Sunday, May 31, 2009


Yes Virginia, there really is bisexuality.*

The recent opinion editorials and responses highlight how much of a flashpoint this topic is in the LGBT community. As fun as it is to banter about, what does the research suggest? In the case of bisexuality, the picture is “Yes, there is bisexuality.”*

Every once in a while the research makes the picture more confusing. The “*” requires us to look at the fine print. The fine print almost always requires a clarification of what we mean by the term “bisexual.” The lack of precision in understanding the term is the source of much of the confusion.

Starting with the granddaddy of psychology, Sigmund Freud defined bisexuality as the ability to get sexual pleasure from a male or female. Strictly speaking, he emphasized genital satisfaction and suggested since all of us can be sexually stimulated by anyone we are all bisexual. Obviously, this view has significant limitations.

The concept of “situational sexuality” applies Freud’s theory. This is behavior where a “straight” guy engages in same-sex behavior. This type of behavior is often present in prisons, same-same sex institutions and other times when the only available partner is the same sex. Other times include when a person is under the influence of chemicals or is engaging in compulsive sexual behavior. Joe Kort, a noted gay author, talks about 12 types of situations where this can occur. You can read more at

In a similar way, a “gay-guy” can engage in genital contact with a woman. Men who consider themselves gay have sex with women for any number of reasons, ranging from wanting children, denial of their orientation, social pressure or various other reasons. This is why researchers emphasize same-sexual behavior versus same-sex identity. Behavior is what I “do” whereas identity is how I see/label myself.

The fact that we perform sexually with anyone raises a problem. Using an analogy, simply because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck doesn’t mean it’s a duck. If it is not a duck, what else could it be?

Many people in the coming out process misuse the term bisexual. It's their way of attempting to minimize their gay identity as they come to terms with a same-sex identity (see “identity tolerance” in the coming out process: This part of the coming out process is where I think the most damage is done to those who have a true bisexual orientation. I wonder if the reaction to the question of bisexuality is a projection of “been there, done that” assuming that anyone who says they are “bi” is “doing that” as well.

Moving away from a view of sexual orientation as an "either/or" idea, the “granddaddy” of sexuality research, Alfred Kinsey developed the “Kinsey” continuum to highlight attraction on a scale of 1-6. Typically “straights” score themselves 1-2 and “gay/lesbians” score themselves 5-6. In the middle are those who are attracted to the both sexes, the “bisexuals.” Kinsey’s research estimates about 4.1% of women and 9.6% of men are bisexual. Another major study (National Health and Social Life Study) estimates 3.3% of women and 5.8% of men identify as bisexual.

Another way to confuse the picture is to think about sexual orientation beyond simply genital expression, and look at many different variables. One researcher uses 7 different variables to define sexual orientation such as genital behavior, attractions, emotional attraction, etc. An extended conversation of the seven variables probably isn’t helpful, but you get the idea that the answer to bisexuality will “depend” on how you ask the question.

So, yes, Virginia there really is bisexuality.* But this is just the start of the conversation. It is important to read the small print.

Additional reading: For those who want to get into the details, a great summary of the research is: Rust, Paula C. Rodríguez (2002) Bisexuality: The state of the union. Annual Review of Sex Research, 13. 180-240.

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