New study says bi women are bi because they can’t get a man (and it’s probably bullshit)

Content warning: this post discusses biphobia and sapphophobia

Well well well. I have a confession to make. I only drink from the furry cup because I had a shit education and I’m ugly. I’m not being self-deprecating, there’s science behind it. There’s a study and everything!

Unfortunately, it was a conference presentation, so we don’t have very much to go on in critiquing the study, so a brief summary from what I can glean from the reporting: the study tracked men and women between adolescence and young adulthood, asking them whether they identified as “100% heterosexual”, heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual or 100% homosexual at four different points. Education, physical attractiveness and delaying childbirth were all factors associated with identifying as 100% heterosexual. The author interprets her findings indicate:

“Women who are initially successful in partnering with men, as is more traditionally expected, may never explore their attraction to other women. However, women with the same sexual attractions, but less favorable heterosexual options might have greater opportunity to experiment with same-sex partners.”


“I do not think that women are strategically selecting an advantageous sexual identity or that they can ‘choose’ whether they find men, women, or both sexually attractive. Rather, social context and romantic experience might influence how they perceive and label their sexual identity.”

One doesn’t have to read much between the lines to see the implication that the less attractive, less educated of us have trouble getting a man so might turn towards just being gals being pals.

While I don’t have much to go on here, there’s a couple of holes in what’s reported which means I have a lot to query on this study.

The causality could go the other way. Hetero women are at an advantage. The world likes them a lot better than us scuzzy queers. Is it any wonder that straight women, therefore, are considered more physically attractive, and get better educational opportunities, and can choose when they have kids? LGBT people have poor health outcomes, which isn’t usually conducive getting an education or looking sexy. Bisexuals have the worst health of all. So, these advantages for straight women might not be because they’re lucky, but because they’re straight. It’s their straightness that causes their better education, attractiveness and reproductive choices, not their better education, attractiveness and reproductive choices causing their straightness. To me, it seems pretty fucking obvious that the causality would go that way round. Anyway, this is all assuming that this was all measured pretty well. You see…

Physical attractiveness is a pretty difficult thing to measure. Bluntly put, there’s two ways to measure physical attractiveness. Firstly, you ask people how attractive they think they are. Given that living under stigma in a society that tells them they’re disgusting has pretty dire consequences on self-esteem (especially if they try to hide it rather than coming out young) it wouldn’t exactly be surprising if they were reporting themselves less physically attractive than the straight women. The other way you can measure physical attractiveness is show their picture to a panel and ask the panel to rate how hot they are. This is, obviously, highly affected by the panel, and maybe things like short hair and tattoos and not meticulously depilating every inch of your body because you’re less interested in what men think might affect the judgment–in other words, because straight women only want to go for men, perhaps they’re rated as more attractive under patriarchal beauty standards because they’re more likely to have to live up to them.

Sexual orientation is also fucking difficult to measure. Just last week, we had this conversation, didn’t we? Just giving people a list of options might not exactly result in covering the diversity of their experience, their attraction, and heck, their own identity. This probably explains better why men’s sexual orientations didn’t change so much as women’s–not because men’s sexual orientation is fixed and immutable while women’s is not, but because it’s a different kind of stigma that men face, and one which does not allow for anything to change.

It’s not exactly a long time between adolescence and young adulthood. You probably don’t have it figured out just yet. I am thirty now, and I still haven’t figured myself out, except acknowledging that I am a work in progress and I probably always will be. Who knows where these people will shift to later in life: if they do shift. I’m not convinced one can draw conclusions based on a sample over a very short period of time.

It’s a conference presentation. That’s very different to a peer-reviewed paper. At conferences, what often happens is preliminary findings are presented. Sometimes they go on to be published, sometimes they don’t. In fact, a whopping 91% of the time, they don’t. So, this could be something crappy which will be stuck away in a desk drawer, maybe to be trotted out occasionally in a popular science book as though it’s proper science.

All this study does is reinforce the general quite icky stereotypes about bi women, and the reporting is downright irresponsible. It’s sad, because from the data, it looks like there’s some interesting stuff going on about shifting sexual identities: stuff that might warrant further examination if the interpretation weren’t so flawed.

9 thoughts on “New study says bi women are bi because they can’t get a man (and it’s probably bullshit)”

  1. The optimist in me thinks that they just meant that women who aren’t fulfilled by men then seek out women, which I guess is true: you don’t seek out women if you ARE fulfilled. But I don’t think that’s the level of subjectivity they’re going for. The implication you pointed out (that bisexuals are less successful with men) is very clear. And gross.

    ALSO, more obnoxious than the implication that bi women are less desirable, is the fact that they’re STILL trying to prove/disprove the existence of true bisexuals! I thought society was over this. Oh yeah, and the woman who studied this is married to a man, unsurprisingly.

    Nothing about this study is groundbreaking, either. We know about sexual fluidity of women (although that doesn’t explain all bisexuality). The book “Sexual fluidity: understanding women’s love and desire” by Lisa Diamond is much more extensive in how it studies female sexual fluidity, and is much less icky with its conclusions. I recommend it.

    1. “the woman who studied this is married to a man, unsurprisingly”

      And everyone around these parts should know better than to assume that this means she is not bisexual!

      1. I know, and I never made the assumption she was straight. I only meant to argue that the whole “bi women who date women are just women who can’t get a man” is more strongly implied BECAUSE she’s married to a man. It’s not like she loses her queer cred or is not allowed to study queer people or identify as queer; and I guess her relationship status is not relevant professionally, but if you’re studying relationships and saying these things one might wonder something about the butt out of which she pulled those ideas.

  2. My reading of the paragraph you’ve quoted from the paper’s author is that she’s suggesting that women who are successful in finding straight relationships early on don’t get the chance to explore their potential for same-sex attraction at a point where they’re still defining their identity (and subject to all the social pressures emphasising the “normality” of heterosexuality), so by the time they might otherwise avail themselves of that opportunity they’ve already defined themselves as straight. In fact, pretty much exactly what you’ve said in the “the causality could go the other way” paragraph; indeed, other quotes from her in the Indy article would seem to back this up – and contradict the very premise of their reporting. And in fact Dr McClintock’s previous work seems to be more about challenging stereotypes rather than reinforcing them.

    So what the hell was the Independent thinking when it came up with this spin on her paper?

    1. I can see why this is controversial on both sides. It’s unfortunately the case that bisexuality is a difficult area to study, with spins from the researchers, the reporters, and inevitably from social media. It’s such a personal topic. But that’s why any implication that one identity is “lesser than” other identities, especially when correlating sexuality with say, physical attractiveness or wealth, can be really problematic and needs to be done tactfully to avoid perpetuating bad stereotypes. It’s unfortunate the media latched onto this, but it’s also unfortunate that the research was presented in this way.

      1. Especially annoying is that she went out of her way to explicitly state that that diminution of the bisexual identity is precisely what she *wasn’t* seeking to do. And the Independent quoted her… in a piece which basically did exactly that.


        1. This makes me want to find the time to write a blog post contrasting what social scientists say and what news coverage says…

  3. I feel like, as with the other recent post, this post is taking a tissue-thin ‘result’ more seriously than it deserves… OK, in this case we can’t see the study itself, so maybe there is something real there. But the Independent’s writeup of it is solid bullshit.

    That said, if we’re speculating:

    I was interested by the claimed link between heterosexuality and education. As you say, that could well be due to societal homophobia hurting LGBT people. Here’s another possible take on it: privileged people have more incentive to preserve their privilege. A woman from a privileged background, with a good education, has more to lose socially by identifying with the disadvantaged class of queer people, and has more to gain by ‘playing by the rules’ and maintaining a 100% straight identity. A woman from a less privileged background has less social position to lose, and less to gain by following normative behaviour, so may have more reason to identify as queer.

    That’s a half-assed theory, but it’s still more thought than the Independent put into it.

    The purported link with ‘attractiveness’ is too nebulous to comment on, for all sorts of reasons. But it’s a handy excuse for the media to reheat some old lesbophobic prejudices.

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