Kinsey and Beyond: Past, Present, and Future Considerations for Research on Male Bisexuality

Brian Dodge, Michael Reece, Paul H Gebhard. Journal of Bisexuality. Volume 8, Issue 3-4, 2008.

The Foundations of Research on Bisexuality


One of the most fascinating, and controversial, findings to emerge from Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey and his team’s pioneering research on sexual behavior in the human male was that, in addition to exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual individuals, substantial numbers of men reported sexual attractions and experiences involving men and women (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948).

Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of human taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex. (p. 639)

Although Kinsey found similarities, as well as divergences, in sexual behavior among women in his later work (Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953), this article explores Kinsey’s initial research discoveries on male bisexuality, one small example of the limitations of research on male bisexuality since Kinsey, and potential directions for future research on male bisexuality that expands on the initial groundwork laid by Kinsey and his colleagues more than 60 years ago. Whatever the case, it is certain that research on sexuality, and bisexuality in particular, would simply not be the same without Kinsey.

To reflect on the extent to which Kinsey’s work has influenced researchers’ conceptualizations of bisexuality, and to consider past, current, and future directions for work in this area, we found it necessary to take advantage of the opportunity to actively collaborate with one of the original members of Kinsey’s team, Dr. Paul Gebhard, in the development of this article (P. Gebhard, personal communications, May-July 2007). Over the course of several months, the first and second authors engaged Dr. Gebhard in a series of conversations about the work of the Kinsey team and asked him to provide his perspectives on our contemporary treatment of bisexuality and the extent to which that treatment has, or has not, taken full advantage of the perspectives provided to us by their original work.

Pre-Kinsey “Research” on Bisexuality

Decades before Kinsey, others had already noted that bisexuality was a common and natural (if not inherent) form of sexual expression. Early psychoanalytic theorists suggested that all human beings were inherently, and even normatively, bisexual at birth. Indeed, bisexuality was seen as essential for understanding psychosexual development. Freud (1925/1963) claimed that all humans naturally experienced homosexual and heterosexual feelings and saw bisexuality as helpful in explaining later homosexual orientation:

The most important of these perversions, homosexuality, can be traced to the constitutional bisexuality of all human beings…. Psychoanalysis enables us to point to some trace or other of homosexual object choice in everyone. (pp. 71-72)

Ellis (1905/1942) expanded upon Freud and was among the first theorists to declare bisexual, defined as sexual attraction to men and women, as a unique and viable sexual orientation/identity category:

It is well known that at all times there have been, as there still are, human beings who can take as their sexual objects persons of either sex without the one trend interfering with the other. We call these people “bisexual” and accept the fact of their existence without wondering too much about it…. But we have come to know that all human beings are bisexual in this sense and that their libido is distributed between objects of both sexes, either in a manifest or latent form. (pp. 261-262)

Such early theories were not without opponents who claimed sexual orientation to be an essentially binary (homosexual/heterosexual) construct and espoused that bisexual individuals are confused, in denial, or deceptive in terms of their sexuality (Bergler, 1956).

Bisexuality—a state that has no existence beyond the word itself—is an out-and-out fraud…. The theory claims that a man can be—alternatively or concomitantly—homo and heterosexual…. Nobody can dance at two different weddings at the same time. These so-called bisexuals are really homosexuals with an occasional heterosexual excuse. (pp. 80-81).

Theoretical debates on the extent, or indeed existence, of bisexuality have continued until today. Male bisexuality has been particularly scrutinized (Bailey, 2003; Rieger, Chivers, & Bailey, 2005; Sandfort & Dodge, 2008). Seemingly absent from these increasingly essentialist conversations, however, is the affirmation of Kinsey and colleagues’ work on the patterns and meanings of bisexual behavior among men more than a half-century ago.

Kinsey’s Findings on Male (Bi)sexuality

As a sexual taxonomist, Kinsey’s research added scientific data to claims of early psychosocial theorists and served to dispel the myth that behavioral bisexuality was rare or nonexistent. Through his systematic collection of life histories, Kinsey showed that a significant proportion of his sample reported at least one instance of same-sex behavior during their lifetime.

Although the Kinsey team’s writings offer a wealth of information about the broad range of human sexual expression, they are not explicit with regard to the notion of bisexuality; indeed, the word bisexuality appears only in a biological sense. In Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, it is interesting to note that findings on bisexuality (named as such) are actually nonexistent. Kinsey spoke only briefly about bisexuality in an anatomical sense (i.e., what would later become known as hermaphroditism and intersexuality). Ironically, Kinsey’s Male report revealed major insights into bisexual behavior and orientation without ever using the word bisexual.

Perhaps one of Kinsey’s most vivid contributions to the knowledge base on bisexuality came in the form of the Kinsey Sexual Ratings Scale. In explaining the development of this scale, Kinsey et al. (1948) wrote:

While emphasizing the continuity of the gradations between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual histories, it has seemed desirable to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of heterosexual and homosexual experience or response in each history…. An individual may be assigned a position on this scale, for each period in his life…. A seven-point scale comes nearer to showing the many gradations that actually exist. (p. 639)

1. Exclusively heterosexual with no homosexual
2. Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
3. Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
4. Equally heterosexual and homosexual
5. Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
6. Predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
7. Exclusively homosexual with no heterosexual

During the course of the sexual history interviews, the scale was shown to participants and they were asked where they would place themselves on it at the present moment. Among the research team, study participants’ sexuality was usually referenced in terms of their number on the scale (234, etc.) and was usually not referenced with homosexual or heterosexual labels simply because there was such fluidity. Individuals were mobile on the scale and often did not want to restrict themselves to rigid societal conceptualizations of sexuality, as well. According to Gebhard, one primarily heterosexual participant reported: “I can have sex with women my whole life and I suck one dick and I’m a queer for life.” In the words of another participant: “Some people like ice cream, some people like cake—well, I like ‘em both!’ Statements such as these made it easier to use the numerical classification system when working with participants.

As described by Gebhard, Kinsey was amazed by the sexual diversity he uncovered during the course of his studies on men. He was not, however, surprised by the high rates of reported bisexual behavior, as it seemed natural to him; indeed, it probably seemed “unnatural” that rates were not even higher. Although Kinsey’s Scale has obvious implications in terms of bisexual behavior, they are (in his own words) made implicit within the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy. Bisexuality, in and of itself, was such a natural and inherent concept within the scale that it was not discussed separately using the distinct word bisexual. Kinsey saw the scale as a “measuring tool” and let people do with it what they wanted. Again, as a taxonomist, he used it to classify people in the same way he would classify gall wasps.

Interestingly, Kinsey was noted as often saying the ideal sex researcher needs to be about a 3 on the Kinsey scale. In that way, the researcher would then be able to empathize with research participants reporting the broad spectrum of sexual behaviors and experiences. He often stressed the importance of this notion with his research team. In droll response, Pomeroy and Gebhard often declared that the “ideal sex researcher should not only be a 3 but also needs to be a hermaphrodite.”

According to Gebhard, Kinsey’s group intentionally did not delve into etiology of sexual orientations or identities. He believed there could be many components to development (including genetic) but worried that research on etiology could be medicalized and/or abused (i.e., that nonheterosexual individuals would be characterized as born with defective genes or mutations). Kinsey believed all individuals are born with a sex drive but that the directions which the drives took were dependent primarily on the culture in which the individual was born. In other words, people are born with genitalia that have the ability to respond to stimuli regardless of who is stimulating it (male, female, or transgender)—and it is society and, indeed, pseudoscience that tends to separate human beings into “sheep and goats.” Kinsey did not want to delve into “causes” of sexual orientation because he was convinced that the medical establishment was not ready to deal with nonheterosexuality as anything other than a defect or disease. The religious establishment certainly was not ready either. As a result, he avoided the debate on the etiology of sexual orientation/identity altogether.

Since Kinsey, numerous patterns of bisexual behavior and lifestyles have been well documented across cultures and societies, demonstrating that individuals are remarkably diverse in their experiences and expressions of bisexuality (Aggleton, 1996; Blumstein & Schwartz, 1976a, 1976b; Coons, 1972; Garber, 2000; Hemmings, 2002; Herdt, 1990; Jeffries & Dodge, 2007; Klein, 1978, 1993; Lever, Kanhouse, Rogers, Carson, & Hertz, 1992; Muñoz-Laboy & Dodge, 2005; Rust, 2000; Sandfort & Dodge, 2008; Stokes, Damon, & McKirnan, 1997; Stokes, McKirnan, & Burzette, 1993; Tielman et al., 1991; Weinberg, Williams, & Pryor, 1994). Bisexual has also emerged as a contemporary political, sociocultural, and personal identity label (Hutchins & Kaahumanu, 1991), although its development and meaning has received notably less scientific attention than homosexual identity in sexuality research (Angelides, 2001; Yoshino, 2000). As a result, theoretical development on bisexuality has been limited (Fox, 1996). Additionally, sexuality research, in general, has become more medicalized and essentialist in recent decades (Irvine, 2005). Unfortunately, this has resulted in a body of work on sexuality that has neglected and even attempted to negate Kinsey’s early findings on the diversity of human (bi)sexual behavior and experience.

Bisexuality Research 60 Years Later: What We Have (Not) Learned from Kinsey

Bisexual Erasure in Contemporary Sexuality Research

Most current research on “lesbian, gay, and bisexual” populations has failed to distinguish bisexual individuals from lesbians and gay men. Sexual health among bisexual men, in general, has been largely ignored in previous scientific research, even in studies that examine relationships between sexual orientation and health (Dodge & Sandfort, 2007). With the emergence of gay and lesbian identity theory in the early 1960s and 1970s, a relatively polarized debate arose among North American mental health professionals who held conservative (or antigay) and gay-affirmative perspectives on sexual orientation. Although homosexuality was ultimately declassified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973 (Bayer, 1981; Meyer, 2002), bisexuality, per se, was never officially classified or declassified as a mental disorder. The concept of bisexuality has been either implicitly subsumed under the label of homosexuality (Fox, 1996) or altogether left out of the polarized debate between those who sought to affirm the lives and lifestyles of “homosexual” individuals and those who sought to pathologize them (Angelides, 2001).

Although a debate still continues as to the “pathology” of nonheterosexual orientations as “developmental errors” in some psychological and religious circles (Bailey, 1999; Nicolosi, 1991), we assume (as Kinsey did) that bisexual, homosexual, and heterosexual orientations and identities are healthy and valid (American Psychological Association, 2004). However, such standards of best practice proposed by Kinsey, the APA, and other entities are not necessarily without their skeptics in academia and the general public. A critique of one recent study of bisexual men, and the stigmatizing media portrayals that ensued, illustrates this vividly.

“Gay, Straight, or Lying?”

In 2005, a research group at Northwestern University published an article on sexual arousal patterns among bisexual men (Rieger et al., 2005). The findings from this study, according to a prerelease feature in The New York Times, “cast doubt on whether true bisexuality exists, at least in men” (Carey, 2005). Sensationalized sound bites rang out in the popular press, claiming that bisexual men are (according to the title of The New York Times piece) either “gay, straight, or lying.” Although Rieger and colleagues’ use of measures of arousal beyond self-report (i.e., plethysmograph) was a strength of the study, other major problems in their methods and analyses suggest that this research did not provide a good test of whether self-identified bisexual men show arousal to men and women, and certainly not of whether bisexuality “exists” among men.

One issue is the authors’ problematic use of self-rating on the Kinsey Scale to define the bisexual group. Prior survey research has shown that a substantial portion of self-identified gay men (often one fourth or more) at one point thought of themselves as bisexual (Lever, 1994). The little extant longitudinal data (Stokes et al., 1997; Stokes et al., 1993) confirm that a substantial minority of behaviorally bisexual men (approximately 30%) rate themselves more toward the homosexual end of the Kinsey Scale after the relatively short period of one year. Given that Rieger and colleagues (2005) recruited some respondents (they do not report how many) from “gay-oriented magazines,” the chances that many of their participants were gay men using the self-label bisexual is quite high. The respondents in the Stokes et al. studies mentioned above, many of whom were moving toward a gay identity, were not recruited from gay-oriented media. As Stokes found, recruiting from gay-oriented media greatly increases the chances of finding men whose identity as bisexual is transitory or incongruent with their sexual attractions and behaviors.

Although there are few obvious places to recruit behaviorally bisexual men, venues where these men congregate have been identified through ethnographic mapping. For example, Dodge, Jeffries, and Sandfort (2008) completed a study of Black behaviorally bisexual men recruited from public and private social and sexual spaces in New York City targeted specifically toward Black men who have sex with both men and women. To be eligible for the study, all participants were required to have at least one male and at least one female (or transgender) partner in the past year. In short, using a behavioral definition of bisexual—having had sex with men and women in a relatively recent time period—and avoiding gay-oriented recruitment sources would more likely have yielded men who would have shown arousal to men and women in Rieger and colleagues’ (2005) study.

However one defines bisexual and whatever recruitment sources are used, the resulting sample is likely heterogeneous in many respects. Therefore, as opposed to Rieger and colleagues’ (2005) methods, it would be more beneficial to take an individual, idiographic approach to understanding bisexuality, even where only arousal is the focus. Contrary to the researchers’ procedures, we would have recommended establishing for each individual whether he met a minimal but clinically significant level of arousal to men and to women before, as Rieger and colleagues did, exposing them to brief clips of lesbian and gay male pornography (which, in and of itself, may be a limited and crude method of assessing sexual arousal). At the very least, this approach would allow one to identify respondents who are aroused by men only, women only, men and women, and neither men nor women.

Recent advances in personality psychology and psychometrics provide a model for this suggestion (see Cervone, 2005, for a review). Psychometricians (e.g., Borsboom, Mellenbergh, & van Heerden, 2003) distinguish approaches that account for individual differences (interindividual analyses) from those that explain the behavior of a specific person (intraindividual analyses). “Between-subjects models do not imply, test, or support causal accounts that are valid at the individual level” (Borsboom et al., 2003, p. 214). This caveat seems applicable to understanding sexual behavior. Intraindividual methods require gathering multiple data points from each research participant. In research on sexual arousal, the multiple points could be obtained relatively easily by including using a variety of stimuli (e.g., film of two men or women having sex together, film of two men and a woman, film of two women and a man, film of a man or woman masturbating, erotic photographs of a man or woman).

With more sophisticated sampling, a larger sample, and a more idiographic approach to data analysis, we hypothesize that one would find a substantial number of men who are sexually aroused by men and women. If no such men were found with this approach, we would be more convinced that male bisexual arousal does not exist or is very rare. As it stands now, however, essentialist claims based on the results from the Rieger and colleagues’ (2005) study do not warrant that conclusion.

“Overall, Kinsey Would Be Disappointed”

When Gebhard was asked for his impressions of our contemporary treatment of bisexuality, he summed up his impressions in one sentence: “Overall, Kinsey would be disappointed.” Gebhard offered his perspectives on the history of bisexuality research over the past 60 years, and shared his views about how they would be perceived by Kinsey today. According to Gebhard, Kinsey would be pleased to see the emancipation of homosexuality (i.e., the movement away from a disease-based view of it), but horrified to see that most research today only considers homosexuality and bisexuality for their potential contributions to disease transmission (such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections).

Additionally, Kinsey would be disheartened that so little emancipation seems to have been granted to bisexuals, that they continue to be viewed as “the unhappy minority,” and that our society expects people to be exclusively straight or gay and that we still tell people to “make up your mind.” He would likely see this as a major societal transgression, among heterosexual and homosexual communities, in the movement toward sexual liberation.

Last, Kinsey would be very critical of the recent sweeping generalizations on bisexuality based solely on limited plethysmograph studies, which Gebhard labels as too essentialist and lacking in their ability to account for the wide range of social and cultural factors that are known to influence one’s sexuality. Kinsey, too, would likely see this as a significant step backward in sexuality research.

Future Directions for Research on Male Bisexuality

Based on the past and current trajectory of research on male bisexuality and Gebhard’s perspectives on whether we have taken full advantage of the lessons offered by Kinsey, we offer a set of three reference points for the future directions of scientific inquiry in this area.

Moving from Disease-Focused Conceptualizations of Bisexuality

Given the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and its profound impact on our social structures and public health systems, an emphasis on the behavioral, social, and cultural factors associated with continued HIV incidence has been essential. However, an artifact of disease-focused research is that much of the contemporary knowledge related to the sexual behaviors of bisexual men has been constructed in the context of HIV. In fact, we would argue that in many health-related practice and research circles, the use of the term MSM (“men who have sex with men,” a term initially created to focus on behavior and not sexual orientation) has led to an absence of any recognition of bisexuality in the vast majority of this work and has instead led to a conceptualization of bisexual men as little more than a bridge for HIV transmission between homosexual and heterosexual communities. Additionally, this approach has led to only minimal attempts to document the sexual behaviors of bisexual women. Although the seriousness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic has certainly warranted focused attention on male sexual behaviors and the correlates of potential disease transmission, there is a need for work that seeks to understand the nature of human sexual interactions without this disease-focused lens. It may very well be the case that our rather myopic examinations of bisexual individuals has resulted in work that provides us with a very limited understanding of the behaviors that much of this work seeks to change.

Attending to Cultural and Community Aspects of Sexuality Research

More empirical research is needed that appropriately reflects the diverse and complex forms of sexual and gender expression that flourish in cultures and subcultures in North America and around the world (Aggleton, 1996; Alexander & Yescavage, 2004). Sullivan and Losberg (2003) caution that generalizations to all nonheterosexual individuals from previous samples of primarily White, well-educated, upper middle-class self-identified lesbians and gay men are dangerous; “aggregation without awareness of the differences between people included in research samples runs the risk of producing conclusions that are misleading and simplistic” (p. 161). Thoughtful and insightful research on samples that are diverse in gender, ethnicity, and social class, as well as sexual orientation and identity, will ensure more accurate perspectives on bisexuality. However, studies with this aim, as well as funding and available resources, are currently few and far between. Such research will require sincere, accessible, and ongoing financial and resource support from academic and research institutions.

Furthermore, engaging community members in research provides researchers with a helpful mechanism for situating work within the diverse range of sexual norms and values of particular communities and for developing a more holistic understanding of the manner in which individuals and groups construct their sexual lives. To that end, we feel that future research on male bisexuality will benefit from the use of methodological approaches that seek to actively engage bisexual communities in structuring studies and their research questions, the methods used to conduct the study, and the manner in which findings are disseminated to the field and digested by community members themselves. Such an approach may provide researchers with the insights necessary to develop research methods that are more innovative and nonessentialist and that increase our attention to the developmental aspects of sexual orientation. Reece and Dodge (2004) provide an example of the use of community-based participatory research principles in their study of patterns and meanings of sexual behavior among a particularly hidden sexual community.

Reviving and Renewing the Kinsey Continuum of Sexual Orientation

Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues offered the field an articulate understanding of the continuum on which humans experience their sexualities. However, over the past 50 years, though researchers and practitioners have acknowledged this concept, the majority of work reflects more of a dismemberment of the Kinsey continuum. We have treated sexual orientation and gender as fixed, binary, and categorical concepts (Garber, 2000). As a result, it could be that our work in this area has had a role in contributing to the predominant worldviews throughout popular culture that continue to sustain a “black-and-white” conceptualization of sexuality. At this time when we reflect upon the foundations provided to us by Kinsey and his colleagues, we should strive to develop conceptual and methodological approaches that move us toward a more fluid understanding of sexual orientation rather than further down the fixed path we have been traversing over recent decades.