(The following is a commentary on MIchael Schulman’s "Bisexual: A Label with Layers" in this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Styles section)
I remember my first experience as a sex therapist counseling a completely bisexual man -- someone who at that time wasn’t supposed to exist.
He was a successful actor in his 30s who claimed to be equally attracted to men and women. And he was deeply unhappy about it. In the relationship world, your citizenship is pretty much defined by the gender that sexually attracts you. So he was entirely a man without a country, and very lonely.
To make matters worse, he technically wasn’t supposed to exist at all. Conventional wisdom at the time held that true bisexuality exists in women but not in men. Men who claimed to be bisexual, according to the majority view, were felt to be simply clinging to the comforts and privileges that come with a heterosexual identity, unwilling to acknowledge they were really gay.
Or as a gay male character in Torch Song Trilogy once said, “Bisexual? Oh, please. Show me one man who’s ever left his gay lover for a woman.” A 2005 study from Northwestern University seemed to confirm this. It found that most self-identified male bisexuals looked gay if you hooked them up to devices to measure their erections and showed them straight and gay porn.
But absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Like the Higgs Boson, laboratory evidence of bisexual capacity for genital arousal in men had to await a research strategy with sufficient power to detect it.
A second study from Northwestern University in 2011 claimed to have indeed finally found the Higgs Boson of male bisexuality. As often happens in psychological research, this study’s enhanced power to detect it came from more stringent subject selection. Whereas in the 2005 study you could qualify as a bisexual research subject simply by self-identifying as bisexual, the 2011 project required you to have had actual sexual experiences with two or more people of each sex, and to have been romantically involved for at least three months each with a man and with a woman.
As a sex therapist, I was happy to see that the criteria included both erotic and romantic elements. Yes gay men get hot for other men, but they usually fall in love with men too. The romantic part of object choice is one you don’t often hear about. But it may be the more important part.
The 2011 study, with its very exacting subject selection criteria combining erotic and romantic experience, did indeed finally confirm that yes, there are male bisexuals who do in fact respond equally erotically to both men and women.
So now two decades later it turns out that my patient did exist after all, which of course should have been assumed from the start. And which I’ve since been able to confirm by the appearance of other complete male bisexuals in my office, roughly one every two years or so.
As Michael Schulman writes in "Bisexual: A Label with Layers" in this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Styles section, “Bisexuality, like chronic fatigue syndrome, is often assumed to be imaginary by those on the outside.”
The mental health field has historically had a bad habit of mistrusting what people say about their erotic feelings. Now that we know for sure that the Higgs Boson of complete male bisexuality exists, let’s see if we can believe our patients about other stuff as well.
Who knows what other rare configurations are out there, just waiting for someone to believe they exist?
Copyright © Stephen Snyder, MD 2014
www.sexualityresource.com New York City
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