By explaining that there is not actually a “sudden spike” in lesbian and bi girls. Not that psychologist and author Dr. Leonard Sax cares much about that.
There’s a big difference between increases in actual numbers and increases in reported numbers. That phenomenon seems lost on Sax, who blogged on Psychology Today:
Psychologist John Buss estimates that for most of human history, perhaps 2% of women have been lesbian or bisexual (see note 1, below). Not any more. Recent surveys of teenage girls and young women find that roughly 15% of young females today self-identify as lesbian or bisexual, compared with about 5% of young males who identify as gay or bisexual (see note 2, below).
As a physician and a psychologist, what I found missing in the noise surrounding the Constance McMillen story was any serious discussion of why a growing number of girls self-identify as lesbian or bisexual. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say. But why are young women today at least three times more likely than their brothers to identify as bisexual or homosexual? “I kissed a girl and I liked it,” Katy Perry told us in her #1 hit single. Megan Fox, Lindsay Lohan, Lady Gaga, Anna Paquin, Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore – they all want us to know that they are bisexual. There is no comparable crowd of young male celebrities rushing to assure us that they go both ways. Imagine a young man singing “I kissed a boy and I liked it.” Would that song reach #1 on the charts? Why not?
Why is it OK for girls to be bisexual or homosexual, but not boys? Over the past seven years, I’ve posed this question to hundreds of teenagers and young adults across the United States. The most common answer I get isn’t really an answer. “Girls kiss other girls at parties because guys like it,” one teenage girl told me. “It makes the guys hoot and holler, so the girls do it again. They’re just doing it for attention. It’s not for real.” I point out, as gently as I can, that that response doesn’t answer my question. Pretending to be lesbian or bisexual doesn’t explain why a growing proportion of young women are lesbian or bisexual.
Or does it? Female sexuality is different from male sexuality. If a straight boy kissed another boy, perhaps to amuse some girls who might be watching, he would be unlikely to undergo a change in sexual orientation as a result. But, as Professor Roy Baumeister at Florida State University and others have shown, sexual attraction in many women seems to be more malleable (see note 3 below). If a teenage girl kisses another teenage girl, for whatever reason, and she finds that she likes it – then things can happen, and things can change. If a young woman finds her soulmate, and her soulmate happens to be female, then she may begin to experience feelings she’s never felt before.
PsychCentral.com’s John M. Grohol calls him out:
Sax also thinks there’s a connection between the rise in young boys having ready and available access to pornography and this rise in female lesbian/bisexuality:
Maybe there is. A young woman told me how her boyfriend several years ago suggested that she shave her pubic hair, so that she might more closely resemble the porn stars who were this young man’s most consistent source of sexual arousal. She now identifies herself as bisexual.
Ah, okay. So we intermingle sketchy historical data with a few shocking anecdotes, and suddenly we have an explanation for this “sudden” rise in female bi-sexuality and lesbians. Or do we?
Of course we all know the value of anecdotes — they help relay a good story. Folks like Malcolm Gladwell like to couch scientific data in anecdotes to make that data more accessible and understandable (hence why he’s so popular).
But Gladwell tends not to drawn sweeping conclusions from the anecdotes themselves. That’s reserved for that actual empirical data.
Sax admits that we really don’t know what the historical rate of female lesbianism or bisexuality has been. His only citation for suggesting there’s been this crazy increase is a single citation from a psychology 101 textbook. Not exactly journal-level science there.
The simple and more probable explanation is found buried in Sax’s notes — that in different times, different standards were more acceptable. Therefore reporting of one’s sexuality is likely to be biased toward those standards. In other words, it’s not that there are necessarily more lesbians and bisexuals today, it’s that people feel far more free and open to identify with that label without as much fear of societal or criminal prosecution.
And offers this tidy conclusion:
It’s amazing what general societal acceptance will do for reporting of nearly anything. Look at mental health issues, for instance. Even just twenty years ago, the stigma was such that many people had a difficult time acknowledging their mental health concern. In many parts of the country, this same fear is still very much prevalent when it comes to acknowledging one’s sexual orientation.
So the answer is likely far simpler — we have “more” lesbians, bisexuals and gay men because it’s easier in today’s society to acknowledge that you’re a lesbian, gay man or bisexual. It also won’t result in your criminal prosecution or rejection from society as it did in the past. The impact of reporting bias is significant for this issue, because in the past people simply didn’t talk about these things openly. Or with researchers.