Another study about pesky female sexuality!

Drop everything! A discussion on a study done by researcher Elizabeth McCintock has raised some discussion. Discussion has been raised, y’all. It’s time to rant! Because we, bisexual female-person-people, have been studied yet again. We are a fascinating phenomenon and people just can’t get enough of our amazing soap-opera-ready sex life!

I heard about this study from Another Angry Woman, on whose blog there has been some back and forth in the comments (my b!) The study is covered in this article on the Independent, which took the study to ugly places.

As a bisexual (because of history, not current behavior), I feel like I take this stuff very personally. Maybe a bit too personally. These studies hit me exactly in the places I’m most insecure: that my androgyny/masculinity makes me ugly and therefore undesirable to men and that’s the only reason I date queer people and not men. But then again I am not dating women by choice, but rather because of a pattern of attraction that ran counter to my societally-programmed thinking about men. If a guy makes you nervous it must mean you like him, not that you aren’t attracted and are skeeved out by the attention; if you’re turned on sexually that means that you must really want to seek out relationships with men; etc.

Okay enough about me. What is wrong with this study? Here’s my series of reactions:

  • Initially I got mad because I thought that the study really was saying that more attractive/educated women are less likely to identify as bi.
  • Then I realized all it said was that early dating success made women more likely to identify as heterosexual, so I was a little less mad.
  • Then I realized the coverage was skewing things, and that the author really was trying to say that women’s sexuality was fluid relative to men’s sexuality, affected by external/social circumstances, and I wasn’t mad but something skeeved me out about this. Not mad, but skeeved.
  • Then I realized exactly what skeeved me out about the study, and here I am, mad again.

There are several things wrong with this study, even though it’s trying to break down stereotypes and claim that women’s sexuality is fluid. Here are the things that do annoy me:

  1. There is nothing new or revolutionary about claiming that women’s sexuality is fluid. Lisa Diamond’s book “Sexual fluidity: understanding women’s love and desire” (which happens to be online as a publicly available PDF here), is quite extensive in tackling the complexity of female sexuality, as well as to quantify exactly how female sexuality does or does not change over time. Her study was done over 10 years, and did not jump to any inapprope’ conclusions. The book made me feel more comfortable with my own quarter-life sexuality switch, and helped me on my self-discovery journey. 
  2. There is nothing new or revolutionary in talking about how beautiful women have different experiences than… well, the rest of us are not given a name, but “plain” or “ugly” or “normal” or… you know? it doesn’t matter, but people seem to be very uncomfortable talking about non-beautiful women. Conventional? Average? Typical? Those are not gross words. But people only seem to talk about the “more attractive” end of the spectrum, while avoiding explicitly naming the other end of the spectrum. BUT I DIGRESS. Yes, of course women who conform to patriarchal standards of attractiveness tend to attract more male attention than women who don’t. Beauty privilege exists, even within queer identities. This. Is. Not. Revolutionary. 
  3. In addition to it being nothing revolutionary, studying beauty and sexuality can be harmful. There’s so much research out there about all the benefits that women of a certain type have, and the discussion never moves beyond that. We get it. Beautiful women can get some things. Remember Jon Hamm’s character on 30 Rock, as Liz Lemon’s ex who was so handsome everyone overlooked how stupid he was? Handsome enough to become a doctor, but stupid enough to lose his arm waving out of a helicopter? It was pretty funny in comedy, but in social science: there’s nothing new to add to this discussion. I may be naive, but I believe humanity to be far more complex. Let’s as a society just move on. P.S. A better discussion of women and beauty that isn’t pseudoscience but is nevertheless written by two PhDs: Beauty Redefined.
  4. The study oversimplifies, which is my biggest gripe with quite a lot of social science research, or at least, the stuff that gets popular coverage. Not all bisexuality is the same. Not all heterosexuality is the same. Not all fluidity is the same. Not all narratives are the same. What about women who marry men and then divorce and seek out women? What about social pressure to marry men? What about the fact that if you’re a patriarchally-conforming woman you have way more male options than female options, statistically speaking, and so you might never even get the opportunity to discover other desires? There is such a spectrum of human experience, that to say that bisexuals tend to be those who never dated men they liked is an enormous oversimplification.
  5. And finally, why do we need to study bisexuality like it’s this fascinating phenomenon? Why must we continually prove it exists? Oh right, because women can’t be trusted to know what they want. So many articles it seems are tackling the whole bisexual phenomenon, bisexuality is misrepresented and misquoted, and women finally post their real frustrations about being bi on Whisper, and then those same news sources report on what women write on Whisper. Because it takes a lot to be heard in this world, especially if you’re a female person claiming that you’re not just attracted to male people and are thus bucking the whole patriarchy. And then of course Cara DeLevigne is told she’s going through a phase and the whole internet breaks again. We’re going in circles, guys, so why can’t we just accept this stuff, stop proving and re-proving that bisexuals exist, and move on?

Overall, I’m sure this researcher is well-intentioned and stuff, but I found this article neither enlightening nor revolutionary nor trope-defying; it simply opens the population of bisexual women to more scrutiny. Then again, this is just my opinion; maybe with better media coverage she could show something exciting that I fail to see from the few articles i’ve found that have covered it.

So like yeah I take this shit too personally. You bet I do; it’s personal. If you tell a female-of-center person that she’s bi because she couldn’t get a desirable man, she will roll her eyes obviously because guess what… you don’t know her life. But some part of her might believe it. Some part of her might hear all the bisexual tropes come out, wonder if there is truth to them, wonder why she didn’t just date that guy while her hair was long and she would get all pretty to go to lab, maybe she wasn’t attractive, maybe she was foolish and society would never take her seriously. You know, hypothetically, she might feel hurt by repeated studies trying to understand her, rather than just taking her at her word. 

Wow, that just got really real, didn’t it…

But yeah. You bet I take it personally.

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2 thoughts on “Another study about pesky female sexuality!

  1. Great analysis! You make so many good points. As someone who comes from a science background, where everything is reduced to numbers and there’s no thought given to the social impact of experiments, it’s taken me a while to really understand a lot of the problems you point out.

    For example the over simplification – in physics you want to simplify everything down as far as you possibly can, until you have a something universally applicable. When I first read an anthropology paper that was full of people’s personal narratives, I admit I rolled my eyes at it, because it didn’t feel like science – it felt like gathering anecdotes. But I’ve come around to realize that the complexity of human behavior and culture is such that if you try to reduce it too far, you will end up with completely useless generalities.

    I also agree with your last point, that even studying something in the first place can carry harmful value judgments. I had arguments about this when Larry Summers made his infamous remark about whether women were intrinsically less suited to science. Some people I know agreed that this was something we should try to study objectively. My reaction was that we know women can be successful in science, and we also know that there are still significant barriers to women in science, so why don’t we focus our energies on improving that first! When women really have equal opportunity, then maybe there won’t be a reason to try to study whether they’re actually inferior.

    And finally, the quality of media reporting on studies of any sort is always frustrating. I usually only notice it when it’s something in my own area of expertise, because then I can spot all the errors, bad explanations, and wrong assumptions, but I always assume stories about results in other fields are just as bad. At one time I wanted to go into science reporting because I could see that there’s a huge need for people who can translate science papers to the public… but in the end, probably someone who didn’t do that in a sensationalistic kind of way wouldn’t sell many copies. Oh well!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking essay!

    Like

    • Another science nerd! I’m in a STEM field as well, doing my thesis partly in a theoretical field and partly in an applied field. We can draw a distinction between theoretical sciences–physics math etc.– where you want to simplify, and applied sciences–biology, engineering, social sciences, etc– where it’s dangerous to oversimplify.
      Thanks for bringing up Larry Summers… he was trying to ask an important question, but he did so while perpetuating the problem. In social sciences, the complexity of the problems means that the same research can sometimes be used for good or for evil: eg, the whole fluidity thing of female sexuality can be used for good (“women’s sexuality can change, so women who experience this should know they aren’t alone”… my conclusion from Diamond’s book) or for evil (“women’s sexuality can change, probably because if they can’t find a mate they seek elsewhere… interpret as you will”… my conclusion from this research). Experts have to be careful why they study something, how they study it, etc.

      As for science reporting… yep! sensationalize or die. Ugh. The worst.

      Liked by 1 person

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