I wanted to follow up Kyle’s excellent recent post on the complexity of sexual identity with my own account of bisexuality. I’m certainly not trying to characterize Tom Daley or anyone else, but I wanted to give some picture of what it could mean for a man to have a bisexual orientation.
There’s a fairly widespread belief that bisexuality doesn’t really exist in men. From what I can tell, there are a variety of reasons for this belief. I think one of the more common reasons is that it is quite common for gay men to initially identify as bisexual. That leads to the suspicion that any man claiming to be bisexual simply hasn’t been able to accept himself as gay yet. Some skepticism stems from a 2005 study titled “Sexual Arousal Patterns of Bisexual Men” that failed to find evidence that male bisexuality actually existed, although a 2011 study titled “Sexual Arousal Patterns of Bisexual Men Revisited” using the same methodology showed a different result. I was always puzzled by the 2005 study, given that my experience contradicts the conclusion many people were drawing from it. There is also need for caution in interpreting the results of both studies, because the methodology used simply involved measuring genital arousal in response to certain forms of pornography. Thus, it only measured one part of attraction under artificial laboratory conditions and may not be reflective of someone’s full experience of sexual orientation. Given that I’ve never used porn, I’m actually not certain what results I would have gotten under the studied conditions.
Perhaps in part due to all that suspicion, I’ve often questioned my own sexuality, wondering whether I was gay or straight. (For a lot of that time, I wouldn’t have actually been comfortable using the word “gay,” but I’ll use it here since it’s a convenient shorthand.) Not only do I not remember who my first crush was, I don’t even remember which gender. For as long as I can remember having anything resembling romantic or sexual attraction, I’ve had some degree of attraction to people of each sex. By this I don’t mean that I am particularly attracted to everyone by any means, but rather that some of the people I find myself particularly attracted to are men and some are women. Although I’ve never actually had sex or even looked at porn, significant aspects of my experience set me apart from most gay and straight people.
I was initially quite bothered (to put it lightly) to discover my feelings for other guys, especially given what I had always heard about gay people. I knew that there was something I felt that wasn’t normal. Sure, there was always the desire for friendship and bonding, but this was more than that. Guys didn’t usually find themselves tempted to stare at attractive men, for instance. Or aside from the physical, they didn’t seem to have the same kind of intense draw towards particular guys, especially not to a degree that rivaled any feelings for the opposite sex. However, those were all things I was going through even pretty early in puberty. I also did have many times when I had distinctly sexual desires, especially when I was really crushing on a particular guy. I knew that describing myself as “straight” wouldn’t be honest. So did that mean that I was “gay?”
Here’s the thing: I eventually realized that “gay” wouldn’t be accurate, either. Though I won’t go into too many details, when it comes to desire for actual sexual activity and sexual aspects of the human body, my desires tend to be more straight than gay. I have a desire to be married to a woman, a desire which includes a drive to have a sexual relationship. If I do get married to a woman, consummating the marriage is something I really look forward to, not something I have any worries about being able to do. In that respect, my experience is markedly different than that of most gay guys. And the heterosexual side of my experience is certainly not just about sex. Experiencing significant attraction to a particular woman is something that is also pretty common for me, and always has been. Sometimes it’s a she that I’m really crushing on. When people have asked me who I liked, I wasn’t being dishonest by naming females (though I was often omitting significant facts).
I’ll close with a couple of observations that often seem to be missing from discussions of bisexuality. One is that bisexuality is often a stable orientation. It’s not as though I really have a choice about who I find attractive, although like anyone else I have choices about how I respond. Even in my late twenties, my desires for other men have not lessened in intensity. I still notice attractive guys all the time and can have intense feelings for them. It is also still a common occurrence for me to have significant feelings for women, or to notice attractive women. I experience this less as fluidity than as the simple pattern of how attraction happens for me.
Another is that sexuality is more complicated than a single spectrum. Sexuality is sometimes characterized using the “Kinsey Scale,” ranging from 0 (completely straight) to 6 (completely gay). Sometimes when I mention that I’m bisexual, I’m asked where I fall on the scale. My answer always boils down to the fact that it matters what you’re measuring. As I alluded to above, there are different aspects of attraction: the desires for companionship, for romance, for sexual partnership, and many other things. One can experience attraction based on some combination of a person’s looks, personality, and other attributes. For me, these things don’t all line up the same way they do for a straight person or for a gay person. For example, I tend to notice guys more and to have more frequent male crushes, but a lot of my more overtly sexual desires are towards women. But in neither case is it 100% one way or the other; depending on what you’re measuring, I’d generally be in the 2-4 range on the Kinsey scale. As Kyle mentioned in his recent post, sexuality is complicated and doesn’t all reduce to a label. I find “bisexual” to be the most convenient label for my experience, but it doesn’t say everything.
Jeremy Erickson is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He previously studied Mathematics and Computer Science at Taylor University in Upland, IN.