By Andrew Goldberg | Staff Writer
You’ve likely seen an article on your newsfeed titled something like, ‘Women are either bisexual or gay but 'never straight.’ Written by such outlets as The New York Times, The Telegraph, and IFLS, and they all lead with a similar statement: ‘women are very rarely heterosexual’. Why? Where did these articles come from, and what level of validity do they hold?
Well, all of these articles stem from a 2015 study recently accepted into the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Dr. Gerulf Rieger, the Library Officer of the Social and Health Psychology Group at the University of Essex. The study involved 345 women and used pupillometry, the measurement of pupil diameter, to make analyses of the individuals’ sexual orientation as sexual stimuli, i.e. videos of naked men and women, was introduced.
Rieger observed that women who identified as heterosexuals were, on average, aroused by videos of both sexes. In his own words, “even though the majority of women identify as straight, our research clearly demonstrates that when it comes to what turns them on, they are either bisexual or gay, but never straight.
Based on the methods used in this experiment, (a fair N, sample size, and a moderate d of .61, effect size) the results suggested are likely significant. But what is the correlation between a physical response, pupil dilation, and a nature/nurture phenomena, sexual orientation? We must evaluate pupillometry, a technique according to The Scientist that has been used for decades to assess everything from “sleepiness, introversion, race bias, schizophrenia, sexual interest, moral judgment, autism, and depression.”
Psychologists have been looking at pupil dilation for subject understanding since a 1960 study looking into the preconscious. The study made two observations: the pupillary light reflex, the idea that the pupil reacts differently to different intensities of light, and more importantly, the notion that pupils seem to reflect arousal and emotion. To bring us back around, my point is that while pupillometry is documented and credible to an extent, it is used to demonstrate so many different theories that it is probably not a great indicator of any one. In Rieger’s study, he states that pupil dilation is a valid means of this specific interpretation, citing a 1965 study, when in all reality, the pupil can only tell us so much.
However, my major criticism of this paper is that arousal is not precisely the same as sexual orientation. In 2001, Northwestern University Psychologist J. Michael Bailey published a paper in the American Psychological Association on his two year study exploring the relationship between sexual arousal and sexual orientation. He reports category specificity, the tendency for gay men to become aroused only to same-sex images and heterosexual men to become aroused only to opposite-sex images. Moreover he found that this is not necessarily true of women. If he is right, this means there are fundamental sex differences in the relationship between arousal and orientation.
A 2007 study conducted by Meredith Chivers, Professor of Psychology at Queen’s University, confirms Bailey’s results. While looking into sexual orientation differences in sexual response to sexual activities, Chiver’s agrees with Bailey that, “concluding women are bisexual on the basis of their sexual responding overlooks the complexity and multidimensionality of female sexuality.”
I asked Dr. Catherine Salmon, Professor of Psychology here at the UOR what her thoughts on the Telegraph’s article are: “if the researcher thinks that result means all women are bisexual or lesbian, he better add zoophiles [individuals attracted to animals] to the mix. Chivers’ research that showed videos of gay and straight human sex as well as bonobo sex to men and women while tracking genital arousal demonstrated clearly that women respond with genital lubrication to gay, straight and bonobo [a type of chimpanzee] sex, despite the fact that they only verbally reported human sex as arousing. This suggests that women’s sexual arousal is not tightly tied to their sexual orientation.”
In Bailey and Chivers’ studies, similar studies to Rieger’s other than that genital arousal was measured as a substitute to pupil dilation, it was concluded that women, unlike men, show the same genital responses to different kinds of erotic stimuli regardless of their sexual orientation. Bailey and Chivers’, however, end their studies with similar conclusions that, in Bailey’s words, “there [are] very fundamental sex difference between sexual arousal patterns in men and women.”
I will not agree or disagree with the results of Rieger’s study, but I will suggest that he does not have enough evidence to thoughtfully make any claims. I do nonetheless appreciate Bailey and Chiver’s studies as they both conclude that their results should be in the back of others minds as further research on sexual arousal and orientation is done, as opposed to shoving a potentially false theory down our throats.
Interestingly, the Telegraph posed a survey asking individuals after reading their version of Reiger’s findings whether they believe women can be 100% straight or not. Over 24,500 have contributed and the poll says that 55% of voters believe yes, women can be 100% straight. What do you think?