Dr Qazi Rahman specialises in research on human sexuality, and I sat down with him to talk about how science doesn’t always reflect the way that we talk about sexuality on a day-to-day basis.
Self-reporting versus Physical Response
“Research that looks at physical responses provides us with a different level of insight compared to self-reporting, because we’re looking at the involuntary physical response of a person’s genitals…” explains Rahman.
Apparently, how this works in relation to sexuality is that participants in a study are shown footage of sexual activity. They get to see same-sex activity between men and same-sex activity between females. Footage of male-female sex generally isn’t used as it wouldn’t give a clear reading - it wouldn’t be clear whether the arousal was in response to the male or female.
“When physical response studies have been done with men, what we see is quite a binary response…” explains Rahman. ”Self-identified straight men are only aroused by watching sexual activity between women, whereas self-identified gay men are only aroused by watching sexual activity between men.”
“When we look at physical response studies that focus on women…” continues Rahman. “Women that identify as lesbians are only aroused by watching sexual activity between women. However women that self-identify as straight or bisexual will generally show a more fluid arousal response, in that they’re aroused by footage of same-sex activity between men, same-sex activity between women, and also footage of straight sexual activity.”
“There’s a fairly widely held assumption that female sexuality is generally more fluid than that of males…” adds Rahman. “The current research also supports this. An interesting starting point is that the number of women that identify exclusively as lesbian is about 1.5 percent. Another interesting fact is that of the self-identified straight women, anything from 35–40 percent of women report that they’ve had some sort of same-sex sexual experience or arousal.”
What the science tells us
‘The bottom line is that while social effects will play a part in the way that sexual attraction is expressed, sexual orientation is essentially innate…” explains Rahman. “However, the biology of sexual orientation is just the tip of our understanding of the sexual diversity iceberg.”