Male Sexual Fluidity, some thoughts

By Adam Phillips

I’ve done some thinking and some studying about these things over the years. And this is what I think.

First, let me say that it depresses me a little that when we talk about things that seem to matter most, in politics or religion or sexuality, we seem to be ready at all times to choose up sides pre-emptively and to dismiss without a reasoned hearing the claims of the other side as lunatic, inhuman, and/or dangerous. The reason that depresses me is that when we do that, there’s no hope of mutual growth and conversation . . . it’s only “my way or the highway.” And on the matter of sexual orientation, and the supposed fluidity or lack thereof, there are good reasons to call into question most dogmatic assertions, whether they’re made by “straights” or “gays”. For example, though I would call myself a Christian, I have problems with any Christian who states that homosexual behavior is unequivocally contrary to God’s will. Such a position can’t be inferred from any responsible study of Scripture and contains several questionable theological assumptions. In any case, the high-temperature issues never get a thorough airing because we’re all too busy defending our positions to give the other guy a fair hearing. And that’s unfortunate all the way around.

Be that all as it may, I want to talk about sexuality anyway. Let’s start with the basic question of orientation. Already, by assuming that there are two univocal and monolithic sexual orientations, “gay” and “straight,” people seem to be engaging in a sort of descriptive reductionism that compromises clarity from the outset. For some of you who’ve heard me hold forth before on the subject of sexual orientation, this will bore the snot out of you, but it’s worth examining what a couple of noted sex researchers after Kinsey have discovered on the subject.

Michael Storms, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, studied sexuality and erotic fantasies. His research caused him to conclude that sexuality was not as simple a phenomenon as the famous Kinsey scale seemed to suggest. The Kinsey scale is one-dimensional, and suggests that the more one is attracted to one gender the less one is attracted to the other. Dr. Storms’ research, however, led him to the conclusion that a person’s level of physical attraction to one gender was independent of that person’s level of physical attraction to another. For this reason, in 1980 he proposed a graph for plotting people’s sexuality that was two-dimensional instead of one-dimensional. His scale has an x-axis and a y-axis. The x-axis represents a person’s same-sex attraction, the y-axis represents opposite-sex attraction. For example, let’s for convenience segment the axes by whole numbers through five. A male whose “dot” is put on (0, 5) is strongly attracted to women, not at all attracted to men. A male whose “dot” is placed on (0,2) experiences a degree of attraction to women that is less in intensity than the first subject, and he, like the first subject, experiences no attraction to men. A male who is graphed at (3,5) is strongly attracted to women and moderately attracted to men. And so on. It can be seen that this two-dimensional scale allows for descriptions of a wider variety of sexual configurations than can the Kinsey scale. Storms’ graph also allows for the representation of another phenomenon Storms discovered in his research, viz., that given two people with identical “orientations,” there could between the two be a wide variation in the intensity of that attraction.

This instrument seemed more accurate to Storms in describing his subjects’ sexual orientations than the Kinsey scale; it can be inferred from the results of Storms’ work that the subject of sexual orientation is more complex than was previously understood.

Fritz Klein’s research brings to light even more variables. Klein was a practicing psychiatrist who received his medical degree at the University of Berlin. Based on experiences from his practice and from his research, he devised an instrument now called the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid. The source of Klein’s dissatisfaction with existing instruments was that they treated sexuality as exclusively physiological. His practice and research led him to conclude that it is impossible to understand sexual orientation if one restricts one’s vision solely to the physical dimension. The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, created by Klein as a result of his research and experience in psychiatry practice, conceives of sexual orientation in seven dimensions: 1) physical sexual attraction; 2) sexual behavior; 3) sexual fantasies; 4) emotional preference; 5) social preference; 6) self-identification; and 7) lifestyle. Klein’s research convinced him that these seven dimensions appear to be variable and somewhat independent of each other. Furthermore, the Grid considers these dimensions across three time frames: past, present (that is, the last 12 months), and future (that is, a person’s desired sexuality in terms of the subject’s perceived ideal future goal). The reason for the inclusion of time frames is that from Klein’s psychiatry practice, it became clear to him that for many of his patients and research subjects sexual orientation was fluid over time.

The introduction into the Grid of dimensions that have an inescapably subjective element bothered some critics, but Klein contends that it distorts the picture of a subject’s sexuality when a researcher discount the subject’s self-understandings and goals when describing the subject’s sexual orientation, and also overlooks that a person’s sexuality is lived out in a social context and is shaped in part by that context.

What can we conclude about sexual orientation from the work of these two men? First of all, obviously, sexuality is much more nuanced and complex that just gay/straight, or even gay/straight/bi. Second, the notion that sexuality is something existing entirely in the biology of the individual is misguided. There are social, emotional, and psychological factors that shape our sexual orientation, and for some people, their experience of their sexuality changes over time with regard to orientation.

It’s reasonable to infer, then, that the terms “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual” may obscure more than they reveal when applied to individuals. If Klein is correct, the idea that a person’s “label” will describe him accurately for his entire life is disputable.  While some people may vary little in their attractions throughout their adult lives, not everyone is wired with that kind of permanence, and some people may indeed find themselves capable of “choosing” one “orientation” or another. For gay people to insist that no one can change their orientation may be an important political move, but it’s not entirely accurate descriptively, at least not for everybody. What, I think, is not disputable is that  a person doesn’t choose how malleable his or her sexual orientation is, and whether or not it’s amenable to variation or behaviorist intervention attempts. It’s also clear to me that no one should be forced to attempt a change in his or her sexual orientation–but for that matter, no one should be forced not to attempt a change if they want to make one–and everyone should be affirmed for the sexual orientation they have and allowed to experience and express it in the way they feel is most appropriate for them, unless it involves harm to others (people with a physical attraction to children come to mind).

Sexual orientation doesn’t proceed according to formula. Storms and Klein teach us that it’s not correct to think of only two, or even only three, orientations. There are a multitude of configurations, a number of different ‘bisexualities’.

I’ve just finished reading an interesting book from the Young Adult Fiction category called Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. There’s some dialogue between two guys that came closer to expressing my own experience and configuration better than I’ve ever seen it expressed in literature. This particular conversation is between two teenaged boys who used to be a couple, but one of them decided he was straight and pushed the other away–unkindly. Now he feels guilty about how he treated him…and more.

“I’m sorry,” he mutters.

“Don’t be. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

“No.” He looks at me again; the shivering subsides. “I know you hate me. You have every right to hate me. You don’t have to speak to me again.”

He gets up to leave, and my paralysis is broken. I put my hand on his arm and gesture to him to sit down.

“Listen to me, Kyle,” I say. He sits back down and angles his face toward mine. “I mean this entirely. And I’ll only say it once. I do not hate you, and have never hated you. I was angry at you and depressed by you and confused about you. But hate never came into it.”

“Thank you,” he whispers.

I continue quietly. “If you want me to forgive you, I guess I have. If you want to know that I don’t hate you, you know that now. Is that all?”

A slight shiver again.

“No,” he says.

“What, then?” I ask gently.

“I need your help, Paul. I have no right to ask you for it, but I can’t think of anyone else to talk to.”

I am already involved. I’ve put myself in this position, and the truth is that I don’t really mind.

“What is it, Kyle?”

“I’m so confused.”

“Why?”

“I still like girls.”

“So?”

“And I also like guys.”

I touch his knee. “It doesn’t sound like you’re confused, then.”

“But I wanted to be one or the other. With you, I wanted just to like you. Then, after you, I wanted to just like the girls. But every time I’m with the one, I think the other’s possible.”

“So you’re bisexual.”

Kyle’s face flushes. “I hate that word,” he tells me, slumping back in his chair. “It makes me sound like I’m divided.”

“When really you’re doubled?”

“Right-O.”

I smiled. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a Right-O.

I know some people think liking both guys and girls is a cop-out. Some of Infinite Darlene’s biggest rivals save their deepest scorn for the people they call “dabblers.” But I think they’re totally full of garbage. I don’t see why, if I’m wired to like guys, someone else can’t be wired to like both girls and guys.

“We could call you an ambisexual. A duosexual. A–“

“Do I really have to find a word for it?” Kyle interrupts. “Can’t it just be what it is?”

“Of course,” I say, even though in the bigger world I’m not so sure. The world loves stupid labels. I wish we got to choose our own.

When really you’re doubled.” Man, that guy right there was speaking for me. About me.

A correspondent in my group talked about a guy “who got the gay smacked out of him” when he fell in love and in lust with a woman. That experience put the damper on his desire for men because his feelings for her are so compelling.

I don’t find this a bit odd. He may be so in love that over the long haul his attraction to men may not matter. Or he may find that his attraction to men comes to matter once again at some time, but doesn’t necessarily mean he is doomed to fail in his relationship with her. You can’t predict the ways of the heart, and you can’t predict the ways sexual configuration will have an impact in all that.

I am personally familiar with two male-male couples in which one “member” of the couple is, for all intents and purposes, straight–so straight that I’m tempted to call these men “completely straight.” But in both cases, something about the other partner caused the “straight” member to love him enough to desire him sexually. As far as I can tell, these relationships will be lifelong.

Bottom line is that I just don’t think you can predict these things, and while some people may be in “denial,” there’s something to be said for accepting at face value a guy’s report of his own experience of his sexuality. That it’s different from yours, or even from your understanding of sexuality, doesn’t make it untrue.

As for a religion-based attempt to “repair” a person’s sexual orientation, while it may not harm everyone who goes through it–and I think it’s important for us to counteract the myth that it’s inevitably destructive, because maintaining that myth in the face of some people’s self-reports to the contrary only gives fuel to those people to characterize the rest of us as liars–what is destructive is these religious groups’ inevitable contention that this “repair” is mandated by the Christian faith, that living gay is offensive to God, and that those who fail at reparation therapy, or refuse it, have somehow invoked the wrath of God. This pernicious view is destructive both to individuals and to the larger society.


[See also, from the same issue Male Sexuality Fluidity, a memoir, by Don Bellew — Ed]

2 Responses to Male Sexual Fluidity, some thoughts

  1. I’m not sure I agree with a lot of this … which struck me as rushed and kind of ill-thought out. On the other hand, I thought other parts were simply brilliant. I often think about things of this sort, so it rang a bell for me. I’m a bottom, 100% … and that’s that … and I’ve been approached on numbers of straight guys, or self-professed straight gays. One said he, “Wanted to practice.” Hmm. Interesting. Anyway, Iike this … and pernicious is one of my favorite words in all the world ! I shall name my next cat Pernicious. I just decided. Best, Mark

  2. Adam says:

    Thanks for your comment. I won’t take issue with your contention that “a lot of this was…rushed”. but what, specifically, do you believe is “kind of ill-thought out”? As a man for whom the label “bisexual” is probably most accurate in describing my sexual wiring, I’m always interested in understanding myself and other bisexuals better, so I’d be curious to know what you saw as poor reasoning in this essay. I wrote it years ago and intended it more as a set of personal reflections based on feelings, experience, and familiarity with some of the research out there. So I didn’t put it out there as anything scientifically definitive. But I would very much value having you tell me specifically the parts of the essay you believe to be poorly-reasoned.

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