Bisexuality and biphobia

Earlier this year, Carla Merino from El Pais interviewed me about bisexuality and biphobia. You can read the article here. Below is the full interview in honour of Celebrate Bisexuality Day. For more on all of this check out my book with Jules Scheele: Sexuality: A Graphic Guide.

How much does social acceptance or rejection define our sexual identity and orientation? It’s curious to see that Generation Z is the one with most LGBTQIA+ members, and, going back, there’s less and less in each generation. What’s the correlation between the two factors? 

Social acceptance has a big impact on how open people feel able to be about their sexual attractions and how free they feel to act upon them. It’s likely that shifting proportions of LGBTQIA+ people across the generations reflects how socially acceptable diverse sexualities and genders are in wider culture, as well as how possible it has been to act upon them without stigma, discrimination, or restriction. Another factor is how important it has been seen over the years to identify your sexuality and gender.

It’s also important to remember that the proportion of people who identify with a particular sexuality is the tip of the iceberg. For example, with bisexuality, far more people will have sexual experiences with more than one gender than identify as bisexual, and even more will experience attraction to more than one gender which they don’t act upon.

Are sexual orientation and identity biological or a social construct?  

Both! Our sexuality is biopsychosocial, which means that – like most aspects of human experience – it comes down to a mixture of the social context we grow up in, the experiences that we have through our lives, and the ways in which our body and brain function. All of these things interact with each other in complex ways that we could never really tease apart. For example, the ways in which our body and brain function impact how we’re treated by others in our particular culture, and also the wider culture shapes the experiences that we’re able to have, which – in turn – shapes our bodies and brains.

You might think about the ways in which certain body shapes and sizes, and mental abilities, are deemed ‘sexually attractive’ in our culture, leading those who have them to have radically different experiences of sex and relationships. Or you might think about the ways in which culture enables and restricts certain forms of sexual expression, meaning that we’re more or less likely to have access to those experiences, which will impact how our bodies and brains will respond to those possibilities (e.g. with pleasure, joy, fear, shame, etc.).

What impact does fear of child sexuality have on how we develop our sexual identity and preference? 

Fear of childhood sexuality has a massive impact at the moment. Few children receive anything like a good education around sex and relationships because there is so much anxiety about talking with kids about sex. Tragically this actually results in more young people have abusive, unwanted, and risky sexual experiences, not less, because they are so ill-equipped to talk about sex or to navigate sex consensually. Certainly most sex education and advice assumes that people will be heterosexual, or only includes LGB sexualities very briefly. This restricts how able young people are to explore the full range of possible sexual and asexual identites and experiences.

It is often said that everyone is bisexual or that no one is, which are biphobic expressions. Why does society have trouble accepting bisexuality specifically. Could it be a human need to categorize everything in extremes? (black and white/ good and bad)

This is an idea that my co-author Alex Iantaffi and I explore at length in our book Life Isn’t Binary. It certainly seems that humans – particularly in western cultures – are drawn to these kinds of binary polarisations when, of course, so much about human life is diverse rather than binary. It wouldn’t make sense to divide people into short and tall – clearly height is a spectrum. A similar thing could be said about various mental capacities, we can’t divide people into a binary of unintilligent or intelligent, rather we can locate people in different places on a number of spectrums of various abilities (mathematical, linguistic, spatial, etc.). So why, when it comes to sexuality and gender, do we assume a binary?

You’re right that, many times over the years, people have tried to argue that either nobody is ‘really’ bisexual, or that everybody is bisexual. Both of those extremes risk erasing actual bisexual experience, as well as limiting human sexuality to one dimension (the gender of the people we’re attracted to), when really there is a lot more to it than that.

It is often said that putting labels on ourselves or others can be damaging, but by not calling something by a name, you can deny its existence. Do we really need labels to identify ourselves and what we’re attracted to? Why?  

This is another non-binary! There are many arguments for and against people labelling their sexuality. I find it more helpful to ask what labels open up, and close down, for people, assuming that they probably do both. For people whose sexual attractions – or absence of attractions – are marginalised, labels can be important in claiming their experience, communicating it to others, and finding supportive community within a world that harms them. At the same time, labels can come with a set of expectations which can be limiting and rigid, and it can be difficult to let go of labels – and all that they bring – if things change for you.

Culturally we’re in a place where the only accepted way to fight for equal human rights is generally on the basis of identity labels. It’s very hard to fight for the rights of a group to be treated in just ways unless that group identifies under a label and can prove, through research, the negative impact that marginalisation has upon them. This has been a key tension in discussions of the labels around attraction to multiple genders. Some argue for the dropping of labels entirely, or embracing multiple labels like pansexual, queer, omnisexual, plurisexual, and so on. However, most governments and organisations only recognise the ‘B’ for bisexual, so there are strategic reasons for people to use that term, even when it may not feel the best fit for them.

At least in the United States, bisexuals comprise more than half the LGBTQIA+ collective, but that’s not what it looks like. It seems that they’re actually a minority. Why could that be?   

There’s a long history of bisexual people being treated with suspicion in the wider LGB movement and community. This dates back to the fact that ‘gay rights’ were often fought for on the basis of the idea that sexuality was binary (straight or gay) and that gay people were a minority group who were marginalised and oppressed within that binary. Anybody whose sexuality didn’t fit that binary model were seen as ‘muddying the water’ and potentially jeopardising the fight for gay rights. 

Many theorists and scientists now recognise that human sexuality is actually diverse and fluid across many dimensions, and that the proportion of people attracted to the same gender or more than one gender is probably at least equal to the number of people who are attracted to the ‘opposite’ gender only. However it is taking a long time for this way of seeing things to find its way into mainstream culture and governmental policies.

Have the different definitions of bisexuality through history influenced biphobia and formed misconceptions on what bisexuality is?  

Yes certainly they have. The most widely accepted definition of bisexuality within the bi+ community today is ‘attraction to more than one gender’, with some also using ‘attraction regardless of gender’. However, early definitions of bisexuality mixed gender and sexuality and saw bisexual people as people who had more than one gender. Later definitions assumed that bisexual people were attracted exactly equally to men and women. We see the legacy of these kinds of definitions in the assumptions that bisexual people will also be androgynous, and in the equation of bisexual with attraction to only two genders. As The Bisexual Index points out, if people are concerned about the ‘bi’ in bisexual meaning ‘two’, they can understand it as ‘attraction to both people of the same gender as themselves, and to people of different genders to themselves’.

It’s not common to hear about bisexual characters on the history of LGBTQIA+ rights although they’re there. Why are they not that visible?  

This is particularly striking when you think that one of the most famous sexologists of all time (Alfred Kinsey) and the woman who co-ordinated the first Pride march in 1970 (Brenda Howard) were both bi! However people who identified as bi or had attractions to more than one gender are often erased from LGBTQIA+ history. I suspect this is for the same reason that I mentioned above: that a lot of gay rights has been fought for on the basis of a straight (majority) / gay (minority) binary, and the existence and prevalence of bisexuality seems like a threat to this.

What is the reason that bisexual women are the ones to experience the most sexual violence? 

Bi women seem to experience higher levels of both sexual and relationship abuse than straight or lesbian women. One reason for this is the stereotype of bi women as hypersexual and sexually available, which means they experience higher levels of sexual harassment of all kinds. Another reason is that so many people find the idea of bisexuality threatening, and sexual violence can be used as a way of policing and punishing that. In relationships, the stereotype of bi people as promiscuous, suspicious, and lying means that bi people are often wrongly assumed to be more likely to leave – or cheat on – a partner. This can lead to biphobia in relationships where bi people are encouraged to hide their sexuality, and may be treated in controlling – even violent – ways by partners who are insecure about their bi-ness.

How do we work towards ending biphobia? 

I’d like to see far better awareness and education in wider culture, and for young people, about the diversity of sexuality, moving away from binary models which see it as being all about the gender of the people we’re attracted to. In my book Sexuality: A Graphic Guide I draw together lots of theories and research which suggests that there are many dimensions to sexuality, including the amount of sexual attraction that we experience, the kinds of erotic desires we have, the other features of a person that we find attractive beyond gender, and much more. We need to get to a point where we see all forms of erotic experience as equally legitimate and beautiful, so long as they are acted upon consensually.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).