Newsflash: Heterosexual men report they are sexually attracted to women but not men. That’s why they label themselves heterosexual. And when you actually measure their sexual arousal (more on that later), that’s pretty much what you see — heterosexual men generally respond physically only to erotic images of women.1 What about homosexual men? You guessed it: They report attraction to men, but not women, and they respond physically to erotic images that depict men (and not women).1
But what about bisexual men? You might assume that they’d report being sexually attracted to men and women, and that they’d show signs of arousal in response to erotic images depicting men and/or women. Turns out that it’s not quite that simple. Although bisexual men report being attracted to both men and women, when presented with erotic images they don’t always become physically aroused in response to both sexes. In fact, when assessing their physical arousal to erotic images, it’s quite common for bisexual men to respond like homosexual men. This inconsistency has baffled researchers and is at least partly responsible for the popular misperception that many bisexual men may not be truly bisexual.
A recent series of studies has finally shed some much needed light on the inconsistent link between bisexual men’s self-reported attraction to men and women versus their sexual arousal to erotic images of men and women.2 Specifically, the research team suspected that past work on arousal and sexuality had neglected to consider personality characteristics that may influence bisexual men’s sexual arousal toward male and female erotica. The personality characteristic the researchers focused on was sexual curiosity, or the degree to which individuals are intrigued by “a wide range of sexual attitudes.” For example, a sexually curious person would strongly agree with the statement, “When it comes to my sexual preferences, I would do almost anything for a dare.” Bisexual men tend to be more sexually curious than heterosexual or homosexual men, so the researchers thought it’s possible that bisexual men who score higher on sexual curiosity are sexually aroused by a wider range of erotic material versus those that score lower on sexual curiosity.
In the first study, bisexual, homosexual, and heterosexual men viewed a series of erotic videos depicting either a male or female model masturbating. The researchers used a program to measure pupil dilation, with larger pupils indicating more sexual arousal (relative to pupil size when not viewing the films). The second study was quite similar, except this time, study participants viewed brief videos of same-sex couples having sex. Additionally, rather than measure pupil size, the male participants were hooked up to a fancy contraption that measures penile circumference (i.e., penis width), which is just about the most direct measure of sexual arousal out there.
In both studies, bisexual men who reported greater sexual curiosity became aroused (as indicated by larger pupils and more engorged penises) by erotic images of men and women. In contrast, their less sexually curious bisexual counterparts responded like homosexual men did — that is, they were most aroused by erotic images of men.
So does this mean that men who claim to be bisexual but don’t show “bisexual arousal” aren’t really bisexual? Not at all. All people, regardless of sexual orientation, have different turn-ons and turn-offs when it comes to erotic material. In the case of bisexual men specifically, identifying those turn-ons and turn-offs (or non-turn-ons) is best done when considering their naturally varying levels of sexual curiosity.
1Hess, E. H., Seltzer, A. L., Shlien, J. M. (1965). Pupil response of hetero- and homosexual males to pictures of men and women: A pilot study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 70(3), 165-168.
2Rieger, G., Rosenthal, A. M., Cash, B. M., Linsenmeier, J. A. W., Bailey, J. M., & Savin-Williams, R. C. (2013). Male bisexual arousal: A matter of curiosity? Biological Psychology, 94, 479-489.
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He’s a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
image sources: inside.iub.edu / en.wikipedia.org