The University of Essex has released a study recently, which the researchers are claiming has found “clearly defined” boundaries in terms of female sexuality. For the study, 345 women had their eyes tracked while looking at images of both naked men and women in order to determine their levels of arousal. In addition to these women, researchers also used women who identify as bisexual or homosexual, in addition to heterosexual men. This method relies solely on a previous finding (from the same university) that links eye dilation to sexual arousal. At the end of the study, the researchers formed a single conclusion—there is no such thing as a “straight woman,” due to the fact at every single woman tested, regardless of sexual orientation, experienced eye dilation when looking at a naked woman.
But I do not accept this conclusion, for a long list of reasons. First, I have issues with the study itself, specifically its terms for identifying sexual attraction in women. One of the only pieces of evidence used to determine if the women were aroused by the images were pupil dilation, which the University asserted was “100% linked” to female attraction. But what about the other factors influencing eye dilation, such as emotional responses like surprise, shock or shame, which many of the women used in the study must have experienced? The published findings never comment on the other factors influencing pupil dilation.
I am also skeptical of the findings that came out of the research that, personally, left me more angry than enlightened. Dr. Rieger, a researcher in the study, claimed that “this [study] shows us that how women appear in public does not mean that we know anything about their sexual role preference. Men are simple, but women’s sexual responses remain a mystery.” Why was this study conducted on only women? What would the public backlash be if the researchers attempted to assert that there was no such thing as a “straight man”? Where’s the study calling men out for their sexual misgivings? Why are women portrayed in such a way that we are always experiencing sexual attraction, yet we refuse to criticize men for the same cultural behavior? The fact that there are no answers to any of these questions makes me increasingly skeptical of a group of researchers claiming to understand my sexuality, without attempting to understand the sexual behaviors of the society around me.
Further, there is a large bias among the women involved that was not taken into account. So, I ask: when would be the last time any of those women saw another naked woman in a sexual context? This study assumes never or rarely; that is where we would disagree. It would be the last time any of them had walked into a mall, the last time they turned on their televisions or watched a movie, or the last time they picked up a magazine and looked at the front cover. The sexualization of women in modern society deserves its own article of criticisms. But, in the context of this study, it should have been taken more into consideration in how it affects the researchers’ outcome. Personally, I feel as though if every woman’s pupils dilated when they saw another naked woman it means that we no longer view other women as people anymore; we only see each other as sexual objects, subjected to men’s view of us. This speaks volumes about the society in which this study is conducted, and less about the study itself. While the researchers are trying to pry “all women are gay” out of these results, all I can see is a systemic problem in society that this study is ignoring. This all seems like insufficient evidence to decide that there is no such thing as heterosexual women.
However, I would like to take a moment to assess the larger impact of this study if it were true. Let’s suspend everything I just wrote, and assume that all the conclusions drawn in this study are correct. With all my skepticism aside, I have a question for the researchers responsible for this study—so what?
When I first read this study, the first conclusion I drew was that we finally have concrete evidence that sexuality is more fluid than previously thought. Sexual orientations, similar to gender identities, should be seen as a spectrum. There is rarely any room for absolutes when describing attraction. Often, there are people who identify as “heterosexual,” yet have had romantic or sexual experiences with people of the same gender or outside the gender binary. So why isn’t every woman who’s ever experienced sexual attraction to another woman automatically identifying as bisexual?
The key here is the use of identities in defining our sexuality. Labels, while sometimes too confining, are a useful tool for aligning ourselves with other people who experience attraction similarly, or even with becoming a part of the growing LGBTQIA+ community. The way in which we identify our sexualities may not always match our experiences, but that does not invalidate peoples’ sexual orientations. We are not responsible for defending our labels, only in being honest to ourselves when we use confining constructs to define ourselves, such as sexual identities.
So, I ask: even if the study is true, why is it bad to continue to use “heterosexual” as a label for women who have a strong preference for men and want to define themselves along this line? Why does this study ask us to demean bisexuality as a catch-all term for women who would otherwise identify as straight? Why does it ask us to demean homosexuality as an inevitable conclusion?
The heterosexual population, while not included in the LGBTQIA+ community, still deserves the same right many fight for—to define ourselves in our own terms. In a world where absolutism has no place on the sexual spectrum, here is a study claiming complete certainty over women’s sexual identities. I must disagree with the researchers at the University of Essex—everyone’s sexual identity is valid, even heterosexuality. I do not approve of a study claiming sovereignty over my gender or my sexuality. Only we get to define ourselves, not a study.