MSNBC.com
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/5/2006 12:38:51 PM ET 2006-01-05T17:38:51

Sex and politics have become the peanut butter and jelly of our overheated, hate-filled culture wars. But they’re not always teamed up in the ways you might think, with humorless Christian zealots in beehive hairdos duking it out with men dressed as nuns.

I was reminded of this recently when Sexploration received some reader mail asking what it meant to be bisexual and asexual. “Does this make me bisexual?” one asked of an experience he had. “Is there such a thing as asexual? Could I be asexual?” asked another who had seemingly lost all interest in sex.

The thing is, nobody knows for sure just what it means to be bisexual or asexual.

“There is no definitive definition [of asexuality] yet,” psychologist Tony Bogaert of Brock University of St. Catherines in Canada told me, noting that there isn’t even a firm definition of sexual orientation, period.

But the letters, and others like them, display the strange habit we have inherited from medicine, social science and George Gallup of labeling ourselves.

'Gay, straight or lying'
About a year ago, Bogaert released a study that analyzed data from a survey done in the United Kingdom. He concluded that about 1 percent of all the people in the survey were asexual. They had no sexual attraction for members of either gender, men or women. This may or may not translate to other countries or other surveys, but there was a lot of media coverage, much of it trying to figure out what asexual meant, exactly.

Then, last summer, another research project by Gerulf Rieger, a doctoral student at Northwestern University in Chicago, studied the reactions of people, including self-described bisexual men, to erotic movies. Seems the bisexual men did not react equally to the films. They said they did, but their penises told another story. Most bisexual men had a stronger response to gay porn than to heterosexual porn. “It remains to be shown that male bisexuality exists,” concluded the study.

J. Michael Bailey, a research psychologist at Northwestern, and the author of the book "The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender Bending and Transexualism," put it bluntly by quoting an old saying among homosexuals: “You’re either gay, straight or lying.”

Both these papers, especially the bisexual paper, raised a very big ruckus. Bailey, who was a senior author of Rieger’s paper, was already the subject of a hysterical hate campaign by a small number of male-to-female transsexuals who have compared him to the Nazi organizers of the Holocaust for his past writings and research. His part in questioning the existence of male bisexuality was a big load of new ammo. Meanwhile, Bogaert’s research spurred the popularity of a so-called “asexual movement.”

Why? When was the last time the army denied entry to an asexual? Has the Southern Baptist Convention preached against the idea?

But judging from a Web site set up by asexuals, called the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, asexuals have beefs.

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Don't box me in
One item, written by somebody named “Bard” complains that asexuals are often asked questions like “Do you masturbate?" and “Have you ever had sex?” That’s nobody’s business, Bard says.

Umm, OK, but what’s with the name of the organization? “Visibility”? “Education”? Kinda tough to be visible and educate anybody about your sexuality without answering a few basic sex questions. 

The site’s operators argue that questioning “the validity of their asexuality” is verboten: “We are here to figure ourselves out, not to put each other in boxes.”

Actually, until you brought it up, I didn’t much care what you called yourself. But now that you’ve created your own glass box, and asked me to look inside, you’re saying I can’t question what I’m seeing? Sorry. I asked Bogaert.

“It’s possible that some, many, ‘asexuals’ do indeed have medical issues that contribute to their lack of attraction," he says. "So one perspective might be that this group of ‘asexuals’ do not have a ‘unique’ sexual orientation distinct from the traditional categories of homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual.” On the other hand, he says, if, for whatever reason, a person has never had “subjective” attraction for people, “then an asexual orientation designation is reasonable from my perspective.”

When it comes to sexual orientation, Bogaert says, what you do is less important than what you feel. “A person may be ‘bisexual’ from a sexual ‘behavior’ perspective, but I, and others, would argue that he/she is less ‘bisexual’ from a sexual orientation perspective because the attraction component may be missing.”

This is the sort of thing that got Rieger and Bailey in such hot water. They argued that a pattern of arousal response rather than self-identification is a better way to detect orientation.

'Research can be wrong'
But both Bailey and Bogaert say that a lot of this sort of thing is still up in the air. “We all need to be aware that research can be wrong,” Bailey cautioned me.

Remember Freud? Maybe future researchers will decide Bailey’s work is a crock. Maybe not. The science of this is still crude. We’re strapping guys in lab chairs, putting electric devices on their weenies and asking them to watch porn. It’s not exactly champagne, 400-thread-count sheets and Penelope Cruz.

And anyway, they are trying to describe, not prescribe. So why mass behind little Maginot Lines, stamp our feet, shake our fists and say, “I’m bi, bi, bi!” or “I’m straight, straight straight!”? That makes it so much easier for those who see any variation from their own preferences to demonize others as alien.

If you say you’re an asexual, are perfectly happy being an asexual, why do you care what a psychologist thinks or I think or Pat Robertson thinks? If you’re bi, if you are ethical and tell potential partners (whose business it really is) you are bi, if you are happy being bi, why worry about what “bi” means? 

Besides, I just don’t care if the barbershop has a big rainbow flag out front. I want to know if they can cut hair.

A few years ago, I was researching a story and spent several days in a store owned by a gay man. One of his clerks was partially transsexual from male to female. She dated another partial transsexual, also male to female, who had undergone some surgery but not the full Monty. A helper in the store was also a gay male who had sometimes worked as a transvestite prostitute.

As Daffy Duck might say, this caused some pronoun trouble.

Lucky for me all these people had a sense of humor. Half the time, they joked, they weren’t sure what pronoun to use either. They told me to relax. Over succeeding days I grew to like all these people very much. They were, among other things, hilariously funny, and I admired the way they had carved out a family for themselves from what were very complex and often painful histories.

That’s all I needed to know. I never thought to ask them for definitions.

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).

Sexploration appears every other Thursday.

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