Research news: Bi Women’s Health

BCN 129 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 129, February 2015

Bisexual women are more likely to experience poor mental health and mental distress than lesbians, according to new research published in the Journal of Public Health in January.

Bisexual women were 64% more likely to report an eating problem and 37% more likely to have deliberately self-harmed than lesbians. They were also 26% more likely to have felt depressed and 20% more likely to have suffered from anxiety in the previous year than lesbians.

Using data from the 2007 Stonewall UK Women’s Health Survey, researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine analysed responses from 5,706 bisexual and lesbian women living in the UK aged 14 or over.

The study found bisexual women were less likely to be ‘out’ to friends, family and work colleagues and also less likely to be in a relationship. Bi women were less likely to experience sexuality-related discrimination from work, healthcare services, education and family than lesbians, but more likely to experience discrimination from friends. Though, if you are less likely to be out at work, that would skew the figures.

Study senior author Dr Ford Hickson, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Bisexual people are at particular risk of invisibility and marginalisation from both gay/lesbian communities and mainstream society. Although bisexual women in our study reported experiencing less sexuality-based discrimination than lesbians, this did not benefit their mental health. Mental health services should be aware of both the differences and the similarities in bisexual and lesbian women’s mental health care needs, and tailor the services they provide accordingly.”

Generation Gap?The authors also found that older bisexual women had more suicidal thoughts than younger bisexual women. Additionally, bisexual women were more likely to report poor physical health and more likely to use marijuana or tranquilisers than lesbians.

Study lead author Lisa Colledge, who conducted the research at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, added: “These disturbing results echo international findings on mental health differences between bisexual and homosexual people. Although non-heterosexual women as a group have far poorer mental health than heterosexual women, bisexual women report even worse mental distress than lesbians. All women deserve equal chances of mental wellbeing and happiness, regardless of their sexuality. Homophobic prejudice is now widely and rightly condemned; specific stigma around bisexual identity needs to be similarly confronted.”

In the UK, the numbers of women identifying as lesbian and as bisexual are similar. However, only 16% of the survey participants were bisexual women. The study authors suggest this may be linked to bisexual women’s reluctance to disclose their sexual identity. The authors add that “concealment of sexual orientation is known to be related to poorer mental health in sexual minority women”.
The study authors suggest that worse mental health in bisexual women than in lesbians may be due to more negative social attitudes towards bisexuality compared with lesbian and gay identity. Consequently, bisexual women may have a more negative attitude towards themselves, and expect more social rejection, putting their mental health at risk.

The levels of health challenge that this report highlights are alas not news to anyone who has been working in and with the bisexual community over time. We know bisexual people face isolation from both straight and gay society – and a pressure to ‘pass’ as gay or straight to fit in that includes being erased into assumed hetero- or homosexuality when in monogamous relationships.  In turn that erasure of the bisexuality of other bis makes it harder for bi people to see themselves reflected in society around them, and reinforces the isolation that causes that problem. It’s a vicious circle of invisibility and isolation.

The new findings differ from those of a similar UK survey in 2003, which found no difference in psychological distress between bisexual women and lesbians. The authors suggest that legal and social changes in the intervening years may have benefitted lesbian women more than bisexual women.

When the report hit the press – and it was picked up from the Daily Mail to the Hong Kong Hearald – online commenters suggested bisexuality innately causes health problems.

But it doesn’t show that bisexual identity causes poorer mental health than lesbian identity – surely it’s more likely that being bi in our wider culture increases your chances of facing these challenges?