'A Shot at Love' Explores (and Exploits) Bisexuality

They used to call them Peeping Toms.

But today's voyeurs have television to thank for a second season of MTV's "A Shot at Love."

The sexy reality show stars Tila Tequila, a 25-year-old former Vietnamese model who, at 4 feet, 6 inches tall, describes herself as "the baddest bitch on the block."

The Internet queen was plucked from MySpace, where she was reportedly the "most friended" in the networking site's history, according to MTV officials.

The dating game show features 16 straight men and 16 lesbians who court bisexual Tequila, nee Nguyhen, for her affection. Cavorting in her bedroom and performing puerile tasks, the suitors are ultimately whittled down to one of each sex.

"MTV is upping the ante and pushing the envelope," Kristen Fyfe, senior writer for the Culture and Media Institute, told ABC News. "What they see as cutting-edge programming is, in fact, voyeurism."

Sex clearly sells, in all varieties. But the popularity of this titillating show is the focus on the new sexual preference du jour — bisexuality.

"A Shot at Love" debuted last October at No. 1 in its time period across all of cable in the 18-34 demographic. The season finale had 6.2 million viewers, making it the network's highest-rated telecast since 2005, according to MTV.

For many of today's women in their late teens and 20s, openness to intimate physical relationships with either gender has become a way of life, rather than an "experiment."

Psychological studies on sexual orientation have burgeoned in the last decade with more open attitudes on sexual exploration. Television — in its competition for young, hip viewers — is capitalizing on the phenomenon.

Images of both gay men and women are commonplace now — Ellen DeGeneres, in her 2001 sitcom "Ellen," paved the way for the "fab five" on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and campy "Will and Grace."

"What was once the unspeakable and invisible has become very much a part of public discourse," according to University of Virginia psychologist Charlotte Patterson, who wrote a study titled "Sexual Orientation Across the Life Span."

But some see the display of highly charged sex and dating shows — either gay or straight — as voyeuristic and maybe even harmful to MTV's target audience, which includes children as young as 12.

The impact of MTV "cannot be understated," according to Fyfe of the Virginia-based Culture and Media Institute, and can be "destructive."

In a scathing critique of the show, Fyfe cites research by the conservative-leaning Parents Television Council that shows MTV is watched more than six hours a week on average by 73 percent of boys and 78 percent of girls aged 12 to 19.

And because it is on cable, it's not regulated by broadcast decency laws.

"The cable networks can get away with [these shows] and takes the viewers where they don't need to see," she said. "It doesn't do anything for our culture."

Council research shows that watching MTV results in more permissive attitudes about sex. One study found that seventh and ninth graders were more likely to approve of premarital sex after watching MTV for just one hour.

"We keep bemoaning the fact that kids are more sexually active, and when we see what they are consuming in the media, we act surprised," said Fyfe. The show "sends the wrong message to kids. They experiment with all kinds of things, and if you don't think they take things in from TV, they have their heads in the sand."

But bisexual relationships encompass more than just sex, and some psychologists see some positive aspects to addressing sexual orientation on television.

Bisexuality is part of the culture, according to Roberta Sklar, director of communications for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "These young women see sexuality as a fluid thing," she said. "It's not just between your legs."

"These relationships are physical, emotional and intellectual, and the boundaries are not hard set," she said. Although there are no hard data on the numbers, a growing number of young women have a "more flexible view" of their sexual partners, and their early choices of sexual preference may not be a "fixed path."

In a 10-year study of female bisexuality from adolescence to adulthood, psychologist Lisa Diamond at the University of Utah found that bisexuality is often misunderstood. Her research showed that bisexuality is "a matter of degree rather than kind."

"What is true for one may be different for another," said Diamond, a professor of gender studies. "Some women say 'gender is not relevant to me — I am attracted to a person's mind and spirit.' Others say 'gender is very important — I am attracted to both masculinity and femininity.' The diversity of experiences is incredibly broad and long."

Though Diamond admits that shows like "A Shot at Love" exploit the stereotypes and try to titillate, she also believes they can be positive for a public discussion.

"Television is selling air time, and it is the responsibility of researchers to try to counter inaccurate information," she said. "If you look at the broad swath of history, more and better information tends to win out. The fact that people are even discussing it — whether it's accurate or not — starts the conversation."

"It's better than having no images of same sexuality out there," she said.

Meanwhile, the very stars of the reality show are proving that love and sex are indeed fickle. In last season's finale, Tequila chose male Bobby Banhart over lesbian Dani Campbell, the favored contestant. And one month later, the Tequila-Banhart match broke up.

Ever feeding the frenzy of fans, these reality stars have given MTV more fodder for 2008. A spinoff — "That's Amore," a heterosexual dating show set in Italy — is in the works.

And in February on MTV's Logo channel, which caters to the gay community, a show centering on the love life of transsexual activist and actress Calpernia Addams premieres.

Like they say, sex sells.