Kinsey, Bisexuality, and the Case Against Dualism

Stephanie Fairyington. Journal of Bisexuality. Volume 8, Issue 3-4, 2008.

It was seeing the movie Kinsey that triggered a heated discussion about bisexuality between me and my girlfriend Meg, whom I had “accused” of being bisexual in light of her history of dating men several years earlier. She vehemently denied that this earlier life made her bisexual, giving rise to that age-old discussion of just what makes a person bi: Does it involve love or is it only about sex? Do serial partners of both sexes count, or do they have to be simultaneous? Are fantasies about sexual relations with both men and women sufficient, or does one have to act on both impulses? All the theories and stereotypes also came out in the course of our discussion: that bisexuals are sex fiends who’ll sleep with anything that moves; that they’re unable to commit to a sexual identity; that bisexuality doesn’t really exist but serves as a hedge for semi-closeted gay men and sexually adventuresome straight women. That last one reminded us of an old joke: “Bisexual men and bisexual women have one thing in common. They’ll both be having sex with men five years from now.”

Why is it so hard for us to wrap our minds around bisexuality? Our cultural struggle to conceptualize bisexuality stems in part from the freighted history of the term. When it first appeared in a dictionary in 1824, bisexual referred to people possessing the characteristics of both sexes, now referred to as intersexual (or, popularly, as hermaphrodites). In the 1860s, Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs postulated that men who have same-sex desires have female souls trapped inside male bodies. Subsequent sex researchers argued that people who desire their own sex have an inverted gender identity. From this sort of logic it was deduced that bisexuals are “psychosexual hermaphrodites.”

Freud upended the conversation on bisexuality beginning in the early twentieth century when he used the term in the modern sense and hypothesized that all people are initially bisexual before a fixed, usually heterosexual, identity takes hold. Basing his theories upon contemporary ideas, later discredited, as to the biological bisexuality of the fetus, Freud theorized that everyone had a primary and innate bisexual disposition with respect to sex-object choice. But instead of arguing that bisexuality might be a normal manifestation of this inherent predisposition, Freud went on to spin an account of normal human development whereby same-sex desires are repressed or sublimated and heterosexual ones allowed to arise, relegating homosexuality and bisexuality to exceptional states that develop as the result of a series of psychological malfunctions.

Interestingly, one of Freud’s associates, Wilhelm Stekel, challenged Freud’s hypothesis while using his terminology, pointing out that if bisexuality is the original state and the creation of homosexuality and heterosexuality relies on sublimation and repression, then logically the latter two sexual orientations are the troubled psychosexual states, not bisexuality. Not surprisingly, this theory didn’t gain much traction at the time.

A dualistic paradigm of sexuality stayed firmly in place until the groundbreaking and binary-breaking work of Alfred C. Kinsey and his team. What would come to be known as the Kinsey Scale posited that sexual orientations form a continuum from 0 to 6, with 0 representing a totally heterosexual person and 6 a totally homosexual one, with many degrees of bisexuality in between. Despite some flaws in Kinsey’s research methods, such as the use of snowball sampling, his work exposed a radical disjunction between the sexual mores of postwar America and the reality of people’s sex lives. Perhaps most astonishing was his finding that 46 percent of the male population had engaged in both hetero- and homosexual activities in their adult (i.e., sexually mature) lives.

The Kinsey Scale’s assault on the hetero/homo divide was nothing short of breathtaking for its time, exposing the complexity of human sexuality while hinting subversively that the heterosexual you know may not be as hetero as you think. As a practical matter, the wall between gay and straight didn’t exactly come tumbling down in the wake of Kinsey’s research, which did, however, pave the way for more sophisticated models for measuring sexuality, such as Fritz Klein’s Sexual Orientation Grid (KSOG), introduced in his 1993 classic, The Bisexual Option.

Klein’s grid dramatically improved upon Kinsey’s scale, combining five discrete dimensions: sexual attraction, behavior, fantasies, emotional preference, and social preference (lifestyle and self-identification). Assessing a person’s past and present behavior along with ideal sexual situations, the KSOG rates desire on a seven-point scale similar to Kinsey’s but with simple verbal descriptors (1 = other sex only, 2 = other sex mostly, 3 = other sex somewhat more, 4 = both sexes, 5 = same sex somewhat more, 6 = same sex mostly, 7 = same sex only). Despite these long strides forward, the hetero/homo dichotomy has proved a hard nut to crack. From Kinsey’s time to the present, sex research almost always aggregates bisexual and homosexual activities or identities into one category, thereby erasing the concept of bisexuality altogether. (For example, Simon Le Vay’s famous study of male brains, which found a difference between the brains of gay and straight men, clumped bisexuals with gay men.)

While there are respectable studies that offer reliable statistics on the prevalence of bisexuality, the details about this group are often missing. As researcher Paula C. Rust has observed, only “by triangulating the many studies that have been done to date can we achieve an overall picture of sexuality in the United States. Taken together, these studies provide us with a rough estimate of the prevalence of bisexual behaviors, feelings, and identities in the United States” (1999). Keeping Rust’s caveat in mind, it is staggering to note that every study I’ve reviewed reflects a greater amount of bisexual than exclusively homosexual activity and desire, yet popular wisdom has it that there are far fewer bisexuals than homosexuals. Starting with Kinsey’s astronomically high estimate—that 46 percent of adult males register as bi, which is now considered overblown—subsequent research has produced more modest findings but repeatedly confirms that the proportion of people with a bisexual orientation—able to relate to both sexes sexually and emotionally—is greater than the proportion of exclusive homosexuals.

Despite these findings, barriers to the study of bisexuality remain in place, and it is thus an under-researched phenomenon. Let me focus on some of these barriers and consider possible remedies.

The first hurdle is the lack of a clear definition for the term. Who is bisexual? Is a male hustler who markets himself to men by night, but maintains exclusively romantic relations with women by day, bisexual? Are men who engage in same-sex relations in prison but resume exclusive heterosexuality upon release to be classified as bi? What about my girlfriend Meg, who had fulfilling romantic relationships with men up until six years ago but now dates only women? What if you have same- and opposite-sex sexual fantasies and desires but never act on half of them? These disparate cases, all of them quite prevalent in the real world, raise the question whether we can even speak of bisexuality as a single phenomenon.

A second problem is that many people who are bisexual in a behavioral sense do not self-identify as bi. There are myriad reasons why this may be the case. For one, bisexuals experience disapproval not only from the dominant society but from the gay and lesbian community as well. Many gay people are reluctant to date someone who is bi because they feel there’s an ever-present temptation hovering over every bisexual in a same-sex relationship to go straight. Because heterosexuality and homosexuality create the “fence” that bisexuality is forced to sit on, bisexuals have a harder time finding a grounded community to come out to. Brett Beemyn, coauthor of Bisexuality in the Lives of Men (2000), argues that in coming out, “bisexuals rarely can count on finding places where they will be embraced by others like themselves. With only a few exceptions, we don’t have bisexual-specific bars, community centers, political organizations, softball teams, and circuit parties.”

Because many people refuse to self-identify as bisexual for whatever reason, it might make sense to drop the identity categories altogether and go back to Kinsey’s purely behavioral approach whereby research subjects are asked about their activities and fantasies but not about the labels they use. Brett Beemyn endorses this approach: “Most studies are formulated using standard sexual orientation labels: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual. To develop a better understanding of human sexuality, researchers need to ask about sexual attraction and behavior, rather than how people label their sexuality.” Loraine Hutchins, Ph.D., co-author of Bi Any Other Name, espouses a similar view, arguing that in terms of researching bisexuality “it’s much better to talk about exactly what kind of sex and what kind of relationship, as those involved define it, exists.” But Rust, arguably the foremost expert on bisexuality, argues for the continued use of the term so long as its meaning is clearly defined in a given research context.

Once the definition of the term is nailed down, assuming that’s possible, the next obstacle is finding a representative sample. Rust, author of the compendious Bisexuality in the United States (Columbia, 1999), describes the difficulty of finding such a sample. “A lot of research is done by convenience samples. For instance, if I go to a gay coffee house and 25 percent of the people are bi, I can’t use data extracted from that population in any other context or draw any conclusions from such a sample about the general population.” Another essay in Rust’s compilation, “Behavior Patterns and Sexual Identity of Bisexual Males,” explains that “like virtually all available data on human sexuality, studies have relied on nonprobability ‘convenience’ samples, including patients of STD (sexually transmitted disease) clinics, members of accessible organizations, persons who frequent public places for sexual contact, and volunteer respondents to magazine and other publicly announced surveys,” skewing the data in unknown ways. Research on the Internet is another way of obtaining a sample of the general population, but here the problem is one of self-selection. What’s more, observes Rust, “People present personas other than their own. Though it’s easy to get a large quantity of data on the Internet, it’s not representative of the larger population.” Some avenues to obtaining more representative samples are electoral registers, postcode files, and telephone numbers; however, these forms of random sampling under-represent certain groups whose lifestyles and behaviors differ from the general population.

Yet another barrier to researching bisexuality has been the sheer lack of funding for this endeavor. In interviewing psychologist Lisa Diamond, she explains: “I know only a few serious scientists who are looking at bisexuality specifically. Major sex research centers are under attack and under-funded.” Hutchins emphasized that only by sheer persistence have most been able to pursue sex research over many years with no funding, citing her friend and colleague Ron Fox for his tenacious commitment to the topic. (Fox is the editor of a 2004 collection of works studying bisexuality through the lens of psychology and sociology.) Hutchins echoes Diamond’s point, bemoaning the lack of sponsorship: “No one has done the kind of comprehensive survey that Kinsey did; no one will fund it. We live in such an uptight climate.” These are indeed conservative times. In 2003, Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) proposed to defund four NIH [National Institutes of Health] grants for research on human sexuality; it didn’t pass, but only by a meager two votes. Soon thereafter, the National Institute of Mental Health, which had funded Boston University’s Sexuality and Research Treatment Program for twenty years, withdrew its funds, shutting down the operation completely. In recent years, many sex researchers have been forced to seek sponsorship from pharmaceutical companies, constraining the type of research they can pursue. The questions have been reduced to the mechanical, rather than the psychological aspects of sex—a mere clip of the bigger picture.

But the biggest problem researchers have in conceptualizing bisexuality has to do with the unfortunate fact that, in Rust’s words, “Westerners think in neat, discrete categories.” We are not accustomed to thinking in the space between any two polarized extremes. Martin Weinberg, co-author of Dual Attraction, a study of members of the San Francisco Bisexual Center during the pre-antiretroviral AIDS crisis, has encountered the same problem, concluding that: “People have a difficult time thinking analytically or in anything but the most simplistic (binary) way.” Almost every bisexual activist and scholar I spoke with expressed the same viewpoint: “The dichotomy thing, which we also often call binary thinking or either/or thinking, has been our nemesis forever,” gripes Hutchins.

Bisexuality erodes the border between homo- and heterosexuality, but it’s a border that our society is heavily invested in maintaining. Doubtless the reason bisexuality is not adequately researched or understood is because it poses a threat to straight people, first and foremost, who feel secure behind an impenetrable wall of heterosexuality. This is bisexuality’s subversive power. The promise of increased research on bisexuality is that just getting people to recognize its prevalence could help chip away at the hetero-versus-homo monolith and facilitate a dissolution of oppressive, traditional notions of what it means to be a man and a woman.

On an even broader scale, the lesson that bisexuality bares is a good one for the twenty-first century. We live in a world whose reality is more complicated than the simplified binaries of our language and understanding. Learning to reason in the middle of two polarized extremes might dissolve the us/them dichotomy that has spurred an ideological and political civil war in this country. Bisexuality as the synthesis, the middle ground between seemingly irreconcilable differences, is a form of thinking that has boundless possibilities for social progress—but first we have to acknowledge its existence and its prevalence in society.