I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone the other week when I read the pseudo-scientific psychobabble that spewed forth from Psychology Today‘s blog, “Sax on Sex.” In this particular entry, psychology and physician Leonard Sax posits that there’s a reason why so many girls are lesbian and bisexual nowadays:
Psychologist John Buss estimates that for most of human history, perhaps 2% of women have been lesbian or bisexual (see note 1, below). Not any more. Recent surveys of teenage girls and young women find that roughly 15% of young females today self-identify as lesbian or bisexual, compared with about 5% of young males who identify as gay or bisexual
Sax also thinks there’s a connection between the rise in young boys having ready and available access to pornography and this rise in female lesbian/bisexuality:
Maybe there is. A young woman told me how her boyfriend several years ago suggested that she shave her pubic hair, so that she might more closely resemble the porn stars who were this young man’s most consistent source of sexual arousal. She now identifies herself as bisexual.
Ah, okay. So we intermingle sketchy historical data with a few shocking anecdotes, and suddenly we have an explanation for this “sudden” rise in female bi-sexuality and lesbians. Or do we?
Of course we all know the value of anecdotes — they help relay a good story. Folks like Malcolm Gladwell like to couch scientific data in anecdotes to make that data more accessible and understandable (hence why he’s so popular).
But Gladwell tends not to drawn sweeping conclusions from the anecdotes themselves. That’s reserved for that actual empirical data.
Sax admits that we really don’t know what the historical rate of female lesbianism or bisexuality has been. His only citation for suggesting there’s been this crazy increase is a single citation from a psychology 101 textbook. Not exactly journal-level science there.
The simple and more probable explanation is found buried in Sax’s notes — that in different times, different standards were more acceptable. Therefore reporting of one’s sexuality is likely to be biased toward those standards. In other words, it’s not that there are necessarily more lesbians and bisexuals today, it’s that people feel far more free and open to identify with that label without as much fear of societal or criminal prosecution.
It’s amazing what general societal acceptance will do for reporting of nearly anything. Look at mental health issues, for instance. Even just twenty years ago, the stigma was such that many people had a difficult time acknowledging their mental health concern. In many parts of the country, this same fear is still very much prevalent when it comes to acknowledging one’s sexual orientation.
So the answer is likely far simpler — we have “more” lesbians, bisexuals and gay men because it’s easier in today’s society to acknowledge that you’re a lesbian, gay man or bisexual. It also won’t result in your criminal prosecution or rejection from society as it did in the past. The impact of reporting bias is significant for this issue, because in the past people simply didn’t talk about these things openly. Or with researchers.
As for more women who don’t identify with the pure “heterosexual” label as compared to men, perhaps it’s just as likely because women don’t feel the stigma associated with the alternative labels as readily as men do. To be a young adult male and to self-identify as gay or bisexual puts you into a certain, ready-made category. To be a young adult female and to self-identify in the same way just acknowledges your “openness” to new experiences. Women don’t seem as hung up on such labels as men are. The reason? Not because “guys are such losers,” as Sax suggests, but rather because, as Sax noted earlier in his article, “sexual attraction in many women seems to be more malleable.”
All the data were there, yet Sax got it incredibly wrong. Which is too bad, because you can proclaim, “I kissed a girl and I liked it,” and not have it mean something greater — that men are losers, or that we’re in an epidemic of female lesbians and bisexuals.