Study oversimplifies dynamics of women's sexuality

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In what seems to be a fulfillment of the fantasies of straight men everywhere, a new and already controversial study released by the University of Essex claims that, despite 96.6 percent of the population identifying as straight, there is no such thing as a straight woman — that is, all women are at least a little bit attracted to other women. This study’s attempts to quantify human sexuality (an arguably unnecessary goal to begin with) are problematic for several reasons: they are scientifically faulty, they entirely neglect sociocultural influences on perceptions of female sexuality and they are alienating to queer women, trans women and other non-binary individuals.

Led by Dr. Gerulf Rieger, part of the study used pupil dilation to determine the variations in arousal patterns between women who identify as straight and women who identify as lesbian. The other part studied the correlation between genital arousal patterns and self-reported expressions of masculinity or femininity. In other words, yet another straight guy spent far too much time trying to figure out which women in the room would entertain the idea of sleeping with him.

A prominent finding of the study was that while lesbian women responded strongly (in terms of pupil dilation and genital arousal) to stimulating images of their preferred sex, the pupils of women who identify as straight seemed to indicate an attraction to images of both men and women. This finding is, of course, completely neglects the fact that physiological arousal isn’t necessarily correlated with sexuality. I’m sure my pupils dilate when I see that the Cooler has mac ‘n’ cheese bites; I don’t, however, want to have sex with deep-fried pasta dishes. As sexuality researcher Dr. Meredith Chivers (a colleague of Rieger, curiously) put it, “to conclude that women are bisexual on the basis of their sexual responding overlooks the complexity and multidimensionality of female sexuality.”

One point that the lesbian blog Autostraddle makes is that due to the mass sexualization of women in our society, it’s hard to know whose pupils are dilating out of lust and whose have simply been told to do so by advertisers like Skyy and Burger King, who spend hundreds of millions of dollars yearly just to make sure that every man, woman, child and golden retriever in this country will buy anything if it’s offered to them by a woman in a bikini.

So while some elements of this study’s questionable findings can be chalked up to bad science, and others to the fact that we’ve all been trained to objectify women since we started playing with Barbies, its underlying message is troubling. By reminding the public about the fluidity of female sexuality — in terms of what our pupils and genitals tell us, that is — I fear that all this study will really accomplish is to encourage men to test the boundaries of this fluidity for their own entertainment (i.e. via plying women with copious amounts of alcohol and encouraging “experimentation”). When it all boils down to it, a woman’s sexuality is none of your business — unless she makes it clear that it is your business.

This is a conclusion that Rieger himself seems to have come to, perhaps without even realizing so. The study concluded that while some women may dress or act in a more masculine fashion, there is no correlation between this outward representation and actual masculine behaviors when it comes to arousal. In response to this finding, Dr. Rieger noted, “this shows us that how women appear in public does not mean that we know anything about their sexual role preferences.” Groundbreaking! Finally, a man who understands.

Before any of us are too charmed by Rieger’s curiosity, it is worth noting that in 2005 at Northwestern University, he performed a similar study by testing the arousal patterns of (only) 33 bisexual men. His findings concluded that since the pupils and genitalia of these men seemed to have some preference toward one sex or the other, bisexuality in men may not truly be possible — prompting an entirely unnecessary rehashing of the “Can men be bi?” debate and alienating an already misunderstood group.

What stirs my curiosity is if “findings” like those Rieger published in 2005 and 2015 would even be accepted for release if more women were involved in the scientific research and review processes — right now, women still earn fewer STEM degrees than men. In response to the 2005 study, psychologist Geri Weitzman disagreed with Rieger’s conclusion.

“Really, there are so many bisexual men out there,” she said. “There are so many men who say—and demonstrate—that they love men and love women and are happy with it.”

Unfortunately, as Rieger is involved with most recent studies of human sexuality, finding scientists who explicitly refute his findings is difficult.

While the physiology behind attraction is undeniably fascinating, peoples’ demonstrations of their sexualities are all that actually matter. Scientists should release their studies on sexuality with a bit more tact, both scientifically and in announcing their findings, to avoid making sweeping claims about who really is attracted to whom amongst men and women. Baseline physiological responses only give us one piece of a very complex puzzle, and if researchers like Rieger are so keen to use just that piece to deny the existence of an already highly misunderstood identity (or the straight identity of 97 percent of the population), then we have an entirely different problem on our hands.

Charlotte Umanoff is a sophomore politics major. She can be reached at umanoff@oxy.edu.