No One Is Really Bisexual. Poor bisexuals! No one wants to believe in them (Mayfield and Carrubba, 1996; Eliason, 1997). Men who say they are bisexual are written off by both gay and straight male peers. Gay men are prone to saying that these are just men who are too scared to come out (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1977; Rust, 1995; UdisKessler, 1996). Heterosexuals have their own version of disbelief. Perhaps fueled by homophobia, heterosexuals will generally code a man who has had even one same-sex experience as gay regardless what that man calls himself (Mohr and Rochlen, 1999).
People don’t believe women who claim to be bisexual either but for different reasons. Some believe they just haven’t come out yet while others dismiss samesex relationships as a phase or experimentation (gay until graduation). This plays into beliefs and stereotypes we have about female sexuality which say that women who make love to other women (whether in porn or in real life) are hot and view “girl on girl” sex as primarily performed to feed male fantasies rather than as displaying the women’s real preference. In fact, even lesbianism is often considered part of female sexual flexibility and written off as a phase (unless and until it lasts a lifetime). In cases where a woman has previously been heterosexual and then enters into a same-sex relationship, the presumption is that she will someday “change back” to being heterosexual (Hutchins, 1996; Ochs, 1996).
Sexual behavior and sexual orientation or identity are different. There are men who identify as gay but sometimes sleep with women, women who are straight but sometimes sleep with women, and every other permutation you can imagine. And then there are bisexuals — men and women who are attracted to, have sex with, and may fall in love with a person of the same gender or one of the opposite but whose identity remains the same regardless of who they are with at the time.
No One Is Really Bisexual
The Search for the “True” Bisexual
As with much of sex research, we can start with Kinsey. In his pathbreaking book, Kinsey unequivocally stated that sexual attraction and behavior was on a continuum rather than locked into dichotomous categories (Kinsey et al., 1948). He found that “37 percent of the total male population had had at least some overt homosexual experience to the point of orgasm between adolescence and old age.” Additional research by Kinsey and his team found that somewhere between 8 and 20% of females (depending on marital status) had experienced some kind of homosexual contact between the ages of 20 and 35 (Kinsey et al., 1953). Yet when asked how they identified only 4% of the males and 1–3% of the females considered themselves homosexual from the beginning of their adolescence. The Kinsey data made it clear that bisexual behavior and fantasy is not at all uncommon yet some people still question bisexuality as an identity (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1977).
More recent surveys have suggested that bisexual identification may be more common than we thought. The 2010 National Survey of Family Growth found that 7–8% of the population identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual but same-sex experiences were far more common (2010). The Pew Research Center (2013) surveyed 1174 adults who identified as LGBT. Of them, 40% identified as bisexual compared to 36% who said they were gay, 16% who said they identified as lesbian, and 5% who said they were trans. There were more women who identified as bisexual than men, which is often the case.
Despite the numbers of people who say they are bisexual, skepticism that this is a “real” identity and not just indecision, runs rampant. In attempts to prove scientifically that some people are (or are not) bisexual, researchers have carried out lab experiments in which they measure arousal to same-sex and opposite-sex images. A study found that regardless of whether they identified as straight or lesbian, most women were genitally aroused by both male and female pornography. They used these data to confirm the idea that women are more bisexually orientated and have more fluid sexuality (Chivers et al., 2004).
No One Is Really Bisexual
The team’s follow-up study made waves when it concluded that bisexual men responded in the same way as homosexual men when measuring genital arousal (Rieger et al., 2005). This research gave credence to the stereotype of bisexual men as just gay men who were afraid to come out. For example, a New York Times headline at the time read “Straight, gay, or lying? Bisexuality revisited” (Carey, 2005).
At the urging of some bisexual advocates, however, some of the same authors agreed to rerun the study and to use different recruiting methods. Instead of advertising in gay magazines and letting men contact them, this team specifically contacted men who placed ads online looking for a sexual experience with both members of an opposite-gender couple. To be in the study these men had to have had romantic relationships with both men and women in the past. This new study had different findings. The arousal patterns of these men seemed to confirm their self-identity as bisexual (Rosenthal et al., 2011).
Reaching an Identity
There is no one way to be bisexual nor is there one route to identifying as bisexual. There is no “typical” family background, no specific times of the life cycle where the “change” happens, and for that matter no uniform consistency of identity (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1977).
No One Is Really Bisexual
There seem to be a number of ways people come to label themselves as bisexual as opposed to just having had sexual experience with both sexes but still preferring to call themselves hetero-or homosexual. The paths to bisexuality include being labeled in adolescence as bisexual or gay, recognizing a continuing attraction for both genders, having fallen in love with individuals of both genders over time (this was particularly true for women), being in a group of peers that supported the idea they were bisexual and encouraged sexual experimentation with three ways, and, finally, having or developing an ideology that supported bisexuality such as a belief that all people are inherently bisexual (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1977).
Research shows that men who are predominantly heterosexual are more nervous about same-sex attraction much less same-sex behavior than women who adopt a heterosexual identity. Women often felt that becoming sexual with another woman was an understandable extension of close friendship and female affection (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1976). While the experience might have been shocking, they were less likely to use it as a pivotal point of self-identification whereas men, after having one same-sex experience, often felt compelled to redefine who they were (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1977).
For example, a 10-year study followed 79 women who self-identified as lesbian or bisexual or chose not to label themselves. Over time, two-thirds of the women changed the identities they held at the beginning of the study and one-third changed their identity twice.
Interestingly, bisexuality was the identity that was one of most stable over time. The author felt that “the distinction between lesbianism and bisexuality [was] a matter of degree rather than kind.” The overall conclusion was that indeed, many women’s sexual self-labeling, and behavior, has a great degree of fluidity (Diamond, 2008).
No One Is Really Bisexual
Most studies have not found the same degree of fluidity in men although more changes in men’s biographies occur than is commonly presupposed (Diamond, 2008). A quite large, non-random study found that up to 40% of homosexual men adopted a bisexual identity but eventually labeled themselves as gay (Lever, 1994). Another study saw a similar shift but also noted that a number of the bisexual men became more heterosexual over time (Stokes et al., 1997).
One of the issues is that many people don’t come out as bisexual because they fear that neither heterosexuals nor homosexuals will accept them. Robyn Ochs, who travels the country as a bisexual speaker and activist, told the New York Times that she was reluctant to come out as bi in college because the lesbian community on her campus would not be supportive: They said that bisexuals couldn’t be trusted, that they would inevitably leave
you for a man. Had I come out as a lesbian I could have be welcomed with open arms, taken to parties, invited to join the softball team. The lesbian red carpet, if you will. But for me to say I was a lesbian would have required that I dismiss all of my previous attractions to men as some sort of false consciousness. So I didn’t come out.
This lack of support for bisexuals takes its toll. Research has found that bisexuals report higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, and victimization by violence, thoughts of suicide, and sexual health concerns (Dodge and Sandfort, 2007).
No One Is Really Bisexual
Redefining Sexual Categories
It has become clear that the same set of behaviors can lead different people to different conclusions about their own sexual orientation. Researchers have begun to discuss how over-simplified our ideas of sexual attraction and identity have been all these years (Diamond, 2005; Savin-Williams, 2001; Weinrich and Klein, 2002; Rust, 1992; Golden, 1996). Even Kinsey and colleagues, in their work over 50 years ago, argued that sexual orientation was not an either/or proposition. Today the Kinsey scale, which rates people on a continuum of 0 (exclusively homosexual) to 6 (exclusively heterosexual) is well known. Using the scale, individuals can score themselves based on behaviors. Other sexologists have added layers to the Kinsey scale over the years to reflect preferences for romance and friendship among others. In addition, some argue that the scale is more accurate if individuals are asked to look at the past, present, and future.
There is also a big generational shift. Young people — those in their teens and twenties — have begun to discuss more personal options and latitude both in terms of what they do sexually and how they define themselves. People are realizing that sexual identity is not just about what you have done or who you have done it with but also your fantasies, your romantic attractions, and your friendship preferences. Some of the terms that younger generations now use include ‘bi-curious” or pansexual, or queer, and sometimes polyamorous, indicating a desire to live in romantic and sexual situations with both men and women (Diamond, 2005; Golden, 1996; Thompson and Morgan, 2008; Gammon and Isgro, 2006).
We might not even have to say this but, just in case, we believe that bisexuality exists because we know people who identify as bisexual and we believe not only that sexuality identity is and must be a matter of personal choice, but that we all have to respect that choice.
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