Sex is Not a One-Way Street
I had thought that in writing this long-overdue blog on bisexuality I could offer a straightforward, readily understandable overview of some issues that are very basic to human sexuality. I was wrong. Research, literature, and societal attitudes about bisexuality are all over the board. Part of the issue is that there’s not even a universally agreed upon definition. After doing a lot of reading and thinking, I’ll propose – for purposes of this blog – the following:
To be a bisexual man or woman means having a personally significant and meaningful romantic and/or sexual attraction to both males and females.
While some readers will find the definition above to be too broad, others will feel it is lacking. Please note that I fully understand this. This language is posited merely as a starting point for the discussion that follows, and not as the be-all, end-all of what it means to be bisexual.
Men? Women? Both? Either?
Generally speaking (and excluding from this discussion the complications arising from gender identity issues), there are three main categories of sexual preference/orientation. These include:
- Heterosexuality (romantic and/or sexual attraction primarily to the opposite sex)
- Homosexuality (romantic and/or sexual attraction primarily to the same sex)
- Bisexuality (romantic and/or sexual attraction to both sexes)
One does not have to act upon heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual feelings to self-identify as such. Nor does a person have to be exclusively attracted to the opposite or same gender to self-identify as heterosexual or homosexual. Furthermore, bisexuals need not be equally attracted to both sexes. And so the confusion begins.
Simply put, human sexuality is believed to exist on a continuum. As you are likely aware, this “sexual continuum” concept originated with Alfred Kinsey in the mid-twentieth century. Kinsey’s theory has since been expanded and expounded upon by numerous sexologists, most notably Fritz Klein. Today even the American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes and accepts this concept, releasing an official statement in 2005 reading, in part:
Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectionate attraction toward others. It is easily distinguished from other components of sexuality including biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and the social gender role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior). Sexual orientation lies along a continuum that ranges from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality and includes various forms of bisexuality. Bisexual persons can experience sexual, emotional, and affectional attraction to both their own sex and the opposite sex. … Sexual orientation is different from sexual behavior because it refers to feelings and self-concept. Individuals may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviors.[i]
Complicating the situation is the fact that some people simply don’t like the word “bisexual.” Other terms sometimes used to describe this same concept include polysexual, queer, heteroflexible, homoflexible, men who have sex with men (MSM), women who have sex with women (WSW), and pansexual. And I’m quite certain that there are more terms to describe this phenomenon, but in these days of Internet-generated terminology and language like “bashtag” and “crowdfunding” (not to mention LOL, OMG, and BFF), it can be difficult to remain current. So please do send along any new terms you may find or know about; I’d love to start an updated list.
The Etiology of Bisexual Identification and Behavior
Just as there seems to be little consensus regarding the definition of bisexuality, there is a similar lack of consensus as to its causes. Proposed explanations include both nature and nurture. As a gay man who was “born this way,” or at least “formed in the womb this way,” I’m inclined toward genetics and the in-utero experience as primary influences for most people becoming bisexual. That said, it is clear that at least some bisexual behaviors are driven by other factors. I am also aware that bisexual activity does not always align with a person’s primary sexual orientation (either heterosexual or homosexual). My esteemed colleague and friend Joe Kort has written and spoken extensively about this.
Essentially, men and women who self-identify as heterosexual or homosexual may feel drawn to bisexual fantasies and behaviors for any number of reasons, several of which are noted below:
- Sexual Trauma: Men and women who are sexually abused as children (by adults or other kids) sometimes sexualize their trauma, choosing to re-enact same-sex (or opposite sex) interactions later in life as a way to “control” the situation and their emotions. In other words, heterosexuals can receive a “homosexual imprinting” through early sexual trauma, and vice versa. This sexual trauma can be either overt or covert. (An overlooked form of sexual trauma is the sexualized hazing that occurs on many school campuses.)
- Situational Sexuality: Sometimes straight males are sexual with other males because that’s all there is to choose from. Such behavior is relatively common in single-sex boarding schools, prisons, and other same-sex environments. Situational sexuality is more common among males, but women are not immune to the allure.
- Cultural Pressure: Some individuals, due to a strict religious upbringing or the norms of their specific culture, will be choose to be sexual with members of the opposite sex as a way to be perceived as “normal” or “acceptable,” even though their primary sexual orientation is to the same sex. In other words, a homosexual person sometimes chooses to behave as a heterosexual, even though he or she is primarily attracted to members of the same sex.
- Bisexual Fetishism: Some people have voyeuristic, exhibitionistic, and even cuckold type fetishes. These can manifest bisexually. For instance, a voyeuristic straight male with a cuckold fetish may enjoy watching his wife have sex with another man. If he is also into being sexually humiliated he may even participate in the encounter in some debasing fashion.
- Sexual Addiction/Compulsivity: Sex addicts use sexual fantasy and behavior as a way to emotionally self-soothe and dissociate. Typically they are self-medicating underlying psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or unresolved childhood trauma. Over time, as is the case with all addictions, their behaviors can escalate, and some find themselves engaging in activities that strongly conflict with their core feelings, beliefs, and morality about sex. For heterosexual sex addicts this sometimes means having sex with a gender they’re not truly attracted to, utilizing the “forbidden nature” of such encounters to increase the intensity of the experience. At other times (as seen in the movie Shame) heterosexual sex addicts who are unable to access an opposite-sex partner will simply “settle” for a less desirable but nonetheless better-than-nothing same-sex partner.
- Experimental: Experimentation with styles of clothes, music, and attitudes toward government, parents, and even sexual orientation are the norm for many young people. Some may engage in same-sex or opposite-sex activity that does not mirror the essence of who they are, viewing their actions as an enjoyable part of learning about themselves and the world.
- Gay for Pay: Some people – men and women alike – will do just about anything for money. ’Nuff said.
The Answers are Complex
It seems likely that many primarily heterosexual or homosexual men and women engage in bisexual fantasies and behaviors for one or a combination of the above reasons. For instance, a heterosexual young man attending a boarding school may engage in some form of same-sex activity while there. He may feel shamed by that activity, resulting in emotional trauma and homosexual imprinting. Later in life he may accept money to engage in sex with other men, both for financial gain (perhaps to finance a drug habit) and for the sense of control it gives him over his childhood trauma and adult sexuality.
That said, as stated earlier, I am of the belief that most people who comfortably self-identify as bisexual are, like most people who comfortably self-identify as either heterosexual or homosexual, “born that way.”
Bi Now, Gay Later?
It’s no secret that we live in a heteronormative culture. And though this now rapidly changing (example: recent Supreme Court decision on DOMA), for the most part our world is still a very hetero-centric place. Thus, it can be difficult for men and women who do not fit the standard mold to comfortably self-identify with their innermost (but often culturally unacceptable) sexual and romantic desires. At present, homosexuality appears to be the most challenging form of sexual orientation in this respect. As such, self-identifying as bisexual can, for some, act as a temporary bridge to an evolving homosexual self-identification. One study of young people found that approximately one-third of the individuals who initially self-identified as bisexual later self-identified as either gay or lesbian. The remaining two-thirds continued to self-identify as bisexual.[ii]
On the other hand, and this is important to note, there are many men and women who find total integrity and authenticity with a bisexual self-identification. For these folks, bisexuality is the only label that fully aligns with their emotions, romances, and sexual fantasies and behaviors. Frankly, there are those who insist that any man who has sex with other men must “really be gay,” and if he self-identifies in any other fashion, he is simply in denial, and ditto for women who have sex with women. These under-informed, biased individuals argue that self-identified “bisexual” men and women are simply too self-loathing to fully accept who and what they are (meaning homosexual), and they point to the “bi now, gay later” phenomenon as proof. This concept is both overly simplistic and non-inclusive. Yes, there are men and women who publicly identify as heterosexual or bisexual who are, in reality, homosexual (and choose to live their lives in the proverbial closet). But to imply that people who are truly attracted to both sexes are somehow wrong, not fully formed, or “in denial” is both shaming and shameful, and displays a lack of understanding as to the endlessly adaptive and flexible range of human sexuality.
As a therapist, it is important to help clients struggling with sexual identity concerns to examine both their sexual behaviors and, more importantly, their emotions. The goal is to put these clients in touch with their core sexual selves, to help them feel comfortable with who they are and what they truly desire. If a client is pretending to be something that he or she is not, that client is likely to experience shame and self-loathing as a result. Similarly, a client who is comfortable with his or her self-identified sexual orientation but engaging in sexual activity that does not mesh with that will also experience shame and self-loathing. The work here is to help such clients learn to integrate their sexual orientation, fantasies, and behaviors – to bring their whole selves into alignment, thereby evolving a more healthy, hopeful, and holistic human being, regardless of who turns them on.
NOTE: The person who fully identifies as bisexual often has a secondary issue that should be fully explored in treatment. And the issue is this: To fully identify as bisexual is, by its very nature, a grief issue, as the man or woman who is truly physically and romantically attracted to both sexes will always be missing one or the other should he or she choose to become monogamous with any one person. Bisexuals may love a man or a woman, be sexual with a man or a woman, and enjoy all the fruits of either of those choices, but ultimately they cannot “have it all” if they wish to be in a long-term, intimate, and monogamous relationship. Therefore, on some level that most of us do not fully share, bisexuals are often left to wonder about, long-for, and even miss the experience they don’t get to have because they decided (at least for a time) to choose one over the other.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships.
[i] American Psychological Association, Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality, http://web.archive.org/web/20070928051520/http://www.apahelpcenter.org/articles/article.php?id=31 (accessed Jun 20, 2013).
[ii] M. Rosario, E. Schrimshaw, J. Hunter, and L. Braun, “Sexual Identity Development Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youths: Consistency and Change Over Time,” Journal of Sex Research 43(1) (February 2006): 46-58.