Identity and disclosure of behaviorally bisexual men

with Eric Schrimshaw, PhD

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Professor Eric Schrimshaw has conducted extensive research on a variety of topics related to the LGBTQ+ population, including HIV prevention and treatment, the use of pornography by gay and bisexual men, men involved in sex work online, and most recently, on behaviorally bisexual men, a topic we discussed in this Smart Sex, Smart Love podcast. In this particular study, the research team focused on men who identify themselves socially as heterosexual, but they reported in the study that they are having sex with men and women, including their wives and girlfriends who do not know they are having sex with men. These behaviorally bisexual closeted men have made a conscious decision not to disclose. Listen to my podcast to learn more about behaviorally bisexual men and how their secret can affect them.

Welcome to Smart sex smart love. We’re talking about sex goes beyond the taboo and talking about love goes beyond the honeymoon. My guest today is Dr. Eric scrimshaw, professor and founding chair of the department of Population Health Sciences at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. He has a PhD in social and personality psychology. Dr. scrimshaw has conducted extensive research focused on LGBT health disparities and HIV prevention and treatment, resulting in more than 90 peer reviewed publications. His research has ended his included studies of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents, HIV positive women and older adults. Behaviorally bisexual men, use of pornography by gay and bisexual men, use of hookup apps by gay and bisexual men, sexual scripts of young gay and bisexual men and men in volved in sex work online. In addition, Dr. scrimshaw serves on the editorial boards of Archives of Sexual Behavior, Journal of Sex research, and annals of LGBT public and population health. Welcome, Dr. scrimshaw. It’s a pleasure to be here, Dr. Cort pleasure. I’m so happy to hear have you here, as you know, I love your work, and I find a view and so I just want the public to know about you and know about your research. Well, thank you. That’s very kind. So I want to start if you don’t mind with when you say behaviorally bisexual men, people are going to be like, What do you mean? So would you mind starting with starting with that? So in sex research, we draw a distinction between one sexual identity, how do you identify yourself and your sexual behavior, which is what you’re doing with others? And so, you know, when we often think about bisexual men, we’re really thinking about men who identify as bisexual, who who think of themselves as bisexual. But in our study, we were less concerned about how do they identify themselves, we’re really more interested in a broader definition of bisexual men, in terms of guys who

may identify as straight or heterosexual, but are still reporting that they have sex with men and women, including their wives or girlfriends. I can

imagine that for a lot of my listeners, that are that struggle with when I say straight men who have sex with men will be relieved to hear you say it this way. Because I do get a lot of feedback from people that say, well, aren’t these bisexual men? And you’re making the distinction? These are by sexually? Behavioral men, right? That’s

correct. Exactly. And some of them may identify as bisexual, many of them do. And at but about, in our study, about a third of our men report identifying to themselves and as heterosexual. Now, if we were asked, how does the public view how do they socially identify almost all of them report that they socially identify as heterosexual? And that’s because our study was specifically focused on bisexual men who had wives or girlfriends? Who did not know that they had sex with men on the side? Right,

right. Which is, it’s I understand it’s changing. I don’t know if you understand the same thing for younger men. But for the older men, maybe I don’t know 40 And up, they don’t tell because they’re afraid that women are going to leave. Do you notice that too?

That’s absolutely what we saw in the study. Overwhelmingly, when we asked why do Tet, why do you not tell why have you not told anyone? But particularly, why do you not tell your wife or your girlfriend,

it is all about anticipated stigma. They think that their female partners and potentially even their parents are going to have, you know, strong emotional reactions there. She will divorce me tomorrow. She’ll tell everyone I know. I’ll be publicly you know, outed and so that that’s the main that’s, you know, those are are the main reasons why

they’ve made the conscious decision that, that she’s not that they have chosen not to tell her. Yeah, I

appreciate that. And I love when research can confirm something I’m seeing or doing clinically, because I just know what From my observations in the therapy room, not from somebody like you who’s actually doing research on actually doing research. Okay, so bisexuality, like all other sexual identities is different for different people. But many people tend to think of bisexuals as a single homogenous group, how has your research helped unpack what it means to be bisexual?

So as I was kind of suggesting before, you know, we’ve focused not on openly bisexual men, who, who, you know, and there are an increasing number of those folks, particularly in younger age groups now, but we were we were particularly interested that in bisexual men with a wife or a girlfriend who had an ongoing, repeated, consistent, perhaps loving relationship with a woman, but still had sex with men on the side. And and it was particularly focused on the the reason NIH is particularly interested in funding our work on this was, could these men potentially be putting themselves and their wives at risk for HIV and STI is by engaging in condomless, or unprotected behaviors with the man on the side. And while we didn’t find that we actually found they’re very, very safe. And we can talk about that. That it was it allowed us also to answer a lot of questions that maybe wouldn’t normally get answered in a study of openly bisexual men. So we were able to focus on this particular group of, of what we call non disclosing or closeted bisexual men.

Okay, so maybe then, could you explain when you say that they are having safer sex?

Yeah. We we actually went into it thinking that there would be potential risk, but actually, in part because these men are very concerned or fearful about wives, girlfriends, friends, family finding out, they were actually engaged in really, really safe, primarily oral sexual behaviors, because they knew that if they contracted an STI, or heaven forbid, HIV, they knew. And they brought that home or even if they just had to have that treated, and others found out, the wife would immediately wonder, Where did you get it from? Because you didn’t get it from me?

I remember in 2000s, I think it was 2006 when the book on the Download came out by JL King. Yeah, it was an Oprah Show.

Unknown Speaker 8:16
This study. Oh, it did.

Okay, right. There were men of color that were, you know, doing on the download. That’s the word that they use at the time. I remember that show. And I remember that everyone in the audience, including Oprah thought that all these men were gay. I don’t even remember the word bisexual being used, but nobody thought that they might be straight identified. Do you remember that? Yes,

absolutely. I still have a VHS tape of that show. On my on my bookshelf here in the office.

Oh, my God, it was you’d put that on? electronically. I’d love to watch that. Again. We

can see what we can do. We’ll have to find a VHS player. All

right, right. That’s right. But anyway, so you saw that I didn’t realize that this study was inspired by that. Yes. And I always say that, you know, when a man has one non heterosexual thought he stigmatized when a woman has one non heterosexual thought she’s fetishized and that both are problematic. And your study is confirming that for the way that men feel, is that right?

Absolutely. And even many of them talk not only do they anticipate this stigma, but they actually follow it up kind of pointing out that, you know, so my cousin came out or my friend came out, and this is how my other family members or even my wife reacted when another person came out as bi or gay or what have you. And so was able to actually point to instances and said, I’m not coming out because of how horribly they treated another person.

Yeah, how interesting.

I know. I know. This homophobia. This spy phobia exists in my in my family. And then my social network already. Yeah,

JOE KORT 10:01
it’s so sad. When you talk about the anticipated stigma, like you are attached to the beliefs of these men, bisexual men by sexually behavioral men. How much of it do you think involves the culture or the religion they’re part of.

So it’s really interesting. We conducted this study in New York City, I moved, I moved to the University of Central Florida, right, two seconds before COVID. And so we were doing this study in New York City. And so we had, and we specifically did it so that we quote, what we did was, quote, a sample for approximately equal numbers of white men, Latino men, African American men, and as many Asian men as we could get to participate in this study. And, indeed, we saw we replicated we saw some of the same things that we had heard in black and Latino men, but you know, the African American community does can have and does have often higher rates of homophobia and by phobia. Similarly, Latino men reported the same things in terms of the Catholic Church and its attitudes towards homosexuality. But what we also found was, we also found a number of white conservative, white men have fairly conservative ethnic cultural backgrounds. So these were men who were a Brooklyn Italians, who are also Catholic, or who were more orthodox Jewish, Matt, and as well as Southeast Asian and East Asian men, and they all talked about how their particular religious communities and their and therefore their family’s religious and cultural upbringing, was also imitated, or or reflected the same things that we were seeing in black and Latino men as well, particularly because of kind of their conservative religious and cultural background that they came from.

JOE KORT 12:20
Yeah. Well, I mean, it makes sense. You would think that but now you’re, you’re confirming that by yours research. Exactly. Yeah. And the religious, but also the patriarchal way, you know, of how a man should be probably do they, they talk about that? Absolutely. Yeah. It’s really awful. How can what in your, in your research and in your studies, how can remaining in the closet affect these bisexual men mentally?

So we we really, were very interested in looking at how might this affect these men, in terms of their depression, anxiety and anxiety, because in general, when we’re looking at kind of openly gay and bisexual men, we know that the coming out process is a bumpy road. But in the end, it often results in improvements in depression and anxiety, they feel better, it gets better over time, right after coming after coming out. And so we were very interested in this for these particular bisexual men, because they had made this decision not to come out. And so what we actually looked at was, had the extent to which they had disclosed to others, none of them had disclosed wives or girlfriends, but they could have been in the study, and they could have been in the study and still disclose to their mother, their father, a best male friend, a Best Female girlfriend, nonsexual girlfriend, and others like that. So we wanted to get so we we computed a score in terms of how many people they had, how open they were, how many people they had disclosed to, but we also had a measure of how concerned were they of others finding out? Okay, how anxious or worried were they about being discovered? And so we looked at those two things, in particular, because they’re both measures of disclosure. One is kind of how much have you actually disclosed and the other is, how, how much do you want to maintain or conceal? And so usually in the in the literature, we talk about disclosure as a good thing. And for gay and bisexual men here, we found that the disclosure itself wasn’t critical. You didn’t have to tell everyone On to have an okay level of depression and anxiety. But if you were, if you were worried, if you were, dare I say paranoid, or really, really going out of your way to avoid any types of discovery and scoring higher on that particular measure? It was those types of thoughts that actually, we found to be strongly associated with greater depression, greater anxiety and lower positive emotions than disclosure itself.

JOE KORT 15:40
That makes sense to me. And I also recognize that in certain religions and cultures and people of color that for them, because there’s already so much discrimination in white circles, and out of their culture circles, that it isn’t as depressing to stay closeted, than it would be for someone else. Because they, they want their loyalty they want their their engagement and their family to remain, is that what you’re saying? And

that’s, that’s exactly what they tell us in our interviews with these men is they, they say, I want to preserve my family and my life, many of these men have kids that have children. And so they don’t want to turn the table over on their entire their entire life. And so they they’ve kind of made that decision, but you know, for them as long as they’re, and that seems to be a an adaptive and Okay, way of making it through a difficult situation. As opposed to but but as long as they’re not strong, you know, feeling these strong sense of, of concern and worry about being discovered, or about someone finding out, right,

JOE KORT 17:00
especially, I would imagine their female partners who I can just imagine women listening to this. I know, it freaks them out to think, Oh, my God, I could be with a partner who might be this way. And I don’t know anything about it, and how hard that would be. Right? Yeah, I hear a lot from them about it. And yeah, I don’t know what the answer is to this, I just know that a lot of and we talked about this, I think before we got it on together that the older like 40, and up, they worry that the women are going to leave them and that they’re going to be seen as prime transitionally by because there’s a lot of gays and lesbians who feel like I’m buying but they’re really not. It’s, it’s a stepping stone in their coming out process. They realize they’re gay later. And

then we see that when I do the studies with adolescents, that is often a step by sexuality, and a bisexual identity is often a transitional or stepping stone kind of period in adolescence and young adulthood. And then they they later are a in a in a safer place, and in a situation where they are able to later transition to being gay or lesbian. And, and, you know, we will never know if these men could have had that experience in a different time or a different cultural context. But given where they are now, they’ve decided that they, what is best for them is to remain closeted.

JOE KORT 18:37
And then the next question comes in, and I can just I know, some of my listeners will be thinking about this to what’s called by erasure, right? So how does this decision to stay closeted and not tell others to the, you know, affect that whole idea that bisexual men don’t exist? Exactly.

So we hear about by erasure a lot, and and it’s a constant problem for the bisexual community. And, you know, part of it is external to them, right there, you know, gay and lesbian individuals and society as a whole kind of dismisses them thinks they’re transitional, or or, you know, just kind of ignores or neglects the existence of the bisexual community. But what some of our data and other data are suggesting to is, to the extent that a lot of or that at least some bisexual men are choosing not to be open about their bisexuality, then that also can contribute to this by erasure as well. There’s lots of people who may know someone who is bisexual but in fact, doesn’t know doesn’t know the fact because they’re they’re not open about it. And we also see that a lot in terms of bisexual, bisexual men and women who are in quote unquote opposite sex relationships if they’re in a heterosexual relationship they pass as heterosexual and so no one gives them a second thought about being bisexual about being heterosexual when in fact, one or both may identify as bisexual even openly, but don’t necessarily come to mind. So are both of these things contribute to just a lack of widespread observation of public bisexuality? One

JOE KORT 20:50
of the things I think about and talk a lot about is the difference between sexual orientation and erotic orientation or sexual orientation is to whom you’re attracted. And then your erotic orientation are things that get you off and bring you to orgasm. And that’s how I help explain how there are some straight identified men who are able to be with other men, because it’s an it’s in the erotic realm. There’s not they’re not attracted to the man, they’re attracted to the action between the two men. Did you filter that out? In any of the study?

We did look at that. We have that when we have that data. I can’t say I’ve spent a ton of time digging into it, to be perfectly honest. But we absolutely do. And we, you know, I haven’t looked at you know, to what extent are heterosexual identified men also report more, you know, erotic attractions to women versus men. But we we absolutely looked at that. And we do, we do indeed, see that our men in general, report lower sexual or erotic attractions to men than they do women, which might explain why they are in ongoing relationships with women, but simply engage in often one time, casual sex with, with often an anonymous partner, male partner on the side. I

JOE KORT 22:25
love that you found that that you at least looked into that in your research. And I also love you have that other study that that I always refer to when I do my trainings about the fact that there were straight men watching gay porn. And when I tell people that they like Well, that can’t then they’re not straight as if watching porn of any kind represent your identity. Could you speak to that?

Absolutely. So we we did a study with minecart, my colleague, Dr. Martin downing a few years ago as well. And specifically looking at pornography use and we included gay men and by men and straight men, and they were all all welcome to participate in the study. But we asked them what they were watching and what they were what they were looking at. And we’ve been surprised, so surprisingly or not. We found we found that that, you know, heterosexual men obviously were watching more vaginal sex in the pornography that they watched. But gay men also watched vet vaginal sex. And heterosexual men we found let’s see about me see here, it was high 20 over almost 21% of the heterosexual men in our study reported viewing male same sex behavior in pornography.

JOE KORT 24:00
And I tell people, you know, it’s not so surprising to me as a sex therapist, because there’s, there are some lesbians that like to watch gay male porn just to get aroused, like for their like aphrodisiac for them because they like the penetration. They like the overt sexuality. They’re not attracted to the men, they’re attracted to the action that they’re seeing. Absolutely.

And there’s, there’s a, there’s a passion there, not necess that’s not joke, but it’s not about the physical pieces parts. But absolutely,

JOE KORT 24:33
yeah. How can we provide better health and mental health services for behaviorally bisexual men in your opinion?

So it’s a challenge, right? Especially for you know, for this particular subgroup of behaviorally bisexual men who are not open. One of the things they talk to us about, both in terms of mental health services but also our interests. stuff in HIV and STI prevention for them is places that were that provided that were identified as kind of gay health clinics were not some place, they wanted to seek services, even if it was like LGBTQ services, because that inherently outed them to anyone who would see them come or go from that particular clinic, or to the insurance company or bills, or anything that might come back to the house at home. So they were very, very specific in looking for services of all types, that were either straight specific, or that were kind of no sexual identity related issue, no connection at all.

JOE KORT 26:03
That’s very helpful. Thank you for that. And as we come to getting closer to the end, is there anything that you didn’t say, or I didn’t ask that you want to make sure, as part of this podcast, you

know, I think it’s always a challenge for those of us who are openly gay, openly by openly in whatever our whatever ident sexual identity fits us best to, to question the decisions that some of these men are making in terms of not telling their wives in terms of staying in the closet. And, and I think we need, we all need to take a step back and really understand that they’re doing this out of a sense of self preservation as as a as a, what I call a stigma management tool to avoid such a really emotionally devastating disclosure process. And, and all of us have had, you know, I think that bad experiences with rejection of our sexual identity and, and so we I think we all need to be very careful, when if we’re Pat, when we’re listening to this podcast, or thinking about bisexual men, and really understanding that there are some circumstances that that prevent people from coming out. And so they really need to, you know, be in a structural and social place where that’s safe before we really encourage them to do that. I

JOE KORT 27:52
like this, and I really liked the stigma management, I’m going to use that borrow that from you. It’s really a wealth well said.

Fantastic. Thank you so much, Joe. Yeah, thank

JOE KORT 28:01
you. So if our listeners would like to learn more about you and your work, how can they find you?

So I believe it or not, I am still on Twitter every day. I am at Eric scrimshaw. Er I CSCHR. I am SHA W, on the Twitter otherwise known as X. Otherwise, I am very easily Google a bowl and findable as well.

JOE KORT 28:28
Good. And we’re gonna put your information on our website when it’s up to so thank you. I want to Yeah, really, Dr. Grimshaw, it’s a pleasure to have you on my show. And if you want to hear more of my podcasts, you can go to smart sex smart And you can also follow me on Twitter, Tiktok, Instagram and Facebook. You just have to go to at Dr. Joe court, Dr. J, OEK, or T or you can go to my website, Joe Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you all next time. Thank you.