Bisexual people may be more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than gay and straight people, researchers continue to find as they delve deeper into bi experiences.
“Biphobia and bisexual stigma is incredibly insidious,” said Corey Flanders, psychology and education professor at Mount Holyoke College. “It is relentless. It is everywhere, and you don’t necessarily need to identify as bisexual to receive those messages.”
The majority of LGBTQ Americans are bisexual, yet bi people face harmful stereotyping both in the queer community and society at large. These negative misbeliefs, such as that bi people are hypersexual, have been linked to instances of intimate partner violence.
As we celebrate bi people during Bisexual Awareness Week, we must also draw attention to the hardships they face.
Sixty one percent of bisexual women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to a CDC report on its 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. It’s the latest report published by the CDC online that zooms in on sexual orientation and sexual violence, although the survey is ongoing. Meanwhile, 35 percent of straight women and 44 percent of lesbians have had the same experiences, the report found.
The statistics for men are similar: 37 percent of bisexual men have faced these violent acts in relationships, while 29 percent of straight men and 26 percent of gay men have.
In 2018, Canada’s national statistical office collected similar data as the CDC: Bisexual people in Canada experienced more physical and sexual assault than gay and straight people.
Recent research has also found that bi people are at a higher risk for sexual violence. And that societal attitudes towards bisexual people haven’t improved over time.
1. Biphobia and rape culture are far-reaching
Moreover, rates of sexual violence haven’t meaningfully shifted in decades, said RaeAnn Anderson, psychology professor at the University of North Dakota.
“Rape culture is going to take a really long time to change,” said Anderson, who’s researched bisexual people’s experiences with sexual assault along with Flanders.
Acknowledgement of the existence of bi people has increased since 2010, Flanders said, but stigma and violence towards the so-called “bi+” community hasn’t necessarily changed because of that.
Bi+ is an umbrella term that refers to bisexuality, which is the attraction to one’s own gender and other genders, as well as other sexual orientations that describe attraction to more than one gender.
Straight people’s attitudes towards gay and lesbian folks, have become more positive over time, according to a 2016 paper by several researchers at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and other institutions. This favorable trend isn’t reflected in attitudes about bi people. Rather, straight people had a “middle of the road” opinion or were ambivalent towards bisexuals.
The nationally representative study suggested this may be a result of our culture moving away from expressing explicit negative opinions towards marginalized groups — even though unconscious biases may fester.
Stereotypes about bisexual people, according to Flanders’ and Anderson’s research, include that they want to have sex with everyone; they’re more likely to cheat on their partner; and they’re more likely to have HIV and other STIs.
Hypersexualization can lead people to perceive their bi partners as less trustworthy or in need of control because they’re more likely to be unfaithful, said Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Meanwhile, other beliefs deny bi people’s existence entirely. Some claim that bisexuality isn’t real in itself, or that bisexual people are liars. This can also lead to abusers believing their bi partner isn’t worthy of trust.
2. There’s a desire to “turn” queer women straight
The most common gender breakdown in intimate partner violence (or IPV) is men committing violence against women, according to the World Health Organization.
Some men may assume bi women are hypersexual and exist for straight men’s pleasure, satisfaction, or fetishization, said Palumbo.
There are other nefarious reasons why male perpetrators target bisexual women, too. In comparing sexual violence experienced by lesbians and bisexual people (particularly bi women), Flanders found that both groups experienced “corrective” rape, where perpetrators claim these women “just haven’t found the right man.” Male perpetrators have told both lesbians and bisexual women that they were going to “turn them straight.”
“For perpetrators…you’re just ‘other,'” explained Anderson. “Doesn’t matter what kind of ‘other.'”
Significant predictors of men attacking women are hypermasculinity, investment in the gender binary, and the belief in men’s superiority to women, said Palumbo. In those ways, sexual harassment and assault can be a tool to protect the status quo, to oppress women and other gender minorities.
3. Violence can happen within queer relationships, too
Women can also perpetuate violence. In Anderson and Flanders’ 2020 paper “Young Bisexual People’s Experiences of Sexual Violence,” 38 percent of assailants were female.
The study, which focused on 245 bisexual people aged 18-25, didn’t delve into whether perpetrators were the same gender or sexual identity as the person they assaulted because of methodological challenges, said Anderson. For one, many survivors are assaulted more than once, which complicates the numbers. Another possibility is that the survivor may not know nor care how their assaulter identifies.
Regardless, violence can and does occur in queer relationships without men.
“Can someone be emotionally manipulative in a same-gender relationship? Of course,” said Flanders, “but we’re taught that men do this, and men are physically violent. We don’t expect that from anyone who doesn’t identify as a man.”
The narrative of what an abusive heterosexual relationship looks like doesn’t always reflect what abuse looks like within queer relationships, Flanders continued. We’re not taught “what to look out for.”
According to love is respect, a project by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are some signs of abuse that are unique to queer relationships — like threatening to out one’s partner. Some people, however, may not even know a same-sex relationship can even be abusive.
In queer relationships, bisexuals may be less guarded and less privy to red flags than they would be in straight relationships. Yet, as Palumbo explained, the LGBTQ community isn’t immune to hypersexualization and stereotyping of bisexual identities.
One participant in the aforementioned paper stated:
I personally…did not register that that was assault, or not consensual at all because I didn’t know. I was just like, “oh maybe she’s right, maybe I do just need to drink and relax and then I’ll be okay with having sex then,” or, she would say things like “you owe me cause last time we didn’t do anything,” or just really small little comments that… I could be like, “oh yeah, she’s right.” And that went on for months.
Bisexuals may also face difficulty negotiating consent because they believe they need to “prove” their bisexuality.
“There’s a lot of messaging out there that to be bisexual, you have to have sexual partners of different genders that you’re able to trot out as evidence,” Flanders said.
“Am I really bisexual if I don’t do this?”
Amongst claims that bisexuality doesn’t really exist, or that they’re confused, bisexuals — especially young ones — can feel pressure to engage in sexual encounters they’re not interested in. They may ask themselves, “Am I really bisexual if I don’t do this?” and feel internal pressure (as a result of external pressure) to prove their identity.
4. How mental health plays a role
Internalized pressure goes hand-in-hand with internalized bi negativity, or negative beliefs about bi people. In their published work, Flanders and Anderson found a correlation between internalized negativity and sexual assault. Correlation only indicates a connection, not that one causes the other.
Their current research focuses on learning more about this connection. Anderson believes they’ll find that, depending on the situation, the risk or experience of assault, can increase internalized negativity and vice versa. They may find that “experiencing sexual assault increases bi negativity,” she said, “because [it’s] a way to be told your sexuality is not acceptable.”
On the other hand, Anderson thinks already internalized negativity increases one’s risk for assault “because if you’re dealing with all that bullshit,” she hypothesized, “are you able to look out for yourself effectively?” No survivor is ever at fault for their abuse, but internalized biphobia is yet another risk factor.
Sexual assault, unsurprisingly, has damaging impacts on mental health. As it is, bisexual people are at higher risk for poor mental health compared to gay and straight people due to factors like minority stress (stress that accumulates over time due to social stigmatization). According to research by the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention efforts, this starts young: Bi+ youth report mental health challenges and suicidal ideation at higher rates than gay and straight youth.
An assault can deteriorate mental health further. This is compounded by the fact that many people, bisexual or not, don’t seek help afterwards for many reasons such as fear of retaliation or believing the police wouldn’t help. According to anti-sexual violence organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), over two out of every three assaults go unreported. LGBTQ people experience sexual violence at higher rates than the general population, as well, but there are even more barriers to reporting such as fear of homo-, trans-, or biphobia.
Queer people experience more barriers to seeking help after a sexual assault than straight people.
Credit: vicky leta / mashable
Queer people may not seek mental health treatment after an assault, either. A study by the National LGBTQ Institute on Intimate Partner Violence found that members of the queer community may not have services catered to them where they are, or may fear not being taken seriously or believed if they went to a clinic that generally serves survivors. That, coupled with the isolating nature of intimate partner violence itself, results in fewer people seeking help.
The National LGBTQ Institute found that bisexual people were the least likely out of all queer groups to prefer LGBTQ-specific domestic violence programs — though a majority still did: Fifty-four percent of bi people versus 86 percent of gay and lesbian people.
“I would worry that an LGBT center would consider me a waste of time.”
Bi participants said they didn’t want to overburden queer-specific programs. “I would worry that an LGBT center would consider me a waste of time because I am a bi woman in a relationship with a cisgender man,” one said, “taking attention/time away from people in same-gender abusive relationships.”
Further, bi+ people were less likely to share their sexual orientation while receiving support from a non-LGBTQ resource center than gay and lesbian people. They also feared being perceived as heterosexual and “disqualified” from queer-centric spaces.
5. We need more research — and more resources
There are gaps in current research about intimate partner violence experienced by bi people. Palumbo pointed out that the 2010 CDC data isn’t inclusive of trans people. A separate U.S. Transgender Survey from 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 47 percent of trans people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime, though the study didn’t ask participants their sexual orientation.
Trans inclusion is important for bisexual research because, according to Anderson, many bi people are also trans and non-binary. In the study that chronicled young bi people’s experiences, about 65 percent of the participants were non-binary, while 14 percent were a trans man or woman.
Further, there are still methodological challenges to overcome. Recruitment for bisexual studies is difficult because of how people personally identify versus their actual behavior. Even if someone, say, sleeps with people of multiple genders, they may not call themselves bi or bi+. They may say they’re straight or “mostly straight” — and won’t sign up for a bisexual study.
For this research, Flanders and Anderson recruited participants over social media who specifically identified as bisexual or another bi+ identity. Their work, therefore, excluded people who don’t identify as bi but might have relationships with more than one gender.
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