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Revisiting the Role of Science in Gen/Sex Studies

chelseam's picture

While perusing the New York Times website over break, I came across an article published this August titled “No Surprise for Bisexual Men – Report Indicates They Exist” (  I was immediately reminded of our discussion of the role of science in gen/sex studies and Barad’s request that we carefully consider not just the way we interpret scientific studies, but also the way we design them. The article summarizes a study conducted by Northwestern University in which researchers concluded that “at least some men who identify themselves as bisexual are, in fact, sexually aroused by both women and men.” A similar study was conducted at North Western in 2005 found that men who identified as bisexuals had arousal patterns similar to those of gay men, and declared “with respect to sexual arousal and attraction, it remains to be shown that male bisexuality exists.” The difference in the results between the 2005 and 2011 studies was likely caused by the use of “more stringent criteria” in determining who qualified as a bisexual man.

I’m conflicted by the very existence of this study. On one hand it seems bizarre that scientists determined who deserved to qualify as an actual bisexual man – it seems to me that this suggests many “bisexual” men are in fact closeted gay men, a stereotype that the article points out is prevalent today. But on the other hand, if just looking at the conclusions drawn from this study, I can appreciate that it could also be seen as working against this stereotype – legitimizing the possibility of bisexuality for men…though it defines this bisexuality very narrowly. It seems that studies on sexual orientation walk a tricky line – how do you create a discrete, definable, testable category, without taking the ability to self-identify from subjects?, Can you legitimize the existence of a certain sexual orientation through a study such as this without creating a corresponding and narrow definition of what that orientation looks like – should our identities be legitimized in this way….should the identities we choose be subject to legitimization or discounting by scientific authorities? I would tend to say no.. 

One of the theorists we read a few weeks ago (I’m on an airplane, so can’t look up who it was), suggested that we identify ourselves and our sexualities mainly for the benefit of others, so that we can be more easily categorized or processed by those who come into contact with us. This study reminded me of that idea. This study seems problematic in that is assumes there is one way to be bisexual, that the application of “more stringent criteria” could help the researchers weed out the fakes. I have a hard time coming up with an example of another category people would so easily make this assumption for. Do we expect straight people to be straight in the same way – to earn the use of that identifier? Somehow, most of us seem able to accept that in other realms of our lives – religion for example – we can use the same descriptors, but perform them differently (my Jewish-ness doesn’t have to look the same as yours, etc). It interests me that this study sought 1) to choose real bisexual men for their study (and self-identifying as such was not enough to qualify) and 2) to determine whether these “higher quality” bisexual men were in fact actually aroused by both men and women or if they were just pulling society’s leg.  This study seems to suggest that when it comes to sexual orientation,  it may not be considered enough to identify ourselves  unless it is consistent with the way those who receive us identify us. While we may categorize ourselves in part for the comfort of others, what does it mean if our self-identifiers are deemed inaccurate but scientists and society at-large?