Even now in the 21st Century, bisexuality in men continues to worry heterosexual women. Many regard it as a non-starter, and won’t date a man who reveals he’s also attracted to men.
Which is a shame, because we’re now recognizing that many men who are “mostly straight” are also capable of a certain amount of fluidity when it comes to the object of their desire.
The thing straight women fear most, of course, is that such a man is really gay — and that he’s just claiming to be bisexual in order to hold on to “heterosexual privilege.” As Michael Schulman wrote in “Bisexual: A Label with Layers” in the New York Times, “Bisexuality, like chronic fatigue syndrome, is often assumed to be imaginary by those on the outside.”
A 2005 study from Northwestern University seemed to confirm heterosexual women’s fears. It found that most self-identified male bisexuals looked gay if you hooked them up to devices to measure their erections and showed them straight and gay erotic. But later research from the same center, done with more rigorous methods, has now proved that bisexuality does indeed exist.
In 2011 the same researchers at Northwestern University re-did the study with more stringent selection criteria. In order to qualify as a subject, you had to have had actual sexual experiences with at least two men and two women, and to have been romantically involved with at least one man and one woman.
As a sex therapist, I was glad that the criteria included questions about both lust and love. The love part is one you don’t hear so much about, but it may be more important. To quote my colleague Joe Kort, it matters less who you want to go to bed with, and more who you want to wake up with.
When the reporter from Elle called me about a feature in early 2013, I had no idea we’d end up spending so much time talking about bisexuality in men. But that’s what happened.
She mentioned that so many men in her life had turned out to be gay — a comment I’ve heard from a lot of women over the years. But when we discussed it further, I wasn’t sure all these men were actually gay. Some seemed as if they might have been bisexual –what in a previous generation might have been called “Kinsey 1’s and 2’s” — mostly straight, but able to be turned on by a guy if the conditions were right.
The truth is, there’s a whole assortment of bisexualities in both men and women. One can’t really generalize. The universe of bisexual people is far broader than I originally thought when I first became a sex therapist over 30 years ago.
True, some bisexual men who date women are essentially ga,y and just haven’t accepted it. But many are largely straight, with just a touch of gay thrown in. Some seem to be hypersexual — turned on by anything that moves. Some asexual, or nearly so, such that their partner’s gender doesn’t matter so much either way. Some have been damaged by early sexual trauma, so it’s hard to tell.
Some seem to be right down the middle— able to run Mac or PC equally well. This is uncommon, but it occurs. And as I explained to the reporter from Elle, most of the men I’ve met who were like these experienced a considerable distress because of it. To quote the Elle article, they tend to have ongoing identity crises, since who you’re attracted to as a man gets treated as such a big deal by the world.
Prizefighter Emile Griffith may have been such a man. In an interview in Sports Illustrated in 2005, he struggled to categorize himself — “I don’t know what I am. I love men and women the same.” That same year, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recalled speaking with the former prizefighter about his sexuality — “I asked Mr Griffith if he was gay, and he told me no. But he looked as if he wanted to say more. He told me he had struggled his entire life with his sexuality, and agonized over what he could say about it.”
In 1962, Griffith’s opponent Benny Paret had called Griffith a maricon (an derogatory term for a gay man) at the weigh-in before a match. Griffith proceeded to pummel Paret so badly in the ring that Paret died hours later from internal bleeding in his head.
We’ve come a long way since 1962. If Griffith had come of age today, perhaps he’d have had an easier time of it.
But even today, bisexuality in men remains the object of a great deal of misunderstanding.
A generation or two from now, maybe things will be better.
One can only hope.