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Positively Bi: Gender Differences in Stigma Against Bisexuals

We wanted to address this question because of the fact that it comes up in discussions about bisexuals frequently, whether or not bisexuals are even part of the conversation. In many ways, the question itself is problematic.
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In the "Positively Bi" series, bisexual activists A.J. Walkley and Patrick RichardsFink explore questions about bisexuality. This first post in the series tackles the question of whether there is more stigma against male bisexuals than against female bisexuals.

A.J.: I wanted to address this question because of the fact that it comes up in discussions about bisexuals frequently, whether or not bisexuals are even part of the conversation. In many ways, the question itself is problematic because each of us has different life experiences, and to quantify any of us as one group against the other will achieve nothing in our overall attempt to be understood by greater society.

Patrick: I think it's equal, but it's expressed in different ways. Male-identified bisexuals are frequently told they are simply gay men in the closet, but female-identified bisexuals are more likely to be accused of being straight "tourists." Like, you hear "Lesbian Until Graduation," but there doesn't seem to be a common equivalent term for a male-identified person, even though both of these stereotype bisexuality as a transition between identities rather than a valid identity in and of itself.

A.J.: I think in society overall, female bisexuality is slightly more "acceptable" per se, if only because of the voyeur factor for many men, which is truly more fetishization than acceptance, sometimes leading to the victimization of bisexual women, in fact.

Patrick: The idea that female bisexuality is more acceptable because it is sanctioned by the male gaze is interesting and brings up a point from one of my favorite bi theorists, Shiri Eisner, that objectification is not acceptance.

A.J.: There have been studies pointing to there being more bisexual women out of the closet than bisexual men. It's obviously impossible to quantify, but in my reading and research, as well as my interactions with people across all sexualities, it seems like I've heard more negativity towards bisexual men from gay men, and more negativity towards bisexual women from lesbians. We've seen the poorly executed studies -- since debunked -- that say that male bisexuals don't exist at all.

Patrick: Male-identified bisexuals get plastered with the "bi now, gay later" trope, while female-identified get "doing it for the titillation of men." I've seen it put forth that this is an expression of patriarchial phallicism -- bi women are deemed to be "really" straight, and bi men to be "really" gay, because the only authentic sexuality in our culture is one that places masculine sexual expression at the center as the only "real" sex. It's an argument that has a lot going for it.

AJ: Kyra Wilder, a bisexual blogger in Northern California, says:

It's not a privilege that bi women are only "validated" in the form of a sexual objectification. To claim that bi women have it better because of this type of recognition completely ignores the high rape statistics for bi women in comparison to lesbian and straight women, and, from the way I'm seeing it, is a part of rape culture. Please don't normalize the mistreatment of bi women in general by labeling it as us being "more accepted" than bi men. That's not at all what's going on and I think there are ways to discuss the experiences of all bisexuals without diminishing the unique ways in which we are harmed by society ... I look at our treatment as different, but not comparable -- neither is necessarily better or worse than the other.

Patrick: Bisexual women face high rates of sexualized violence, higher rates than lesbians -- and higher than the reported rates for bisexual men, rates that may be underreported due to invisibility and stigma. Female-identified bisexuals are highly sexually objectified by the Overculture, whereas male-identified bisexuals are more likely to be seen as sexual predators than prey.

A.J.: There you go right there -- I would suggest that those higher rates of violence and discrimination are at least partially due to the fact that there are more female bisexuals out of the closet as compared to males overall, leading back to the question at hand that male bisexuals experience greater stigma than females. And trans* bisexuals possibly even more so.

Patrick: Exactly. I'm thinking about non-binary-gender-identified bisexuals right now, and how this question as phrased effectively erases them entirely. I agree very much with what you said at the beginning, that the question itself is problematic for a lot of reasons, the artificial binary and the "Oppression Olympics" that it encourages being two of the most obvious. As far as the rates of reported violence go, overall there is a reluctance for male-identified people reporting sexual assaults to the authorities to identify themselves as anything other than straight for fear that they will be treated poorly.

A.J.: Very true. When I was preparing for the Bisexual Roundtable at the White House this past September, I was part of a team dedicated to researching hate crimes against the bisexual community. Many bi men offered their stories, which often included attempting to report assaults based on their sexual identity to authorities, only to be advised by lawyers not to do so because nobody understood what bisexuality was, and they likely would have their cases dropped.

Patrick: The ontological violence of even allowing "Does male bisexuality exist?" to be a research question in the 21st century is ludicrously offensive. Equivalent studies on women, such as Lisa Diamond's groundbreaking work on sexual fluidity, does not start from the standpoint that anyone needs to "prove" the existence of bisexuality in women; it just goes about the work of measuring. The 2005 "Straight, Gay, or Lying" study by Bailey deserves nothing more than resounding contempt for both its ridiculous basis and its horrible methodology -- it's actually valuable as a textbook case of how not to do research on a population. It was the equivalent of going to the zoo, looking in the lion cage, and publishing results claiming tigers don't exist because there were none in the sample.

A.J.: I think you're absolutely right regarding these studies that are flawed down to their very roots, based on poor observation, small sample groups and even a likely bias by the researcher conducting the analysis. Ideally we will see better studies with a much further reach in terms of participant numbers in the future that will serve the bisexual community positively and accurately.

Patrick: While it is important to do valid research on male-identified, female-identified, and non-binary-identified bisexual people, the most egregious flaw in Bailey 2005 is that the very premise "Do male bisexuals exist?" is the psychosocial equivalent of a paleontology research program that asks, "Were dinosaurs ever alive?" while the conclusion would be the equivalent of the dino digger stating that dinosaurs were always just bones in the rock because no one has ever seen a living one. Any research study on bisexual people that does not take as a given that the population being studied unambiguously exists is a study with an agenda that is as hostile to bisexuals as a study that attempted to prove that gay people are really just confused, immature individuals stuck in a Freudian genital phase would be rightly seen as hostile to gay people.

A.J.: I couldn't have said it better myself!

A.J. Walkley is the author of the books Choice, Queer Greer and Vuto. She is a frequent Huffington Post blogger currently writing out of Arizona.

Patrick RichardsFink is a father, spouse, and graduate student in his mid 40s living in Minnesota and pursuing a degree in counseling. He blogs at Eponymous Fliponymous, primarily about bisexual issues, as well as on The Huffington Post.

Both are members of the Board of Directors of BiNet USA. This post reflects their personal opinions and is not an official statement of BiNet USA's policies or positions.