This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, for reasons that now escape me. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.
Why aren’t there more “true” bisexuals? (“True” in quotation marks — so please don’t all start yelling at me.)
One of the interesting puzzles about sexual orientation is the way it’s distributed in the population. It’s very far from a neat bell curve, with a few heterosexuals and homosexuals at either end, and a big peak in the bisexual middle. It’s not even a slanty bell curve, peaking sharply at “more or less heterosexual” and sloping down gradually towards “more or less homosexual.”
Instead, it’s a double bell curve — with one peak near “leaning towards straight,” and another, smaller peak near “leaning towards gay.” (The height and shape and location of these peaks vary depending on who’s doing the study… but the basic “double bell curve with one high peak and one low” pattern seems to hold pretty steady.)
Translation: Very few people are strictly straight or strictly gay… but most people do have something of a preference for one gender or the other. Quote unquote “true” bisexuals, people who are attracted to women and men equally, are fairly rare. Even if we take self-identification out of the picture — even if we define orientation purely on the basis of desire or behavior — we still see this tendency.
Why would this be?
If sexual orientation were entirely genetic — if there were some evolutionary reason for humans to be more heterosexual than not but to have some fluidity around that — why would we have the double peaks? Wouldn’t we just have the slanty bell curve, peaking around 1 or 1.5 on the 0-to-6 Kinsey scale, and gradually curving down towards 6? Why would we have a small second peak at around 4.5 or 5?
I freely acknowledge that there might be some good genetic reason for this “double bell curve” phenomenon, one that we just don’t know yet. I’ll even acknowledge that there might be some good genetic reason for this phenomenon, one that somebody else knows but that I don’t. I’m definitely not a sexual orientation constructionist (translation: person who thinks orientation is entirely constructed by society). The science is still shaking out, but it does seem to be pointing to genetics as at least a significant factor in determining which gender or genders we like to boff. And it might well turn out that genetics play an important role in this “double peak” pattern.
But I’ll also say this:
I think it’s quite plausible that the double peak is entirely cultural.
And there are two specific cultural trends that I think may be skewing our orientations towards the two peaks.
The first is homophobia… and the way it’s sorted our culture into Straight and Gay. The two mix and overlap, of course — straight people have gay friends, and vice versa — but they’re still distinct social categories. Especially in parts of the country and the world that are more homophobic. Because of homophobia, people who lean towards being queer have a strong need to create a gay culture, a community shaped around sexual and romantic desire towards people of the same sex. And of course, because of homophobia, straight people have historically shunned queers — and have denied any queer tendencies in themselves. This has improved dramatically, but it’s only improved fairly recently, and it does still go on today.
So because society has sorted itself into two intermingling but distinct groups — Gay and Straight — people somewhere in the middle often feel a need to pick one. There is a bisexual community, but it’s nowhere near as visible, or as well-organized, as either the straight or gay worlds. And it can be very hard to drift back and forth between those two worlds. People whose natural orientations lie close to the middle of the scale — say, a 2.5 or 3.5 on the scale of 0 to 6 — often wind up picking a side, and more or less sticking to it.
And that tendency can be self-perpetuating. A cultural preference for straight society or the gay community can slant your sexual preference towards women over men, or vice versa. I know that I tend to get more interested in women when I’m spending more time in dyke culture, and I get more interested in men when I’m hanging around straight people more. It’s a simple matter of who’s on my mind. Not to mention who’s available. Love the one you’re with, and all that. Or lust after the one you’re with, anyway.
So that’s Harebrained Speculation Number One for the double peak.
Harebrained Speculation Number Two: Biphobia.
There’s a strong bias against bisexuals in both straight and gay cultures. Gay culture tends to see bisexuals as traitors, fence-sitters, kinky thrill-seekers, people who can’t commit either politically or personally. Straight society tends to see bisexuals as fickle, unreliable, secretly gay people who just can’t admit it. Plus straights often see us as promiscuous… and, of course, in the age of AIDS, they see us as vectors of disease. And both gays and straights tend to see us as confused, experimenting, “going through a phase.”
All of which exacerbates people’s tendency to sort into gay or straight culture. The strong biases against bisexuality — from both gays and straights — push many people to pick one camp or the other… people who might not otherwise need or want to. People who might have identified as bisexual can internalize this biphobia, and decline to call themselves bi. And people who privately identify as bi are often reluctant to do so publicly.
So largely because of homophobia from the straight world, we have a tendency to sort ourselves into straight society and the gay community. Because of biphobia from both straight and gay cultures, this tendency gets exaggerated. And this cultural tendency gets transformed into personal sex behavior and desire… which then turns into a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Hence, the “double peak” pattern in our sexual orientations — a pattern that might be much less pronounced, and might not even be there at all, if these social trends weren’t there.
I’m not sure how you’d test this hypothesis. But here’s what I’d expect to see if it were true:
If it were true, then in parts of the world that were less homophobic — and less biphobic — I’d expect to see a less vividly pronounced double peak. (If the less-homophobic, less-biphobic trend had been happening for long enough, anyway.)
And if it were true, then if society continues to become less homophobic — and less biphobic — over the coming decades, I’d also expect to see the strong double peaks soften and flatten towards a more standard slanty bell curve.
It might not flatten out entirely. Again, there may be some genetic reasons for the double peak in the bell curve, ones that we don’t know about. And even in an entirely non-homophobic, non-biphobic society, we still might have something of a cultural tendency to sort into gay and straight cultures. For dating/ cruising purposes if nothing else. But I think without these cultural factors, this double peak would very likely flatten out significantly.
I’m not saying “everyone is basically bisexual.” I think that’s bullshit. Some people are clearly not bisexual. Some people are clearly gay or straight. And even though most people do have at least some capacity to be attracted to both/all genders, that still doesn’t make them “basically bisexual.” Sexual identity is complicated — it’s about political identity, cultural identity, sexual history, romantic and relationship preferences, etc., as well as basic sexual attraction. And when people are deciding which identity (if any) works best for them, they get to decide for themselves which of these factors gets priority. I don’t want someone insisting that I’m “basically lesbian” because I’m currently hovering around 5 on the Kinsey scale — so I’m not going to insist that someone else is “basically bisexual” because they’re currently hovering around 4.
So I’m not saying “everyone is basically bisexual.” I’m saying that, at least for those of us in the wide sloppy middle of the Kinsey scale, sexual orientation is at least somewhat malleable. Like I wrote in my piece, The Learned Fetish, the finer points of our sexual desires can be shaped by our experiences as adults — even if the basic outlines are set early on.
I’m not sure why I think this is important. I’m not sure the answer would have any effect in figuring out social policy or political strategy or dating strategy, or any other practical decisions we might make about sex. I’m even not sure that it is important, except that figuring out what is and isn’t true about reality is always important.
But I sure do think it’s interesting.
So what do you think? If you lean more towards one end of the Kinsey scale, do you think you might lean more towards the middle if society weren’t so divided into Gay and Straight? And if you’re already pretty squarely in the middle, do you think you’d have had an easier time getting there if it weren’t for the two camps?