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12 July 2011

Is the Continuum Theory Plausible?

I don't think it is. What I'm talking about is the Sexual-Orientation Continuum theory. According to the APA (via Wikipedia): Sexual orientation exists along a continuum that ranges from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality and includes various forms of bisexuality. Over at Razib's there was some discussion around Tim Pawlenty's answers on Meet the Press regarding homosexuality-as-a-choice. I thought he (Pawlenty) deflected it expertly, but some commenters on Razib's post referred approvingly to a rather rambling dissertation on the sexuality-as-continuum theme on another blog.

Now such a continuum would suggest that sexuality is normally distributed, with exclusive homosexuality and heterosexuality at the extremes, with intermediate behavior (i.e., bisexuality) the norm, taking up the vast middle of the distribution. Of course we know this is not the case - the vast majority of people are heterosexual. So the distribution is skewed - fine. Still, if it's a continuum, we should expect that the intermediate state should be also be intermediate in frequency between the dominant state and the rare state - i.e., we should expect bisexuality - which represents a state intermediate between the (predominate) heterosexual state and the (rare) homosexual state to have an incidence rate somewhere between the two. Does it?

Let's look at the GSS. Since 1991, the GSS has asked participants about their sexual partners over the last 5 years(variable=SEXSEX5). The choices are Exclusively Male, Exclusively Female, and Both Male and Female. These are the cumulative results since 1991:
As you can see, rather than being somewhere between exclusive homosexuality and heterosexuality in incidence, bisexuality is actually less common than homosexuality. That is certainly unusual behavior for an intermediate value. In case you might think having results from the early 90's might distort the results somehow, here are the results since 2000:

No real difference - bi-sexuality is the least common sexuality (results from individual years can be found here if you don't wish to reproduce results yourself in the GSS). Now why would this be? Well I suppose i'm not qualified to speculate - but the results don't seem consistent with a continuum of sexuality, but more with a binary condition, with some switching between conditions as the situation might require in rare cases.

What about self-reporting issues? These results - sub-3% for homosexuality - are lower than we often hear. Claims of 10% are silly, but I've often heard 4 - 5%. Would GSS respondents under-report their homosexuality? Perhaps, though I don't know why they would do so here - year-in and year-out (only 2000 and 2002 for men and 1991 for females showed >3%) - and not elsewhere. But regardless, the point is that bisexuality shows a lower incidence of homosexuality - the opposite of what you'd expect if there were a heterosexual-bisexual-homosexual continuum. And it is certainly not plausible that bisexuality would be under-reported vis-a-vis homosexuality.


Anonymous robert61 said...

Does continuum theory actually posit anything about distribution, or simply note that the population doesn't fall neatly into three independent categories? One can argue that normal distribution is implicit in the term; indeed, people ignorant of math probably interpret it that way, and in that sense the term may be misleading. Is a Gaussian distribution really the default, though? This continuum is actually a nearly unipolar bipolar distribution with a shallow trough in between. I'd be prepared to accept "continuum" as a reasonable term as long as a tiny part of the population is sprinkled across the range.

July 12, 2011 10:27 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

No, Gaussian isn't necessarily implied - that's why I recognized it's a distribution heavily skewed towards one side. But if it's a continuum, it has to get from the fat end to the very skinny end somehow. You're suggesting a continuum that looks like a grossly imbalanced barbell.

Not impossible - in some societies there have been I believe income distributions where there is a huge underclass, a small wealthy class, and an even smaller middle or merchant class. But these didn't develop as a continuum - they began as bipolar wealthy/poor societies, and a middle class grew between them.

The sexuality-continuum claims that exclusive homosexuality is just one extreme end of behavior away from exclusive heterosexuality with bisexuality bridging the extremes. I contend it's not too plausible that the behavior that stands intermediate between extremes should be the rarest of all.

July 12, 2011 11:10 PM  
Anonymous Handle said...

The "continuum" (vs. discrete categories) is merely an abstraction for intellectual (and ideological) convenience - it by no means implies some kind of Gaussian distribution - and, especially for males, it's clear that the distribution is particularly bi-modal in nature.

I think trying to "systematize" non-normative human sexuality is a mug's game. What about criminals who are straight on the outside but rapists in prison? Where does the prevalence of pederasty and catamite-culture in History fit in?

Self-identification polling is fraught with difficulties too - but since it's all we have, the desperation to do some kind of analysis leads people to use D-list data even when they ought not. What are the error-bands and how do they propagate? Who knows.

Some types of knowledge, especially related to the emergence of human behaviors, are simply not amenable to discovery through the experimental method and so we have little choice but to be humble in our profession of what "objective truth" looks like.

But the real problem is that certain parties have a extremely high interest in the propagation of confidence in a particular view of that truth - and that corrupts the whole inquiry.

The underlying issue here is whether non-normative sexuality is more like race or more like adultery because the Constitutional Law of Civil Rights (which is what everyone is striving to influence) works by means of analogy - and the analogy that dominates will determine the course of jurisprudence.

If sexuality is a "natural continuum" of immutable, inborn, irrepressible instinctive desire then it is "like race" and it's cruelly discriminatory for the rest of society to prohibit or discourage their consensual relations without a very compelling rationale.

On the other hand, last time I checked, married heterosexuals often lust after members of the opposite sex who are not their spouses, everyone regards this as an unfortunate but perfectly natural part of the tragic human condition, and yet we all feel fully entitled to tell these people to suppress their most powerful animal desires for the sake of stabilizing and optimizing the marital institution's function for society - even if they find themselves in unhappy, sexless marriages (which maybe they hold together "for the sake of the children") without any alternative outlet. And we don't consider such requirements to constitute an extreme sacrifice or hardship.

At bottom is the fundamental question of whether the people through the government should have any say whatsoever in regards to sexual, reproductive, and family-organization behavior, and if so, what are the proper contours of that authority?

Obviously, people have very different opinions and judgments in this matter. But because the law requires people to justify their opinions and judgments to the satisfaction of judges - there is an enormous and corrupting incentive to stack the deck of "Science" in favor of one's "Evidence".

July 13, 2011 10:32 AM  
Anonymous Handle said...

I might add, there's some good discussion of the corrupting effect on honest inquiry of the "influential potential" of the results of the subject being investigated, quoted from Jean Francois-Revel in this insightful essay on PC (ht TGGP).

July 13, 2011 3:42 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

In 1975, it was fashionable for pop stars to declare themselves bisexual: David Bowie, Elton John, etc. But by 2011 these same individuals seem to have shaken out to one side or the other of the J curve: Bowie straight, John gay.

July 13, 2011 10:34 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

I'm guessing certain recreational drugs could help "bridge the gap" as it were. Jagger, too, used to at least not discourage the impression that he was bi - though in his case I think it was always an act. Too bad the GSS didn't ask this question in the 70's.

July 14, 2011 12:24 AM  
Anonymous robert61 said...

In the 70s, bisexuality was cool. It was seen as the realization of an egalitarian dream. We seem to be over that particular aspect of the egalitarian dream now (though not others; animal rights, anyone?), so Elton John and David Bowie can consort with the genitalia of their choice without being any less cool for it. Seriously, are there any major male celebs making a thing about being bisexual nowadays? I can't think of one.

July 14, 2011 5:16 AM  
Anonymous Cyril said...

It won't actually have success, I consider this way.
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November 23, 2011 2:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A large percentage of men and women identify as straight yet exhibit bisexual behavior. You seem to ignore this in favor of self-reported bisexual orientation on surveys, which will inevitably be very low and under-reported. A bisexual is capable of passing as straight, and in a homophobic society the vast majority are likely to consider themselves straight but 'open-minded' as a way of rationalizing any feelings they might have for the same sex from time to time.

The other issue with your post is that bisexual women outnumber lesbians 2:1. You obscure that statistic with a bar chart that makes the populations look the same.

There are sociological explanations for this. Bi women face much less stigma than bi men, so more of them come out. The result is a continuum much like you would expect.

As for the 1970s examples, remember that Bowie initially identified as gay before 'taking it back' and saying he was bi. Ric Ocasek, Pete Townsend, Freddie Mercury and several others clearly are based on their life histories.

November 19, 2012 3:36 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

If you have data indicating that bisexuality is more common than homosexuality then by all means point to it. But all your giving me are assertions.

November 19, 2012 10:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure where you get your data on the incidence of bisexuality, but please review this data source. It should persuade you that bisexuality is far more common than homosexuality, and if you count behavior, then the difference is even greater.

February 05, 2015 8:17 PM  
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