Bisexuality - what is it?
Samantha Star Straf
4/15/1998
Written for Human Sexuality class at UIUC


Bisexuals are "just gay and lesbian people who are afraid to admit they are gay" (Eliason 1997), or are they people who have "sexual attraction towards or sexual behavior with persons of both genders" (Fox 1996)? Eliason's recent survey of undergraduate students (1997) showed that public perception of bisexuals is based largely on a series of stereotypes. I have grouped these into five different headings; bisexuals: don't exist, are confused, need to date a man and woman, have the best of both worlds, and spread AIDS. In general, stereotypes can be factual, based on fact, or completely inaccurate. By examining some of the current research on bisexuality I hope to determine the accuracy of each of these stereotypes.

"visiBIlity"1 One common myth is that bisexuals simply do not exist (Ault 1996). Part of this invisible minority status is due to the fact that bisexuality is not a common self-identification. In a NHSLS study 4% of the respondents reported sexual attractions to both genders, yet less than 0.8% of the men and 0.5% of the women identified themselves as bisexual (Fox 1996). The comparison is similar when looking at sexual activity, in a survey of men 5.8% reported having at least one male and female sex partner, yet less than 1% labeled themselves as bisexual (McKirnan, Stokes, Doll, and Burzette 1995). People with bisexual histories will often self-identify as gay or straight depending on who they are in a committed relationship with and, unless they make a point of 'coming out' as bisexual, others will perceive them as the orientation that matches the relationship. Likewise, two individuals may share similar histories of sexual experience with both genders without both or either identifying as being bisexual (Eliason 1996), however bisexual identity does seem to become more common after five years of bisexual behavior (McKirnan et al. 1995). Much of the research on bisexuality is a footnote in homosexual research and few queer theories try to account for bisexual identity (Eliason 1996) The readers guide to periodical literature for the last six months had 22 different headings for homosexuality and none for bisexuality. The identified bisexual community is small (McKirnan et al. 1995) and the Gay/Lesbian culture has just begun adding "bisexual" onto organizational names within the last 10 years. In the case of this first stereotype, non-existence of bisexuals, research shows that bisexuals do exist but often are not visible or do not self-identify as bisexual.

"Don't assume I'm straight" Often bisexuals are seen as being in a "fence sitting" transition phase between heterosexuality and homosexuality (Eliason 1997). This is often blamed on confusion about their own identity (Eliason 1997), or denial of their true sexual orientation because they are afraid to come out or unable to choose (Deacon, Reinke, Viers 1996). Bisexuality is often labeled as 'experimental' or 'going through a phase' in adolescence (Eliason 1997) and merely circumstantial in prison environments (McKirnan et al. 1995). People's self-identification can change over time, in Eliason's (1996) study, 41% of current lesbians at one time identified as bisexuals, where 76% of current bisexuals once identified as lesbians. In McKirnan et al.'s (1995) study of men who had sex with both men and women, 65% had consistent bisexual behavior over 5 years. Of the men who had shifted, one third moved to heterosexual orientation and the other two thirds to homosexual orientation. Perceived identity often changes as bisexuals become involved in committed monogamous relationships (Rust 1996). Although some people form other identities after they identify as bisexual, the fact that there are people that do have a stable bisexual identity disproves the stereotype of bisexuals being confused.

"Not Half Gay, Not Half Straight, But Totally Bisexual"2 Although they are often accused of having the best of both worlds, bisexuals often face discrimination from both the homosexual and heterosexual cultures because they challenge the either/or of monosexuality and embrace a both/and realm. Many homosexuals view bisexuality more negatively than heterosexuals do (Deacon et al. 1996). In Eliason's (1997) survey of heterosexual students, 40% found bisexuality less acceptable than homosexuality, with bisexual men being the least accepted (61% unacceptable). A common reason given for female bisexuality being more acceptable by men was the fantasy of bisexual women being a gateway to threesomes. One issue that alienates bisexuals from both sides is the "born gay" issue. Many gay men and lesbians have worked hard for legitimacy by advocating a born gay stance. Homosexuals feel that bisexuals discredit this theory by the choosing of their partners. The religious right sees bisexuals as the "ultimate perversion" even when they grudgingly accept that gay men and lesbians are born that way (Ault 1996). Caught between two monosexual worlds, closeted in both, bisexuals often act straight to the heterosexual world and gay to the gay community (Ault 1996). When they are out about being bisexual they are likely to have the dual stigmatization of having been rejected from both straight and gay communities; often feeling "invisible" since they don't quite fit in either (Weasel 1996). In the heterosexual world they are not half gay-bashed (Ault 1996) but lumped together with homosexuals. In Gay communities bisexuals often feel a need to prove they are "queer enough" to counter being told they have too many heterosexual privileges or are just not strong enough to identify as gay (Ault 1996). Bisexuals do not have the best of either world and in fact often face discrimination from both monosexual worlds.

"Anything That Moves"3 Another common belief is that bisexuals need to be in a relationship with both a man and a woman. Some variations of this stereotype are that bisexuals are: incapable of having a committed relationship, promiscuous, obsessed with sex (Eliason 1997), disloyal, and often bed hopping (Ault 1996). Bisexuals are often seen as having more sexual partners, more than one partner at a time, and more flexible attitudes towards sex (Eliason 1997). Frequently lesbians will not get involved with bisexual women because "they will always leave you for a man" (Eliason 1997). People that identify as bisexual are not necessarily equally attracted to men and women. Some bisexuals are attracted to characteristics other than gender (Elaison 1996), others see themselves as having a continuum of sexual preferences (Deacon et al. 1996), and some perceive a fluidness of sexual identity (Wilson 1996). The Kinsey scale, based on sexual attraction, defines any orientation between 2 and 4 as bisexual. The more involved Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, which goes into more depth of fantasy, identification, behavior, and emotional preferences (Fox 1996), might identify a person as bisexual based on fantasies or desires even if they have only had sexual experience with one gender (Weasel 1996). Some bisexuals are monogamous, some are polyamorous or have an open marriage (Deacon et al. 1996). Studies have found that 17% of bisexual women (Rust 1996) and 3% of bisexual men (McKirnan et al. 1995) were currently involved with members of both genders. For bisexuals who choose a polyamorous lifestyle, open communication about rules, safe sex practices and feelings is the most important element of making multiple relationships work (Deacon et al 1996). Most bisexuals are monogamous. Someone that finds both blue and brown eyes attractive does not need to be in a relationship with two people; neither do bisexuals (Rust 1996).

"I'm positive, and positive he won't get it from me" The final myth to address is that bisexuals are the reason AIDS has spread into the heterosexual and lesbian worlds (Eliason 1997). This is of real concern considering findings that 59% of the steady women partners of bisexual men are not aware of their partners homosexual activities (Stokes, McKirnan, Doll, Burzette 1996). Women may not be aware of any increased risk that they face, or they may have mistakenly assumed that their bisexual partner 'gave up' their bisexuality upon marriage (Deacon 1996). Even with these facts, of the women with AIDS, only 3% contracted it through contact with a bisexual man (Stokes et al. 1996). However, of the women who contracted AIDS through heterosexual intercourse, sex with a bisexually active man may represent the sole risk for as many as 15% (McKiran et al. 1995). However, only 17% of the men diagnosed with AIDS reported both male and female sexual partners (McKirnan et al. 1995). Many lesbians will not sleep with bisexual women because of the fear that they are a greater AIDS risk, even though only 2 cases of female-to-female sexual transmission of HIV have been reported (Rila 1996). Also significant is that a partner's self-identification is little indication of their past or current sexual behavior; 25% of lesbians have had sex with a man in the last 3 years (Rila 1996), and as many as 85% of lesbians report some sexual contact with men (Eliason 1996). Yes, there is some truth behind the stereotype, some people have contracted AIDS from bisexuals - specifically bisexual men, but not enough to warrant the stereotype. Risky behaviors and unprotected sex put people at much more risk for AIDS than their partners stated orientation.

In reviewing current research about the stereotypes I found in each case that although the stereotype was not true there was some basis for the formation of the stereotype. Bisexuals do exist but since it is a seldom used self-identification they may not be visible. There are people with stable bisexual identities, but some people do either change identity or are assumed to no longer be bisexual once they have chosen a partner of one gender. Although a small percentage of bisexuals date people of both gender simultaneously, most are monogamous. While seen by both monosexual communities as having more privileges, bisexuals actually face dual discrimination. Some bisexuals have spread AIDS, but not enough to warrant the pariah status. Only by breaking down the stereotypes and replacing them with accurate information will a more realistic portrayal of bisexuals come to light.

Identifying as bisexual, I was empowered to find more research on bisexuality being done and published then when I wrote a prior paper on homosexuality 18 years ago. At that time, the only references were 5 mentions of "bisexual" with the word set aside in quotes to differentiate it from the acceptable terms of homosexual or heterosexual. In my personal experience, I find that identifing as bisexual has become more common; much of the younger (under thirty) lesbian and gay community is identifying as "bisexual" or the generic "queer", even when their actions and/or experiences are strictly homosexual. Keeping up my visible bisexual identity takes work, often having to "come out" when anyone assumes my sexual orientation based on the gender of my partner. The strongest discrimination I have felt has been from the over thirty lesbian community, especially when I "changed sides of the fence" and started dating a man, even though they include "bisexual" in their publicity. Finding research that documented similar discrimination made this much less "personal" for me and was therefore reassuring. In contrast, the college lesbian group is very accepting of both bisexuals and transgender women. I sometimes feel that I add fuel to the "anything that moves" stereotype becuase I am polyamorous, however I do not feel that my being polyamorous is related to my being bisexual, especially since I rarely date "one of each". I agree with the finding that bisexual women are more accepted than bisexual men and have experienced the "hot bi babe" scenario of men thinking that since my girlfriend and I were both bisexual, becoming involved with one would automatically lead to a threesome. The connection between AIDS and bisexual men really hit home when I had to choose between dating a bisexual man and continuing to donate blood, since one cannot donate blood if they have slept with a bisexual man in the last two years. In practice however, I find that bisexuals are much more aware of "safer sex" procedures and they put them into use more often than heterosexuals. Overall I find that my personal experience supports the research findings in that although there is some kernel of truth to each stereotype they are largely inacurrate myths.

NOTES:
1 Section headings are taken from various buttons and T-shirts.
2 Queer Terrorist Network
3 Bisexual Magazine named after a comment from a presidential hopeful at a Christian Coalition convention while brandishing a cover of Newsweek on bisexuality and announcing that the nations children sleep with "anything that moves" (Ault 1996).

Works Cited
Ault, A. (1996), Ambiguous Identity in an Unambiguous Sex/Gender Structure: The case of Bisexual Women, The Sociological Quarterly, 37, 449-463.
Deacon, S.A., Reinke, L., Viers, D. (1996), Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy For Bisexual Couples: Expanding the Realms of Therapy, The American Journal of Family Therapy, 24, 242-258.
Eliason, M.J. (1996), Identity Formation for Lesbian, Bisexual, and Gay Persons: Beyond a "Minoritizing View", Journal of Homosexuality, 30(3), 31-58.
Eliason, M.J. (1997), The Prevalence and Nature of Biphobia in Heterosexual Undergraduate Students, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26, 317-326,
Fox, R.C. (1996) Bisexuality in Perspective, A Review of Theory and Research. In 1 B.A. Firestein (Ed) Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority (pp. 3-50). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
McKirnan, D. J., Stokes, J. P., Doll, L., Burzette, R. G. (1995). Bisexually Active Men: Social Characteristics and Sexual Behavior, The Journal of Sex Research, 32, 65-76.
Rila, M. (1996) Bisexual Women and the AIDS Crisis. In B.A. Firestein (Ed) Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority (pp. 169-184). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Rust, P.C. (1996) Monogamy and Polyamory: Relationship Issues for Bisexuals. In B.A. Firestein (Ed) Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority (pp. 127-148). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Stokes, J., McKirnan, D.J., Doll, L., Burzette, R.G. (1996), Female Partners of Bisexual Men, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20, 267-284.
Weasel, L.H. (1996), Seeing Between the Lines: Bisexual Women and Therapy, Women & Therapy, 19(2), 5-16.
Wilson, A., How We Find Ourselves: Identity Developent and Two-Spirit People, Harvard Educational Review, 66, 303-317.

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