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Beyond "Sexual Preference"
on February 5, 2012
Dual Attraction is a study of bisexuality, based on fieldwork conducted in San Francisco in 1983 and a follow-up study conducted in 1988. Its authors (Martin S. Weinberg, Colin J. Williams, and Douglas W. Pryor, who I'll refer to as WWP for short) argue that "sexual preference" is far more complex than a simple dichotomy between heterosexuality and homosexuality and that bisexuality is an important phenomenon that deserves study in its own right. In evaluating this argument, the reader should remember that Weinberg was (with Alan P. Bell and Sue Kiefer Hammersmith) a co-author of Sexual Preference, a 1981 study that insisted on a strict dichotomy between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Weinberg and his two co-authors in Sexual Preference accordingly largely dismissed bisexuality as an area of study, declaring that, "our theoretical interest was in determining whether homosexual and heterosexual respondents could be distinguished on the basis of their developmental histories not in explaining degrees of homosexuality or heterosexuality" and that "the placement of respondents into two boldly defined groups - homosexual versus heterosexual - represents a natural division between respondents." Sexual Preference's approach thus stands in stark contradiction to that of Dual Attraction. The fact that Weinberg was a co-author of both these studies is therefore strange and in need of explanation. One can only guess what the explanation could be, since no explanation of this issue is to be found in Dual Attraction.
WWP think that they have detected a serious error in the thinking of scientists who have studied homosexuality: they have assumed that "there is a special or unique category of people who in fact are 'homosexual' and that this group can readily be compared with another equally pure group of people who are 'heterosexual.'" They denounce the way in which "Sexual attraction is reduced to an either/or question" and the fact that "People are either heterosexual or homosexual according to the criteria dictated by the researcher." The approach that WWP denounce is almost exactly that which Weinberg, Bell and Hammersmith took in Sexual Preference. Perhaps this reflects an awareness on Weinberg's part that the methodology he and his co-authors adopted in Sexual Preference, and the assumptions that methodology were based upon were something less than fully satisfactory. The different approach he and his co-authors take in Dual Attraction could reflect criticisms of Sexual Preference made in private. One would have preferred it had the criticisms been public and in the scholarly record.
Sexual Preference, although widely mistaken for some kind of important breakthrough in understanding human sexuality, was actually one of the worst books ever written on the subject. Although often held to have discredited Freudian explanations of the development of homosexuality, its claim to have achieved this was completely spurious, based as it was on a misconceived and even absurd methodology. Among their many insults to scholarship, the authors of Sexual Preference ignored Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, widely regarded as a significant improvement over Kinsey's previous sex study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and a work that completely rejected Freudian explanations of the development of homosexuality. In principle, Kinsey could have been either right or wrong when he asserted in that work that his research showed that Freudian explanations of the origins of homosexuality were mistaken, but the very fact that he made this claim at all placed the authors of Sexual Preference, who claimed that the purpose of their study was to test psychoanalytic theories about homosexuality, in an embarrassing position. If Kinsey was right, then psychoanalytic theories about homosexuality had already been discredited decades before their study was published and Sexual Preference was a wholly unnecessary work. Yet if Kinsey was wrong, that could be even worse: if he, a major pioneer of sex research, was mistaken about something that important, then did not that raise the possibility that the co-authors of Sexual Preference could also be wrong? If Kinsey could make that kind of mistake, why couldn't they? The authors of Sexual Preference could only avoid raising these awkward questions by treating Sexual Behavior in the Human Female as though it had never been written.
WWP are thus being tendentious when, in the course of their discussion of the possible fluidity or mutability of "sexual preference", they note with dismay that "Kinsey's conclusions have been generally ignored by most studies of sexual preference". Ignoring many of Kinsey's conclusions was exactly what Weinberg did in Sexual Preference, and what he had to do in order for that book's project to even begin to seem worthwhile. Although WWP mention some of the other work that Weinberg co-wrote with Bell, such as Homosexualities (1978), Sexual Preference itself is nowhere mentioned in Dual Attraction. I suspect that Dual Attraction ignores Sexual Preference for many of the same reasons that Sexual Preference ignored Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Just as Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was a potential embarrassment to the authors of Sexual Preference (because it both claimed to have already achieved what they implied their study was necessary to accomplish, and made claims about sexuality that conflicted with aspects of their methodology), so Sexual Preference is a potential embarrassment to the authors of Dual Attraction (because it addressed many of the same issues they investigated, and in a way that conflicted with their approach).
Yet Sexual Preference and its failures weigh heavily on Dual Attraction. Sexual Preference never managed to make the concept of "sexual preference" scientifically coherent, and Dual Attraction has inherited something of the same theoretical muddle, although it comes slightly closer to providing an adequate discussion of methodology. WWP declare that is necessary to pay attention to how people label and understand their own sexuality. That is not profound, but it is an advance on Sexual Preference, which grotesquely labelled people "heterosexual" and "homosexual" on the basis of mechanically applied, and obviously fallacious, criteria. They correctly note that "all the points on the scale between 1 and 5 could be considered to encompass bisexuality", which (although they don't point this out) shows the ridiculousness of the approach employed in Sexual Preference, in which everyone with a Kinsey scale rating of 2 or higher was deemed "homosexual". WWP observe that some uses of the Kinsey scale are open to the charge that individuals have been labelled homosexual when they are actually bisexual. They note that this criticism has been directed against Martin Weinberg and Colin Williams' 1974 book Male Homosexuals: Their Problems and Adaptations; they do not note that it could also have been directed against both Homosexualities and Sexual Preference.
WWP present Homosexualities as an improvement over the work of Kinsey, who they criticize for combining sexual behavior and sexual feelings in a single scale. While WWP are correct that Kinsey's original approach had various problems and shortcomings, their claim that Weinberg/Bell's modified version of it was any kind of improvement is quite wrong. Weinberg/Bell also combined sexual behavior and sexual feelings in a single scale, but unlike Kinsey they achieved this through a ludicrous procedure that involved first establishing separate Kinsey ratings for sexual behavior and sexual feelings for a subject, then dividing the result by two to produce a combined Kinsey rating for that subject (essentially the same approach later employed in Sexual Preference). That approach only confused matters further, worsening the problems of Kinsey's approach rather than resolving them. Kinsey was at least aware that judging where people should be placed on the scale involved assessing factors unique to each individual case, but that obvious truth was effectively denied by Weinberg/Bell (apparently it did not occur to them that an arbitrary mathematical procedure that artificially combines ratings of two distinct phenomena cannot be a reliable guide to human psychology).
Despite its shortcomings, Dual Attraction is a worthwhile study of its subject, and in terms of intrinsic merit is significantly more valuable than the better known book Sexual Preference. WWP find that what are often thought of as clichés about men and women's sexual natures (men's greater interest in sex versus women's greater interest in love, for example) have a basis in fact: "For men it was easier to have sex with other men than to fall in love with them. For women it was easier to fall in love with other women than to have sex with them." They plausibly declare that they found several different types of bisexual, few of whom resembled the stereotype of people equally attracted to both sexes. WWP use three different ratings, for sexual feelings, sexual behavior, and romantic feelings, a term which they carefully define and distinguish from sexuality as such: romantic feelings concern the "extent to which a person falls in love with people of each sex." This approach is rather more sophisticated and realistic than that of Sexual Preference, though it still involves a questionable tendency to artificially combine distinct entities: it is not clear why sexual feelings, sexual behavior, and romantic feelings should be thought of as three dimensions of something that could be called "sexual preference". One of the subsections of Chapter 4 is called "Putting It Together: Constructing Sexual Preference"; a title that suggests an unfortunate inability (or disinclination) to distinguish between discovering an entity that could be called "sexual preference" and artificially generating one for the purpose of simplifying reality. More interesting than WWP's abstract and incompletely developed model of "sexual preference" are their specific conclusions about the development of bisexuality. They comment that, "As we develop sexual identities, our frame of reference generally is not sexuality per se. Instead of learning directly to eroticize one gender or the other, we learn to act as a woman or to act as a man. A woman learns that to be an adequate woman in our society her sexual feelings and behaviors should be directed toward men, because this is 'what women do', while a man is socialized to direct his sexual feelings and behaviors toward women, because this is 'what men do.' Gender, not sexuality, is the encompassing framework through which we learn and process this information." To me, this seems approximately correct, if dangerously over-simplified. WWP are right to stress the key importance of gender, though their thinking is too influenced by sociology and is insufficiently informed by psychology, psychoanalysis or anthropology (they are all sociologists by background).
WWP call gender a "cognitive map", a term that encompasses only one of many things it may be, then (referring to the work of Sandra Bem) awkwardly equate it with a "gender schema", a potentially useful term, but one that should properly be distinguished from gender itself. They believe that bisexuality develops when the traditional gender schemas of heterosexuals are replaced by an "open" gender schema, which "involves a disconnection between gender and sexual preference and makes the direction of a person's desires (toward the opposite or same sex) independent of whether the person is a man or woman. Put simply one's own gender becomes theoretically irrelevant to partner choice." WWP move from outlining their theory about the development of bisexuality to discussing how bisexuals viewed sex with women as being different from sex with men. They say that both male and female bisexuals tended to see having sex with a man as "hotter, more intense, exciting, and passionate" than having sex with a woman. Such a judgement may seem sexist, naturally, or an expression of some other kind of bizarre prejudice. I can well believe it true, however. In what may again seem an expression of sexism but probably reflects only an honest expression of psychological reality, WWP tell us that male and female bisexuals both viewed the male genital with adoration, but made no equivalently adoring comments about female genitals. It is welcome that for all the sociological imprecision of WWP's thinking about psychology, they manage to report the views of the people they interviewed in a way that provides genuine insight into the reality of sex.