Sex Research Takes a Strange Turn

Sex orientation isn't only about what attracts us; what repels us also matters.

Posted Mar 24, 2014

Benoit Denizet-Lewis
had his sexual physiology studied at Cornell University. The study involved looking at whether his pupils dilated in response to various erotic images. As a gay man, he found the results a bit surprising.

When presented with sexual images of women, his pupils dilated almost twice as much as most gay men. Almost as much as a straight man.

"Your pupils," the tester informed him, "actually tell me that you're more bi than gay."

Other men's results have been equally surprising. One man's pupils dilated strongly to images of men, but he stated he was only interested in women. Another claimed to be "50-50 bisexual" but had the pupil responses of a completely straight man.

What's going on?  

Welcome to the brave new world of sex research, where the old truism that "human sexuality is complex" is being confirmed in new and unexpected ways.

The complexity of female sexuality has long been assumed. But findings a decade ago on women startled even the experts. Women who were shown erotic images of various kinds tended to report excitement consistent with their sexual orientation -- gay or straight. But their genitals told a different story: Women tended to lubricate willy-nilly, to images of gay sex, straight sex, even animal sex.  

No one knows exactly how to explain why women's genital responses are often so different from their subjective experience. But we always knew female sexuality was complicated.

Men were supposed to be simple. And in the initial experiments that showed women's arousal to be so strange, men did in fact look comparatively uncomplicated: Men's genital arousal tended to match their stated sexual orientation.

But more recent studies have shown male sexuality to be less simple than expected. For example, some gay men have the ability to be turned on by women, some are neutral, and a sizable number find the presence of a woman (say in an erotic video) to be a turn-off.

Denizet-Lewis in his current New York Times Magazine front-page article, "Bisexuality Comes Out of the Closet," reports a statement by one expert that "what makes a bisexual person may be less about what they're strongly attracted to and more about what they're not averse to."

Aversion. Of course. Sexual disgust must surely be the dark matter of the erotic universe. Our ancestors clambered around on all fours like dogs with their noses in their neighbors' behinds.  But now  we walk upright, with our sensibilities above our waists, and we learn from childhood to be ambivalent about what goes on down below. Then of course we amplify the ambivalence by wearing clothes.

Sex theorists talk about a "dual-control" model of human sexuality, where a person's sexual tastes may depend partly on what excites them and partly on what they fail to suppress.  

Women seem to suppress everything that's not consistent with their stated sexual orientation.  Gay and straight men don't seem to suppress much at all. But bisexual men seem to be diverse.  Since activation and suppression in a bisexual man may be closely matched, whether he ever develops his bisexual potential may depend a lot on the influence of his culture.

There's no denying that culture in the developed West has become much more tolerant of sexual differences. The arc of sexual culture is long, but it bends toward diversity. Female bisexuality has had a seat at the table of accepted diversities for a while. Male bisexuality is now waiting for a seat at that table.  

It's been debated for a long time whether male bisexuality is real or not. That debate seems close to being settled now.  

The kind of sex research now settling that debate keeps showing us that as a sexual species we're just a little stranger than we thought. 

Copyright © Stephen Snyder, MD   2014 New York City

And see also --

Sex Therapy and the New York Times: The New Bisexuality

On Male Bisexuality: The Elle Interview

Bisexuality: Out of the Closet at Last?

Why is Male Bisexuality Like the Higgs Boson? 



About the Author

Stephen Snyder, M.D. is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York and the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship.

More Posts