Media reporting of sexuality: The importance of fr...

Media reporting of sexuality: The importance of framing the debate

In this post I reflect on my frequent experience of being contacted by programme-makers and journalists to engage in ‘debates’ about gender and sexuality. I discuss the framing of these kinds of discussions more in my book The Psychology of Sex

This weekend I was contacted by a programme-maker with the following request regarding a series on sexuality. They said that they were putting together their bisexual episode and wanted me to contribute to the discussion of whether ‘there really is such as thing as being bisexual’.

I won’t name names here to save their blushes and also because I’m hopeful that they may change their mind on receiving my reply. But I wanted to share my response here to underline the importance of how debates, and presentations of research, are positioned in the media. Despite researching and writing about bisexuality I have always refused to take part in ‘does it exist?’ type debates. Framing such things as debates gives legitimacy to a view that shouldn’t be getting air-time.

I think that, when asked to contribute to media pieces like this, it is worth first asking whether they are asking reasonable questions and, if not, to challenge them rather than going along with a problematic framing of the issues. I hope that I’ve explained this here in a way that will be possible for the programme-makers to hear.

Good to hear from you and xxx sounds like a great show. However, I find your suggested discussion topic deeply problematic.

I’m tempted to say that I would consider taking part in such a discussion the week after you do the show on whether there really is such as thing as being a gay man and a week before you do the show on whether there really is such as thing as being lesbian. Does that help you to understand why framing a show on bisexuality in this way is so wrong?

I attach here The Bisexuality Report – which colleagues and I published last year and which brings together the main research on bisexuality which has been conducted to date (if you don’t have time to read the whole thing then the first few pages give a clear summary).

You will notice that bisexual people have higher rates of mental health problems than lesbian, gay or heterosexual people, and that this has been linked to ‘bisexual invisibility’. ‘Bisexual invisibility’ refers to the way in which doubt is cast on the existence of bisexuality in a way that it isn’t for lesbian, gay or heterosexual people, despite clear evidence that large numbers of people identify as bisexual, and that an even greater proportion of people are attracted to people of more than one gender.

I would kindly request that you consider changing your debate to something like ‘how can we address biphobia and bisexual invisibility in the heterosexual and gay communities’ rather than using your show to perpetuate bisexual invisibility by suggesting that the existence of bisexual people is – in any way – a reasonable topic for debate. A discussion like the one you propose – with somebody presumably arguing that there isn’t such a thing as being bisexual – is in real danger of contributing to the suffering of bisexual people.

If you do decide to change your plans please let me know.

All the best.



Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.


  1. Anna

    25 February

    Thanks for sharing and bringing this to our attention. I think your points are valid and persuasive, so I do hope the program makers change their mind. I think your suggestion for a new title for the show could be a little more punchy, more media-friendly and less academic – I know this isn’t exactly your job, but it would help solidify that a ‘sensible’ show on this topic is still of value and could be engaging and interesting to all audiences.
    As an established journalist myself, I also think that issues of gender, sexuality and indeed sexual violence should be covered in journalism schools nationwide. This is not something that journalists and other media professionals are given any training on and little, if any, guidance unless drawn from their personal experiences. Given the vast mouthpiece of ‘The Media’, these are not topics I believe that we as an industry/profession can simply cross our fingers on and hope that standards rise.

    • megbarkerpsych

      25 February

      Good points Anna. I quite agree. It would be more helpful to find a more media friendly phrasing. And I would love to see sexuality and gender training on journalism training. And would be happy to contribute to such training!

      • Anna

        25 February

        Great. Perhaps this is something we can explore further – I run a media company, which also offers training. I will send you an invitation to connect on LinkedIn.

        • megbarkerpsych

          25 February

          Let’s. I do a few events around sexuality and media that might be good for such discussions.

  2. Max the Communist

    27 February

    Okay, you want to play the role of conciliatory educator and bridge-maker. I get it. But what I will tell you is that, if this is a television program they are planning for, most of the time producers and assistant producers just care about one thing–whether they will “make good television.” Which means if they think it would be good television to depict bisexuals as closeted and delusional, no matter how many real life bisexuals that hurts, they will go with that and they will throw the Bisexual Invisibility Report into the garbage.
    Please at least give us the name of the company producing this and what their working title for this series will be and when they plan to air it, so that the bi community can be on the lookout and ready to respond if they decide to do a hatchet job on us.

    • megbarkerpsych

      27 February

      Thanks Max. I (and others) have managed to get them to change the focus of discussion somewhat but still not to something I’d be comfortable being part of. I think that it can be worth engaging with the media and trying to shift things – some people listen and change, although many do not. It is an online show and will – presumably – be up soon at which point I’ll point people at it so that they can have a right to reply.

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