The Invisible Letter B: What You Need to Know About bisexuality?
IN THE U.S. UP TO 2-5% OF WOMEN AND 1-3% OF MEN CONSIDER THEMSELVES BISEXUAL. At least that is what the 2011 survey says (in reality there could have been many more already back then). In Russia such surveys are not conducted at all, so we can only guess at the bisexual potential of our country. Apart from those who identify and accept themselves as bi, there are many other people who feel attracted to people of the “wrong” sex – but due to public stigma and lack of information they believe that there is something wrong with them and try to quietly suppress the “wrong” feelings.
Around the world, bisexual people are under the double burden of stereotypes and discrimination – both conservative heterosexuals and the LGBT community view them with suspicion. Bisexual identities often seem to be erased depending on who the person is in a relationship with right now: “What kind of bisexual are you if you have been dating a man for a long time?”, “Before, your partner was a man, but now a woman? It’s clear, you’re actually a lesbian, you just didn’t realize it right away.” Don’t let this confuse you: bisexuality is not a term for “undecideds” or a “transitional phase.” We’ve looked into what the science says about this orientation and asked bisexual people to share their experiences.
Freud and Kinsey
Bisexuality first received attention in the scientific literature in the 19th century – Dr. Wilhelm Fliss suggested that in general all people are bisexual at birth and then their hetero- or homosexual identity is formed. Then, to describe adults with simultaneous hetero- and homosexual attraction, the not-so-pleasant term “psychosexual hermaphroditism” was used. Sigmund Freud rigidly divided sexual orientation into heterosexual and inverted (“reverse” in Latin), viewing “psychosexual hermaphroditism” as a subtype of homosexuality. The term “bisexuality” that we use today was coined by English physician and founder of sexology, Havelock Ellis. He was the first to single out bisexuals as a separate category and the first scientist to argue that orientations other than heterosexuality are not pathological.
Alfred Kinsey, the first researcher in the field of sexology in the United States, presented sexual behavior as a continuum – a famous scale with exclusive heterosexuality on one end and exclusive homosexuality on the other. Kinsey conducted a study, on the basis of which he later wrote the book Sexual Behavior of the Human Male. He encountered the fact that people could not be divided into hetero- and homosexuals only: approximately 15 percent of the men he surveyed had had sexual contacts with members of both sexes in the past three years, with varying degrees of bisexuality. In 1948 Kinsey invented a seven-point scale reflecting the ratio of homosexual to heterosexual contacts in a person’s life. You can take the test and determine your place on the Kinsey scale right now-it can be done online (but don’t take the results too seriously-we’ll tell you why).
Apples and bananas
Although the Kinsey scale is still in use today, it is criticized for placing the categories of homoeroticism and heteroeroticism on the same plane, as if an increase in homosexual attraction leads to a decrease in heterosexual attraction and vice versa. In reality this is not the case – that is why Michael Storms proposed a two-dimensional model of sexual orientation in 1978. Nevertheless, the Kinsey scale is still good as a visual example if you want to tell someone about the diversity of orientations.
Only the metaphor of apples and bananas suggested by LGBT activists is even better: imagine being offered an apple or a banana – what would you choose? There will be people who, 100 percent of the time, will choose an apple because they don’t like bananas at all. There will also be those who will do the opposite – they will always refuse an apple. But there will be many more who are not so categorical: many people will want one fruit today and another tomorrow, or they will prefer bananas in 60% of cases, and in other cases they will crunch on an apple with pleasure. As you understood, this edible analogy illustrates the ratio of heterosexual, gay and bisexual people, and hints at the heterogeneity of bisexuality – although in life it is even more complicated (someone will refuse any fruit at all), the explanation about apples and bananas is enough for a basic understanding.
Since 1990, the approach to assessing sexual orientation has become much broader – not only sexual attraction, behavior, and fantasies are taken into account, but also emotional and social preferences, lifestyle, and self-identity. Instead of a scale and then a graph, Free Klein developed the “sexual orientation grid” (Klein Sexual Orientation Grid) – a multidimensional system in which the above parameters are also evaluated according to three categories: past, present and ideal.
There are different components of a person’s sexuality: orientation (i.e., emotional, romantic, sexual or erotic attraction), identity (how a person describes his sexuality) and behavior (how a person realizes his sexuality in practice). Bisexuality can manifest itself as separate elements or combinations of elements: For example, a woman can call herself bisexual, but never put her attraction to women into practice. Even if she goes on dates and only has sex with men, that doesn’t make her “not enough” bisexual.
My journey to realizing my identity and orientation was a long one. My interest in people of my own sex was awakened in my school days, but it was scary to express it then. For a long time I didn’t take it very seriously, through the prism of something bedding and sexy, nothing more than that. I didn’t even think of it as homo- or bisexuality, but as having some kind of female alter ego in me. The turning point for me was when, being in a monogamous heterosexual relationship and genuinely loving my partner, I met a guy and fell head over heels in love with him. It was the romantic attraction to a man of my sex that was the last piece of the mosaic that was missing to fully realize myself, my orientation and identity.
I was lucky enough to encounter biphobia only on gay community forums – there were flashes of biphobic remarks, but it didn’t hurt me much. I have a circle of friends who I trust and who know about my orientation, but every time before I came out I did a careful probe. None of the people I’ve opened up to have rejected me afterwards. I haven’t opened up to my family and don’t plan to: I occasionally hear unflattering remarks about LGBT people from them and can’t be sure of acceptance.
It’s not a “phase.”
Although the non-heterosexual rights movement began half a century ago, the visibility of bisexuals is still weak. The first magazine about bisexuality did not begin publishing until 2001, and at least a hundred times as many books have been written about homosexuality as books about bisexuality (try to think of just one). Unfortunately, while homophobia is becoming more and more culturally unacceptable, biphobia is quietly flourishing.
One of the main manifestations of biphobia is the doubt that bisexuality is a “real”, conscious orientation. The experience of bisexual personas is referred to as a “temporary phase” or seen as a “betrayal” of one’s supposed “true nature. Some lesbians and gays view bisexuality as a “coward’s refuge” (the same “closet”) for homosexuals who lack the courage to come out. Bisexual women are told that they cannot consider themselves part of the LGBT community by having socially approved and “profitable” relationships with men – after all, a married bisexual woman with three children will experience far less social pressure than a bisexual woman in a relationship with a woman. Biskeptic arguments often devalue a person’s feelings – for example, bisexual orientation is questioned if a person has not had real experience of sex with a person of her own sex. This is a double standard: after all, no one will question your heterosexuality even if you have never had sex and have no plans to in the near future.
As a result, bisexuals have to make two caving-outs: one in the heterosexual world, when they acknowledge their attraction to people of the same sex, and then another when they acknowledge that attraction to the opposite sex persists. A common reaction to a bisexual person’s coming out is doubt, which causes the person to constantly have to prove something and make excuses. A 2013 University of Pittsburgh study found that many heterosexual and homosexual people are negative about bisexuality, and 15% of heterosexual men insist that bisexuality does not exist.
It is important to note that in closed institutions like military units or prisons, sex with people of one’s own sex is indeed situational and does not reflect orientation: once out, people prefer heterosexual partners. But in the United States, for example, “pre-graduation lesbians” are scornfully called girls who date other girls during their university years, implying that they will return to their “real” (heterosexual, of course) orientation afterwards. This attitude is a devaluation of an important experience. This is sometimes called adolescent experimentation; a couple of studies have indeed found that the number of bisexual encounters decreases with age – though those studies were grossly flawed.
Up to a certain point I was or wanted to be “like everyone else,” but then I fell in love with a girl and our relationship lasted five years. After that I had a relationship with a guy, and I thought that I felt good with both partners, though in different ways.
When men find out that I am bisexual, they immediately offer me sex. It doesn’t occur to them, bisexuality is just an orientation, and it doesn’t mean you want to have sex with everyone. You just have slightly more choice than others.
Biphobia and labels
Based on research, bisexuals experience more discrimination than other members of the LGBT+ community, and they’re also at risk for anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. American University researchers analyzed data from 503 participants between the ages of 18 and 64, all of whom identified themselves as bisexual. It turned out that bisexual people don’t really feel like they belong in any community. Social isolation limits access to support and resources, and in the worst cases leads to deteriorating mental health and suicidal thoughts. Stigmatization and prejudice leads to what is called minority stress, and health conditions are severely affected.
Bisexuals are uncomfortable with openly referring to themselves as such – there are many stereotypes associated with the word. Lena Klimova, the founder of the Children-404 Project, quotes Alexandra Skochilenko’s text about biphobia every year on September 23, Bisexual Visibility Day: “It is easier to tell people that you are a lesbian than to call yourself a bisexual, because this word sounds vulgar, unpleasant and gives away some MTV. Also, it can be harder for bisexuals to build relationships: heterosexuals, gays, and lesbians alike treat them negatively because of stereotypes. So the joke that bisexuality doubles the chances of having sex tonight turns out to be sadly far from the truth.
At school I tried to give a classmate a valentine, and the teacher returned it to me with the words “so I did not see such a thing. Then I began to like the girl, we went hand in hand, kissed and promised to marry each other. Then, when the girl left, I started dating a guy, there was a bright strong crush. At the time I thought I was gay, but when I told the guy about my earlier feelings, he declared that things weren’t real with me and I would never love him the way he loved me. At some point I realized that I could feel sexually and romantically attracted to people regardless of their femininity/masculinity.
We had a trusting relationship with my mother, but when I told her about my bisexuality, she started denying it: “We didn’t have that in our family, and you can’t have it either. This alienated us a lot, I still don’t trust her with personal matters. I face a heteronormative culture of violence on a daily basis. I was beaten up in high school, college professors thought gays should be taken to the ghetto. There are plenty of people who, if they find out I’m not hetero, are capable of messing up my life significantly, such as management at work. But I’ve also had experiences with coming out, in response to which I’ve heard similar confessions.
The important thing is that change is slowly happening, community centers are opening up, information resources are emerging. Hopefully one day we will catch a world where our rights are protected, where we feel safe for who we are.
It’s not a threesome.
Surveys show that bisexuals are more likely to be considered promiscuous, unfaithful in relationships, and believed to infect their partners with sexually transmitted infections. Any bisexual woman who uses a teander can easily confirm this – she probably receives many times more offers to become a “third” or “ask for a girlfriend” than her heterosexual counterparts. But bisexuality does not necessarily imply polyamory or infidelity, although it does not rule them out. It is simply different aspects of a relationship that are unrelated to each other.
For example, a minority of bisexuals maintain simultaneous relationships with people of different genders. In one study, 66% of men and 70% of women who consider themselves bisexual said they had sexual relationships with both men and women in the past year – but fewer than a third of those surveyed reported concurrent relationships with partners of different genders ever in their lifetime.
Another myth is that bisexuals have more partners in their lifetime than hetero- or homosexuals. There are few studies on this subject, but one that included 105 bisexual men aged 19-62 showed that bisexual men have more partners in their lifetime than typical heterosexual men, but fewer than many gay men. No similar studies have been done on bisexual women.
I am a girl, and I am bisexual. For me, this means that I have to struggle every day with my inner doubts. I was lucky enough to be born in an era of free speech and songs that said it was okay to love someone of any gender. As a teenager I fell quietly in love with a girl, but I knew it was not the final choice: I liked guys just as much. True, because of the reaction of the people around me, my girlfriend and I could not even hold hands, we were called “confused”.
I value girls and guys equally, I have the same requirements for a partner of either gender. I was lucky with my partners, with my friends, with my parents: my father said he would love me any way, and my mother admitted that she was also bisexual. But in society the visibility of bisexual persons is not there, and biphobia is rampant. Girls’ bisexuality is sexualized, we are less likely to be aggressive, but we are constantly being offered threesomes. But I’m not confused, I don’t want threesomes all the time, I’m not in a “transitional stage.” And just because I have a boyfriend doesn’t mean I’m cured.
Stereotypes work differently for bisexual men and women: it is often believed that both are “really” attracted only to men. Bisexual women are more often perceived as heterosexual women, and their same-sex relationships are seen as frivolous experiments or “show-offs” to seem interesting to men. Bisexual men, on the other hand, are seen as gay, who “don’t know it themselves” or are “just afraid to admit it.
Bisexual women face biphobia in any type of relationship – they are seen as unreliable partners. In relationships with men, they are more often objectified: bisexuality is seen as a “gimmick” or simply a function from which to benefit in the form of a threesome. But if the partner’s bisexuality attracts a man at the beginning of a relationship, later on it becomes a source of anxiety, insecurity in the relationship and a reason to end it. The experience of biphobia in a relationship leads to a higher level of anxiety among bisexual women, and some of them prefer not to disclose their orientation so as not to provoke a negative reaction again.
Negative attitudes toward bisexual men are even more common than toward bisexual women. Explanations for this “gender gap” include the sexualization of bisexual women and lesbians (how many heterosexual men watch lesbian porn!), while men are traditionally expected to conform more strictly to heteronormativity. Sometimes this translates into monstrous insults or at least embarrassing situations: for example, Matt in the BBC piece was told by a girl that she was “sick of the thought of him dating guys” and she “blocked him everywhere. The degree of discrimination against bisexual people is also affected by ethnicity, income, and education: it is higher for African-Americans, people with incomes under $25,000 a year, and those without a college degree.
Alex Lergen activist
In second grade I liked one boy, but there were no erotic overtones. Toward the age of eleven I experienced my first excitement – the occasion was a reproduction book, The Beauty of Man in Art, given to me by my grandmother. Among other things there were nudes. I was attracted to Venus as a female and to a young man as a model, sitting on red velvet. I liked the aesthetics of the body, both male and female, though rather selectively, more in an androgynous vein.
Even though I grew up in a heterosexual paradigm, during puberty my erotic fantasies and crushes alternated between guys and girls. I did not recognize myself as bisexual-I did not even know the word at the time. When I liked girls I drifted along, when I fell in love with a boy I felt alienated, I did not say anything, I was afraid of ridicule and bullying. When I realized that I seriously liked guys, I had already internalized so many stereotypes that I hoped to take my dirty, vicious, unworthy secret to the grave. Already after college I started using a dating site, one of the guys from there was my first experience. Then there was a relationship with a girl. If I like a person and feel comfortable with him, gender does not matter to me.
Bisexuals are subject to stereotypes from both society and the LGBT community. Not everyone is able to stand it – external and internal biphobia and the feeling of “being a stranger amongst your own kind” weigh on you. I did not accept myself right away, sometimes I wanted to “make up my mind”: since I am not heterosexual, maybe I should stop with the guys? Activism helped me to finally accept myself. I have been a member of the “Heterosexual and LGBT Alliance for Equality” in St. Petersburg since its founding in May 2012. Stereotypes about bisexuals abound within the LGBT community as well. And perhaps the only one that has any basis in fact is that bisexual men prefer to build a family with a woman. This can be explained by the fact that different-sex relationships are socially approved and same-sex relationships are highly stigmatized.
Bisexuality and Pansexuality
Whereas previously it was assumed that bisexual people were attracted to both men and women, today we are talking about attraction to people of two or more genders – that is, bisexuality partially overlaps with the concepts of pansexuality (attraction to people regardless of their biological sex and gender identity), polisexuality (attraction to several genders, but not necessarily to all) or omnisexuality (sexual or romantic attraction to people of all genders). All of these are the opposite of monosexuality, and can be summed up by the term “non-monosexuality.
There are still accusations of transphobia against bisexuals, but this is rather a misconception or a mismatch of terminology: bisexuals can experience attraction to cisgender, transgender, and non-binary people as well. It all depends on the individual’s preference and the meaning he or she puts into the term “bisexuality. Today, the most commonly used definition of bisexuality is the one formulated by activist Robin Ochs: the possibility of romantic and/or sexual attraction to people of more than one sex and/or gender. At the same time, the attraction may not be equally intense or simultaneous and may include an interest in people with non-binary gender identities.
Head of the “QueerCulture” group in New York and the feminist community “Voice of Women”, gender researcher
I realized I was bisexual when I was a teenager, and because of my inner biphobia I judged myself. I grew up in a homophobic family, felt lonely, spent all my time reading books, often skipped school, where I was severely bullied. I came out to my family and friends three years ago. Even though my parents make “some allowances” for me, they still do not accept me.
Sometimes I think that I am wrong bisexual, because according to most people bisexuality implies attraction to cisgender women and men. I like girls more often, and I’ve also had crushes on transgender and non-binary people. I have almost no contact with cis men: I have no interest in them and would not build a relationship with them. This is largely due to the fact that I am used to socializing in which I feel uncomfortable and in which I feel like an object, a “second gender.
Being bisexual, and even more so being an LGBT activist, means feeling discriminated against all the time. I have become a victim of attacks and harassment, I am threatened with murder, rape, which our police are totally indifferent to. I am pressured by my relatives, who want me to become “normal” and not embarrass them. At the university where I studied I was harassed, they wrote complaints about me, statements to the prosecutor’s office.
But in the LGBT community I also see prejudice against bisexual people: they may see us as unreliable partners who are “bound to leave for a man”. Being bisexual means feeling pressure from stereotypes, rejection from both heterosexual and homosexual people. I think in order to change that, there needs to be education about bisexuality, adequate representation of bisexual people. That’s what I try to do as an activist.