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And Why I Don’t Care

Patrick Julius

By Patrick Julius
Patrick Julius is 20 years old, finishing his second year studying Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Patrick writes for Beyond Masculinity wearing the label of “bisexual” (fairly accurate, yet incomplete, as his essay will describe), which he also wears on coming-out panels for the Speaker’s Bureau of the University of Michigan Spectrum Center. He knows four languages (English, Latin, Arabic, and some Japanese), has written a book on special relativity, and is currently working on an invention that provides cardiovascular exercise and reduces carbon dioxide emissions at the same time.
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ver heard of a penile plethysmograph? It’s a medical testing device, basically a blood-pressure cuff (sometimes a strip of strain-sensitive metal) that is wrapped around one’s penis; it measures the volume and pressure of the erectile tissue of the corpus cavernosum, and thereby detects erection. It’s meant to measure physiological arousal, a task at which it is good but not perfect (most men can suppress our erections voluntarily, making it appear as if we are not as aroused as we are; some of us can also do the opposite); it is often used, however, for the far grander task of determining sexual orientation and predicting future sexual behavior.

I think I would fail a penile plethysmograph. I think any measure of my erectile pressure under particular stimuli would give a pitifully incomplete—and thus, if taken as definitive, profoundly inaccurate—indication of my sexual orientation. I don’t think I would show up as the bisexual I know I am, if (as in the typical experimental profile) you presented me with varying types of porn and measured the blood pressure in my penis as I watched it. I already know fairly confidently that I would respond most to the heterosexual pornography, including that which displays and glorifies the female while essentially reducing the male to a disembodied penis. I would show a weaker response to lesbian sex and solo females, and a weaker response still to the vast majority of pornography involving gay sex and solo males. (Actually if you used furry pornography, I would probably show a much stronger response to males and a much more equal response to males and females—and frankly I have no idea what accounts for the difference or what it says about my sexuality.) I would show no response or a negative response to fetishism such as urolagnia or sadomasochism, and I would be positively disturbed by eroticized violence or rape.

I know this of course because all of these sorts of material are readily available on the Internet, I am of sufficient age to legally view them in my jurisdiction, and I on occasion avail myself of this opportunity. I therefore know from my own experience how my own body responds to these different stimuli. That’s at least what happens visually; I haven’t systematically analyzed other sensory modalities—I think my tactile and olfactory systems are a good bit more egalitarian than my optical and aural; in embarrassed honesty I must admit I have a lot more experience with the latter than the former—but it’s quite possible that even under these other circumstances I would be on average more physiologically aroused by specifically heterosexual stimuli.

Given this, some might wonder why I call myself “bisexual” at all. If I freely recognize that at least the majority of my visually-induced physiological arousal is triggered by females, why not consider myself straight? There are many reasons—not least that I have no desire to support, even tacitly, the repression and patriarchy of institutionalized heterosexuality—but the most important above all is that arousal is not orientation. Many people (nearly all of them straight, but far too many with Ph.D. or M.D. after their name) have often argued in favor of a theory of sexual orientation that makes arousal the primary—or even sole—factor involved in sexual orientation; others have asserted that arousal is orientation for males, but not for females, and so on—but the fact of the matter is that things are much more complicated than that. What I feel, what I like, what I want, what I need; these things are related to, but not limited by, the intensity of physiological response produced by my body.

According to Fritz Klein, sexual orientation is composed of eight distinct dimensions, which need not be correlated (but often are). Since two are purely self-identification, one is behavioral, and two are social, I would like to focus on the three that I would truly consider to comprise “orientation,” by which I mean one’s personal sense of desire or preference for persons of a particular sex or gender. Though others use different names, I call these three dimensions the “erotic,” which relates to the desire for sexual activity per se; the “romantic,” including intimate relationships and long-term partnership; and the “platonic,” which includes friendship and general social association. Of course, these three spheres are not wholly distinct, and we can imagine that there may be some grey areas, but I think they provide a useful tool for understanding.

The problem with science trying to measure the culmination of these three things—my “aggregate sexuality,” as it were—is that most measures available focus almost exclusively on one dimension or another. For instance, a plethysmograph (that penis-measuring device I mentioned earlier) can at best only describe my erotic orientation; even at this it isn’t perfect, since I might still be most erotically drawn to something other than what produces the strongest physical response. Still, it’s not a bad measure: Given that I respond most strongly to heterosexual porn, it might be reasonable on this basis to say that I am probably to some degree heteroerotic. But this is only of incidental relevance to my romantic orientation, which describes the sort of persons that I would most prefer to enter a relationship with and maintain consistently as a life partner. As it turns out, I must consider myself homoromantic to some degree, because I would rather that my life partner be physically male and psychologically somewhat masculine. (Platonic orientation usually doesn’t bother people as much; as it turns out I happen to be fairly biplatonic, with relatively equal distribution between male and female friendship.)

But wait—how can I be heteroerotic, on the one hand, and homoromantic, on the other? Does it mean that I couldn’t possibly have a relationship with a woman, or that in a relationship with a man I couldn’t possibly enjoy sex? No, it doesn’t. Tendencies are not absolutes, an idea we’d all do well to internalize. Gay men can love women, and straight men can love men. It’s unfortunate that most people don’t understand this, and indeed may well be shocked by the idea; but that doesn’t change the truth. The fact that I would “prefer” in some abstract sense to be partnered with a man for the rest of my life does not render it completely impossible that I should end up with a woman, though it may indeed be less likely. And what about the converse; might my physiological inclination towards women make it more difficult to settle down with a man? I don’t know; maybe it already has. That might be a reason to change it (which way?), were there any evidence that such a voluntary change is possible; I have studied the relevant psychology enough to say that no such evidence exists. I think on some level my erotic response is more based on sex (anatomy, biology, that sort of thing), and my romantic response is more based on gender (identity, social identity, personality)—so perhaps a transman would be a good fit for me? If so, why does that not seem especially appealing right now?

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Juan said:

It bothers me that Patrick takes on the title of "bisexual", particularly because of my own struggles with these same experiences.

I am an 18-year-old male, that for 7 years has been predominantly sexually attracted to males, while still having a powerful sexual attraction to the single woman I have identified to be as the love of my life.

My experience has been that while thinking of myself as "gay" was the title that made the most sense (to me) it was still partly inaccurate. For society, which observed my growing 3 and a half year relationship with my girlfriend, and my physical dynamics with her, it was assumed that I "must be BI". This category bothered me even more, because I have never, aside from my girlfriend, been able to identify a woman who could consistently give me an erection.

Furthermore, there are even some (specifically my family) who continue to categorize me as "straight", and discard any displays of affection I may have towards men as "temporary confusion".

The bottom line is that I do not feel ANYONE has the right to force me under the umbrella of any of these three categories. I am NOT gay, NOT straight, and NOT bisexual... and though at times it may be simpler to tell people I'm gay to justify my behaviors and to offset the courting from other women, to say I am "GAY" is to lie about who I really am.

I see myself as QUEER (i.e. UNCONVENTIONAL)

Posted at: May 20, 2008 10:52 PM

Sally said:

I am a straight woman who finds the idea of bisexuality or ambiguous sexuality in men, frankly, horrifying and threatening on a very visceral level. Articles like this have been crucially important to challenging that reaction, by helping me understand the extent to which forced binary sexuality limits the possibilities in all relationships, and I really appreciate Patrick's honesty and candor.

I also think its important to discuss the degree to which life experience would also seemingly dictate the descriptors one would use to define their own sexuality, i.e. whether or not you happen to meet the one woman or man (or 2 or 10) who can give you an erection/whom you fall in love with (I realize the terms man and woman are also generalizing, but since thats sort of the premise of the essay, bare with me). I think there should be more discussion regarding the fact that often times in life "orientation" depends a lot on the specific person/s (rather than necessarily pornography) that we find ourselves attracted to, a concept which I think of as even more disturbing and beautiful.

Posted at: May 21, 2008 5:20 PM

Jason Dilts said:

I really enjoyed this essay and Patrick's honesty. It was very helpful in my understanding complexities that exist within sexualities. I have always easily and comfortably fit into the identities of homoerotic attraction, but bringing in the other realms of romance and platonic orientations has really got my mind turning. Thanks for the insightful and provocative analysis!!

Posted at: May 24, 2008 5:27 PM

johnny said:

"is currently working on an invention that provides cardiovascular exercise and reduces carbon dioxide emissions at the same time."

sorry man, someone already invented that. it's called the bicycle.

Posted at: September 5, 2008 8:16 PM

Richard said:

This is a really great essay. It is really close to my own experiences. Thanks for letting the B's of LGBT know that we are not the only ones who are a bit 'queer'

Posted at: August 4, 2011 3:03 AM

Gregory said:

This is the sort of stuff that should be taught in sex-ed classes! I wish more people understood the world this way - it always seemed like such an obvious truth to me, and yet most people I know are so stuck in the "gay / straight" world (often even denying the existence of bisexuality or anything like it). This writer's character is so ridiculously me, I'm wondering if I have a long-lost twin I was never told about! :P

Posted at: October 26, 2011 10:08 AM