Fluid Dynamics, Ctd

A reader responds to a recent post on sexuality:

There’s “more likely to be” bisexual, and then there’s “more likely to self-identify as” bisexual, and there are more social and cultural impediments to self-identifying as bisexual if you happen to be male. In my opinion, one reason that’s the case is because female bisexuality isn’t perceived as a serious threat to straight male culture and dominance in the ways that lesbians, gay men, and male bisexuals are.

Lesbians threaten the assumed place of the necessary male: “Oh no! They don’t need men at all!” Gay males represent threats to masculinity, but are safe in other ways: “He might want to bang me, but he won’t steal mah woman!” So there can be grudging acceptance there. Male bisexuals are a double threat: “Oh no! They might make me an object of desire and compete with me for females!” The female bisexual, however, can be neatly fit into the category of unthreatened male gaze that Paris Hilton co-opted: “That’s hot!”

All of which is the male view, of course, which is only one part of it.

Another part of it is that, in my experience, there seems to be a greater level of acceptance for sexual fluidity – sorry, Vanessa, I don’t actually care much for the term “bisexual,” and I don’t think it’s a better word – among women by women than there is for sexual fluidity among men by men, which might have something to do with the way bisexuality brushes up against a kind of solidarity among women that doesn’t exist among men, because it doesn’t have to; men aren’t oppressed in the same way. (As an aside: I await the rise of gay and bisexual solidarity among the current crop of men’s rights activists with bated breath.)

There seems to be a combination of factors at work in male and female cultures that creates more space for the acceptance of female bisexuality – both as a personal experiment and as a long-term identity – than for male bisexuality. That in turn leads to a greater willingness to self-identify in studies and surveys. The arc of evolving attitudes expressed in surveys of the 20-and-under crowd gives me hope that this will continue to change for the better, but we’ve got a ways to go yet.

Another reader points to a relevant passage from Sex at Dawn, the fascinating book by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha on the evolutionary roots of sexuality:

The human female’s sexual behavior is typically far more malleable than the male’s. Greater erotic plasticity leads most women to experience more variation in their sexuality than men typically do, and women’s sexual behavior is far more responsive to social pressure. This greater plasticity could manifest through changes in whom a woman wants, in how much she wants him/her/them, and in how she expresses her desire. Young males pass through a brief period in which their sexuality is like hot wax waiting to be imprinted, but the wax soon cools and solidifies, leaving the imprint for life. For females, the wax appears to stay soft and malleable throughout their lives.

This greater erotic plasticity appears to manifest in women’s more holistic responses to sexual imagery and thoughts. In 2006, psychologist Meredith Chivers set up an experiment where she showed a variety of sexual videos to men and women, both straight and gay. The videos included a wide range of possible erotic configurations: man/woman, man/man, woman/woman, lone man masturbating, lone woman mas- turbating, a muscular guy walking naked on a beach, and a fit woman working out in the nude. To top it all off, she also included a short film clip of bonobos mating.

While her subjects were being buffeted by this onslaught of varied eroticism, they had a keypad where they could indicate how turned on they felt. In addition, their genitals were wired up to plethysmographs. Isn’t that illegal? No, a plethysmograph isn’t a torture device (or a dinosaur, for that matter). It measures blood flow to the genitals, a surefire indicator that the body is getting ready for love. Think of it as an erotic lie detector.

What did Chivers find? Gay or straight, the men were predictable. The things that turned them on were what you’d expect. The straight guys responded to anything involving naked women, but were left cold when only men were on display. The gay guys were similarly consistent, though at 180 degrees. And both straight and gay men indicated with the keypad what their genital blood flow was saying. As it turns out, men can think with both heads at once, as long as both are thinking the same thing.

The female subjects, on the other hand, were the very picture of inscrutability. Regardless of sexual orientation, most of them had the plethysmograph’s needle twitching over just about everything they saw. Whether they were watching men with men, women with women, the guy on the beach, the woman in the gym, or bonobos in the zoo, their genital blood was pumping. But unlike the men, many of the women reported (via the keypad) that they weren’t turned on. As Daniel Bergner reported on the study in The New York Times, “With the women . . . mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person.” Watching both the lesbians and the gay male couple, the straight women’s vaginal blood flow indicated more arousal than they confessed on the keypad. Watching good old-fashioned vanilla heterosexual couplings, everything flipped and they claimed more arousal than their bodies indicated. Straight or gay, the women reported almost no response to the hot bonobo-on-bonobo action, though again, their bodily reactions suggested they kinda liked it.