Many people are 100% gay and are drawn sexually and emotionally only to partners of the same sex.
Others are completely heterosexual, bonding in sexual and intimate relationships only with people of the opposite sex. But what about everybody else?
A significant percentage of people do not fit neatly into either of the categories, because they experience sexual and emotional attraction for people of both genders at some point during their lives.
For lack of a better term, they are called bisexuals, although many people prefer to call themselves “pansexual”, “non-preferential”, “sexually fluid”, “ambisexual” or “omni-sexual”.
Sexual orientation: a continuum
The Kinsey scale of 0 to 6 was developed by sex researchers to describe sexual orientation as a continuum. Heterosexual people are at 0 on the scale, homosexual people are at 6, and everyone in between, from 1 to 5, is bisexual.
People who fall at 1 or 2 on the scale have primarily heterosexual sexual and affectional relationships and desires, but have some attraction and experiences with same-sex partners as well.
People at 3 are approximately equally attracted to both men and women. People at 4 and 5 choose primarily same-sex partners, but are not completely homosexual and have some heterosexual tendencies and relationships as well.
The 13 types of bisexuality
As you can see, there is no simple definition of bisexuality, and bisexual people are a very diverse group. Some bisexual people are committed to monogamous, long-term relationships, others have more than one partner concurrently in a variety of arrangements.
There are several theories about bisexual behaviour. J.R. Little identifies at least 13 types of bisexuality, as defined by sexual desires and experiences. They are:
Alternative bisexuals: may have a relationship with a man and after that relationship ends, may choose a female partner for a subsequent relationship. Then, many go back to a male partner.
Circumstantial bisexuals: primarily heterosexual, but will choose same-sex partners only in situations where they have no access to other-sex partners, such as when in jail, in the military, or in a gender-segregated school.
Concurrent relationship bisexuals: have primary relationship with one gender only but have other casual or secondary relationships with people of another gender at the same time.
Conditional bisexuals: either straight or gay, but will switch to a relationship with another gender for financial or career gain or for a specific purpose, such as young straight males who become gay prostitutes, or gay women who get married to men in order to gain acceptance from family members or to have children.
Emotional bisexuals: have intimate emotional relationships with both men and women, but only have sexual relationships with one gender.
Integrated bisexuals: have more than one primary relationship at the same time, one with a man and one with a woman.
Exploratory bisexuals: either straight or gay, but have sex with another gender just to satisfy curiosity or “see what it’s like”.
Hedonistic bisexuals: primarily straight or gay, but will sometimes have sex with another gender primarily for fun or purely sexual satisfaction.
Recreational bisexuals: primarily straight but engage in gay sex only when under the influence of drugs and / or alcohol.
Isolated bisexuals: 100% straight or gay now but have had one or more sexual experience with another gender in the past.
Latent bisexuals: completely straight or gay in behaviour but have a strong desire for sex with another gender, yet have never acted on it.
Motivational bisexuals: straight women who have sex with other women only because a male partner insists on it to titillate him.
Transitional bisexuals: temporarily identify as bisexual while in the process of moving from being straight to being gay, or going from being gay to being heterosexual.
Many of these people might not call themselves bisexual, but because they are attracted to and have relationships with both men and women, they are in fact bisexual.
Read: Gay, lesbian and bisexual expert FAQs
Bisexuals suffer more from social isolation
While literally millions of people are bisexual, most keep their sexual orientation secret, so bisexual people as a group are nearly invisible in society.
Gay men and women have long recognised the need to join together, create community and organise politically. Long years of hard work have led to significant gains in political and human rights, as well as a visible and thriving gay community.
Bisexual people have been much slower to come out of the closet, create community, and form political and social networks to gain visibility and political clout.
Many bisexual people have spent decades working in gay organisations, and in recent years, bisexuals have become more accepted as part of the gay/bisexual/transgender community.
However, the rigid dichotomy between gay and straight has caused many bisexuals to feel alienated and rejected by gay men and women, and in recent years many independent bisexual political and social groups have sprung up.
Many bisexual people complain that they feel like outsiders in both the straight and gay worlds, that they can’t fit in anywhere, and feel isolated and confused. Studies have shown that bisexual people suffer from social isolation even more than gay people do, because they lack any community where they can find acceptance and role models.
Many gay men believe that bisexual men are really gay, that they are just in denial about being gay, and should “just get over it.” Many straight men are homophobic and hate and fear both bisexual and gay men, often victimising them with harassment and physical violence.
Many straight women reject bisexual men out of misguided fears that they have Aids and admonish them to “stop sitting on the fence and make up their minds”.
Bisexual women are often distrusted by gay women for “sleeping with the enemy,” hanging onto heterosexual privileges through relationships with men and betraying their allegiance to women and feminism.
Straight women often reject bisexual women out of fear they will make sexual overtures and try to “convert” them to being bisexual.
Read: Bisexual women are more likely to be depressed than bisexual men
Bisexuality: an authentic sexual orientation
Both the straight and gay communities seem to have only two possible models of bisexuality, neither of which represents bisexual people accurately.
The first is the “transitional model” of bisexuality, which holds that all bisexuals are actually gay but are just on the way to eventually coming out as gay.
The other is the “pathological model”, which proposes that bisexuals are neurotic or mentally unstable because they are in conflict trying to decide whether they are straight or gay, and that they just can’t make a decision.
Both models see bisexuality as a temporary experience or a “phase” born out of confusion, rather than an authentic sexual orientation equally valid as heterosexuality or homosexuality.
Some people see bisexuality as inherently subversive because it blurs the boundaries, confronting both straight and gay people with sexual ambiguity.
As a result, bisexuality challenges concepts of sexuality, traditional relationship and family structures, monogamy, gender and identity.
Bisexuals cannot conform to the ethics of either the gay or straight world or they would not be bisexual. Instead they must re-invent personal lifestyles and relationships that serve their needs, even though they don’t fit anyone else’s rules.
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