‘There is no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or homosexual.’
Until quite recently, this statement was regarded as common sense. More than this, it was a kind of widely shared article of quasi-religious faith, as prescriptive as it was descriptive. An Eleventh Commandment.
Heterosexuality was the default, normal, right, setting and anything that strayed from that was homosexuality. That is to say: sinful, wrong, ill, odd, hilarious, niche.
This heterocentric, essentially monosexual worldview was not just conventional wisdom for many straight people. It was also shared by surprisingly large number of (usually older) gay people, who sometimes regard bisexuality as a kind of heresy, or at least a cop out. What’s not straight must be gay, otherwise you’re just kidding yourself and letting the side down.
But common sense can change. And articles of religious faith can fall. There has been a revolution in attitudes in recent years that has shaken sexual certainties to the core. Compulsory heterosexuality, and the idea that any ‘deviation’ from it is homosexual, is no longer so compulsory. People have lost their faith in monosexuality.
According to a recent, widely-publicised YouGov survey less than a third of UK residents now agree that when it comes to sexuality ‘There is no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or homosexual’. While nearly two thirds (60%) agree with the once heretical statement ‘sexuality is a scale – it is possible to be somewhere near the middle’.
Most strikingly of all, this figure rose to three quarters of 18–24-year-olds. Half of whom placed themselves somewhere on that scale as something other than 100% heterosexual. While a remarkable 43% of them describe themselves as being, to some degree, bi-responsive.
It was the pioneering American sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who invented the 0-6 scale used in the YouGov poll (0 = totally heterosexual; 6 = totally homosexual) back in the 1940s. Like Sigmund Freud, Kinsey believed that humans were basically bi-responsive, that human sexuality was a spectrum, and that humanity could not be divided up into gay goats and straight sheep. Kinsey argued that although most of the pressure was to be heterosexual, society’s ostracism of homosexuals also forced them into exclusive relations with the same sex. In a society with less restrictive mores, in which homosexuality was tolerated and integrated, Kinsey, who was himself bisexual, believed sexual interaction with both sexes would become the norm.
Seventy years on, mores have become less restrictive, the stigmatisation of homosexuality has greatly diminished – and the availability and insatiability of online porn has opened the eyes of many to practises once deemed so immoral and unnatural they were unmentionable. And on paper, it would appear that Kinsey has been largely vindicated – at least as far as young UK heterosexuals are concerned.
The fact that only half of 18-24s say they are completely heterosexual is a sign that the younger generation is abandoning monosexuality as a belief system – which has to appear to be a universal truth, not a minority or ‘niche’ cult. It’s also an indication that a theoretical level of biresponsiveness has become or is becoming the norm. Most may not be actively exploring it (20% of 18-24s and 27% of 25-39s say they have had sex with someone of the same sex), and most of the less than 100% heteros huddle at the heterosexual end of the spectrum, but they are touchingly keen to be – or at least appear to be – open-minded. Half of heterosexual 18-24s say that if the right person of the same sex came along at the right time they could be attracted to them.
Perhaps the collapse of compulsory heterosexuality and the crisis of monosexuality shouldn’t be so surprising. A couple of years ago a survey into male grooming found that half of UK men now describe themselves as metrosexual and want to be beautiful. Men, especially young men, have in the last decade or so, been given permission to enjoy products, pleasures, practises, prettiness, and potentials that were previously strictly for ‘girls and gays’.
Little wonder that as gender norms have relaxed, they have become more open-minded about sexuality itself. As I’ve argued before, men in general are less hard on the gays nowadays because they’re less hard on themselves – no longer needing so much to project their ‘weaknesses’ into the despised, or just patronised, ‘other’.
Instead, they now want to show how accepting they are of the ‘other’ – but most particularly they want those kinda fun, kinda kinky ‘weaknesses’ back now, thanks very much, now that they are much more into themselves than they used to be.
In Kinsey’s own country the US, where monosexuality was even more entrenched than in the UK, a sea-change is afoot too, but one that seems by some measures to lag behind the UK and lead it by others. A YouGov survey there published shortly after the UK one found that 31% of under-30s plot themselves as something other than completely heterosexual on the Kinsey scale – compared to 78% of the general population who say they are completely heterosexual, and 4% who say that they are completely homosexual.
Unfortunately, there is no 18-24 category in the US data, so that 31% figure for under 30 non-heterosexuality is difficult to compare properly with the UK figure of 49% (though the UK figure for the next age category 25-39 is 42%). However, as in the UK there is clearly a major generational shift at work, with young people being much more open-minded. ‘No homo’ isn’t quite so ‘no homo’ as it used to be.
Some of the other data available does suggest that the US is still more monosexualist than the UK. Nearly half (48%) of Americans believe ‘there is no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or you are not’ compared to only 27% of Brits. (However, the UK question/statement reads: ‘there is no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or homosexual’; the US question/statement replaces ‘homosexual’ with ‘not’, which is perhaps itself symbolic).
Which is to say, half of America does not believe there is such a thing as bisexuality, and thus any deviation from heterosexuality is just homosexuality. Amongst Republicans that increases to 63% – and stands at 58% in the South, suggesting a monotheistic basis to monosexuality.
Only 39% of Americans agree with the statement that sexuality is a scale – compared to 61% of Brits. And only 27% of US heterosexuals say that if the right person came along they could possibly be attracted to a person of the same sex, compared to 38% of Brits. (Though this may be a function of British politeness.)
All that said, c. five times as many young Americans identify as bisexual as young Brits. 10% of American 18-29s, compared to just 2% of UK 18-24s, and 2% of Americans of all ages. And five times fewer young Americans identify as gay or lesbian than UK young people do: 10% of UK 18-24s (compared to 6% for all ages) and 2% of US 18-29s (compared to 4% for all ages).
It’s difficult to know for sure, especially from this side of the Pond, whether this is a measure of greater enlightenment and inclusivity about sexuality amongst young people in the US and a related diminished need for distinct gay and lesbian identities – proving Kinsey right about gay people becoming less sexually exclusive as they became more integrated. Or whether something else is going on, especially given the lower levels of tolerance and acceptance for homosexuality in the US compared to the UK. Perhaps as some older gay people like to complain, young gay and lesbian Americans are ‘hiding’ their ‘true’ sexuality in ‘fashionable’ bisexuality.
Or maybe the reason so many young Americans choose to identify as bisexual is precisely because the belief in monosexuality has been so devout and oppressive there for so long – on both sides of the gay/straight divide.
What better way to flip the older generation the bird than to declare an identity which by definition rejects their cherished sexual religion?
UK Data Odds & Sods
Men are five times more likely to describe themselves as ‘gay or lesbian’ than women: 10% of men compared to 2% of women. (In the US the figure is 5% for men and 4% for women.) When it came to ‘bisexual’ the numbers were evenly split at 2% for men and women alike.
7% of Conservative voters described themselves as ‘gay or lesbian’ compared to 4% of Labour voters – despite the fact that male homosexuality was decriminalised under a Labour government in the 1960s, and it was another Labour administration in the Nineties & Noughties which did away with the remaining discriminatory laws – in the teeth of Conservative opposition.
Rather than attribute this all to Cameron’s recent successful co-option of gay marriage, perhaps a better explanation for the fact there were nearly twice as many Conservative gays and lesbians as Labour is to be found in the data showing social class ABC1 were four times more likely to describe themselves as gay or lesbian (8%) than those in C2DE (2%). Class and income doesn’t just influence your voting, but also your declared sexuality. Interestingly, the numbers for ‘bisexual’ were the same for Labour and Tory voters and both social classes – 2%.
Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, supporters of the centrist (and largely middle-class) Lib Dems were most likely to agree with the statement ‘sexuality is a scale – it is possible to be somewhere near the middle’, at 71%, compared to 47% of UKIP voters, who are much more likely to be C2DE (39% of UKIP voters believed there was no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or homosexual).
The great, throbbing Metropolis of London, as you might expect, had the highest number of self-described gays and lesbians: 8% compared to Scotland’s 3%. But wrong-footing stereotypes, ‘Midlands/Wales’ was only one point behind what is now surely the gay capital of the entire world, at 7%.