The pansexual revolution?

The pansexual revolution?

Recently I was interviewed for an article in The Guardian about whether pansexuality and sexual fluidity are becoming mainstream. You can read the full article here, and here’s what I had to say…

1. The ONS research out this week finds a rise in people picking “other” out of a choice of straight, gay or other. Are people more willing now to embrace the idea that they might not be exclusively heterosexual? If so, what do you think is driving that?

Yes, since the famous Kinsey studies in the 1940s and 50s we’ve known that a large proportion of people experience some attraction to – and often sexual experience with – people of their own gender (either in addition to other genders, or exclusively). However, those numbers are rarely reflected in national surveys because many of those people don’t feel able to be open about this. Year on year more people say they are something other than heterosexual – probably as prevailing cultural attitudes become more open, and people see more positive role models in the media and their everyday lives.

2. If the increase is among younger people, does it reflect generational differences from growing up in a less homophobic culture?

It seems likely that it is that generational shift and change in wider culture that’s responsible, although it’s important to remember that there are still significant barriers to people saying they are anything other than heterosexual. The very fact that people need to ‘come out’ as being LGBQ+ reminds us that heterosexuality is the assumed norm, and therefore being anything else still holds the stigma of being perceived as ‘other’ than the norm. For many people identifying as LGBQ+ still carries risks including hate crime, discrimination, and loss of vital family and community.

3. Do you think it’s likely that as the years go by the number of people identifying as exclusively, never-could-be-anything-but heterosexual will continue to fall?

Certainly, especially given that in terms of attraction and experience a significant proportion of people are not heterosexual (far more than identify as LGB or ‘other’).

4. Does the question you ask about sexual identities affect the answer you get?

Yes, this is the key point really. In my book The Psychology of Sex I point out that YouGov found that 88.7% of adults identified as heterosexual, 5.5% identified as gay, and 2.1% as bisexual. However when they were asked to place themselves on the Kinsey scale in terms of attraction, 72% of all adults, and 46% of adults aged 18–24 years, put themselves at exclusively heterosexual; 4% percent of all adults, and 6% of young adults, put themselves at exclusively homosexual. That means that around quarter of all adults, and half of young adults, placed themselves somewhere between the extremes. This suggests that being attracted to more than one gender is becoming a majority, not a minority, position. But wider culture is taking a long time to catch up to that fact, still tending to assume that people are either straight or gay, and presenting non-binary attraction as confused, a phase, or somehow suspicious.

5. In the past many people have (mistakenly) assumed that bisexual necessarily meant equally attracted to men and women. Is that idea now being dispelled?

It certainly has been dispelled in the bi and queer communities! Even the Kinsey type scale from attraction to the ‘same sex’ to attraction to the ‘opposite sex’ doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. A good analogy for that is liking coffee and tea: just because you like one more doesn’t mean you necessarily like the other one less. Of course now we’re grudgingly recognising the existence of non-binary people too, any kind of binary – or spectrum – model for sexuality won’t really work. That’s why the most accepted definition of bisexuality is ‘attraction to more than one gender’.

5. Millennials seem to be using a proliferation of labels for neither-exclusively-gay-nor-exclusively-straight, e.g. pansexual, or sexually fluid as well as bisexual. Is it right to see these as subsets of bisexual identity, separate to it, or is it not that simple?

If we take bisexual to mean ‘attraction to more than one gender’ then it can be a useful umbrella term for all of those identities – especially because it is a word that the general population understands and the government uses, so it’s helpful in fighting for rights and recognition. However, millenials (and many of us who have been thinking about these things for rather longer!) are also pointing out that sexuality is about way more than gender of attraction. Just as assuming a gay/straight binary has been problematic, so the idea that sexuality is all about the gender we’re attracted to is problematic. Scientists and social scientists alike agree that there are multiple dimensions of sexuality including amount of desire, roles we enjoy taking, other features of a person we find attractive, etc. There’s a zine about this here.

6. What do you make of the argument that people’s sexual identities can change over a lifetime?

Yes the evidence is compelling that many of our sexual desires and attractions change over time: the amount of desire we have, the kinds of things we enjoy doing sexually, what we fantasise about, and the kind of people we’re attracted to. We tend to accept that for some dimensions of sexuality but strangely not for gender-of-attraction – why would that one aspect remain static while everything else changes? Lisa Diamond is the go-to researcher who has found that sexuality is fluid for many of us.

7. The idea that sexuality is not as cut and dried as we once assumed is obviously welcome, but does it have any downsides for LGBT rights?

Well it also means that straight people can change and become gayer too. But yes much gay rights has, unfortunately, had to argue for fixed identities: that people are born gay and remain gay. Part of the reason bisexuality and sexual fluidity are so erased and rejected is because they’re seen as muddying the water on that argument. But research suggests that believing that sexuality is fixed and biologically determined doesn’t actually make people less homophobic. The way forward is a model of sexual diversity that recognises that actually a majority of people are something other than heterosexual, monogamous, and into only penis-in-vagina sex, and that people have a wide range of sexualities all of which are fine so long as practised consensually.

8. Are there any lingering myths and misconceptions about bisexuality that you’d like to put to rest for good?

All of them please. Also, as Shiri Eisner argues, we need to go further and put to rest the assumptions behind the myths. For example:
Bisexuality is a phase – for many people it is a static identity – also what’s wrong with going through phases?
Bisexual people are promiscuous – no more than any other sexual identity – also we can question the sex negative assumption that it’s seen as bad to be sexually desiring (especially for women)

Find out more

Check out my books The Psychology of Sex and Queer: A Graphic History.

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).