Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, August 24, 2020

How to prove you exist

Let me say right up front that I don't mean any of what I'm saying here as criticism of the researchers themselves.

But there are times that it is damn frustrating that the research has to be done in the first place.

This comes up because of a paper that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a couple of weeks ago, by a team led by Jeremy Jabbour of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University.  In "Robust Evidence for Bisexual Orientation Among Men," we read:
The question whether some men have a bisexual orientation—that is, whether they are substantially sexually aroused and attracted to both sexes—has remained controversial among both scientists and laypersons.  Skeptics believe that male sexual orientation can only be homosexual or heterosexual, and that bisexual identification reflects nonsexual concerns, such as a desire to deemphasize homosexuality.  Although most bisexual-identified men report that they are attracted to both men and women, self-report data cannot refute these claims.  Patterns of physiological (genital) arousal to male and female erotic stimuli can provide compelling evidence for male sexual orientation.  (In contrast, most women provide similar physiological responses to male and female stimuli.)  We investigated whether men who self-report bisexual feelings tend to produce bisexual arousal patterns.  Prior studies of this issue have been small, used potentially invalid statistical tests, and produced inconsistent findings.  We combined nearly all previously published data (from eight previous studies in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada), yielding a sample of 474 to 588 men (depending on analysis).  All participants were cisgender males.  Highly robust results showed that bisexual-identified men’s genital and subjective arousal patterns were more bisexual than were those who identified as exclusively heterosexual or homosexual.  These findings support the view that male sexual orientation contains a range, from heterosexuality, to bisexuality, to homosexuality.
So basically what they did was to show naked pics of both men and women to self-identified bisexual guys, and check to see if they got hard-ons from both.

Like I said in the first sentence, I'm glad this research was done, because there is doubt out there.  I've heard that doubt go two ways -- that bisexuals are straight people looking for attention or for a kinky thrill, or that bisexuals are gay people who are afraid to admit it.  I remember clearly being told by a student -- long before I was out of the closet -- that she could understand there being homosexuals and heterosexuals, but she couldn't see how there could be bisexuals.  "How can they be attracted to both at the same time?" she asked me.  "Why don't they just make up their minds?"

I fell back on the research -- that bisexuality and the spectrum-nature of sexual orientation was well-established -- but even after seeing the data, she wasn't convinced.  "I just don't believe it," she said.

Not only was I appalled by this because, in essence, she was talking about me -- telling me that my own identity was an impossibility -- but because even presented with evidence, she went with her "feelings" on the topic rather than (1) the conclusions of the scientists, and worse, (2) people's assessment of their own orientation.

Because that's the thing, isn't it?  How does anyone have the fucking temerity to say, "No, that's not who you are.  I know better.  Here's who you actually are."?  People in the trans community know this all too well; how often are they told that someone else knows their gender better than they do?

And here, we're told we have to prove we even exist.

How about just believing us?

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Peter Salanki from San Francisco, USA, The bisexual pride flag (3673713584), CC BY 2.0]

I've known I was bisexual since I was fifteen years old.  There was never any doubt about my attraction to both men and women.  Hell, I knew it before I'd ever even heard the word "bisexuality."  The fact that now, over forty years later, there has to be a study published in a major scientific journal to convince people that I actually know who I am -- that I'm not delusional or lying -- is nothing short of infuriating.

So thanks to Jabbour et al. for establishing peer-reviewed research that I hope and pray will put this question to rest once and for all.  I know it won't convince everyone -- my long-ago evidence-proof student as a case in point -- but maybe we'll move toward accepting that gender and sexual orientation are complex and completely non-binary, and better still, toward valuing people's understanding of who they are over society's pronouncements of who they should be.

And as I've said before: I wish I'd been strong enough and fearless enough to claim my own identity when I first realized it as a teenager.  I have often wondered what trajectory my life would have taken if I'd spent all those years free of the humiliation and fear I was raised with, and proud of who I was instead of ashamed of it.  You can't change past mistakes, more's the pity, but at least I can state who I am now and hope that my voice will add more volume to the call that each of us should be free to celebrate who we are without having to prove anything to anyone.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a brilliant retrospective of how we've come to our understanding of one of the fastest-moving scientific fields: genetics.

In Siddhartha Mukherjee's wonderful book The Gene: An Intimate History, we're taken from the first bit of research that suggested how inheritance took place: Gregor Mendel's famous study of pea plants that established a "unit of heredity" (he called them "factors" rather than "genes" or "alleles," but he got the basic idea spot on).  From there, he looks at how our understanding of heredity was refined -- how DNA was identified as the chemical that housed genetic information, to how that information is encoded and translated, to cutting-edge research in gene modification techniques like CRISPR-Cas9.  Along each step, he paints a very human picture of researchers striving to understand, many of them with inadequate tools and resources, finally leading up to today's fine-grained picture of how heredity works.

It's wonderful reading for anyone interested in genetics and the history of science.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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