23rd of September is bi visibility day so we’re focusing on bi issues in sex and relationships. Being bi means being attracted (emotionally and/or sexually) to more than one gender.
Content note: There’s brief mention of biphobic stereotypes, domestic abuse, and sexual assault in this post and podcast.
Bi erasure in sex and relationships advice and education
Sex and relationship advice and education rarely mentions bi at all. In SRE (sex & relationship ed) classes there’s sometimes one lesson on LGBT+ in general, but it tends to focus on ‘same-sex’ sex and relationships, often assuming that’s equivalent to being gay. Much SRE concentrates on avoiding teen pregnancy. The focus here is often on girls, and again those who are attracted to boys are generally assumed to be straight.
This is what’s called bi erasure. The popular assumption is that sexuality is binary: people are either straight or gay. Heterosexuality is the focus. There’s tokenistic mention of gay people. Bi people are missed out entirely.
A similar thing happens in sex advice books. Those that do mention LGBT+ at all generally do it in a page or two (tokenistic) and focus on LG people. In some books these sections cover a common anxiety that people have if they find themselves attracted to somebody of the ‘same sex’. The reassurance is given that this doesn’t mean they’re gay – straight people often have occasionally ‘same sex’ attractions. Again bisexuality isn’t considered at all!
From a bi perspective this is bizarre and upsetting. Bi is acknowledged by Stonewall and other charities as the biggest group within LGBT. Beyond that, a recent YouGov survey found that 43% of young people reporting being somewhere between ‘exclusively heterosexual’ and ‘exclusively homosexual’ on a scale of sexual attraction. So it could be argued that bi attraction is at least as common as heterosexual attraction. So why isn’t as much time in SRE and sex advice given over to bi experience, instead of there being no mention of bi at all? Again the binary way of thinking about sexuality in our culture is to blame.
Biphobia in sex and relationships
Many of the biphobic stereotypes relate explicitly to sex and relationships. Bi people are assumed to be sexually promiscuous, greedy, and up for anything sexually. Their sexuality is regarded as suspicious, confused, and probably ‘just a phase’ on the way to being gay or straight really. In relationships it’s assumed that they are more likely than others to cheat and to leave their partner for somebody else (probably a man, because it’s often assumed that both bi women and bi men will end up with a man – thank you the patriarchy).
With all these stereotypes bi people are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Bi folks who are highly sexual or non-monogamous are stigmatised for matching the stereotypes. Bi folks who are on the asexual spectrum or monogamous are often erased or told that they can’t be bi really.
The real world impact of this on bi people includes high rates of sexual harassment and assault, and domestic abuse. Bi women in particularly are often harassed and assaulted because of the assumption that they’re ‘up for it’ and will want to have sex or threesomes with anybody. In relationships with gay and straight people, bi people are often discouraged by partners from being open about their bi-ness due to biphobia. Being forced to hide who they really are is a common part of relationship abuse in relationships where one person is bi. Bi people can also be particularly scared to leave abusive relationships with gay or straight people because they may well lose their friends and community who will blame the bi person for a break-up and side with the person who isn’t bi.
What can we learn from bi people about sex and relationships?
Bi people actually have a lot to teach everyone about sex and relationships. For a start, bi-ness reminds us that attraction is on a spectrum rather than being an either/or thing. Some bi people are attracted to more than one gender, and some are attracted to people ‘regardless of gender’ (a definition that a lot of pan people also use).
The idea of attraction ‘regardless of gender’ points us to the fact that gender might not be the most important aspect of attraction for many people. That helps us to widen out our understanding of sexual and emotional attraction to include other spectrums (e.g. relating to the character of the people we’re attracted to, other aspects of physical appearance, the roles we like to take in sex or relationships, how much sexual or emotional attraction we experience, etc.) There’s more on this in our Sex Manual zine.
Find out more
MIND have recently released ‘Stand BI me’ – a resource on bi people and mental health – hopefully available on their website soon
© Meg-John Barker & Justin Hancock, 2017