Check out those totally bisexual pupils.
When I was in college, being a bisexual woman around the Human Development department was like the equivalent of draping oneself in J.Crew and self-loathing and hanging around outside of Jonathan Franzen book signings. Bisexuals seem to be a developmental psychologist’s dream/nightmare: As people who don't fit the gay/straight binary, we can be a real source of data-related fuckups, but we’re also a fascinating chance to plot a spectrum of results.
So over the course of four years, I participated in at least four sexuality-related studies, one of which was a longitudinal study that asked me on a monthly basis how many times I’d recently gotten laid (which, for most of the months, was a resounding nada). But the most recent one, and by far my favorite, eventually led the research team to the conclusion that our eyes can reveal our sexual orientation.
According to the published results, gay-identifying students’ pupils dilated more readily when they looked at erotic photos of the same gender. Straight-identifying ones did the same for opposite-gender videos, and we bimo outliers were all over the place.
I didn’t know the purpose of the study going in, of course. After taking a rowdy course of Psych 101, I fancied that I knew a thing or two about the socioscientific process: Namely, to trust no one. All those “Prison guard experiments” and shit had made me paranoid as hell. If anyone asked me to wait in a room for five minutes while someone was being shocked to death next door, I was going to burn the place down.
When the adorable lab assistant told me that my assignment as a Bisexual Representative was going to be to watch porn for an hour, I was skeptical. Obviously, they were going to distract me with porn while they counted my finger whorls or analyzed my iPod playlists or something. But I still allowed him to paper clip my Bieber bangs back from my forehead so they could actually see my eyes and maneuver me into position in front of the screen.
“Ready?” he asked, hovering by the doorway.
“So ready,” I said, grinning teasingly at him as he queued up the player and fled. Porn time.
Well, sort of. The video actually started with interviews with various Chicagoans talking about the weather, then asked me which one I’d like to date. Uh, sure. Blonde-curly-haired girl. Her. “Would I like to be friends with her, too?” Why not.
Abruptly, the scene switched to a solo scene of a woman writhing on a bed. Then another woman. Then a man. Then a couple. Then some more questions. “Which one would I like to date?” Uh -- I –-- the dude! Great abs! “Would I like to be friends with him?” How the fuck would I know? All he said was, “Ungh!”
I don’t know about you guys, but it’s a little hard for me to glean what a person’s favorite novels are and whether they like The Arcade Fire from a 30-second clip of them jacking themselves off. This went on for a full hour, and I spent most of it rocketing wildly between frazzled and helplessly turned on.
It was made all the more hilarious by the fact that my equipment was apparently malfunctioning, so Adorable Grad Student kept having to barge in mid-porn and see my “I think I’m aroused?” face.
“Hey,” I’d pant at him, trying to shake my paper-clipped bangs in an alluring fashion. “Everything all right?” He’d nod, fiddling with the machine. Behind him, a short-haired girl stuck her fingers between her legs, sighing into the camera, and he didn’t even twitch. Being a Human Development grad student must inure one against the weirdest things.
I, meanwhile, had no such immunity. Struck by the knowledge that they’d singled me out as a Bi Woman, I’d spent most of the study trying hard not to let my gaze linger too long on one gender over the other. As I stared at, say, one erect penis, I’d start getting nervous that I’d looked at it too long. What if they drew all these odd conclusions from it? Maybe I should make a special effort to glare at the vagina next round.
Then I’d look elsewhere, rationing out my crotch-glances among genders. I tried to shake myself of this inclination, because I genuinely didn’t want to fuck up the data. But it was genuinely difficult -- I kept being afraid that I’d be the bisexual who proved, once and for all, that women are either straight or gay.
Yes, I am a giant neurotic weirdo. But it’s hard not to be hyper-conscious of the sort of results these studies get! Just look at all the attention this one is getting -- it’s been in several major news sources, and has actually favorably contributed to the “nature versus nurture” debate. If the study had been about bisexual responses to porn in different ways, who knows what kind of headlines it would have gotten, particularly if the results had heavily skewed toward one gender. “BURN BI-FAKERS AT STAKE,” probably.
Luckily for lead author Gerulf Rieger, the results of his study couldn’t be determined by the anal-retention of its participants. While I was busy trying to prove with my glances that I am, in fact, equally attracted to men and women at first glance (I’m not), my pupils were dilating all over the place. No amount of my subconscious fudging could change that.
This made me think, though, about the sort of persona that I’d been accidentally developing in the other studies I’d participated in. Take that longitudinal study, with all the depressing questions about my weekly blow-job quota. Though I never lied, I realized that I’d wanted to do the same thing I’d done in the eye-tracking study: I wanted to “prove” that my bisexuality existed, that it wasn’t just a phase. When filling out the results every month, I frequently wished that my sexual encounter count would come out evenly spaced among genders.
Not because I cared about whatever the poor intern tallying the data thought; Instead, I was just concerned about the way that my data might falsely reflect countless other LGBT students, most of whom have very different attraction tendencies.
And I’m just one person, and one who fastidiously respects scientific data, at that. What about all the other people in the study, the ones who felt too weird marking “Not one make out, thanks for reminding me” on the form to tell the truth? Rieger’s pupil study wasn’t so easily skewed, but I’m betting his longitudinal study will get just as much attention as did the eye-tracking one.
Do sociological studies factor in average rates of honesty? The thought of my confused answers to the “Would you be friends with this porn star?” questions actually meaning something to someone makes me very nervous, indeed.
Of course, I’m thrilled that the LGBT community has a new weapon in terms of representing the ingrained nature of sexual orientation. And though I can’t actually think of a practical application for this off the top of my head, it’s great that scientists no longer need to use invasive genital-width measurement systems (?!) to make sure people are actually as gay as they say they are.
I just think it’s worth remembering, however, that studies like these should be critically examined even as they’re appreciated. When scientists reduce human identity struggles to discrete pieces of data and overarching conclusions, it’s hard for the casual reader to get the full picture.
People are fickle, and different: Even Ritch Savin-Williams, the study’s researcher, admitted that our pupils dilate at all sorts of things, like seeing a beautiful painting or (I assume) eyeing a refrigerator full of arugula leaves. What if I’d been thinking about tortilla chips just before glancing at the screen? Would it have made a vital difference in my pupil dilation? Making sexuality and scientific data directly correlative disguises that sort of ambiguity.
And if studies like these are going to be used for purposes as serious as evidence in sex crimes trials (or even entered into the cultural milieu as Proven Fact), I’d hope that they’d take variants like that into account. Sexual identity is a spectrum, not a yes-or-no question, and I fear that some of the scientific community occasionally forgets that in favor of snappy headlines.
Kate is gayin' it up at @katchatters.