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.

Dreher On Blow

After reading Charles Blow’s intense and fascinating account of his own childhood abuse and his particular experience of bisexuality, Rod Dreher actually comes out with this:

The thing that stands out to me about it is Blow’s (very modern) belief that his passions constitute an essential part of his identity as a person. That is, he seems to believe that his freedom consists in accepting his desires, and that he is “subject to the tide.”

But is this really true? Somehow, reason tamed his homicidal passion in the case of avenging his rape. Why is that passion restrainable, but sexual passion is not? He would say that the passion to kill someone is not the same thing as the passion to have sex with someone, and he would, of course, be right.

But he would be wrong in another sense. According to Dante (speaking from a position informed by both classical and medieval Catholic thought), all sin comes from disordered passion. To be truly free is to master our passions by making them subject to our reason. We cannot prevent our desires, but if we make ourselves “subject to the tide” of passion, we cannot be said to be free.

This is a very strange response to the essay. Rod insists that his point is not about bisexuality, but about “passions” in general and our modern sense that we should accommodate them, rather than “master” them with reason. But I didn’t find any evidence in the piece that Blow had somehow “surrendered” to his “passions”. What he did was simply come to terms with who he really was – to probe what his sexual orientation really was and is. This is an integral part to mastering any passion. If you are not fully aware of who you are, you can act out in all sorts of ways, or enter relationships you really shouldn’t, or make horrible mistakes, or suppress feelings without ever really confronting them. What Blow describes is very much an exercise of reason, of inquiry, of remarkable poise in the face of a troubled past (including sexual abuse). Surrendering to passion meant in this case a seven-year marriage to a woman, including kids. And Blow rather movingly explains how an actual homosexual relationship was not something he could pull off.

If Blow were heterosexual, I doubt Rod would have said anything about “disordered passion”. We all have unique and complex sexualities – and all Blow did was examine his own past and his own nature and channel both toward a constructive present. It has to be the element of homosexual attraction that provokes Rod’s splutter – as if anyone can simply master by reason who they actually are. We do not have control over that. But those who come to terms with their sexual identity, who face it squarely, are likely to have a much better chance of channeling such passions toward good ends.

One other note about Blow’s piece: it’s a very convincing and eye-opening explanation of a certain kind of bisexuality:

I had to accept a counterintuitive fact: my female attraction was fully formed—I could make love and fall in love—but my male attraction had no such terminus. To the degree that I felt male attraction, it was frustrated. In that arena, I possessed no desire to submit and little to conquer. For years I worried that the barrier was some version of self-loathing, a denial. But eventually I concluded that the continual questioning and my attempts to circumvent the barrier were their own form of loathing and self-flagellation. I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.

Dan Savage adds:

As Blow’s piece makes clear, writing “lopsided bisexuality” out of the bi experience, the constant and often smug framing of bisexuality as the capacity to be sexually and romantically attracted to both men and women equally, excludes men like Blow and makes it harder for men like him to accept themselves as bisexual. Men like Blow walk around believing that they’re either not really bi (like this guy who wrote me at “Savage Love”), or that they’re bi but defective or broken.

But bisexual guys like Blow aren’t broken.

They sure aren’t. Which is more than one can say, sadly, for many men who refuse to confront their identity, and construct lives based on fantasies about what they’d like to be rather than what they are.

For much more on the nuances of bisexuality, check out this Dish thread.

How Sexually Fluid Are Women Really? Ctd

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

My earlier post on female sexual fluidity-or-lack-thereof has caused some controversy on Twitter. Some are upset that I’m questioning the caller’s own label:

People should, of course, identify as they see fit, and that includes Zen Heathen. I’d merely point out that a) the caller expressed 0% sexual interest in men (we don’t learn what she thinks about the 10% of the time she’s not thinking of women – for all we know it’s that she has to pick up her dry-cleaning – and she could well be with a man because of the social pressures to be with one), and b) if you’re pairing off with someone, and their variant of bisexuality involves preferring the gender you are not virtually all the time, this is maybe a red flag. Or maybe not – by all means, if you find the one person of a particular gender you’re attracted to, enjoy! – but people certainly think so when it comes to men.

Others point out that fantasies don’t necessarily reflect what people want:

This is a fair point. What was clear from the call, but not my post, is that this is a woman who has wanted to date women for years but been too shy. That’s a little different from someone simply having this or that pop into their head during sex. I’d also repeat here, though, that I wonder how blasé and hey-people-fantasize we’d be if this were a man fantasizing 90% of the time about other men. I’d also, while I’m repeating myself, reiterate that fetishes, etc., are different from sexual orientation. Someone might fantasize about scenarios or individuals they’d want nothing to do with in real life. But always picturing men, or always women, or close-to-always, would seem to indicate something.

Oh, and allow me a starstruck moment: Savage himself replied!

Since these other responses arrived only after Savage’s tweets, I for a moment wasn’t quite sure what he meant by “shit storm”-producing “#bisexual activists.” Then I was accused of not believing anyone could be bisexual by a bunch of Twitter users, all because I didn’t think this one woman sounded like she had any interest in men, and of hating bi people and gay people and women and… I think I see what he meant:


So how might Savage have answered the call differently, without bi-erasing anyone’s experiences? He might have done what another Twitter user suggests:

The idea isn’t for the caller to be officially declared a lesbian (as if such a thing were possible), but for her to consider – and, if she sees fit, to reject! – the possibility. She is, after all, soliciting advice. But the main thing I’d have emphasized is that this call would have been received entirely differently if it had come from a man. I mean, there might have been a nod to the possibility that the man was bisexual, but a nod would also surely have been given to the ever-so-slight chance that a self-identified bisexual man with a female partner, but who can’t stop thinking about Idris Elba, is in the closet. I find it hard to believe that – outside whichever limited sphere of bisexual activists – anyone would object to throwing “gay” out there as a possibility.

How Sexually Fluid Are Women Really?

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

I’ve long had my doubts on the question. What I doubt, to be clear, isn’t that some women are bisexual. Just that all women are, which is essentially what one is saying if one declares female sexuality fluid. I doubt this in part for personal-thus-anecdotal reasons (I’m female, and my orientation hasn’t budged since it first encountered photos of a then-young Keanu Reeves close to 20 years ago), but also because there are other explanations, not related to wiring, that could account for the appearance of fluidity one witnesses.

What it comes down to is, it remains much more controversial for men than women to have same-sex relationships or encounters. But at the same time, it’s much more taboo for women than men to be without a partner of the opposite sex.

This sounds contradictory, I realize, but let me explain: There’s a stigma, for women, on being boyfriend-less, husband-less. But the stigma isn’t based on fears that the woman might be a lesbian, but rather, that she might be unable to get a man. Being found desirable by men continues to be important to women’s power in the world in a way that’s independent of how attractive that woman may or not find these – or indeed any – men. There are also financial advantages to pairing off with someone of the gender that tends to earn more.

How does any of this relate to women’s alleged sexual fluidity? Men are under greater pressure than women to seem not-gay, so there’s less same-sex fooling around among the merely curious, or it’s less openly discussed, making male sexuality seem less fluid than might be the case. But men are under less pressure than women to pair off (and what pressure there is starts so much later in life), so there may be fewer gay men than lesbians in opposite-sex relationships.

I came up with this grand (and thus far mostly unsubstantiated) theory while listening to a recent Savage Lovecast. (Update: listen to the relevant clip below, sent to us by the tech-savvy at-risk youth:


A 25-year-old woman called the show (starts at 8:13) to say that she’s a serial monogamist who’s only ever dated men. But! She can’t stop thinking about women. She’s openly bisexual, has known this since she was 14, which her current boyfriend knows, but he doesn’t want an open relationship. And so on, but what jumped out at me was the part where she mentioned that “90% of the time” when she’s having sex with her boyfriend, she’s fantasizing about women. 90%!

Imagine, if you will, ladies, if you learned that your boyfriend or husband fantasized about men 90% of the time he was with you. You’d probably come to the conclusion that your guy was gay. Not because male bisexuality doesn’t exist, but because of how close 90% is to 100%.

Presumably Dan Savage would make this same assumption if the genders were reversed. He doesn’t. This is ostensibly because the caller identifies as bisexual, but may also have just a bit to do with the fact that she’s a woman, and women, so fluid! Savage, in his response, likens her persistent desire to be with women to kinks and fetishes people try to repress over the years (he mentions foot fetishes), and it’s like, gah, this woman is a lesbian! That’s not a kink, it’s a sexual orientation! This isn’t about monogamy being constraining (as much as Savage tried to fit it into that box), but about being with someone of the wrong gender posing certain fairly obvious obstacles to happiness. What this woman needs to do isn’t – as Savage advises – renegotiate her heterosexual relationship to allow for some women on the side. She needs to lose the boyfriend and get herself a girlfriend.

Why, then, is a lesbian dating dude after dude after dude? What comes through in her call isn’t the slightest glimmer of desire for her boyfriend (“I love him a lot” and “I really care about him” – sweet, but sort of tepid for “25” and “boyfriend”) or indeed any of the other men on the planet. She’s afraid of not being in a relationship with a man: “The thought of losing that someone I have thought about spending the rest of my life with is devastating.” She’s afraid of giving up the possibility of Husband. Which is… a totally legitimate fear in our society, but hardly evidence that she’s straight or bi.

If Savage’s alarm bells don’t go off at this call, perhaps it’s because he has been socialized to believe that female heterosexuality is this softer, more reactive version of its male counterpart. That it’s basically about wanting stability, a husband, a man who’ll find you attractive. No one expects women – even heterosexual women – to lust after men. (Many of us do. But we’re socialized to be discreet about it.) So it doesn’t immediately read as “lesbian” when a woman expresses intense interest in other women, but sounds sort of lukewarm about men.

Update: Phoebe responds to some criticism of her piece here.