In the BBC TV series A Very English Scandal, member-of-parliament Jeremy Thorpe (played by Hugh Grant) is discussing sexual preferences with his colleague Peter Bessell (played by Alex Jennings) over lunch. When Bessell confesses to homosexual experiences in his youth, Thorpe asks whether he prefers men or women. Bessell replies that he’s “80% for the ladies,” to which Thorpe declares himself “80% gay.”
Such a conversation in the House of Commons dining hall would certainly have been scandalous in the 1960s, when this scene takes place, because homosexuality was still illegal in England at that time. However, this frank discussion challenges modern sensibilities as well. Although Western society is now far more accepting of gays and lesbians, there’s still a strong tendency among the general population to think of sexual orientation in binary terms—you’re either straight or gay.
However, early sex researcher Alfred Kinsey pointed out in the 1940s that sexual orientation consists of a continuum, not binary categories. Of course, we can add a third category of “bisexual” to cover the range between "straight" and "gay," but that hides the varying degrees of straightness and gayness that Kinsey found in his subjects. No doubt he would have nodded in understanding as the two parliamentarians chatted about their “80-20” sexual preferences.
As Northwestern University psychologist Jeremy Jabbour and his colleagues point out in an article recently published in the Archives of Sexuality, many researchers today still think in terms of a three-way division of sexual orientation into straight, bi, and gay. Some have challenged Kinsey’s methods as faulty, and his notion of a sexual-orientation continuum doesn’t fit well with recent evidence that sexual orientation is genetically determined, therefore presumably categorical.
At the same time, as Jabbour and his colleagues point out, accurately determining a person’s sexual orientation for research purposes can be challenging. For example, it’s not unusual for people’s first sexual experiences to be with members of the same sex, even though they eventually settle into a heterosexual lifestyle, and such people may label themselves as “mostly straight.” Likewise, because of the many negative attitudes about homosexuality that remain in our culture, some men may call themselves “mostly straight” even though their preferences are exclusively for the same sex.
In an effort to test Kinsey’s notion of a sexual-orientation continuum, Jabbour and his colleagues invited men who self-reported as “straight” or “mostly straight” to come into their laboratory for a series of tests. The idea was to compare data between these two groups with previously collected data on straight and gay men. If Kinsey was right, then the “mostly straight” men should have some traits in common with gay men, but at the same time, they should share more in common with straight men.
First, the participants responded to a series of questionnaires. In addition to reporting their demographic information and self-perceived sexual orientation, the respondents also answered questions intended to distinguish between straight and gay tendencies.
For example, they were asked questions about childhood gender non-conformity. Previous research has already established that gay men tend to respond positively to statements like: “As a child, I often felt that I had more in common with girls.” They also indicated whether they had ever identified themselves as “bisexual.” Finally, they reported their number of lifetime male and female sex partners, and they also rated their self-perceived sexual arousal to scenarios involving having sex with a man or a woman.
As we’ve already noted, self-reports of sexual orientation or sexual arousal must be interpreted with caution. So Jabbour and his colleagues also used a more direct way of assessing sexual arousal, namely by fitting each participant with a strain gauge that very precisely measured penile circumference. While wearing this gauge, each participant viewed a series of short videos depicting sexual acts of various combinations—male-female, male-male, and female-female. The degree of erection that each participant experienced was then recorded.
Among this sample of “straight” and “mostly straight” men, self-reported sexual arousal corresponded closely with genital arousal as measured by the strain gauge. At least among this group of men, what they said about themselves matched up with the way their bodies responded. Furthermore, the patterns support Kinsey’s notion of a sexual-orientation continuum.
The “straight” men reported no arousal to the male-male sex videos, and the strain gauge confirmed this. Meanwhile, the “mostly straight” men found both same-sex and opposite-sex videos appealing, according to their verbal report and as measured by instruments. This is in contrast to previous data from gay men, who reported either no interest in or disgust at images of sex with women.
In terms of childhood gender conformity, “mostly straight” men agreed that they often felt they had more in common with girls than boys, but not nearly to the same degree as gay men. Furthermore, when it came to lifetime sex partners, “mostly straight” men reported more male partners than “straight” men did, but they also reported a similar number of female sex partners as the “straight” men. This was also in contrast to previous data from “gay” men, who overwhelmingly reported more male than female partners.
In sum, the pattern of data suggest that men who report themselves as “mostly straight” have some tendencies in common with “gay” men, but they’re also more like “straight” men than those who identify as “bisexual.” This is just as Kinsey had described it more than seven decades ago.
In recent decades, researchers have tended to reject Kinsey’s sexual-orientation continuum, instead preferring to view sexual orientation as a three-way distinction between straight, bi, and gay. This study by Jabbour and his colleagues calls the received wisdom into question. In addition, there is other evidence that sexual orientation may not be as categorical as previously assumed.
For example, there has been much discussion recently, both on the internet and in academic journals, about a phenomenon known as “men who have sex with men.” Thinking from a categorical perspective, these men are either gay or bi, and yet they all insist that they’re straight. Some of these men have sex with other men because female sex partners are unavailable, but others do so even though they have wives or girlfriends. Still others are “gay for pay,” in that they engage in homosexual acts either as porn stars or as sex workers. Kinsey's sexual-orientation continuum explains this phenomenon better than any categorical account can.
Humans engage in a wide range of sexual behaviors. Indeed, human sexuality is far more fluid than our culture tells us it should be.
Jabbour, J. T., Hsu, K. J., Bailey, J. M. (2020). Sexual patterns of mostly heterosexual men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49, 2421-2429.