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Dr. Timaree: Debunking the study that says straight women don’t exist

The astounding headline read “Women are either bisexual or gay but NEVER straight.” Multiple news outlets reported on the recent study out of the University of Essex that found that most women, even those who identify as heterosexual, are turned on by images of naked women.

The astounding headline read: "Women are either bisexual or gay but NEVER straight." Multiple news outlets reported on the recent study out of the University of Essex that found that most women, even those who identify as heterosexual, are turned on by images of naked women.

The head researcher, Dr. Gerulf Reiger, said that pupil dilation measurements showed the majority of their 345 female participations were aroused by both male and female bodies. Throughout the world, the findings were shared with commentary along the lines of "I knew it!"

But there are a number of problems with saying that the majority of women are bisexual based on this study, not the least of which is: No one gets to decide someone else's identity for them. How is sexual orientation defined and what does science know so far about our attractions?

Prior to the 20th century there was no such thing as a heterosexual: The word didn't exist. It's not that there weren't people who were attracted just to men or just to women, but for most of history, concepts of sexuality were more about social roles than desire.

There's a perception that the ancient Greeks were accepting of homosexuality, but it wasn't generally grown men in committed relationships.  Different sex acts were appropriate for specific situations.

With his wife, an aristocratic Greek would be heavily focused on procreation, getting it on without removing much clothing. With a courtesan, the same man would engage in acts for pleasure. With a young boy whom he was mentoring, he would form a loving bond that included sexual components.

It would be inaccurate to call that man straight or gay… or bisexual. He was simply an ancient Greek, fulfilling the cultural norms for a person of his status.

When we talk about sexual orientation, we are often focused on the gender of one's partners. But there are many variables that matter more than gender. Age is often very relevant, for instance: A straight-identifying woman might find it far more appealing to make out with another women her age than a pre-pubescent boy or elderly man.

Knowing that someone is gay, straight or bisexual doesn't tell us what type of people they're into, what they want to be doing, how often and for what reasons.

One explanation of the study's findings is that the female participants might have been aroused by the images of naked women but have no interest in acting on it. If they lack that desire, it's a stretch to label them bisexual.

For many people, sexual attraction and romantic interests line up: The folks they find attractive physically are also who they would like to date. For others, it's not that simple. It's possible to be romantically interested in someone but not sexually or vice versa, and this can be dependent on the situation or a number of physical or personality features.

The combinations of romantic and sexual attractions are almost endless, as each person's libido is as unique as their personality. By labeling these women as bisexual or lesbian based entirely on physical arousal is to oversimply a complex topic down to the point of uselessness.

In our culture, beauty and sexiness is depicted in very narrow ways: usually a young, thin, light skinned female. We come to associate these female bodies with sexuality, regardless of who we are and what we personally prefer.

So, an issue facing this study is that the subjects might have reacted to seeing nude women because they have been conditioned to connect these images to sexuality in general.

Measuring Arousal 

For this study, Dr. Reiger used pupil dilation to measure attraction. He could have taken measurements of arousal through genital response, but it's a method that can lead to inaccurate results. Fewer people are willing to be involved in that kind of study, and those that are might not be representative of the average. Also, some physiological response can be consciously controlled, giving the impression someone isn't into something they actually like.

A false positive is also possible, as there can be physical arousal for non-sexual reasons, too. Ironically, that's also true of pupils. So this study only indicates physical arousal, not sexual attraction. Bodies get revved up for a variety of reasons besides attraction, including fear and anxiety. Female bodies are especially prone to reacting to fear physically and often display physical arousal to images that the woman doesn't find sexy.

Labeling the women in this study as bisexual is a big leap of logic and entirely ignores their feelings and thoughts. The researchers assumed that the women are all lying or mistaken about their own desires, rather than acknowledging the limitations of the study.

The Takeaway

For scientists, the lesson is to be more cautious about designing studies and yelling "eureka." We're all reminded that news outlets are looking for clicks, potentially to the detriment of understanding nuance, so we have to be cautious before accepting mainstream reporting on research findings.

Most importantly, we are reminded that each of us gets to decide for ourselves what desires we are going to act on and how we're going to identify in the world.

Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure. 

She has an award-winning podcast, "Sex with Timaree", and hosts a BYOB sex ed, comedy/game show "DTF: Darryl and Timaree Fun Hour" which can be seen every second Friday at the Franky Bradley's (1320 Chancellor St.)