Saturday, April 15, 2006

 

Bisexuality Missing in Action as Academic Study Area? Not Exactly, But Then News Wasn't Good

It's been about 10 years since I really dug into gender studies. I'm definitely not an expert in the field. I never took any advanced coursework in it at the college level. I developed a working knowledge of the field through asking professors who teach gender studies courses if I could have a copy of their syllabus and book lists. Then I went and bought these books and talked about the things I learned with whoever would bother to talk back with me. So, given those disclaimers, here's what I recently noticed.

In the mid-1990s, a variety of books were published about bisexuality. The pace seemed, to me, to have slowed in the current decade. So, I thought either something good has happened over the past 10-15 years (bisexuality isn't that big of a deal anymore) or something bad has happened (bisexuality isn't that big of a deal anymore).

"Anything That Moves", a magazine about bisexuality, started publication in 1996 and ended publication in 2004. If magazines start somewhat coterminous with a rise in interest, and hang on for a bit after the decline of a supporting base, then the window seems to follow the rise and either decline or leveling off of books published about the subject.

So, I did an informal survey of books published from 1989 to the present to see if the reality fit my impression. Here's the books I know about, have, or have read and when they were published.

Needless to say, the amount of porn that one gets when trying to find blogs, web pages, or anything on the internet about bisexuality is immense. However, I did my scholarly duty of examining each bit to make sure it wasn't a book.

When Husbands Come Out of the Closet (Haworth Series on Women: No. 1) (Paperback)
by Jean S. Gochros 1989

Bi Any Other Name Edited by Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu 1991
Anthology of coming-out stories.

Closer to Home: Bisexuality & Feminism (Women's Studies/Gay Studies) by Elizabeth Reba Weise 1992
Feminism linked with bisexuality.

Women and Bisexuality by Sue George (Paperback - Aug 1993)

The Other Side of the Closet by Amity Buxton 1994
This is the only book I ever reviewed on amazon.com. It portrays coming out as a portent of an inevitable end to a marriage. There are no positive depictions in this book for gay, lesbian, and bi people. The only way to happiness is divorce.

Dual Attraction : Understanding Bisexuality by by Martin S. Weinberg, Colin J. Williams, Douglas W. Pryor 1995

Vice Versa by Marjorie Garber 1995

Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics by Paula Rust 1995
Biphobia and identify politics. Why bisexuality appears to function as such a divisive issue for the lesbian community

Representing Bisexualities: Subjects and Cultures of Fluid Desire by Donald E. Hall 1996
Thoroughly postmodern, scholarly to the point of, well, it's hard to tell.

Identity without Selfhood : Simone de Beauvoir and Bisexuality by Mariam Fraser 1999

Bisexuality: A Critical Reader Edited by Merl Storr 1999

Bisexuality in the United States by Paula C. Rodriguez Rust 1999
Review of academic work through 1999. Leads off with a quote by Thomas Kuhn, which always warms the cockles of my heart. Quite good.


Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life by Marjorie Garber (Paperback - Feb 2000)
A republication of Vice Versa.

Bisexuality in the Lives of Men: Facts and Fictions by Brett Beemyn and Erich W. Steinman (Paperback - Jan 2001)

A History of Bisexuality (The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society) (Paperback)
by Steven Angelides 2001
Bisexuals are invisible. Duh.

Bisexuality (Pocket Essentials) by Angie Bowie (Paperback - May 2002)
Light fun and frothy.

Bisexual and Gay Husbands: Their Stories, Their Words (Paperback)
by Fritz Klein (Editor), Thomas Schwartz (Editor) 2002

Current Research on Bisexuality (Paperback) 2004
by Ronald C. Fox (Editor) This study examined how bisexually-identified individuals experience cultural attitudes toward bisexuality, how they establish a sense of community for themselves, and how their experience has affected their self-concept."

The Sex And Love Handbook: Polyamory! Bisexuality! Swingers! Spirituality! & Even Monogamy! A Practical Optimistic Relationship Guide by Kris A. Heinlein and Rozz M. Heinlein (Paperback - Jul 31, 2004)
Yes, it really does have all those exclamation marks in the title. This is mainly a book about non-monogamy and lifestyle choices, heavily supported with anecdotes. It's therefore primarily a "self-help" book for enhancing communication between people that have already chosen to be non-monogamous. It seems to include bisexual people as an afterthought. Non-academic.

Is He Straight : A Checklist for Women Who Wonder (Paperback) 2000 and 2004
A book purporting to provide a checklist to make sure you don't marry a gay guy. Not especially positive portrayals of gay or bi men.

Bi America: Myths, Truths, And Struggles Of An Invisible Community by William E. Burleson 2005

Essentially the same definitions established by earlier work, and the same assertion of invisibility. A history of the "movement" is included with the somewhat more useful examination of 13 myths about bisexuality from a focus group.

Bisexuals are easy, indiscriminate about who they have sex with
all bisexuals are swingers
Bisexuals have the best of both worlds, twice as likely to get a date
Bisexuals are unable to commit to either gender
Bisexuals are wives just trying to please their husbands, husbands justifying cheating
Bisexuality is just a phase on the way to being lesbian or gay
Bisexuals are unable to be happy, have low self-esteem, or are mentally ill
Bisexuals are disease carriers
Bisexuals are a very small part of the population
Bisexuals are just trying to maintain het privilege
Bisexuals can't be feminists
Bisexuals just want to be trendy
Bisexuality is a choice


Although the rate of publication seems approximately the same (no real decline like I thought), you can see a trend away from the political towards the academic and the practical. Anthologies are mostly about coming-out stories and are positive, but there are some very negative portrayals in anthologies such as The Other Side of the Closet and some silly checklist "make sure you have a real man" self-help books. However, real progress in the gender/orientation studies arena seemed to be happening.

Then I came across this study.

There was a Journal of Sex Research article in 2002 that concluded "heterosexuals dislike bisexuals more than gays, lesbians and most religous or enthnic groups."

Here is part of the article.

Heterosexuals' attitudes toward bisexual men and women in the United States.

by Gregory M. Herek

Although patterns of bisexual behavior have been documented throughout history and across cultures (e.g., Carrier, 1985; Ford & Beach, 1951; Fox, 1996; Herdt, 1990), bisexual men and women in the United States have gained recognition as a distinct sexual minority only recently. Bisexuals began to form social and political groups in the 1970s (Donaldson, 1995; Weinberg, Williams, & Pryor, 1994), but it was not until the late 1980s that an organized bisexual movement began to achieve widespread visibility in the United States (Herdt, 2001; Paul, 1983; Rust, 1995; Udis-Kessler, 1995). Around the same time, the heterosexual public became more aware of bisexual men as a group at heightened risk for HIV infection (Gelman, 1987). By the early 1990s, bisexuals were becoming an established presence in the organized gay movement, as reflected in discussions of bisexuality in the gay and lesbian press and the addition of "bisexual" to the names of many gay and lesbian organizations and events (Rust, 1995). Throughout the 1990s, the mass media frequently featured images of bisexuals (Hutchins, 1996; Leland, 1995).

Given the culture's relatively recent recognition of "the bisexual" as a category of sexual identity, it is not surprising that empirical research on heterosexuals' attitudes toward bisexuality and bisexual persons is scant. Like lesbians and gay men, bisexual women and men experience hostility, discrimination, and violence because of their sexual orientation (Ochs, 1996; Paul & Nichols, 1988; Weinberg et al., 1994). Unfortunately, the prevalence of such experiences is difficult to gauge because empirical studies of sexual minorities generally have not included bisexuals in their samples or they have combined data from bisexual and homosexual respondents in their published reports.


That's the introduction - skipping down to the definitions of measurement:

Measures

Attitudes Toward Bisexual Men and Women

Attitudes toward bisexual men and women were measured with 101-point feeling thermometers, which have been widely used in survey research (e.g., Herek & Capitanio, 1999b; Sapiro, Rosenstone, Miller, & the National Election Studies, 1998). Higher ratings (maximum = 100) indicate warmer, more favorable feelings toward the target whereas lower ratings (minimum = 0) indicate colder, more negative feelings. The instructions for the feeling thermometers were: "These next questions are about some of the different groups in the United States. I'll read the name of a group and ask you to rate the group on a thermometer that runs from zero (0) to one hundred (100). The higher the number, the warmer or more favorable you feel toward that group. The lower the number, the colder or less favorable you feel. If you feel neither warm nor cold toward them, rate that group a fifty (50)."

Attitudes Toward Other Groups

The thermometers for bisexuals were embedded in a longer series of feeling thermometers that were grouped by topic in the following order: (a) religious groups ("Protestants," "Catholics," "Jews"); (b) gay people ("men who are homosexual," "women who are lesbian or homosexual"); (c) "people who inject illegal drugs"; (d) "people with AIDS"; (e) racial, ethnic, and national groups ("Blacks," "Mexican Americans," "Puerto Ricans," "Whites," "Haitians"); (f) bisexuals ("bisexual men," "bisexual women"); and (g) groups defined by their stance on abortion rights ("people who call themselves pro-life and are opposed to abortion," "people who call themselves pro-choice and support abortion rights").

For the racial-ethnic thermometers, respondents rated their own group after they rated the other racial and ethnic groups. Within the gay, bisexual, and abortion thermometer groups, item order was randomized (e.g., one half of respondents rated "bisexual women" first and the remainder rated "bisexual men" first). Randomization was independent across groups (e.g., the order of thermometers in the gay series was unrelated to the order of the bisexual series). Responses to the bisexual thermometers did not vary by order of administration.


And then finally part of the results section of this study

"Mean thermometer scores for bisexual men and women were 43.4 and 45.8, respectively, and were strongly correlated, r (1273) = .90, p < .001. As shown in Table 1, feelings toward bisexuals were colder (less favorable) than toward any other group except injecting drug users." The sample's generally negative attitudes toward bisexuals were also evident in the number of respondents giving the lowest and highest possible ratings. Compared to most other groups, bisexual men and women received a rating of zero more often and a rating of 100 less often. Approximately 11% of respondents (n = 140) gave the lowest possible thermometer score for bisexual men, and 9% (n = 116) gave a zero rating for bisexual women. All but one of the respondents who gave a zero rating for bisexual women also gave a zero rating for bisexual men.


Whew.

So... whatever "trendiness" is associated with being bisexual, as mentioned in several national news magazines over the previous decade, must not have translated into a positive perception on the part of the surveyed heterosexuals. Despite almost two decades of anthologies of coming out stories, surveys of bisexuality, bisexuality in popular culture, and academic works that are pretty good, the negative waves are still rolling into shore.

I think that the identity politics that lead to the marginalization of bisexuality from the gay community seem to have lessened as a point of discussion. I can understand the reasons, up to a point, for "queer political purity". Dilution of the lobby means less political capital. Bisexuals were "encouraged" to be counted with gays and lesbians. There was a conscious effort to include us in the names of organizations, if not necessarily in the community.

I can see where heterosexual angst about bisexuals may have spread. Being blamed for being the conduit of HIV infection from the "dirty" homosexual population to the "clean" straight population early on in the pandemic wasn't an unusual thing. With the stereotype of being sex-crazed, bisexuals made good boogeymen.

Maybe the overall concept of identity politics with respect to sexual orientation is fading. This might be due to the influence of postmodernism, or might be due to some sort of natural plateau that successful activists have achieved.

The more accepted and normal an identity (gay, straight, bi) is, then the less need for a separate community. The separation, agitation, and activist process eventually makes enough progress to where the people that take action feel that they've "changed" society enough to "rejoin" it. Or, at least, it's "good enough" for them. That doesn't mean that people coming after them, upon evaluating the same society, won't separate, agitate, and activate for further change.

Prejudice to tolerance to respect to full membership in the community is a very long process for certain groups. "Separate but equal" and "Don't ask, don't tell" and "you can keep your kids as long as you don't act in certain ways in front of them" are all stages in that process.

When the subject comes up, I am still told by some that I don't exist, that it's just a phase, or am immediately invited to swinger parties. With the exception of the assumption that I'm a swinger, the other two types of communication have certainly lessened through time.

This last issue - the "hot bi babe" phenomenon (regardless of the total lack of hotness that would be me) is the one thing that seems to be the most persistent. With the increasing awareness of polyamory, non-monogamy, acceptability of the discussion of adultery, swinging, and so on, this seems to be the natural course of many discussions about being bisexual.

The assumption that bisexuals are inherently non-monogamous seems to be a widely held one.

The assumption that bisexuals "have" to have partners of both genders to be "real" bisexuals is as silly as defining all virgins as having no sexual orientation at all until they have sex with someone.

The invisibility issue is quite intractable. Unless an effort it deliberately made, over the course of each friendship, relationship, acquaintanceship, or contact, to express your "identity", then people will simply assume according to whatever context they meet you in. Some people simply don't see their sexual orientation as a part of their identity in any way that requires them to "confess" it or make a point of it. It takes more effort to explain that you're bisexual if you appear to be heterosexual or homosexual by the relationship you're in. Many bisexual people prefer it this way. Not making waves lets you fit in. Fitting in has inherent social value. Why quibble over a silly label?

In the end, all of these issues and the seemingly successful progress, when reflected against the 2003 survey quoted above, seem to indicate that there is still a lot more work ahead for those that want to eliminate the negative stereotypes surrounding bisexuality.




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