The term bisexual can be used to refer either to people’s sexual behavior or to their sexual identity. This distinction is made because behavior and self-selected labels do not always correspond. The prefix “bi” literally means two and is therefore used to refer to the dualistic nature of attraction to or sexual behavior with members of both sexes. In strictly behavioral terms, bisexuality indicates that an individual has had sexual experiences with members of both sexes. Based on research from the Kinsey Study on human sexuality, it is believed that as much as 28% of women and 46% of men have been behaviorally bisexual at some point in their lives. In terms of using bisexuality to refer to an individual’s sexual identity, it applies to individuals who have chosen to identify, either outwardly or inwardly, as bisexual. In this case, bisexuality is believed to indicate the potential to feel attracted to members of both sexes, regardless of whether the feelings are acted upon or not. Due to the controversial nature of assuming and maintaining an openly bisexual identity, it is difficult to estimate what percentage of the population is bisexually identified.
Figure 1 A Continuum of Bisexuality
Bisexuality On A Continuum
While it may be tempting to conceptualize the world as comprised of three groups, heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual, research indicates that it is more helpful to conceive of sexual attraction and orientation as existing on a continuum, such as Figure 1, which has been adapted from Kinsey:
The area between the end points of 1 and 7 represents those who are attracted to both sexes to varying degrees. While many people assume that bisexuality must represent the exact midpoint between the two poles of exclusive heterosexuality and exclusive homosexuality, studies indicate that rarely do bisexually identified individuals perceive themselves as being equally attracted to both sexes. Rather, most self-identified bisexuals indicate that they have a clear preference for one sex over the other, often in a 40/60 split, represented by 3 or 5 on the above scale, or 30/70 split, represented by 2 or 6 on the above scale.
Bisexual Identity Development
Although a number of people may engage in sexual activity with members of both their own sex and the other sex across the life span, relatively few will choose to identify as bisexual. Also, there are some who choose to self-identify as bisexual, despite never having had sexual experiences with members of their own sex and/or members of the other sex. This raises the question of how a person comes to claim a bisexual identity if sexual behavior does not always determine identity.
While there are numerous models describing gay and lesbian identity development, there are relatively few models that define bisexual identity development.
This is believed to be reflective of the general lack of attention that has been paid to bisexuality by theorists and researchers alike, who tend to combine bisexuality with gay and lesbian identities. Bisexual identity development models are different from gay and lesbian identity development models because they tend to be nonlinear, more complex, and remain open-ended due to the fluid nature of bisexuality. The following four-stage model in Figure 2, which is based on interviews with bisexually identified individuals, was proposed by Weinberg, Williams, and Pryor in 1994.
Competing Theoretical Models
Conflict Model of Bisexuality
Some theorists within the fields of psychology and sex research believe that sexual orientation is dichotomous, meaning that people are either exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual. This idea stems from the notion that men and women are opposites and therefore it is not possible for one person to experience attraction to both sexes. In the conflict model of bisexuality, it is believed that bisexual people are confused and conflicted over their sexual orientation, likely to be in a transition phase from heterosexuality to homosexuality, and employing the bisexual label as a defense against adopting a homosexual identity. The conflict model fits well with many of society’s stereotypes about sexual orientation including the idea that any amount of same-sex attraction is indicative of an underlying exclusive same-sex orientation. Also, the conflict model reflects the suspicion and skepticism present both within mainstream heterosexual society and some gay and lesbian groups about the validity and permanence of a bisexual identity. Research indicates that while popular wisdom may hold that this model fits the majority of bisexually identified people, in reality it represents a small minority of bisexuals.
Figure 2 Four-Stage Model of Bisexuality
Flexibility Model of Bisexuality
In contrast to those who support the conflict model of bisexuality, some theorists do not view sexual orientation as dichotomous, but rather as existing on a continuum (see Figure 1). From this viewpoint, it is possible to conceive of bisexuality as existing as a real and enduring identity, rather than as a pathological avoidance of one’s homosexual identity. The flexibility model views bisexually identified individuals as capable of moving fluidly between same-sex and other-sex relationships. Although this model does acknowledge that a bisexual identity can result in ambivalence in some instances, it does not insist that the identity is inherently problematic as does the conflict model. The flexibility model is in keeping with the growing body of social science research that indicates that bisexuality is indeed a valid and enduring identity for some individuals.
Simply stated, biphobia is the fear of bisexual people and the bisexual identity. Negative attitudes about bisexuality exist both within the heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities. While bisexual individuals are certainly impacted by homophobia, the fear of homosexuality, they also experience a form of oppression and discrimination that is unique to bisexuality. In addition, biphobia can come from an external source or from within. Internalized biphobia refers to the acceptance and internalization of negative messages about bisexuality by bisexual individuals. Fear of bisexuals and bisexuality stems from and is maintained by a variety of myths about bisexuality. Myths about bisexuality include the notion that bisexuality does not exist or is merely a transition stage between heterosexuality and homosexuality, the idea that bisexuals cannot be monogamous or need to have partners of both sexes, and the belief that bisexuals are more promiscuous or are likely to leave one partner for a partner of the other sex. All of these myths translate into a general sense of distrust of bisexuals. It is important to remember that bisexuals are a diverse group of people, many of whom do not fit within these stereotypes.
The notion of bisexuality may be difficult to comprehend because it does not fit within the traditional dualistic conceptualization of the world as being comprised of numerous either/or choices such as black or white, male or female and heterosexual or homosexual. Rather, bisexuality challenges traditional thinking about sex, gender, and the fixedness of sexual orientation. Bisexuality represents a real, valid, crystallized identity that is separate and different from heterosexuality and homosexuality. Nevertheless, bisexual people face discrimination and hate crimes just as gay and lesbian individuals do. Although increasingly more research is being conducted on bisexuality as a unique identity, a deficit still remains in understanding this unique population.
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