Mar 27, 2019

Are All Women Bisexual?

Reading time: 3.5 minutes

Straight is considered the default in our culture.  Most people consider themselves straight. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, only 4.5% of Americans consider themselves to be anywhere on the LGBT spectrum.  The rest are considered straight. However, a 2015 study led by Dr. Gerulf Rieger has caused some in the scientific community to question whether “straight” really is the most common sexual orientation for the entire population.

Dr. Rieger studied 345 women. These women were shown sexual images of naked men and naked women and tested for sexual arousal.  Women who reported themselves to be bisexual had the test results you would expect, and showed signs of arousal when viewing images of both men and women.  Self reported lesbians also had fairly predictable results, mostly showing no signs of arousal, or much lower arousal, when presented with images of naked men.  However, the big story with this study was among the self reported straight women - 74% of whom reacted equally to both the male and female images. This research built upon earlier study by psychologist Meredith Chivers of Queens university, which had very similar results.

Dr. Rieger believes that these results show a remarkable level of fluid sexuality among women, saying "Even though the majority of women identify as straight, our research clearly demonstrates that when it comes to what turns them on, they are either bisexual or gay, but never straight.”  If his conclusion is correct, this would be a startling discovery. The study concluded that over 80% of women are sexually aroused by both genders, whereas only 2.8% of women identify as bisexual.  The fact that lesbian porn is one of the most popular search categories amongst women would seem to support his theory that more women have homoerrotic tendancies than consider themselves bi.  So what accounts for this gap? Are that many women really living in the closet?

This story is somewhat personal for me. I realized I was bi when I was 12, and first came out at 14. In the years since, I’ve gotten an odd range of reactions from my homophobic father suddenly wondering if my roommate was my girlfriend, to a number of people doubting my sexual orientation.  I’ve been told by various people - both straight and gay - that I can’t really be bi. I’m either actually a lesbian who isn’t ready to come out yet, or I’m actually straight and just “doing it” to “impress guys.” Gag. So I have to admit I took some personal pleasure in seeing the dominant segment of society - straight people - being told that their sexuality does not really exist.  It felt really good… for about 4 seconds.

However, telling people that you know their sexuality better than they do is bullshit.  It’s bullshit when people say this to bisexuals, and it’s just as bullshit to say it straight women. Claiming that you know more about someone’s sexual feelings than they do because you read a study on the internet is a shitty thing to do. Hyperbolic headlines claiming that all women are actually bi completely invalidated a huge segment of the population.  This scientist was - and I know this term can be overused - effectively mansplaining women’s own sexualities to them.

You may be snidely whispering in the back of your brain that science does not care about your feelings.  However, psychology is the study of human feelings, and that can make the scientific process especially challenging.  This is especially true when you start talking about taboo topics such as human sexuality, which has been a notoriously difficult field to study.  In fact, some scientists who initially accepted Dr. Rieger’s theories, have since had their doubts.  

It is a widely held scientific consensus that people who participate in human sexuality studies are not necessarily indicative of the entire population.  They tend to be younger and more sexually open than most, which can skew the results dramatically, especially in a relatively small study like Dr. Rieger’s. Also, when you’re expecting to see porn, it’s possible to become aroused just by the anticipation (especially for women). It’s entirely possible that the women in this study may be reacting to their fantasy rather than a specific image being shown.  While this may be true for anyone, women natoriously have longer warm up and cool down periods when it comes to arousal, which may mean there is some bleed when it comes to their reactions to the images. Also, some signs of arousal, such as dilated pupils, that are easy to measure scientifically, can have multiple causes other than arousal.

The story is further complicated by Dr. Rieger’s experiments using male test subjects, which found that men are almost never aroused by both genders, even when they identify as bisexual.  While it’s true that more women identify as bisexual than men - women’s 2.8% vs men’s 1.8% of the general population - it has long been believed that this gap was largely explained by social norms, which makes it more taboo for bisexual men to come out than women.  Bi guys are often ostracized, not only by homophobic straight people, but the LGBT community. As previously mentioned, bisexual women often have the very existence of their sexual orientations questioned within the gay community, it is considerably worse for gay men.  This study is being used by many to justify questioning people’s identities.

What does this study really tell us about bisexuality? Mostly that it requires further study.  There is lots of interesting research being done right now that suggests that human sexuality is more fluid than we ever could have imagined. Porn giant XHamster even recently found that the more porn you watch, the more likely you are to consider yourself bisexual.

Human sexuality is such a fascinating subject, but we have to remember that it’s also a very personal one.  We are often unreliable narrators of our own stories, especially in areas that may prove embarrassing. However, we are still each of us the best experts on our own experiences.  No matter what studies come out, we cannot know someone’s sexuality better than they themselves can. While it may be fun to imagine that every woman in the world is secretly hoping to bang her bestie, it’s probably best to take her word for it if she says that’s not the case.