Shades of Gay: Is There a Real Difference Between a Kinsey 5 and a Kinsey 6?

March 26, 2018 by Justin Lehmiller


People tend to think about sexual orientation in terms of a small number of distinct categories—most commonly, straight, bisexual, and gay. Those who subscribe to this view expect that everyone will fit neatly into one of these three boxes. However, others argue that sexual orientation is far more complex and is best viewed along a continuum or spectrum. The idea of a sexual orientation spectrum can be traced back to Alfred Kinsey, whose Kinsey Scale allowed for seven degrees of heterosexuality and homosexuality:

0 – Exclusively heterosexual

1 – Predominately heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual

2 – Predominately heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual

3 – Equally heterosexual and homosexual

4 – Predominately homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual

5 – Predominately homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual

6 – Exclusively homosexual

Some have questioned the validity of the Kinsey Scale, though. I mean, what exactly distinguishes one spot from another? For example, consider a man who is a Kinsey 5 versus a man who is a Kinsey 6—what’s the difference between them?

Are the 5s indeed more sexually attracted to women than the 6s, who are exclusively gay? Or is it that the 5s just aren’t willing to admit being completely gay, perhaps feeling as though it’s more socially acceptable to report being somewhat bisexual?

A recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior sought to test which of these competing explanations is correct. In this study, 58 participants (all of whom currently identified as gay, were mostly White, and were aged 26 on average) completed an online survey about their sexual attitudes and histories. Thirty-six of these men also went on to complete a lab study in which their genital arousal patterns were recorded while they watched different kinds of pornography, including man-on-man and woman-on-woman.

In total, 20 of these men classified themselves as Kinsey 5s (mostly gay), while the remaining 38 classified themselves as Kinsey 6s (exclusively gay). When asked how arousing or disgusting they found the prospect of having sex with a woman to be, the Kinsey 5s rated sex with a woman as more arousing and less disgusting.

In addition, the Kinsey 5s demonstrated more genital arousal in response to woman-on-woman porn than did the Kinsey 6s.

Interestingly, sexual arousal to men (both self-report and genital) did not differ between the two groups. In other words, both groups were equally aroused by men. What distinguished the 5s from the 6s was their arousal to women.

Although these findings are limited in that they were derived from a very small sample, their implications are important. For one thing, they argue against the idea that Kinsey 5s just aren’t ready to commit to being fully gay. Rather, these men—again, all of whom identified as gay—were aroused by women to a greater degree than were the Kinsey 6s. This tells us that a gay identity doesn’t preclude sexual attraction to women—some men who identify as gay have a certain level of bisexual attraction. In other words, there are different shades or types of homosexuality.

These results also provide further support for the idea that sexual orientation is a spectrum and is far more complex than the simple three category view of gay, straight, and bisexual.

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For more on this research, see: Semon, T.L., Hsu, K.J., Rosenthal, A.M., & Bailey, J.M. (2017). Bisexual phenomena among gay-identified men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(1), 237-245.

Image Source: 123rf/hydraviridis

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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