Confession: When I saw the teaser Bisexual Men Do Exist, Study Finds on the New York Times home page last week, I laughed.  Bi erasure is a real, frustrating cultural phenomenon―at times it seems that we are simply incapable of imagining more than one kind of erotic desire happening in a human being at the same time―but there was just something about seeing that featured on the website for the paper of record that seemed ludicrous.

Unfortunately, it’s not really a laughing matter.  The study in question follows a 2005 study that was unable to show that bisexual attraction exists in men, and the current study supposedly provides reassuring proof that such attraction can be found.  How?  Well.  Porn.

For the methodological issues, see this piece in the Guardian.  More generally, I would just point out that it’s silly to base an answer to whether a sexuality exists on whether a sample of men who claim that sexuality experience erections in a lab setting while viewing a narrow range of pornography.  I found it interesting, especially, that the pornography was either male-male or female-female―while heterosexual porn would make it more difficult to know which actor the subject was reacting to, I find it a bit problematic that we seem to be operating on the “men who like women enjoy watching lesbians having sex” assumption.  Of course, we’re also ignoring the possibility that bisexual men might not be turned on by the sex acts being portrayed, the actors, the scenario, or any number of other factors.

The big thing that bugs me, though, about research like this, is that it’s so incredibly reductive about sexuality and claimed sexual identity.  Amy Andre put it beautifully on the Bilerco Project:

Bisexual identity is as much about language as it is about sexuality. If someone says he is bisexual, he is bisexual. He is bisexual as soon as he says he’s bisexual, because that is the word that he uses to describe his sexuality. As long as the word bisexual has been accessible for people to use to describe their sexuality, there have been men who did so.

It is crucial for researchers and academics to understand that someone is a given sexual or gender identity because they say so.  Studies like this get away from the fact that people experience their sexuality in a myriad of ways, which makes sexuality interesting.  Bisexual people may be attracted to a narrow group of people in a given gender, or may experience attraction to one gender differently than the other.  They may claim an identity for political reasons, or based on past experience.  They may tend to be sexually attracted to one gender more quickly (for example, watching porn) and develop attraction towards a member of the other gender more slowly, through getting to know a person.  (Of course, I’m leaving out a big chunk of people here that identify as neither male nor female, and I cringe using terms like “the other” gender, but I want to respect the use of the term bisexuality here.)

These studies are just as silly as the ones that try to claim some evolutionary or biological reason for how men and women relate to one another.  Sometimes, searching for deeper meaning in a scientific way is actually incredibly limiting.  The reporting of a study like this in the media further contributes to narrow ideas of what sexuality means and what possibilities are available.  It creates a self-reinforcing narrow idea of sexuality, and turns bisexual people into the unicorns of the LGBT movement.  It doesn’t really do a service to anyone.

Who are bisexual men?  Men who say they are bisexual.  Period.