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Bisexual, Not Bisexual

There are many different ways to be bisexual.

Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Source: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

In my first post I set down my basic beliefs, one of which is that sexuality and romance exist along a spectrum. That is, not everyone is either straight or gay because there’s a vast middle ground consisting of many points of identification and attraction. This post was shared with a bisexual listserv (which I appreciate) and the response was decidedly mixed, especially with my omission of the word “bisexuality,” thus contributing to the tendency of straight and gay/lesbian individuals and communities to erase bisexuality.

That was certainly not my intent and has not been my pattern regarding my research, teaching, and outreach. Here, I focus specifically on defining bisexuality. The answer to “What is Bisexuality?” is both simple and complex. In my next post I’ll illustrate with an interview with a young man who may or may not be bisexual—you can decide.

Technically, if you have sexual attractions and they are directed only toward one particular sex, then you are monosexual (straight or lesbian/gay). If those attractions are directed, regardless of the degree distributed, to females and males, then you are bisexual. I realize there are other sexual orientation possibilities, which I will eventually address.

From a more expansive perspective, educator, writer, and activist, Robyn Ochs, made it personal : “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

Researchers seldom use this broad definition when they recruit or create their bisexual sample or when they published findings about bisexual individuals. They nearly always follow more restrictive definitions, such as the four below.

One approach is to clump everybody who is not straight into one group, the “not-straight” group. Thus, bisexuals are combined with gays and lesbians. This might be done for practical reasons (few nonheterosexuals in the subject pool) or because the researchers believe there are no differences among people with either very little or considerable same-sex sexuality regarding their area of interest. I find both positions nearly always shortsighted (gather more nonheterosexual subjects!) or wrong-headed (question assumptions about no differences).

A second approach is to ask study participants about their sexual behavior. If both, then the time frame could be “currently,” “last 12 months,” or “ever.” Virgins are hereby excluded. Also neglected are aspects such as the following:

1. How much an individual enjoys sex with women versus men

2. How frequently or proportionally the individual engages in sex with women and men

3. The motivation for why an individual has sex with each sex

4. The intimacy of the sexual act with members of each sex

A third approach is to inquire as to how study participants place themselves on a Kinsey-like sexual orientation scale from 0 (exclusively attracted to the opposite sex) to 3 (equally attracted to both sexes) to 6 (exclusively attracted to the same sex). Then 0s and 1s are combined to form “heterosexual;” the 2s, 3s, and 4s create the “bisexuals;” and the 5s and 6s are the “homosexuals.” I am not sure why researchers use a continuum and then slice the pieces into three categories but the result is that the bisexual group contains many variations and whether this collapsing of diversity makes sense could and should be debated regarding research, education, support services, public policy, and identity politics.

A fourth approach is to ask participants how they identify their sexuality. Whether it is opened-ended (“write-in your identity”), restricted (straight, bisexual, gay/lesbian, “something else,” “don’t know”), or expansive (including the above two plus terms such as sexually fluid, pansexual, heteroflexible, questioning, asexual, queer, pomosexual, skoliosexual, etc.). What happens after this varies, from deleting all but straight, bisexual, gay/lesbian identifying individuals, to fitting all identities into these three (e.g., combining pansexual with bisexual), to placing all those who do not identify as straight, bisexual, or gay/lesbian into an “other” group.

What is my preference? None of the above, as is evident in my first two posts. But I can think of no better place to begin understanding the complexities and dynamics of bisexuality than the life of Juan, a young man I interviewed for my research (next time).

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