Ritch C Savin-Williams
Source: Ritch C Savin-Williams

A large national, representative sample of US adults (NSFG Study) recently headlined more women (but not men) are identifying as bisexual and engaging in sex with both males and females. These upward trends among millennial young adults held across racial, ethnic, and social class groups. Although the authors can’t definitively explain the change across generations, they offer the following speculations:

“One prominent message of the gender revolution was that it is all right for women to do things only men could previously do. This increased the sense that it was permissible for women to engage in sex with women, even though doing so is still a violation of traditional gender conformity. Increased tolerance for gay rights furthered the sense of permission... The continued devaluation of the feminine, combined with the fact that same-sex relationships were still seen as gender-bending, meant that engaging in them entailed losing status for men..." 

Intriguing, in part, but highly doubtful that lesbians and men would be immune to these social changes. And what about mostly straight women and men? Let’s take a closer look at several problems with the study and its speculations.

The authors’ main independent variable is “birth cohort,” which they use to document change over time. However, rather than doing what is typical in the field—theoretically justifying what is a cohort—the authors take a purely practical approach, grouping the data into “categories containing enough respondents for analysis.” To me this is a severe limitation, especially if one attempts to explain findings based on external changes going on in the culture.

This categorical, atheoretical approach re-emerges when they determine sexual groups. Let me say at this point that the authors had an opportunity to assume a continuum rather than a categorical approach to sexuality because they had a 5-point sexual attraction scale. But what did they do? “We recoded the categories into heterosexual attraction (only attracted to the other sex), bisexual attraction (attracted mostly to either sex, or equally to both), and gay attraction (attracted only to one’s own sex).”

Let’s tackle first the authors' failure to find an increase in same-sex sexuality among men. When I compare the NSFG findings with another nationally representative study (Add Health) with the youngest adult cohort, I discovered something rather odd:

Add Health reports twice as many men are not straight as does the NSFG (8% versus 4%). What happened to all the sexual-minority men in NSFG? Easy to explain: Because the authors only had 3 categories of sexuality, most mostly straight men were “forced” to claim straight status because they are in reality closer to the straight than the bisexual category. It is exactly these mostly straight men—who are comfortable with their slight degree of gender nonconformity and same-sex behavior—who most likely benefited from the gender/gay revolutions.

Turning to women, while we’re on the gender/gay revolutions, I have a difficult time understanding why they seemingly caused women to identify as and engage in sex with both sexes without having significant impact creating lesbians and female-only sexual behavior. Why haven’t these revolutions provoked more women to identify as lesbian or engage in only sexual behavior with other women? No explanation is given. Doesn’t make sense to me.

However, my major problem with the NSFG findings is that they fail to identify what likely has actually happened: the increase in sexual-minority women is not about bisexual women but about mostly straight women. The two are not the same. When given a forced choice between identifying as straight or bisexual, the vast majority of mostly straight women (similar to mostly straight men) will chose their “closer cousins,” their straight sisters.

Furthermore, whereas an earlier NSFG report that did not force mostly straights into the bisexual box, 15% of women reported mostly heterosexual attraction and 3% bisexual attraction (similar to Add Health). And, whereas Add Health found 16% of women identified as mostly straight and 2% as bisexual, the current NSFG study found 7% identified as bisexual. Why so many bisexuals and what happened to the other women? My guess is that most of these other women identified (falsely) as straight because, as noted above, that was a closer fit than bisexual. The current NSFG study merely lumped (some of) these women with the bisexual category, thus erasing their visibility.

As further evidence, it is noteworthy that Add Health reported over twice as many women are not straight-identified compared with the NSFG study: 20% vs. 9%. That’s losing a lot of self-identified sexual-minority women—and most are mostly straight!

Why these huge discrepancies among two reputable national studies? Their assumptions about the nature of sexuality:

1. Add Health assumes a less categorical approach to sexuality and more of a continuum approach.

2. The NSFG authors assume the traditional sexual categories: straight, bisexual, gay/lesbian.

Unfortunately, this appears to be another instance in which theory and previous research were ignored for “practical” reasons—to achieve the numbers needed for statistical analyses at the cost of truth. By doing so the authors found something that likely does not exist: an increase in bisexual women.

Does their decision matter? Absolutely in terms of the millions of individuals who do not fit into one of these three boxes—they’re neither straight, bisexual, or lesbian. We as researchers need to listen to them. Indeed, we know there are more mostly straight women and men than bisexual and lesbian/gay individuals combined (see my earlier posts). The net effect is to erase entire, legitimate, personally meaningful points on the sexual continuum.

Bottom Line: Mostly heterosexuals exist. They’re not bisexuals.

References

England, P., Mishel, E., & Caudillo, M. L. 2016. “Increases in sex with same-sex partners and bisexual identity across cohorts of women (but not men).” Sociological Science 3, 951-970. doi: 10.15195/v3.a42

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