What does it mean to be a bisexual woman? According to most mainstream media, it means cheating on your partner and being indecisive or promiscuous; spend enough time on TikTok during quarantine, like I did, and you might think it’s cuffing your jeans, having a bob haircut, and not knowing how to sit still on chairs. And then there’s the other classic accusation, that we’re confused. Strangely I think that might be the closest to the truth we’ve got so far – lots of us are confused. But not for the reasons you might think.
During my time at university, most of the LGBTQ+ people I’ve met here have been bisexual – there are a lot of us around. In fact, it’s been estimated that bisexual, pansexual, and polysexual people comprise 40% of the entire LGBTQ+ community. It’s ironic, then, that despite being a majority we are so often invisible. Bi women are often perceived as only being truly romantically interested in men, faking their sexuality for attention, or as (my personal least favourite description) ‘spicy straight’. Bi men, on the other hand, are assumed to be gay but in denial, or not to exist at all. In a particularly controversial tweet, American psychologist John Michael Bailey claimed to have proved the existence of male bisexuality just a few months ago, as if the men already identifying as bisexual were not proof enough. Generally, bisexuality is viewed with a veneer of scepticism, by people both outside and even sometimes inside the queer community.
It’s often difficult for queer women to discover and come to terms with their sexuality. From a scarily early age, society instils the idea in women that their purpose is to marry a man and raise children with him. Unlearning this can take decades, so it’s extremely common for lesbians to experience ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, the belief that they are attracted to men when they do not tangibly experience that attraction. But growing up as a bisexual woman is often puzzling because you are attracted to men. You might have known throughout your childhood that you liked other girls, heard your Year Seven classmates calling you a lesbian behind your back, and then watched Titanic aged 12 and fancied Jack as well as Rose, and breathed a deep sigh of relief because you’re ‘normal’ after all. Or, conversely, you might know that you like men, but think it’s normal for straight women to want to kiss or sleep with other women, and only learn later on that this is called attraction.
As a bi woman, it took me quite a long time to reach a point of total confidence in my sexuality. I was at an all-girls school between the ages of 11 and 18, and so for a while I was convinced that I was a lesbian because I simply hadn’t encountered a man that I liked for years. Aged 14 I made the error of coming out as queer over Instagram on a whim, and school became very miserable for the next two years. After coming out at an all-girls school, you feel predatory for even so much as looking at another woman, like everyone is watching you to detect any evidence that you might – gasp! – fancy them. Sometimes I did fancy straight girls who would have been disgusted if they’d known, and when I saw them, I started deliberately looking the other way, a tragicomic attempt to avoid any kind of suspicion falling upon me. But there were still the invasive comments, the barely whispered comments in the changing rooms.
Then after watching Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I had to admit I was at least somewhat attracted to men. A year or so later I met my sixth form boyfriend and took the opportunity to distance myself from queerness almost completely. There was a running joke amongst my year that I’d “left my lesbianism in Year Eleven” and was now straight, and I didn’t mind it at all. I was more than happy to leave all that behind if it meant people would think of me as normal. I only started feeling comfortable in my bisexuality in my second year of university, and I don’t think this experience is at all unique. We often view coming out as a one-time thing, and there’s a pressure to get your identity ‘right’ first time. When your sexuality seems so fluid and unclear, it’s difficult to be confident enough to publicly pin it down.
It’s also hard to settle on ‘bisexual’ as a label when there are very few positive bisexual characters in media in whom we can see ourselves reflected. At the time of writing, I literally cannot think of any bisexual male characters in films or TV shows I’ve watched apart from Captain Jack in Doctor Who; when it comes to bi women, representation is a little better, but writers appear reluctant to actually use the word ‘bisexual’. Back in 2013, Orange Is the New Black was considered ground-breaking television for its portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters and relationships and its diverse cast, but despite Piper Chapman having relationships with both men and women, the show waited six whole seasons before anyone used the word ‘bisexual’ to describe her. Similarly, Annalise Keating of How To Get Away With Murder is never defined as bisexual, despite her past romantic relationship with Eve and her complicated relationship with Bonnie. Even in Fleabag, Fleabag unsuccessfully tries to go home with another woman mid-way through the second season, even though in the rest of the series she has never previously expressed attraction to women, and she never does again.
These women’s same-sex attraction is treated as a fun, quirky addition to the storyline, rather than a very real part of their identity, likely so that shows continue to be marketable to cisgender heterosexual audiences. It’s hard to find any bi women characters in media who publicly own that label, and whom we can relate to, and even harder to find characters who are bisexual people of colour, bisexual and disabled, bisexual and transgender – how can it be easy to know what you are when you can’t see yourself anywhere?
Even once they’ve come out, bi people often feel like they are constantly proving themselves right. When coming out to friends and family, we’re often subject to questioning over how many people we’ve dated, and of which genders, as if we’re supposed to have dated a certain equal number of men, women, and non-binary people before we can become an official, card-carrying bisexual. And then once we do find a partner, our bisexuality is often treated as irrelevant because we’ve ‘chosen a side’. We become even more invisible.
Where we are most visible, it’s often in the wrong ways. To many, ‘bisexual’ is not a sexuality but a porn category. It’s why so many bi women, to their frustration, are bombarded with messages from couples on dating apps asking if they’d like a threesome. Bi women are often expected to engage in performative acts of sapphism for male sexual pleasure – their same-sex attraction is viewed through the third party of the male gaze, something to be exploited by men rather than true desire that exists regardless of who else is in the room. Even more upsettingly, this could partially explain why bisexual women are far more likely to be subject to sexual assault than their heterosexual peers and even other groups within the LGBTQ+ community. According to the research of Dr. Nicole Johnson, who has carried out several studies on domestic violence, 75% of bi women have been sexually assaulted – bi women of colour and bi trans women are the most at risk.
23rd September was Bi Visibility Day, and there’s a reason why the name focuses on visibility rather than pride or celebration. It’s frustrating to be so frequently disbelieved, subject to homophobia or biphobia from much of society and then deemed ‘too straight’ for some LGBTQ+ spaces, and it’s exhausting to have to work so hard even to be acknowledged. Bi Visibility Day was first celebrated 21 years ago; the first bi activists started their work in the early 1970s, and that work still isn’t over. Perhaps the fight to be accepted hasn’t even begun if we have not yet ended the fight to be seen.