(Despite another round of misleading headlines — kicked off by The Telegraph’s Nov 5, 2015, declaration that “women are either bisexual or gay but never straight” — researcher Meredith Chivers’ findings on the fluidity of female sexuality are far more complex./Photos by Zoonar RF and Marili Forastieri/Digital Vision/Thinkstock)
Poor Meredith Chivers just can’t catch a break.
If you recently read that “women are either bisexual or gay but never straight,” you heard about her research. Except she never said that. Never, ever, ever.
Chivers, a researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, is one of the world’s most discussed sex researchers, but also the most consistently misunderstood. And now she’s being misquoted from a study she didn’t even publish.
Here’s how it happened.
Back in 2004, Chivers published some groundbreaking research on female sexuality. In brief, she used a device called a plethysmograph to measure physiological arousal in men and women while they watched videos of couples having sex. She found while men showed patterns of arousal in line with their sexual orientation, women were aroused when watching nearly any sexual activity, gay or straight, man or woman. She concluded that women’s arousal patterns — what makes blood flow to the vagina — do not match their sexual orientation, or the kind of sex women actually want. (Read a more in-depth explanation of Chivers’ research here.)
What Chivers did not conclude was that all women are really pansexual.
Genital arousal testing is not a polygraph for the vagina — it doesn’t reveal some hidden “true” sexual orientation about which straight women are ignorant. It just shows female sexuality is complex and multi-layered, and that women who only want to have sex with men can still react to female visual stimuli.
Chivers’ preferred metaphor is a vegan who salivates at the smell of bacon. Salivation doesn’t show she “really” wants to eat bacon, just that her body is preparing for the possibility.
Unfortunately, that’s a very subtle distinction. Since Chivers published, her research has been used by well-meaning writers to suggest that women don’t have a link between their minds and genitals, straight women are into gay sex, or that women are carnal sex machines.
In November 2015 it got worse. Chivers’ former research partner Gerulf Rieger, now at the University of Essex, published a new study building off her research. Despite having heard Chivers complain about being misquoted for years, Rieger made a tactical error.
In the press release he wrote along with the university public relations department, he began, “When it comes to what turns them on, women are either bisexual or gay, but never straight.”
Chivers could probably have told him what would happen next.
The Telegraph ignored the qualifier “when it comes to what turns them on” and led with the headline “Women are either bisexual or gay but never straight.” Yahoo News followed with “New Study Claims Women Are Bisexual or Lesbian — Not Straight.” Twenty thousand social media impressions later, the damage was done.
“I think I now understand Meredith better,” Rieger says ruefully. “Why she’s so stressed about people wanting to believe she said straight women don’t exist. It hadn’t happened to me until now. We clearly don’t say that in the paper. I would never endorse such a statement.”
When Daily Xtra reached Chivers, she was busy on Twitter, fending off erroneous interpretations of her theories.
“It’s really frustrating because nobody’s actually read the paper. They have no idea what they’re commenting on,” she says. “People have completely missed the point. History is repeating itself, basically. People are making pronouncements that I would never, ever say. Making pronouncements about people’s sexual orientation based on their arousal patterns is just ludicrous.”
What’s most tragic is that in the back and forth about whether straight women exist, the substance of Rieger’s research has been mostly ignored. That’s too bad, because it’s actually quite interesting.
Rieger studied whether masculine-presenting lesbians experience arousal more like men. As Chivers’ research has already shown, lesbians have more gender-specific arousal patterns than straight or bisexual women. In other words, like men, lesbians are aroused more by one gender and not the other. Research also shows lesbians, on average, present more stereotypically masculine than straight women. Wouldn’t it make sense, Rieger thought, if the more masculine a gay woman presented, the more masculine her arousal pattern?
It turned out, however, that Rieger was wrong. After collecting more data, this time using a pupil dilation test to measure arousal, he discovered there was no relationship between how a lesbian presents and how she experiences arousal. Rieger says the finding lends some credence to a saying he heard from lesbians in his lab: “Butch on the streets, femme in the sheets.” How gay women appear in public does not necessarily tell us about their sexual arousal.
But, having learned the hard way, Rieger cautions to take his results in context. “The way I see it, there are two different worlds when it comes to female sexuality,” he says. “One is what they perceive, see and feel, and will be absolutely true to them. But then their lower body has its own function, and seems to work independently. When we talk about sexual orientation, we have to be careful what level we’re talking about.”