Different for Bis: December 2017
The latest in bisexuality research.
The Psychology of Sexualities Review devoted its Winter 2017 edition to bisexuality with a raft of interesting papers about bi research from Europe, the USA and New Zealand.
The opening editorial piece reflects on a key change, observing: “In the last few years, bisexuality has become contested in rather different ways than in the past. This has included some young people disassociating from the term bisexual due to the problematic connotations of some definitions of bisexuality (e.g. as attraction to men and women) which may seem to reinforce and endorse gender binaries”.
It is the most notable shift in negative stereotypes about bisexuality: twenty years ago we were often accused of being attracted to too many genders, but today we are simultaneously lambasted for being attracted to too few. Both takes are rather silly, but whatever we do we will clearly never please both sides.
If you’ve been pondering how bisexuality is talked about both in science and in the mainstream media there will be much to have you thumping the table in agreement here. From the USA, Joye Swan and Shani Habibi’s paper on the “one and done” assumption that a man who has had sex with another man, even just once, is automatically gay no matter what else is in his sexual history. I’d have to observe a similar pattern against bi women too – erasing us away into being “straight really”. However Habibi and Swan have a note of optimism, looking at changes over time and how straight college students asked to label people based on their sexual behaviour are becoming more likely to credit bisexuality as a real answer rather than a false veneer.
A paper from the UK sees Nikki Hayfield, Emma Halliwell and Victoria Clarke look at another form of bi erasure, that of lumping us in with lesbian and gay people when exploring data about sexuality. It’s a practice which helps make the number of respondents in research look more convincing but has two problems: it loses the fine distinctions between lesbian and bi experience, and it helps erase bisexuality as reporting often slips into “survey finds x about lesbians…”
Their example is some research around women’s feelings and behaviours around body image, where they find that there is clear distinction between straight and gay women with the bisexuals falling somewhere in between. Not a great surprise but something that may become clear if researchers ensure separate analysis of bis as a group when looking at sexuality, and if efforts are made to ensure enough bi participants to be of statistical value. It is a cry laid out before in the Bisexuality Research Guidelines (see bimedia.org/bi-research)
This has all been quite binary – but to round off Jos Twist looks at how the partners of transgender people talk about the impact of transition on relationships. Which naturally has a big dollop of bisexuality and sexual fluidity.
The Office for National Statistics have been working on how to include sexuality questions in the 2021 census, with a pair of trials using editions both with and without a sexual orientation question. The question used read “Which of the following options best describes how you think of yourself? Heterosexual or Straight / Gay or Lesbian / Bisexual / Other (write in)”.
The edition with the sexuality question got a slightly lower return rate, with a 38.6% return rate compared to 39.0% for the version without. Older people were less likely to answer the question, which was marked as voluntary, but there was no reduction in how likely they were to respond to the survey as a whole.
The surveys returned showed a higher proportion of lesbians and gay men than last year’s ONS Annual Population Survey – up from 1.2% to 1.8% – but fewer bisexuals, forn from 0.8% to 0.6%. There was double the rate of respondents skipping the question compared to the APS though – up from 4.1% to 8.4%.
In the Journal of Bisexuality paper “Defining Bisexuality: Young Bisexual and Pansexual People’s Voices” Flanders, Le Breton, Robinson, Bian & Caravaca-Morera asked 60 bisexual and pansexual people ages 18 to 30 a series of questions regarding their definitions of bisexuality.
Forty-nine participants identified as bisexual, and 11 identified as pansexual, with a gender split of 32 female, 20 male, seven genderqueer and one refusal to answer; it’s interesting that that both these add up to 60 given some people identify with several labels. Three quarters of the sample were White.
So what marks out bisexuality in their eyes? Sexual attraction, it seems. The researchers note that “the only significant relationship between sexual identity and how attraction was discussed” was that “fewer bisexual people than expected (44.90%) and more pansexual people than expected (81.82%) included sexual attraction in their definition of bisexuality”.
It’s a small sample of just 11 people but suggests for those respondents, bisexuality is about sexual attraction in the eyes of pan-identified young people more than the perspective of their bi-identified peers.
This ties in with a general finding that participants talked about sexual attraction as more important when talking about labels in abstract than in their own choice of label. They find “among our participants, a slight majority supports a general definition of bisexuality that uses a binary understanding of gender, though a significant portion of participants explicitly use nonbinary definitions”.
So maybe bisexuality is about sexual attraction just because of the abstraction from personal experience to trying to explain a concept in everyday language. When describing their own bisexuality it shifted to terms like being “more open in my relationships” or “I can love whomever I want to love”.
The majority said they use binary language like “being attracted to both women and men” to explain bisexuality to others. Given how new both bi-inclusive and nonbinary-gender-inclusive language is, perhaps that’s not so surprising. Each faces lots of reactionary stigma in society and on social media, and “both” can be a challenging enough idea to people who are used to “one”. One participant is quoted as explaining, “Unless I absolutely knew that the other person understood trans issues and basic queer theory I would just say that I don’t care if you are a man or a woman. Leave out the whole in between stuff because sometimes that’s a whole other can of worms”
They conclude: “There were no differences between how pansexual and bisexual people discussed sex or gender across all five questions. Participants were more likely to describe attraction to individuals rather than to gender(s) when describing their bisexual identity to someone else”, and without a clear-cut definition of bisexuality emerging from their respondents, “researchers should be careful in how they define bisexuality for the purposes of sampling, and ensure to contextualize their research based on the definitions they use.”