From The Bisexual Index

Main: Bi by Definition

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What's in a word? Letters, sure, but also meanings (often more than one) and assumptions. And with careful use of words, and a few numbers, all sorts of things can be hidden or misrepresented. Definitions lie behind questions, and answers lead to statistics.

Bisexual is, we're told, a difficult word to define. A word with many different shades of meaning. A word with history, with baggage. A word people don't want to use about themselves and which any survey or work looking at sexuality must struggle with in order to find a consensus definition that people won't object to being categorized under.

Stonewall, the LGB campaign group, claims that the bisexual community prefers the definition:

"a changeable sexual and emotional attraction to people, where gender may not be a defining factor"

And then goes on to say :

"It is extremely difficult to estimate the extent of bisexuality because it depends very much on how the term is defined. For example, it could be people who identify themselves as bisexual (in which case the estimate might be rather small), or it could be all people who have ever had an aesthetic, romantic or sexual attraction to more than one gender (in which case the estimate might be rather large)."
(both from this page on the Stonewall website)

Clearly their heart is in the right place so what's our problem with this? Well:

  1. Their definition says "sexual and emotional attraction" which implies that bisexuality is about sex and relationships, and can't just be sex. We disagree - some bisexuals are sexually attracted to more than one gender but only form relationships with one. That's okay, we say.
  2. "Gender may not be a defining factor" in a lot of gay and straight people's heads too, if they just 'happen' to only be attracted to one sex, but are far more concerned about muscles, shaved heads, certain jobs, good senses of humour, BDSM, or picking a partner they can legally marry in a church or have biological children with.
  3. Suggesting that "people who have ever been ... attracted to more than one gender" is too large a group to be usefully called 'bisexuals' is patently false. See our article on scales for why those people are categorically bisexuals.

So, why define bisexuality in these strangling numbers-decreasing terms? One reason is to ensure that LGBT organisations can relax in the knowledge that there's more LG than there is B.

We do agree with Stonewall though that only counting people who self-identify as bisexual makes for an inaccurately low estimate. That low estimate can be made even smaller...

Bi the Wayside?

In the Count Me In Too survey completed in Brighton in 2008, nearly 900 people were surveyed or focus-grouped about the local LGBT scene. The full report nails its colours to the mast early on, apologising:

"... some bisexual people do not identify with or participate in the LGBT community and would therefore have been very unlikely to have completed the Count Me In Too questionnaire. It should also be noted that, for the purposes of analysis in this report, 'bisexual' is a matter of identification rather than of sexual 'orientation'. Relatedly, there are some individuals who might, under certain circumstances, be understood as 'bisexual' on the basis of who they find sexually attractive but [...] such individuals would not be classified as 'bisexual' in this report."

They questionnaired 820 people on the LGBT scene and asked them if they self-identified as bisexual. As Stonewall would have predicted (us too!) it came out quite low, at 47 people.

What's wrong here? Well, this isn't sexuality, it's self-identity, and this is smaller than Stonewall's small sample (people who are happy to self-identify as bisexual) as the wording of the questionnaire they used is even more limiting "Which of the following do you most identify with?" with a single tick - acknowledging multiple labels but immediately discounting them by forcing people who might use more than one about themselves to discard any secondary ones. Queer lesbian? Gay bisexual? Tough luck! (the questionnaire pdf).

One Word, One Definition

People might argue over what we mean by "lesbian" or "gay" as an identity, but few people have any confusion about what "homosexual" means as a sexuality. These are separate words, with related but different meanings.

But we only have one word for bisexuals. "I'm a homosexual but I'm not a lesbian" makes far more sense than "I'm a bisexual but I'm not a bisexual."

People don't use complicated definitions for identities to explain why they feel included, they use them to exclude themselves or others. As we only have one word for our identity and our sexuality, we here at The Bisexual Index think that we really only need one definition.

Why create hurdles and insist people jump them? Some of us don't jump so well. In the absence of a scene we can identify with, unlike the gay community, many people use the word bisexual not because they see it as an identity, but because it's accurate about their sexuality.

If individuals chose not to use the word "bisexual" to describe themselves, that's fine by us. But when we're talking about populations, we need wide simple definitions. What's more important for safer sex planning, or staffing levels of discrimination hotlines - how many people self-identify as bisexual or how many people are sexually attracted to more than one gender? You don't have to be 'out' to be fired, queer-bashed or kicked out of your home.

Most people who identify as 'bisexual' as an identity will be bisexual in terms of orientation, but we admit these aren't concentric circles. A tiny minority of people will say they're bi because they think it's cool or because they're afraid to say they're homosexual. But we firmly believe that all people who are attracted to more than one gender should be free to describe themselves as bisexual without anyone telling them off with "just being bisexual isn't enough, being 'a proper bisexual' is more complicated than that."

Bisexuality isn't more complicated than that - "attraction to more than one gender". It's not incompatible with identifying as gay, either. Bisexuality is proof that sexuality isn't "either/or", it's "and".

Bisexuality - It's All About 'And'

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Page last modified on July 01, 2011, at 09:43 AM