Bisexuality is the tendency to be sexually attracted to both men and women. This may sound like a superpower to some – double the romantic options means double the romantic odds, right? But in reality, bisexuality can be a bit of an awkward identity to have. Bisexual people are not “straight”, which can make it difficult to feel like a part of the sexual majority. On the other hand, bisexual people can often pass as straight, particularly when they have an opposite-sex partner, which can sometimes make it difficult to feel connected to the LGBT community.
Most importantly, bisexuality tends to be quite misunderstood. Myths and stereotypes about bisexuality abound, some of which even contradict one another. Straight and LGBT people alike can hold these stereotypes, which compounds the difficulties that bisexual people can have fitting into either group. Luckily, an increasing number of researchers have become interested in bisexuality in recent years, and with research, our understanding of bisexuality is improving. Here are three examples of how science has worked to combat the many misconceptions about bisexuality:
Myth 1: Bisexuality Doesn’t Exist
I find this myth to be particularly laughable: how can you tell a group of individuals that they don’t exist? But the idea that all people have to be either straight or gay is one that pervades, particularly when it comes to men. Frustratingly, even within the most LGBT-friendly circles, you can sometimes find the idea that “there’s no such thing as a bisexual man.”
Researchers have quite clearly laid this myth to rest with a study recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.1 The researchers recruited straight, gay, and bisexual men, and exposed them to a variety of erotic film clips. Not only were participants asked to rate their subjective feelings of arousal in response to the clips, but they were also connected to physiological equipment that measured changes in the circumference of their penises (i.e., genital arousal). As would be expected, heterosexual men responded with much more subjective and genital arousal to films containing women rather than men, and vice versa for gay men. However, bisexual men were aroused relatively similarly by videos of both men and women. They were also more aroused by bisexual clips – clips featuring two men and one woman – than were the other two groups. Importantly, these differences were in their reported arousal and in their genital arousal, which is a pretty objective measurement. Thus, it is clear from this study that these individuals were not “pretending” to be bisexual.
Myth 2: Bisexuality is Just a Phase
With this myth, bisexuality is represented as a state of experimentation or confusion – typically experienced during the college years – that occurs before a person settles on their “true” identity (i.e., before they pick a side).
Lisa Diamond has conducted some very sophisticated work on this topic, in which she has examined the sexual identifies of women over long periods of time. In a paper published in Developmental Psychology,2 Dr. Diamond reports on a sample of women who she followed over a period of 10 years. The results of this study clearly showed that bisexuality is not a transitional period: very few women who identified as bisexual in adolescence changed their identity to either straight or lesbian by the end of the study (only 8% did so). Rather, bisexual women were consistently sexually fluid over time, maintaining their attractions to both genders to varying degrees over the course of the ten-year period.
Myth 3: Bisexual People Can’t be Faithful to Their Partners
This myth – which is arguably the most pernicious one – stems from the idea that one partner can not fully satisfy a person who is attracted to both genders. Sooner or later, people assume, they’ll yearn for someone of the gender that their partner is not. For example, people tend to perceive bisexual individuals as being more likely to cheat on their partners compared to heterosexual, gay, or lesbian individuals.3
In reality, a great many bisexual individuals have happily monogamous relationships with their partners; for example, by the end of Dr. Diamond’s ten-year study,2 fully 89% of bisexual women were in monogamous, long-term relationships. Furthermore, for those bisexual individuals who do desire multiple sexual partners, research suggests that they typically achieve this goal by negotiating open relationships with their partners, NOT by sneaking around behind their partners’ backs.4 I could find no research supporting the idea that bisexuals are any less faithful or honest with their partners than people of other sexual orientations.
Taken together, the small but growing field of research on bisexuality is promising that it counteracts many of the myths and misconceptions surrounding bisexuality, while also providing some interesting insights to sexuality in general. Unlike other sources such as pop culture or the media, scientific studies suggest that bisexuality is a relatively stable, consistent sexual identity. We need more research to better understand ways in which bisexuality is similar to monosexual identities (i.e., heterosexual, gay, and lesbian), as well as ways in which it might be unique.
Also check out our Q&A where Dr. Justin Lehmiller answers a reader’s question about sexual orientation: “I Always Thought I Was Straight, But Now I’m Not So Sure: Can Our Sexual Desires Change?”
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1Rosenthal, A. M., Sylvia, D., Safron, A., & Bailey, J. M. (2012). The male bisexuality debate revisited: Some bisexual men have bisexual arousal patterns. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 35-147.
2Diamond, L. M. (2008). Female bisexuality from adolescence to adulthood: Results from a 10-year longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 44, 5-14.
3Spalding, L. R., & Peplau, L. A. (1997). The unfaithful lover: heterosexuals’ perceptions of bisexuals and their relationships. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 611-625.
4McLean, K. (2004). Negotiating (Non) Monogamy: Bisexuality and intimate relationships. Journal of Bisexuality, 4, 83-97.
Samantha Joel – Science of Relationships articles
Samantha’s research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?