Miguel Muñoz-Laboy, associate professor of social work, was always interested in men’s physical and mental health, but it was the AIDS epidemic that turned his focus to how men’s sexual identification or orientation may change over time, also known as sexual fluidity. “It was devastating,” he recalled. “I knew people who died. I had a real strong push to work in the area of HIV research, intervention, and prevention.”
His recent study, Heteronormativity and sexual partnering among bisexual Latino men, published in the May 2015 edition of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, inquired into the sexual behavior of this population, which has for decades been disproportionately affected with high levels of HIV infection.
“Growing up in a very working class, macho culture in Puerto Rico, I would see men who would do things ‘because they were men’, instead of realizing they had autonomy,” said Muñoz-Laboy. “Growing up in this environment made me very aware of the impact of these strong norms of masculinity and traditional ideas about sexuality.”
The five-year study surveyed 150 bisexual Latino men recruited from four different types of Latino communities in New York City. “One purpose was to really understand which factors contribute to HIV risk behavior,” he said. “Beyond documenting the different places and circumstances where men meet sexual partners, we focused on other aspects of men’s health, such as how men make decisions, and how they are influenced by their social, family, and work environments. “
Muñoz-Laboy and his team learned that bisexual men have quite complicated sexual partnering practices. “What we found were very consistent patterns where men would have regular, affective and intimate relationships with female and male partners. They are not simply men who are in the closet or otherwise straight men who have casual sex with men,” Muñoz-Laboy clarified. “The dynamics are quite complex, and not exactly what we expected.”
Muñoz-Laboy’s survey also revealed some troublesome issues. “There was a high number of men with untreated depression and anxiety,” he said, which he believed had a lot to do with “the stressors of being bisexual in a primarily heterosexual environment such as that of Latino families, and even the broader U.S.”
Muñoz-Laboy reflected briefly on his career. “When I first started this research, a lot of academics thought that bisexual men were simply gay men in denial. The connection I brought to light was that for some men, bisexuality was a brief stage in their sexual development, but for others it was quite complex and long-term.” He added, “to really understand the relationship between depression/anxiety and sexual risk behavior, we need a longitudinal study to document these interactions. We’ve applied for funding to do just that, and including other marginalized communities as well, such as incarcerated men and migrant workers.”