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Bisexuality

Abstract and Keywords

This entry explores past and present social-scientific lenses concerning bisexuality. The author traces the rise of a bisexual movement in the 1970s to present times. The entry concludes by addressing social work's limited contributions to understanding bisexuality and proposes trends and directions for future practice and research with diverse groups of bisexuals.

Keywords: bisexuality, GLBT history, community organizing, human sexuality

Bisexuality is difficult to define due to evolving social-scientific paradigms for understanding human sexuality and shifting political discourses of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) organizing movements. Freud was the first notable 20th-century Western thinker to locate bisexuality as a universal psychosexual phenomenon. He professed that all individuals have bisexual tendencies in childhood but that they learn to repress their desires, resulting in either a heterosexual or homosexual orientation. In the late 1940s, Alfred Kinsey used data from his pioneering research on human sexual behavior to define sexuality on a scale ranging from zero, representing exclusive heterosexual behavior, to six, representing exclusive homosexual behavior. He located bisexuality in the vast space between these opposite positions. Dr. Fritz Klein (1978), a noted psychiatrist, later expanded on the Kinsey scale to create the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid. This grid broadened Kinsey's definition by incorporating seven different aspects of sexuality and indicating shifts in orientation over the passage of time. In the mid-1990s, Weinberg, Collins, and Pryor's 1994 book Dual Attraction advanced a simplified version of Klein's grid, including three main dimensions: sexual feelings, sexual activities, and romantic feelings, and arguing that bisexuals can be more or less hetero- or homosexual in each of these domains.

Within all of these operating definitions of bisexuality, one can see a wide range of orientations for individuals who do not identify with, or whose behavior does not fall into strictly “heterosexual” or “homosexual” categories. As an undefined and somewhat “hidden” population (that is, bisexuals may visibly blend in with gays and lesbians or with heterosexuals, depending on their partner choice), the prevalence of bisexuality is very difficult to measure. Perhaps due to the complexities involved in its meaning and measurement, bisexuality has not received academic, popular, or social work attention on par with “homosexuality” (typically meaning gay male expression) or lesbianism. Yet in spite of the elusiveness of the category and tendencies toward invisibility, bisexuality has a unique history of community organizing that merits attention.

Although bisexual-specific organizations did not develop in the United States until the 1970s, bisexual individuals were involved in many of the early 1950s and 1960s U.S. and European “homophile” groups whose mission was to organize for gay and lesbian social acceptance. However, because the early homophile groups were not necessarily trusting of bisexuals, many members of this group were not open about their attractions to both sexes (Marcus, 1992).

By the 1970s, the gay and lesbian liberation movement as a whole was more accepting of bisexuality and groups that advocated free expression of sexual behavior, and it even celebrated bisexuality's potential for liberation from heterosexual or homosexual constraints. During this time period, many bisexuals—and in particular, bisexual men—began founding their own organizations that were separate from gay men's organizations. For example, the National Bisexual Liberation Group was formed in New York City in 1972, and the San Francisco Bisexual Center, the world's first specifically bisexual institution, opened in 1976.

By the middle of the 1980s, many of these pioneering bisexual groups had disbanded as bisexual men turned their energies toward the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. Bisexual women began to initiate their own groups and to locate spaces—separate from bisexual men and from lesbians—to affirm their identities. Although bisexual women distinguished themselves from the lesbian separatist movement, feminist principles and women-centered spaces were still a foundation of these early bisexual women's groups.

A more gender-unified and visible bisexual movement began to take root when the call for a bisexual contingent at the historic 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights laid the groundwork for the establishment of the North American Bisexual Network (later changed to BiNet U.S.A.). The mission of this organization was to increase the visibility of bisexuals and fight bias from the heterosexual mainstream and from within the gay and lesbian movement. Linking forces at times with the transgender movement, bisexuals advocated for recognition within the gay and lesbian movement, which was slowly making inroads into mainstream legal, political, and social arenas.

Since the historic March on Washington, the bisexual movement has continued to expand. Books, magazines, academic journals, and other resources specifically for bisexuals have sustained the visibility of the bisexual voice. Yet, despite this presence, social work has not made significant contributions to advancing knowledge about bisexuality. For example, although a plethora of professional literature has been published on and about gay men and lesbians in the Journal of Homosexuality and more recently in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, the mainstream social work publications have lagged behind several of the other helping professions, most notably psychology, in understanding and exploring the diverse needs of bisexuals.

Given the scarcity of research on bisexuality in social work, opportunities for future research on bisexuality and the development of practice wisdom are abundant. Social work practitioners, educators, and researchers can participate in the vital role of supporting this marginalized group by educating themselves about the spectrum of human sexuality and conducting community-based research on the diversity of the bisexual population and its needs and experiences. A thorough exploration of the psychosocial issues facing this diverse group, of the processes of self-labeling and self-identification in relation to sexuality (examining bisexuals' involvements in same- and opposite-sex relationships), and of the role of risk behavior in health maintenance is needed in order to better understand bisexuality and human sexuality, in general.

Speaking to the diversity within the GLBT community, the NASW publication Social Work Speaks notes that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, older people, and people of color are often underserved due to invisibility (NASW, 2003). Given the underserved status of bisexuals and its various subgroups, the evidence base for best practices with bisexual clients is in great need of elaboration. Social workers should consider bisexuality not solely as part of human behavior in the social environment, but also as an important social movement that is parallel to, yet distinct from, the gay and lesbian movement for civil rights that occurred during the last half century.

References

Klein, F. (1978). The bisexual option. New York: Arbor House.Find this resource:

    Marcus, E. (1992). Making history: The struggle for gay and lesbian equal rights 1945–1990: An oral history. New York: Harper Collins.Find this resource:

      NASW. (2003). Social work speaks: Lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues. Washington, DC: NASW Press.Find this resource:

        Weinberg, M. S., Williams, C. J., & Pryor, D. W. (1994). Dual attraction: Understanding bisexuality. New York: Oxford Press.Find this resource:

          Further Reading

          Morrow, G. D. (1989). Bisexuality: An exploratory review. Annals of Sex Research, 2, 283–306.Find this resource:

            http://www.biresource.org/

            http://www.binetusa.org/