Bisexuality … A Public Health Problem?

During the 2004 campaign, when Michigan voters had to address a ballot initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage, the question of gay rights arose frequently in the Western Herald newsroom, and my editors spared no effort to persuade me as to what each thought was the right approach for the paper’s endorsements.

I frequently raised the question of bisexuals with my little minions, because it seems that even though supporting gay rights is a defining cause of contemporary urban liberalism, no one seems to like the bi folk.  Despite the passion with which my editors, and even some of my staff writers, argued in favor of outright gay marriage, none of them — not one! — would date a bisexual.  In fact, the women in the office were utterly disgusted at the prospect, and although the men professed great joy at the prospect of seeing their significant others getting hot and bothered with a busty babe, the idea of that S.O. enjoying an emotional commitment to another woman was beyond the pale.  So, I filed that interesting little tidbit away for later reflection.

Fast forward to the summer of 2007.  Yours truly, contemplating the need to select a fairly significant project (as a design model, not an actual project) to justify Six Sigma certification, considered a research project to determine whether people who undergo significant weight loss ever experience any “relapse” or psychological trauma from finding out that you can’t lose 80, 100, 150 lbs. and look like an underwear model.  Clinicians call it “redundant tissue,” but the problem is that the skin can only retract so much.  This is, of course, a problem that women who’ve given birth understand all-too-well, but the effect is amplified in people who were long-term obese but then lost a significant part of their body mass.  As I did, in 2005. 

Anyway, redundant tissue can only be removed through plastic surgery (an abdominoplasty), but insurance companies won’t cover it.  My contention is that the decision of payers to reject abdominoplasty in this particular circumstance is short sighted, because self-perception of body image is a key part of maintaining a healthy weight, and if you have the body of a woman who gave birth to six sets of triplets, you just might give up on eating like a rabbit and exercising like Richard Simmons, and reach instead for the Ben & Jerry’s, since the sacrifice ultimately proved futile.

So … step one, in assessing the feasibility of this potential project, is to gauge public reaction to people — especially males — who suffer from some degree of redundant tissue.  Well, I have a small amount of it; I look OK with clothes on, but with my shirt off, I do have a little bit of unsightly skin around my navel.  So I used myself as a model.

To test the theory, I created various anonymous accounts on several gay-themed sex-and-dating sites (since women rarely frequent such sites on their own).  Some accounts featured photos of me, sans face, with my shirt on; others featured me, again headless, but without my shirt.  And then I monitored the account traffic.

Well, my point was proven; the accounts with the shirtless photo garnered several dozen questions ranging from “whats wrong with ur stomach” to “hey, did u loose a lot of weight” to “you should get plastic surgery” — often from younger guys with washboard abs (those lucky, lucky bastards) or dirty old men who look like Nick Nolte after a bender (those hypocrites!). 

What was even more interesting, however, was the number of men who responded to my fully-clothed profile.  Much to the benefit of my ego, I had a lot of hits.  What astonished me, though, was the number of hits from men — mostly in their late 20s to late 30s — who were seeking a discrete relationship or, more commonly, random sex, because they are married.

(This is where the bisexual thing comes back.  Bear with me.)

And it’s not just one or two guys, either.  There is, by all appearances, a bustling underground trade in Grand Rapids among married men who discreetly trade sexual favors among themselves and with gay men; it’s common enough that people on those sites seem to take it in stride. 

The public-health nightmare, though, is that there is a patently false conventional wisdom circulating that there’s no biological risk of married men exchanging sexual favors with other married men.  In fact, it’s the alleged lack of risk that serves as the draw — barebacking.  They tend to seek each other on the theory that gay men might have diseases, but “straight” men with wives won’t.

Can you imagine being the wife of such a man?  Can you imagine believing you’re in a committed and monogamous relationship, while your husband cats around with other married men?

But perhaps the problem is that society forces a binary decision on people — you are either gay or straight, and you must live your life accordingly.  In West Michigan, it’s certainly easier to be straight, so guys whose sexual proclivities tend to cluster toward bisexuality choose to have wives and girlfriends, but express their same-sex tendencies in furtive and ultimately self-destructive ways.

Whatever the cultural or psychological explanation, though, there appears to be quite a few married men in the Grand Rapids area engaging in anonymous, unprotected sex with other men that they also believe to be married and thus “safe.”  And, statistically, this is probably true.  But all it’s going to take is for a small subset of these men to acquire an STI before a whole lot of presumably faithful women are going to have an unpleasant chat with their gynecologist.

The problem with the spread of AIDS in the early 1980s was that the risk vectors refused to acknowledge their status as vectors.  Could the same model apply to some spread of social disease now, on account of society’s inability to successfully integrate bisexuality — especially male bisexuality — into the continuum of recognized sexual behavior?

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