Firestorm Over Bisexuality in Times

GLAAD, Task Force assail story suggesting most bis not owning up to their orientation

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has joined bisexual advocacy groups in condemning a front-page story in The New York Times’ science section on July 5 titled “Straight, Gay or Lying?: Bisexuality Revisited.”

The article said that a new study that “casts doubt on whether true bisexuality exists, at least in men.”

Matt Foreman, executive director of the Task Force, said, “We remain stunned that The New York Times science section would carry such a shoddy, sensationalistic and downright insulting story. It and the profoundly flawed ‘study’ it purports to cover are laced with biased premises, misstatements and inaccuracies. It equates sexual orientation with sexual arousal, as supposedly measured by a crude device—considered highly suspect by researchers—in the hands of an individual with a long history of controversial research.”

The study by psychologists in Chicago and Toronto recruited 101 young adult men from “gay and alternative publications.” “Thirty-three of the men identified themselves as bisexual, 30 percent as straight and 38 percent as homosexual,” the newspaper wrote. The men were shown male-male and female-female porn and their genitals were wired for signs of arousal. A third of the men showed no signs of arousal at all.

The biggest finding was that of the self-identified bisexual men, 75 percent “had arousal patterns identical to those of gay men; the rest were indistinguishable from heterosexuals.”

The Task Force challenged the equation of arousal with orientation, noting that “sexual orientation is defined by a combination of cognitive and physical responses, not just whether one’s genitals respond in a certain way to pornography.” Since the researchers’ thesis is that “for men, arousal is orientation,” the Task Force asked, “Does this mean that one-third of the participants had no sexual orientation?”

Sheeri Kirtzer of the Bisexual Resource Exchange said, “Bisexuality exists and identity doesn’t need science to back it up.” She cited bisexual activist Loni Ka’ahumani’s dictum, “It’s not about the plumbing, it’s the electricity.”

Kirtzer called the Times article “hurtful,” especially for young people coming to terms with their sexuality. She also noted that this research was done three years ago and has yet to be published, which suggests that it might not stand up to peer review.

The Task Force also attacks The Times for uncritically accepting research from J. Michael Bailey, one of the authors of the study, whose “conclusions and methods have been relentlessly challenged by academics and activists.

The Times story also left out a key conclusion of the study: “In terms of behavior and identity, bisexual men clearly exist.” It also failed to include comment from any bisexual leaders.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation noted that it “relies heavily on a single study whose senior researcher has a career marked by ethics controversies and eugenics proposals—facts that were not presented to readers.” They were especially critical of the fact that Benedict Carey, the Times reporter, “uses the phrase ‘true bisexuality,’ which suggests that people with bisexual behavior and identity might still not qualify as ‘true’ bisexuals.”

Carey e-mailed at least one academic in June, “I am going to write soon about studies challenging people’s self-described sexual identities, and this will include the flap over Bailey and his book.” But the controversy over Bailey was not mentioned in his Times article.

GLAAD points out that in 2001, Bailey wrote that if it became possible for parents to determine sexual orientation in utero, “selecting for heterosexuality seems to be morally acceptable.” In his “The Man Who Would be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism,” GLAAD said, Bailey wrote that “transsexual women are not female-gendered people born with male bodies, but ‘are extremely feminine gay men or are sexual festishists who are erotically obsessed with the image of themselves as women.”

Some of the transsexual women featured in his book filed complaints against him, contending that he did not get their consent to be studied. reported that Bailey has written that most transsexuals are “especially motivated” to shoplift and “especially suited to prostitution.” The website also said that Bailey was forced to step down as chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois because of ethics charges related to his research. Gay campus groups at the school have urged students not to cooperate with his research.

Toby Usnik, director of public relations for The Times, said in an e-mail, “We thought the article was thorough and fair. It is, of course, only one part of the coverage we will continue to do on this issue. To that end, you may wish to note the letters pasted below from yesterday’s Science section.”

While most of the letter lambasted The Times or the study, notable figures in the community have also stood up to caution against a rush to judgment.

Chandler Burr, a gay writer from New York, called the response from gay and bisexual groups “hysterical and anti-science,” comparing it with reactions from right-wing Christians to “studies showing that homosexuality is an inborn orientation.” He asserted that “those of us familiar with the scientific literature have known since, basically, forever” that “bisexuality may not exist among human males.”

Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage wrote this week in his column, “The sad fact is that male bisexuality is rare, much more so than female bisexuality. While there are a lot of guys out there having bisexual experiences… there’s a difference between someone’s true sexual orientation and their sexual capabilities.”

Gay columnist Wayne Besen, a former spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, wrote this week, “Shutting down debate, hounding the media and savaging science are not in the best interests of GLBT people.”

Besen acknowledged flaws in this study, but said “this does not change the startling fact that the bisexual subjects in this one study had a different arousal pattern that they professed.”

But lesbian columnist Susie Bright wrote, “This new study not only distorts what we know about the variety and spectrum of human sexual desire, it also offends in its deliberate ignorance about the nature of erotic fantasy itself.”

Dr. Joan Roughgarden, a professor of biology at Stanford University, wrote, “In the 300 or more known vertebrate species with natural homosexuality, all combine heterosexual with homosexual relations. Humans are not likely to differ from other species in this regard.”

John Craig, a professional counselor from Fairfax, VA, wrote that he has worked with bisexual men for 15 years

“Not one of them has ever identified openly as bisexual,” he wrote. “If any did, the consequences would be devastating. These men would never volunteer for the kind of study” reported in The Times.

Referring to the fact that subjects were “tested” by showing them porn, Catherince Gaffney of Philadelphia wrote, “If our sexual preferences were best detected by who we look at in pornography, wouldn’t pretty much everybody be attracted to mildly unattractive people who live on the West Coast and lack acting talent?”

GLAAD and bisexual activists are working to secure a meeting with Times editors on the controversy.