Anecdotally, it seems like a large number of people are very invested in denying the fact that bisexual people exist. But what does science say?
Via our pals at The Frisky, I learned that researchers at Indian University and the University of Pittsburgh decided to evaluate real-world attitudes to bisexuality and come up with some hard numbers, turning speculation into actual facts. What they found was troubling: 15% of the population rejects the idea that bisexuality is a “legitimate sexual orientation,” because apparently people now need to pass examination by a panel of judges before they’re allowed to have a sexual orientation.
The study was conducted as part of a larger look into HIV transmission rates, as specific information on HIV prevalence and transmission among the bisexual community isn’t tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies. One reason for that may well be the persistent attitude that bisexuality doesn’t “really” exist, illustrating how social attitudes about sexual orientations can directly hinder important medical research.
Their work involved a 33-question survey administered to 1,500 people drawn from social networking sites: not an ideal sample, and not large enough for definitive results, but enough to start to provide a glimpse into social attitudes. And enough to show that more research is clearly needed here. Respondents were asked to answer the series of questions and then their responses were assessed to determine how they felt about bisexuality.
What the researchers found was that heterosexual men and gay respondents tended to be most hostile to bisexuality, while women and (unsurprisingly) bisexuals were most supportive. Since I don’t have access to the questions used, I don’t know if other sexual orientations were discussed in the survey, and thus some users may have been forced into answers inconsistent with their actual beliefs; for example, the survey likely didn’t account for nonbinary people, who don’t necessarily fit into a straight/gay/bi orientation framework, and it’s doubtful that the survey included orientations like asexuality, pansexuality, and so forth.
The important takeaway here, though, is that 15% of respondents apparently felt that it was their business to police the sexual orientation of other people, even though it has absolutely no bearing on their actual lives. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since this is a culture and society utterly bent on concerntrolling, but it’s still upsetting. And it highlights the stigma faced by members of the bisexual community, as they’re routinely labeled as simply confused or confused by a society that wants to deny they exist.
Bisexual men, don’t you know, are really gay and they’re just pretending they’re not -- ladies, don’t date them, because you’ll only have your heart broken when they realize they’re not into girls. Bisexual women, on the other hand, are just making it all up in order to seem more attractive, so they can make out with girls in bars for the pleasure of the heterosexual men they’re really interested in. Or bisexual people just can’t make up their mind, and they’re taking out their sexual confusion on the world around them.
Bisexual people are promiscuous, and thus no one interested in a long-term monogamous relationship should date a bi person, because, you know, anyone who claims to be attracted to two genders clearly is incapable of being faithful. Bisexual people will also totally drink the last of the milk and then put the carton back in the fridge to fake you out.
The persistent social attitude that bisexual people aren’t “real” contributes very directly to a harmful stigma, but more than that, it suppresses bisexual visibility. As Marianne has pointed out, visibility can become an active and conscious effort where you are continuously forced to reassert your sexual orientation. As a woman who likes ladies and dudes alike in a monogamous marriage with a man, she’s erased, assumed to be a heterosexual woman -- even though her sexuality is not that simple and nothing about her orientation changed when she and Ed eloped.
Many bisexual people express similar frustrations with marriages and long-term relationships, no matter what the gender of their partners. A bisexual man in a gay marriage is told he’s really gay, and that any relationships with people of other genders in the past were just dalliances, expressions of confusion, or experimentations, for example.
In a society where people seem to be able to passively accept that heterosexual men and women remain heterosexual in their monogamous relationships (and thus that they may experience interest in and attraction toward people outside the relationship even if they don’t act on it), the same assumptions are not accorded to bisexual people.
Bisexual stigma has very real-world consequences. It makes it harder to seek medical treatment, harder to find a supportive community, and more difficult to communicate openly. That was one reason the researchers were so interested in HIV in the bisexual community, as they suspected that phobia might be contributing to viral bridging, in which bisexual men transmit HIV to women -- their research found no evidence to support the bridging theory, but it did highlight the fact that society has a long way to go when it comes to acceptance of varied sexual orientations.
Perhaps one of the most difficult lessons for people to learn is that sexuality lies on a spectrum; it is not a toggle with only two positions. Some people are strongly heterosexual or strongly homosexual, while others lie at points along the middle; and some have stepped off the spectrum entirely.
That spectrum also shifts over time, which is another issue clouding the waters when it comes to bisexuality and other sexual orientations. Some people have sexualities that remain stable throughout their lives. Others may find that at different stages in their lives, different labels are more accurate for them, and the insistence on “picking one and sticking with it” is quite damaging, because it erases the fact that humans grow, change, and shift sexually, sometimes very radically so.
This study highlights the fact that many people still have their noses far into the bedroom doorways of others. Surely we have something better to do than challenging the sexual identities of other people; the only time another person’s sexuality is really relevant to me is if I’m in a relationship with that person. And when I want to make sure that I’m inviting the right partner(s) to dinner parties.
If you’re not bisexual, great! That’s cool! Not everyone needs to be! But that doesn’t mean bisexuality isn’t a thing, that you need to deny the actual attractions and experiences of real people around you to feel more secure about yourself.
The insistence on erasing bisexuality from the spectrum of sexuality strikes me as a way for people to feel more secure in their own sexualities; people who hotly deny bisexuality might want to do some thinking about why the idea bothers them so much.