Science blinded by vocabulary

The New York Times Magazine recently had a fascinating article about the quest to establish a scientific basis for bisexuality. It discussed the early work of researcher Michael Bailey, who first used studies of penile inflation while watching both gay and straight porn to conclude that there was no measurable bisexual response.
Among the points raised in the strong objection to this study (objections to which he is listening) was that porn in and of itself is not always arousing to people; one lay-person noted that the ill-used and unhealthy women who often appear in porn are a turn-off to people who care about women as more than just targets.
It’s another reminder (I’ve written about this before) that scientists need to ask better questions, to step back from assumptions and unquestioned terminology. The -sexual in science’s terms for people’s affections sounds precise, but is so reductive as to mislead. Yes we desire certain people, and it is with those people that we are likely to form lasting pairings. But we know that in those pairings are a world of romance, of partnership, of spiritual complementarity.
Yet a professor of psychology who seeks the truth of a sexuality so rare and furtive as to be a Yeti, fifty years after Alfred Kinsey put male attraction on a six-point range, can’t think to do more than check for chubbies. His science was blinded by vocabulary.
He’s not the first. A decade ago, some researchers insisted they had found male homosexuals had female-sized structures inside the hypothalamus. It was a ridiculously broad claim. Even before getting into scientific niceties like sample size, any lay-person with even one gay friend could see how limited their understanding of gayness was. Were the people in question bottoms or tops, bears or metros, in the closet or out? No. Just: Are you gay? What’s in your brain?
Human attraction is confusing, and its expressions are both surprising and tempered by the cultures in which they flower. Why is it that gay men in stable couples tend to match each other in their masculine appearance, be they sleek metros or hairy bears, while lesbian couples are often comfortably divergent, with one traditionally feminine and another in male drag? Is it them, or is it their reaction to the vastly larger straight world, still so perniciously androcentric that we’re just easier on a woman in men’s clothes than a man in women’s?
I imagine it is tough on bisexuals (who exist, I am certain in my belief) to be dismissed by straights and gays as indecisive or confused, and no wonder they seek the validation science provides. But it takes a huge level of familiarity, and of self-abnegation, to know something well-enough to ask the right questions, especially when that thing is not an inert mineral but an individual constantly giving and receiving garbled questioning signals from its fellows.
Alas there is no easy answer. Before we explain what’s inside the mind, we need to spend much more time with what’s outside the skin.

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Anthony Dobranski Posted on

Novelist, writer, game designer, skier.

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