the straight culture certainly does). It’s probably the case that if you’re male and bi but predominantly attracted to men then it’s easier to come out as gay than bi, and then behave accordingly.

  25. It was a little hard to tell where bad journalism leaves off and bad science starts. I am having some trouble reproducing their results here in the lab. For one thing, we aren’t told what pr0n was viewed. I don’t always trust the Times to correctly describe an experiment, although their science writing is better than average. I don’t trust this particular set of experimenters. Their hypothesis is an interesting one, worth looking into further.
    This study contrasts bisexuality as an identification with bisexuality as a set of genital responses.
    We don’t learn about their behaviors. If at least some of the sample set is having frequent sex with both (or multiple) genders, that might tend to call into question the claim that they aren’t “really” bisexual. More common is people who behave bisexually, but identify as monosexuals.
    We also don’t learn anything about why, if they respond somewhat monosexually genitally, do tghey choose to identify as bisexual. There were 33 bisexuals in the study; it wouldn’t have been that difficult to ask them.
    The study defines people as non-bisexual if their attaction for one gender is at least 4 times as strong as to the other gender (some other gender.) I like mangoes four times more than bananas, but now and then I’ll have a banana.
    The study is interesting, but suspect, and so far unreproduced.
    I haven’t spoken to Eric’s experiences with straight-identified men in the relaxicon circuit, because that’s a different population with different social norms.
    The cost/benefit ratio of identifying as bisexual is different for men than for women. Women are less likely to respond with violence or distain to unwanted attention from other women.
    I’m surprised Eric doesn’t run into more male bisexuals in the poly/wiccan/fen camps – once you’ve come out of the broom closet and identified as poly and a fan, you’ve already scared off mrs grundy and have less to lose by coming out as ambisexual, if that’s who you are. That’s who I am.
    Incidentally Eric, we havent met, but I was Carl DeVore’s roommate and am Bill Stewart’s brother.

  26. In general, men are far more worried about what people think of them wrt this than women are. There’s obviously a considerable stigma against gay and bisexual men in general society; there is ALSO, unfortunately, a certain stigma against bisexual men among gay men. I only know one bisexual male (in comparison to lots and lots of gay men and bisexual and lesbian women) and he’s very much the sort of person who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. I think it may well be that men are just more willing to surpress any feelings for the gender they’re less attracted to, because it’s socially unacceptable. That said, I wouldn’t think that everyone is bisexual; I’m fairly sure that I’m exclusively gay. Hmm…

  27. it is hard being gay or bi in this world. If being gay was the norm I would be right out there flaunting it and bragging about my innermost feelings. When I comeout to my straight friends they think I want to sleep with them! And how they would never do it with a woman. And my gay friends just want to flirt. That song No Satisfaction is ring true about now.

  28. One of my favorite books on sexuality, recommended to me by the father of sociobiology Edward O Wilson (well, I met him at a guest lecture at Columbia University where I studied): “Sexual Lanscapes” by James D Weinrich (1987, out of print). He goes through all research on the topic and concludes that there are no bisexual men but many women, so it is not a new finding. But many gay men call themselves bisexual for some years before they face the fact. Like me.

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