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Why It's Tough to Be Bisexual

Many people who are attracted to both sexes stay away from the label bisexual. Why?

Since I came out over a decade ago, I’ve been a virulent defender of bisexuality. I’ve written numerous articles, dispelled stupid myths and gotten in far too many heated arguments about the misunderstood goth teenager of sexual identities. While I’m done getting in knife fights over whether Willow from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was really gay or really bi, I’ve noticed a cultural shift in people’s willingness to use the word “bisexual” as an identity or descriptor of their sexual behaviors (with the exception of surveys and those in the medical establishment).

“Bisexual” is increasingly and fervently treated as the worst kind of cooties. Most people who are attracted to more than one gender prefer to identify as anything but bisexual, whether that’s queer, omnisexual, pansexual, homo- or hetero-flexible, straightish, fluid, polysexual, “on the down low,” “gay for pay,” (e.g. porn) and on and on.

According to data from four recent national and two state-level population-based surveys, approximately 9 million Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Only 1.8 percent of those people identify as bisexual, despite the fact that an estimated 19 million (8.2 percent) report that they have “engaged in same-sex behavior” and 25.6 million (11 percent) who’ve admitted to having same-sex attraction. It’s clear that bisexual behavior is occurring. In a 2013 PEW report on LGBT Americans, bisexuals were far less likely to be out to important people in their lives than lesbians and gays. “77 percent of gay men and 71 percent of lesbians say most or all of the important people in their lives know of their sexual orientation, just 28 percent of bisexuals say the same. Bisexual women are more likely to say this than bisexual men (33 percent vs. 12 percent).”

Similarly, the (not at all scientific) call I put out on Facebook and Twitter yielded dozens of responses about the problems that bisexuals have with the word bisexual (far more than could fit in this piece), and were full of stories about the difficulties and denigration they have faced because of using the label. So why do people shy away from (if not outright cringe at) the word “bisexual” being applied to them? The problem, I think, is the word itself. Attraction to more than one gender will always exist, of course, but has the word “bisexual” outlived its usefulness? Here are some of the main reasons why it might be time to put the word to bed.

No one can agree on a definition.

“Bisexual” has been around since 1824. Its original use is more akin to androgyny (“showing characteristics of both sexes”) than anything having to do with sexual behavior. Its common usage (“sexual attraction to both men and women”) is one that many feel is reductive (more on that below). Also, there’s confusion about what “counts” as bisexuality, especially if you are in a committed, monogamous relationship. Is desire enough? What if you’ve slept with a number of women, but only see yourself ending up with a man? What if you’ve never had a same-sex experience, but exclusively fantasize about it? What if you’re 99 percent gay, but would go straight for Beyonce in a heartbeat?

As Janet W. Hardy, author of The Ethical Slut, told me, “I use the word bisexual for publicity reasons, but it's both too small and too large for a rather complex set of identities.” When you factor in attraction, history, behavior, identity, and fantasy, you get something that a simple word like “bisexuality” can’t come close to describing with any kind of accuracy. “I don't like the word because I still don't fully understand what I am myself, and as soon as I say bisexual I feel like lines have gone down that I'm not sure I'm ready for yet,” wrote one of the respondents, Heidi, in an email.

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