Junk Science

Why This Study Has Headlines Claiming All Women Are ‘Bi Or Gay’

Most women are aroused by sexy photos of both men and women. But that doesn't mean they're gay

Nov 06, 2015 at 3:27 PM ET

Female sexuality was in the news again this week, after a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that, “women are, on average, physiologically sexually aroused to both male and female sexual stimuli.”

The media missed the context of the study and pounced on the opportunity for a splashy headline. “Women are either bisexual or gay but NEVER straight,” The Daily Mail proclaimed in its headline. “Women ‘All Bi Or Gay'” reads another. Now, to less scrupulous media types, that may sound like all women secretly want each other—but that’s simply not what the study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Essex recently measured pupil dilation and genital stimulation (don’t ask how) in 345 women who watched pornographic videos of both men and women. Lesbians responded strongly to the women (and, not surprisingly, did not respond to the men) while heterosexual women responded strongly to both men and women who were getting it on.

Now, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking research. In 2007, a similar study conducted by Meredith Chivers, who is also a coauthor on the new study concluded that heterosexual women are physiologically turned on by just about anything sensual—masturbation, sex, bonobo monkey porn—and generally uninspired by naked, non-sexual photographs of either gender. “For heterosexual women, looking at a naked man walking on the beach is about as exciting as looking at landscape,” Chivers told The New York Times in 2008.

And, lest anyone misappropriate her research to claim something ridiculous (like, I dunno, all women are bisexual?), she added: “to conclude that women are bisexual on the basis of their sexual responding overlooks the complexity and multidimensionality of female sexuality.”

More The Best of New York’s Gay and Lesbian Casual Encounters

That makes sense for two reasons. First of all, sexuality is more complicated than what makes your pupils dilate (or what makes your genitals, er…engorge). Second, and most importantly, how our bodies respond to stimuli is usually based on evolution, and there’s almost always a complicated story there.

Chivers once put forth the theory that women evolved to physiologically respond to virtually all sexual stimuli (male, female, bonobo or otherwise) as a defense mechanism. Vaginal lubrication is necessary, “to reduce discomfort, and the possibility of injury, during vaginal penetration,” she wrote in 2009. As the theory goes, ancient women whose bodies did not lubricate during forced sex or unwanted sexual contact likely sustained serious injuries.

Which brings us to a disturbing possibility. This study doesn’t suggest all women are bisexual—it suggests that female bodies were forced to evolve to respond to all sexual stimuli, just so that they wouldn’t die after being raped.

That’s enough to put a damper on any headline.