The Bisexual Identity
Changing Perspectives on Sexuality: Contributions of Kinsey and Anthropologists

Jay Paul

In July 1938, an obscure Indiana University professor of zoology whose prior research had been on gall wasps, began collecting sex histories for what was to grow into a landmark project on human sexuality. Alfred Kinsey and his associates interviewed 18,000 individuals, with the data analyses in the companion volumes of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) utilizing 5300 male and 5940 female cases. Despite the controversy and criticism that immediately enveloped these works upon their publication, they continue to be a valued source of information on human sexuality decades later.

Kinsey and his associates were concerned that scientific opinion about homosexuality and sexual variations were more reflective of popular prejudice and myth than of reality. One of their study’s intents, therefore, was to provide objective information on patterns of homosexual activity as they relate to patterns of heterosexual activity in the population as a whole. They pioneered in the use of a continuum to describe the varying ratios of coexisting homosexual and heterosexual response in their subjects’ sex histories (a 7-point rating system popularly known as the Kinsey Scale).

Their findings exploded a host of assumptions about human sexuality, and were the focus of bitter attacks by a variety of foes: moralists and religious figures, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. The Kinsey group rejected the view that erotic reactions between members of the same sex are rare and therefore abnormal, unnatural, or indicative of psychopathology. They based their conclusions not only on the incidence and frequency of homosexual response, but also “on its coexistence with heterosexual (response) in the lives of a considerable portion of the male population.”

Publicity and controversy followed the 10% figure representing that portion of the male population with more or less exclusive homosexual histories. Scant attention was paid to the finding that fully of the male samples could be termed bisexual on the basis of reported behavior, having had both “more than incidental” heterosexual and homosexual “experiences or reactions.”

Findings for women show a similar ratio of “bisexual” to “homosexual” histories, although the general incidence of reported homosexual experiences is far lower than that of males. The gender differences may be assumed to have diminished since that time, given the changes in sexual mores (from a period that curtailed both expression of and acknowledgement of non-marital female sexuality). It is also possible that incidence rates were under-reported as a consequence of differences in subjects candor, given the social acceptability of discussing women’s sexuality in that period, especially to male interviewers.

Kinsey’s group also noted that if sexual orientation in assessed on the basis of an individual’s behavior, one may conclude that sexual orientation changes markedly for many over the course of a lifetime.

There are limitations to the conclusions we can draw from the Kinsey research, particularly in terms of the issue of bisexuality and bisexual identity. Kinsey ratings were made by interviewers to categorize people by their sexual behavior over their lifetime, and does not necessarily reflect the respondent’s current behavior nor sense of self. We cannot tell whether a rating near the midpoint reflects a person who has sexual feelings for both sexes at the time of interview, who has alternated between relationships with men and with women, who has related to members of both sexes but with narrowly defined age and or situational constraints to sexual behavior with one gender, or who appears to have made a clear shift from exclusively eroticizing one gender to exclusively eroticizing the other.

Not only is there tremendous variability in the sexual patterns of those within any one category on the continuum, but there is tremendous variability in the way the individual and society interpret such behavior. The issues of self-definition and social labelling are important parts of how anyone views her or his sexuality. Despite research findings that disprove the simple heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy, many scientists and society as a whole have clung to the notion of two discrete and clearly distinguishable subsets of the population known as heterosexuals and homosexuals. The effects of this on those attracted to both genders will be discussed in a later section of this paper. At this point, we will continue to look at the data on the social implications of sexual orientation in our society.

Anthropological data provide a useful comparison of our culture’s basic assumptions of human sexuality to those of other societies, especially in terms of our notions of what is normative or “natural.” A classic work in this area by Ford and Beach, Patterns of Sexual Behavior, came out in 1951. This cross-cultural analysis of sexual behavior utilized the written observations of numerous anthropologists (compiled into a data set known as the Human Relations Area Files). This leaves the study open to the usual problems of research that is based on secondary sources of information, but the authors support their conclusions with observations of sexual behavior among other species.

Ford and Beach found that homosexual behavior of one sort or another was considered normal and socially acceptable for certain members of the community in 64% of the 76 societies for which information was available. They concluded: “When it is realized that 100 per cent of the males in certain societies engage in homosexual as well as heterosexual alliances, and when it is understood that many men and women in our society are equally capable of relations with partners of the same or opposite sex, and finally, when it is recognized that this same situation obtains in many species of subhuman primates, then it should be clear that one cannot classify homosexual tendencies as being mutually exclusive or even opposed to each other.”

The authors concluded that cultural mores have a powerful influence on what is eroticized and what is not: “Men and women who are totally lacking in any conscious homosexual leanings are as much a product of cultural conditioning as are the exclusive homosexuals who find heterosexual relations distasteful and unsatisfying. Both extremes represent movement away from the original, intermediate condition which includes the capacity for both forms of sexual expression.

Support for the idea of the tremendous flexibility of human erotic response comes from such anthropological studies as those of Herdt in Melanesia, in societies where homosexual behavior is expected of all males (based on a belief that this is how older males insure the masculinity of the younger males.) Often anthropologists have looked only at the symbolic justification for such behavior only, and have failed to consider its erotic level. This comes from imposing our own cultural assumptions about the nature of sexuality and sexual orientation on other societies. Other societies have other means of categorizing its population. Some cultures have no concept of individuals being heterosexual or homosexual. Or their definition of homosexuals may use other criteria. In most cases, societies pay less attention to the person with whom one is sexual, and more attention to the supposed masculinity or femininity of one’s behavior. Those who take on the social role, dress, and activities of the opposite sex receive special labels (i.e., berdache, bate, sarombavy); all too often, anthropologists have referred to these individuals as the ‘homosexuals’ of the society, reflecting our common assumptions about the relationship between whom one goes to bed with others of the same sex, but who maintain gender role-appropriate behavior by their culture’s standards (i.e., males taking the ‘active’ role in sex with other men)

Cross-cultural comparisons highlight not only the differences in how sexuality is perceived, but the power of such constructs on sexual behavior.



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