A recent study claiming that there’s no such thing as truly straight women has been doing the rounds this week. Dr Gerulf Rieger led the study- helped out, by the way, by none other than Dr Michael Bailey. Yep, that guy who decided a few years ago that bi men don’t exist. And that trans women are really gay men. Or, er, very straight men. Anything but women.
This latest offering involved measuring how women’s pupils dilated watching porn. The findings? Unless you’re a lesbian, your pupils dilate across the board. Doesn’t matter if the gender matches up to who you fancy, or if you report being aroused at the time.
They also looked into whether lesbians IDing as masculine or feminine correlated with whether they were sexually more masculine or feminine- that is, whether their pupils only dilated to women or to people regardless of gender. In a finding that will surprise precisely zero queer women? Not a connection in sight.
I’m not going to take pot-shots at the study design or the well-known biases of the researchers. That would be far too easy. Also, Autostraddle said it better than I ever could.
Let’s try some more conclusions.
Let’s take the results of this study and run with them. Half the headline-writers on the planet seem to be intent that this means that straight women don’t exist. Now, I’m no psychologist (hello, I did sociology, thank you very much) but I can come up with ideas like the best of them. Here’s a few that me and some friends came up with last night:
Women are sexualised
Newsflash: we live in a society that sexualises and objectifies women. Men are trained to see women as sexual and to reject any sign of even understanding that another man is attractive, for fear of being targeted as gay. Women- even straight women- have far more freedom to understand other women’s attractiveness. And we’re trained right from the beginning to understand the male gaze.
It’s not orientation, it’s empathy
If I see you hurt yourself, I’m going to flinch. It doesn’t mean I secretly want to stub my toe. It’s just mirror neurons and empathy. If this is an arousal thing- why on earth couldn’t it be an *empathic* response to what the subjects saw someone else feeling?
Nobody thinks that my bawling my eyes out just thinking of the first ten minutes of Up says anything about what kinds of relationships I have. It’s a sweet story designed to tug at heart-strings. And yet, despite the fact that we know this, the only reason we can come up with for people responding with some physical signs of arousal to other people being sexual is.. that we secretly fancy them? Would we do this in any other area of our lives?
Physical arousal as a defence mechanism
This is disturbing, but: what we call physical arousal in women isn’t tied to our preferences. Some studies suggest that it’s often a defence mechanism. Basically? Assault and rape have been around as long as humans have (at least). One of the ways that our bodies protect us is by preparing for the possibility of sex whenever it could possibly happen. Whether we want it to or not.
Disturbing- I can’t tell you how revolted I am by the idea of my own body doing that- but it seems to be a real thing. And if so, then being turned on by something is only one reason among many that women’s bodies have particular physical responses.
I could go on. Feel free to in the comments, if you like. But there’s something more important lying just a little to the side of all of this.
This kind of study is dangerous. Here’s why.
While there are many ways to interpret the results of studies like these, the underlying message of the kind of work that Rieger and Bailey do is this: hetero men are the default, and women and queers cannot be trusted.
In monosexual cis men and some lesbian women, it appears that certain physical responses match up directly with people’s orientations and feelings. For everyone else there is a disconnect.
There are two ways to see this. Either there’s no such thing as straight women (or bi men, or trans women), or else there is something deeply flawed about the assumptions being made. Which conclusion you come to depends on one thing: do you accept that women and bi people can accurately report our own experiences? Or do you dismiss the majority of humans as incapable of understanding ourselves?
We don’t trust queers. We don’t trust women. That’s the danger.
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