“Just a phase”? Freedom to be a little sexually flexible

Queer women’s sexuality appears to be having something of a media ‘moment’. The new series of Orange is the New Black has got many heterosexual women claiming they’d “go gay” for genderfluid star Ruby Rose and supermodel face-of-everywhere Cara Delevigne is on the cover of Vogue describing her loving relationship with singer Annie Clarke. A comment from journalist Rob Haskell has drawn particular anger “Her parents seem to think girls are just a phase for Cara, and they may be correct.” Having their same-sex attraction written-off as “experimentation” is an experience many queer people can relate to. Photos of Kirsten Stewart sharing intimate moments with her partner Alicia are often naively captioned as “Kirsten and friend”. Bisexuality is often treated as invisible when the individual is in an opposite-sex relationship, as though their past relationships, attractions, preferences and sexual experiences are no longer a part of their identity. People of non-heterosexual identity are keen to stand up and proclaim that their sexuality is not a “phase”, that it’s who they are and it’s here to stay.

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But what’s wrong with having a “phase”? Tastes and preferences vary throughout our lives and experimentation is a way in which we can work out what we like, what we want. The phrase has become imbued with negativity – connotations of inauthenticity. Ideas that sexual experimentation is motivated by ideas of what is “cool”, what is expected at a certain age, being a part of a peer group where such a thing is “expected”. Sexuality is treated as a trend, a fashion. Implicit is the notion that the experience, and any feelings attached to it, is not genuine. In cold hindsight it is rewritten as meaningless.

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Bisexuality in the UK

On February 15th a report was published bringing together research and information on the UK’s bisexual population. In particular the paper highlights the discrimination bisexuals face, often related to misconceptions, negative stereotypes and ‘invisibility’ within the community. It seems amazing that it’s taken this long for us to have a paper of this kind, but hopefully it is a step towards greater public and professional awareness of this often unseen group. It has been produced by BiUK in conjunction with the Open University, Bi Community News and the Bisexual Index. You can read it here.

Twice as nice? Or double the discrimination?

The paper offers some definitions of bisexuality, explaining that many different forms of identity may come under the umbrella of the term. Bisexuality includes individuals who are not attracted exclusively to one gender (regardless of whether they engage in sex or relationships with individuals of more than one gender), people of fluid and changeable sexuality, individuals who do not see gender as an important factor in attraction and those who dispute the concept of a gender binary in sexual attraction. A bisexual need not actively engage in relationships with people of different genders or have an equal preference for different genders. Not all individuals who fit with the used definitions may actually use the term ‘bisexual’ to describe themselves, picking a more precise term or preferring not to label themselves.

Biphobia is a term used to describe discimination against bisexuals on the basis of their sexuality. Distinct from homophobia, bisexuals may experience discrimination both within the heterosexual and homosexual community. This can often centre on beliefs that bisexuals are confused, promiscuous, greedy or not acknowledging that bisexuality truly exists. Presentations of bisexuals in the media have often conformed to stereotypes and further perpetuated myths. Female bisexuals are often presented as people who break up relationships, tease and generally exist for the fantasies of heterosexual men. Bisexual men are an even lesser spotted species, often considered to be an insecure individual’s ‘stepping stone’ before fully coming out as gay. Much progress has been made in recent years about tackling homophobia, but prejudices against bisexuals are rife and even seen in the communities that seek to promote gay rights. This can lead to bisexuals feeling alienated and having to conform to either a ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ identity in order to be accepted.

Bisexuals can often seem invisible when judgements about sexuality are often made based on a person’s current relationship, their involvement in the gay community and even their appearance. A bisexual does not cease to be a bisexual if they marry an opposite sex partner, or same sex partner, or even if they choose to not be in a relationship at all! LGBT campaigning and activism often makes very little mention of the ‘B’, such are in recent discussion over same-sex marriages, and LGBT groups and events (such as Pride) may have little visible represenation for the bisexual community. The difficulties faced by bisexuals can be undermined as people erroneously think that they ‘have it easy’ compared to homosexuals, and some how their struggle is halved by having ‘one leg in the straight community’. Statistics on bisexuals are often lumped together with the other LGBT groups, rather than examined in their own right as a separate sexuality.

One of the most attention-grabbing and upsetting details of the report is the statistics that Bisexuals have poorer mental health than both homosexuals and transsexuals. This is something difficult to publicise without unintentionally feeding into stereotypes of bisexuals as ‘tragic’, ‘dramatic’ or ‘confused’. Indeed, much of the distress experienced by bisexuals has been linked to hostile and unhelpful reactions from others, rather than the sexuality itself. Coming out, an already difficult process, may be more marked for bisexuals who may need to come out when they choose a same sex partner, then again when they choose an opposite sex partner. There has been quite some media attention about depression and suicide in the gay community but similar issues in the bi community seem to have been overlooked. The evidence suggests that Bisexuals are more likely to suffer distress and to have a diagnosed mental health problem. Medical and mental health professionals are often uninformed about bisexual issues and may even make remarks suggesting that the individual’s illness has something to do with their sexuality. This kind of treatment can make it challenging for bisexuals to access mental health treatment and get appropriate care. Manchester group BiPhoria have created a fantastic and informative document for mental health professionals to guide them on working with bisexual clients, I’d really recommend it. Can be read here.

Quotes from BiPhoria

Much of the reccomendations in the report, and from other Bi media sources, amounts to not making assumptions about Bisexuals and considering them separately from homosexual groups. The mental health statistics are worrying and if we’re going to do anything to solve this problem, we need to be sensitive to individuals’ needs and be open-minded to different perspectives. Bisexuality may present in a wide variety of ways so it’s difficult to predict exactly how a bisexual may live their life, or what their experiences will be. As with working with other individuals, an individualised, person-centred approach and a genuine curiosity to learn about and understand another’s view point, can help us to support Bisexuals and help them to become a more visible part of the UK’s community.