In this Feminist Friday post, I’m going to discuss bi1 erasure in social science research and news coverage. It’s bad enough having to do the closet hokey-pokey literally every single day of my life2, but when heterosexual/monosexual/cisgender social scientists and writers decide to pointedly ignore non-monosexual folks or write their thrilling conclusions about our personal lives without our input3, it very much affects us.
Edit: WordPress was supposed to embed posts from tumblr and didn’t. The head image is from this post.
Exhibit A: Erasure by Exclusion as Data
This very scientific article from 2012 from Scientific American (the link is from donotlink, so click away) is here to sell you a pack of lies (which hurt het folks, too!):NO.
While it’s very worthwhile to study what makes people attracted to each other, it’s harmful and unfair to only study straight-identified college students.Myth: We can’t study bisexuals because they either refuse to self-identify or they’re mercurial and will change their sexuality, or both.
Fact 1: Your straight-identified college students are not all going to identify as straight forever. I, too, was a straight-identified college student who was so duped by the heterosexual industrial complex that I didn’t understand that I was bi even after I fell for a woman for the first time when I was 21. It literally took me over a year, during which many queer things happened, after that to come out to myself because I was totally straight, right?
Sexualities evolve over time, particularly in your 20s.
Fact 2: The length of a friendship matters. You could meet a new friend in college or anywhere and be on the fence about whether you wanted to be just friends or be more than friends, and you might have a crush on someone for a long time and not act on it because your friend is partnered or isn’t attracted to you because of gender or isn’t attracted to you, period. Sometimes crushes go away; sometimes they don’t.
Fact 3: Some of us don’t self identify because you either don’t ask or because we know that if we answer, we’ll be dismissed as “halfway to gay” (especially men) or “just doing it for attention” (especially women) or “just confused”–even by researchers, feminists, monosexuals (both straight and GL), and allies. More on this in Exhibit B.
The results of the research are actually fascinating, but what’s strange is that the conclusions drawn by the writer are completely off base:
The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them—a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men’s estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt—basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends. Women, too, were blind to the mindset of their opposite-sex friends; because females generally were not attracted to their male friends, they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual. As a result, men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.
That’s not a function of (cis/het) men and women being unable to be friends, that’s male privilege. Men are taught to dismiss women’s sexualities, opinions, and feelings; for straight men, all women (not just the straight ones, either) must be wildly attracted to them, because that’s what women do!
This article and research also completely ignore the concept of non-monosexuality. “Homosexuals” get a blurb at the end, but not any other queer sexuality, and the researchers use old research (from 1995, the height of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell mentality) that manages to, in one paragraph, dismiss queer women’s sexuality (note that most of the research team appears to be women), paint “homosexual” (monosexual gay men and lesbians), especially the men, as untrustworthy platonic friends, and assume that queer folks are just like straight people:
Research suggests that homosexuals have mate preferences and strategies that generally parallel those of their heterosexual counterparts; it is the sex of their desired partner that differs (Kenrick, Keefe, Bryan, Barr, & Brown, 1995). Thus, homosexual men and women should experience attraction to their (purportedly platonic) same-sex friends. Moreover, given men’s stronger short-term mating orientation, homosexual men should feel more attraction to their same-sex friends than homosexual women should to their same-sex friends
(Bleske-Rechek, Somers, Micke, Erickson, et al., Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2012, 592-3) [emphasis mine]
What possible reason could you have for excluding queer people, especially non-monosexual ones, from your research? Listen up, researchers: you want the group who can theoretically be attracted to anyone–they also have “‘hot’ friends” and “‘not’ friends,” but those have no basis in gender. Which leads me to our next exhibit:
Exhibit B: Erasure by Inclusion as Data, or We’re Not Confused; YOU Are.
When researchers actually acknowledge the existence of bisexuals, it’s typically to treat us not as the key to understanding the sliding scale of attraction and friendship, but to conflate bisexuality with myths of bisexuality that derive from the male gaze and male privilege (the assumption that women’s sexuality is only “for” men and does not exist outside of the patriarchy). Furthermore, the correlated assumptions that bi is “half gay and half straight,” that a person’s partner(s) or lack thereof at any given time indicates sexual orientation, and that bisexuals are insincere, experimenting, or confused monosexuals are the reasons why bisexuals are more likely than monosexuals to have poor mental health, are at higher risk of intimate partner violence–particularly violence based in biphobia, and suffer from poor physical health.
male character: *flirts with many girls but has a (subtle) romantic/sexual moment with a guy*
one half of the fandom: omg did you see that, he’s sooo obviously GAY!! he’s just pretending to be interested in girls!
other half of the fandom: stop making him gay, he only flirst with girls! he and that other guy are just FRIENDS!!
bi/pan/polysexual people: *look into the camera like they’re on the office*
Exhibit B is a bit of the reverse of Exhibit A: a social-science researcher publishing a blog post about an unscientific study with a lot of conjecture about bisexual motivations: Lisa Wade’s “Bisexuality and Dating on OKCupid” from Sociological Images (2010), which summarizes OKCupid-cofounder Christian Rudder’s “The Big Lies People Tell In Online Dating,” an analysis of data gathered from users of the online dating site.
While the piece is old in terms of the Internet, it’s on a huge sociology blog run by a respected feminist professor, and 2010 is recent enough in queer history that the language in original piece and the edited piece simply should not exist. Furthermore, there’s very little on Sociological Images on bisexuality itself outside of it being included nominally in “LGBT” pieces, so that doesn’t make me feel as if it’s a past mistake that has been addressed fully by paying closer attention to the voices and concerns of actual non-monosexuals.
[Lies People Tell on the Internet] “I’m bisexual.”
REALITY: 80% of self-identified bisexuals are only interested in one gender.
OkCupid is a gay- and bi-friendly place and it’s not our intention here to call into question anyone’s sexual identity. But when we looked into messaging trends by sexuality, we were very surprised at what we found. People who describe themselves as bisexual overwhelmingly message either one sex or the other, not both as you might expect. Site-wide, here’s how it breaks out:
This suggests that bisexuality is often either a hedge for gay people or a label adopted by straights to appear more sexually adventurous to their (straight) matches. You can actually see these trends in action in the chart below.
Myth: Self-identified bisexuals are secretly monosexuals and most of them are liars. But we love you bi people anyway!
Fact: “Self-identified bisexual” is already an issue because of the utter lack of choices in 2010 regarding gender and sexuality. I did my time on OKCupid rather recently, right when the additional sexual orientations and genders were approved, even later even than Facebook’s were, despite the fact that they’re extremely relevant to a dating site when you’re trying to find someone who matches you. Before the changes, you would find a lot of queer people who would write “Please note: I marked bisexual because I am bi-romantic and asexual and OKC doesn’t give me this as an option; I am a trans man but I listed myself as a lesbian because I’m interested in dating queer women and am afraid of straight violence.”
The labels exist for finding potential matches in your group(s) of interest, but the profile allows the user to explain further if they so choose. That said, having your labels recognized and available is critical.
Myth: Bisexual people are “more sexually adventurous” and therefore straight women who want to attract straight men will lie about being bi to get attention/sex.
Myth: “Again, this is just the data we’ve collected.”
Fact: No, it’s your biphobic conjectures about our motivations.
The figure below plots age against the percent of self-identified bisexual men who message both men and women, only women, or only men. The percent that are bi in practice as well as theory message both men and women drops by about half between the ages of 18 and 54 (from about 20% to about 10%), but men in their 30s and early 40s are much more likely to message only women. Ticking biological clocks and hopes for a wife and kids perhaps?
The narrowing blue swatch may reflect the possibility that men who once identified as bisexual have come to terms with being plain ol’ gay (but the data isn’t longitudinal, so it may be a cohort thing instead of a life stage thing).
Or perhaps the distribution is the result of an interaction between age and who it’s easy to meet. Maybe young bisexual guys have an easy time meeting women and turn to the internet to meet men; whereas men in their 30s and beyond find it easy to meet men and so turn to the internet to meet women?
Myth: Bisexuals just want to have heterogamous nuclear families; bi men are secretly monosexual gay men; if you don’t message “both” (there are more than two!) genders equally, you’re not really bi.
Fact 1: Not all bisexuals experience attraction equally divided among every gender. Some people may be bi-romantic but prefer one/some gender(s) over others for sexual partners; or are bi-romantic and asexual or bisexual but aromantic; or tend to prefer to befriend or date or have sex with certain genders; or prefer to message certain people of genders on an online dating site; or just happen to be matched at a higher percentage with people with the same or a different gender.
The comments on the Sociological Images piece are real bi and non-monosexual folks talking about their experiences dating, on OKC, and in life and when both pieces are poor examples of research and exclude bi voices.
Fact 2: I am a real, live bisexual who sent messages only to women/nonbinary individuals on OKC. Why?
a. My profile was “hidden from straight people” because, while I like men, I don’t have the emotional energy to sort through all the misogynistic messages hoping to find someone who isn’t just fetishizing me.
b. Also, if I were to date a man, I’d prefer to know him in person first to make sure that he is an actual feminist and ally, because I just spent my 20s with a man who used my sexuality, gender identity, and activism to gaslight me to the point where I was convinced I couldn’t be loved by anyone.
c. This same experience of being shamed for being bi and nonbinary extended to monosexual women friends, both straight and lesbian, who shamed me for being attracted to both men and women and for my gender expression (too butch! and also too femme!), so I mostly avoided going on dates with binary lesbians because I was scared.
Gosh, how could I resist my monosexual women friends, though? Oh, wait, it’s because Bleske-Rechek et al. understand my “mating patterns” with my “purportedly platonic” women friends. Of course.
Returning to the OKC blog, the post ends on this frankly ridiculous excuse of a conclusion:
12% of women under 35 on OkCupid (and the internet in general, I’d wager) self-identify as bi. However, as you can see above, only about 1 in 4 of those women is actually into both guys and girls at the same time. I know this will come as a big letdown to the straight male browsing population: three-fourths of your fantasies are, in fact, fantasies of a fantasy. Like bi men, most bi women are, for whatever reason, not observably bi. The primacy of America’s most popular threesome, two dudes and an Xbox, is safe.
Myth: Bisexuals are only doing it for the attention from straight men. All “bisexuals” want is to be in MFF threesomes. This is the only way to express bisexuality.
Fact 1: Bisexual women do not exist for male fantasies, regardless of the partners they choose.
Fact 2: Group sex, whether as a one-time deal or an ongoing relationship (like a closed triad), should come from a place of mutual enjoyment on for all parties, not of a sole focus on male pleasure. Unless all the participants are men.
Fact 3: Male privilege is a hell of a drug. Rudder is not seeing the data objectively, he’s seeing an interpretation based on his biases and prejudices. See Exhibit A.
When you publish research and opinion pieces that cater to the idea that bisexuals are cheaters, fakes, and liars because you couldn’t be bothered to actually listen to non-monosexual voices and interpret data based on your naive assumptions about a diverse group of people of whom you have no knowledge, you are literally killing us. People read your research, or they see summaries of it in magazines and blogs, or their friends tell them about rumors they heard which you corroborated because you couldn’t be bothered to listen to the voices of actual bi and queer individuals. Your ignorance contributes to our doctors being unable to or refusing to help us, to mental health care providers shaming us to the point of no longer wanting to seek help (actually happened to me twice), to monosexual partners thinking that gaslighting us (also happened to me) or beating us is what we deserve.
And heterosexuality isn’t “normal,” it’s just common.
You want to know if men and women can just be friends? I’ll tell you, and you can call the SSRC and tell them, too.
Yes, we can. Unless male privilege ruins it.
1. Also pansexual, omnisexual, aliasexual, polysexual erasure. My operating definition of bisexual is Shiri Eisner’s: attracted to genders who are like me and different from me.
2. You put your heterosexist-assumptions limb in, you take your monosexist-assumptions limb out, you put your gender-binary limb in and you wave it all about. You do bi hokey-pokey and turn assumptions all around, this is your living hell.
3. Nothing about us without us.