Bi the Way: Exploring Bisexuality
Bisexuality can be defined as having sexual, romantic, and emotional attractions to men and women. Often misunderstood as being promiscuous or indecisive, people who are bisexual challenge societal assumptions about sexual and romantic attraction. We wanted to explore the sexual orientation that all too frequently gets left “bi” the wayside.
Figuring Out Bi
Back in 1948, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey published the Kinsey Scale. He asserted that people are not exclusively “homosexual” (an offensive term now, but the word used at the time) or heterosexual, but that sexual orientation falls along a continuum. The Kinsey Scale is still widely recognized and used today to describe sexual orientation. The scale ranges from 1-6 (0=exclusively heterosexual, 6=exclusively “homosexual”). People who fall in the middle of the scale are often referred to as “bisexual.”
Kinsey believed that sexuality, including orientation, can and does change over time. He also recognized sexual orientation to be more than physical sexual behaviors, but to also include desire, romantic attraction, fantasy, and emotional intimacy.
While his work has received criticism, many researchers believe that most people fall along a continuum with respect to their sexuality. Some suggest that society has a role in shaping sexual identity. Professor and author Majorie Garber believes that all people would be bisexual if not for “repression, religion, repungnance, [and] denial.”
Bisexuality does not necessarily mean that bisexual folks are attracted equally to both sexes; the degree of preference and choice of relationships or partners varies. Bisexual people are individuals and not a homogenous group. Like everyone, bisexual people have varying thoughts, experiences, feelings, attractions, and politics. Still, people often want to “figure out” those who are bisexual, want them to decide “what team they are batting for.” This goes back to the need for categorization, our homophobia and gender-phobia, and for people to “make sense,” as we explored in our gender identity column.
People who are mostly heterosexual but occasionally or situationally engage in same-sex sexual behaviors may identify as heterosexual rather than bisexual. And those who might be classified by others as being bisexual may identify themselves as mostly gay or lesbian. It’s up to each person to decide what label, if any, feels right to them. Be cautious when applying a label or categorizing someone; when in doubt, and if it feels comfortable, ask the person.
Like Kinsey’s scale, bisexuality doesn’t only mean sexual experiences, but also attractions and a larger sense of identity. Some bisexual people may not have had any opposite or same gender sexual experiences, but still identify as bi. Sometimes they also identify as homoflexible, heteroflexible, bi-curious or bi-permissive.
While the term bisexuality is relatively new, people engaging in both opposite and same sex relationships is centuries old. The term bisexuality was only just created in the 20th century and in less than 100 years, new terms, such as pansexuality and omnisexuality, have gained popularity as being more inclusive rather than enforcing “two” sexes or genders.
It’s a commonly held myth that bisexual people engage in relationships with men and women at the same time. We see this played out in the media (like Tila Tequila) that bisexual people are omnivorous sexual creatures who cannot commit. In reality, bisexual individuals, like everyone else, experience variety in their dating and sexual patterns, sometimes dating casually, enjoying multiple partners or choosing monogamy. It’s also a myth that because people who are bisexual can be attracted to both sexes that they will be. Again, just like everyone else, bisexual people find some folks attractive and some, well, not so much. Bisexual people are no more promiscious than gay, lesbian or heterosexual people and maintain a variety of short and long-term relationships. In addition, they are just as interested and capable of monogamy and long-term committments.
Sometimes people fear that if they are attracted to or engage in sexual behaviors with members of the same sex it automatically means they are gay, lesbian or bisexual. This “fear” speaks to the homophobia of our culture; we grow up afraid we won’t be “straight.” Bisexual folks may also fear being ostracized by lesbian and gay communities because they are attracted to members of the opposite sex. Combined with homophobia, this “monosexism” (believing that being straight or gay is superior to bisexuality) can leave bisexual people struggling to find support. Part of healthy sexual development and the “coming out” process whether straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual, is to explore our feelings, attractions and emotions in a safe and supported way.
Researcher Richard Lippa said it best: “[W]hatever your sexual orientation is and whatever gender (or genders) you’re attracted to, learn to accept yourself and enjoy your sexual feelings. Sex is always a process, but not necessarily a fixed process.”
Eventually, we’ll know for ourselves who we want to develop intimate and sexual relationships with, and what, if any, labels we want to apply to ourselves. At the same time, it’s up to all of us to provide this safe, supportive environment for others – whether they are 5, 15 or 45 years old.
Stay tuned until next week as Doin’ It Well drops in on sex toy parties!
Sex 411: Reading Bi
Baumgardner, J. (2007). Look Both Ways.
Garber. M (1995) Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life.
Ochs, R. & Rowley, S. (2005). Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals around the World.
PFLAG Bisexuality Resource Packet http://www.pflag.org/