What Happened to the B? Addressing Bisexuality in the Classroom and Clinic
By Jill Conway, Capacity Building Manager
May 18, 2017
As research and sexual health curricula have changed with growing evidence over the years, sexuality education has been moving towards a more inclusive approach. However, there is still a lot of room for growth, especially in the realm of bisexuality. Bisexuals make up 52% of the LGBTQIA+ community, yet we rarely discuss bisexuality, if at all.
To start off, let’s define some important terms to know when discussing bisexuality in the classroom or clinic.
The Bisexuality Basics
Sexual orientation refers to the pattern of someone’s attraction to gender(s). Monosexual individuals are attracted to one gender, polysexual folks are attracted to multiple genders, and asexual individuals do not experience sexual attraction (read our blog on asexuality to learn more). All three types of sexual orientation are completely normal forms of expressing one’s sexuality.
Bisexuals fall under the umbrella of polysexual, as they are attracted to people of their own gender and people of other genders. When we’re thinking about attraction, oftentimes people can get pigeonholed into thinking that attraction is just about sex. Attraction is not just about sex though; we experience attraction through sexual, romantic, and social ties. As educators and healthcare providers, we need to allow young people to speak their own truth and self-identify in ways that feel right for them. Forcing young people, or anyone for that matter, to prove their sexual orientation based off their previous sexual experiences is not okay.
The 1990 Bisexual Manifesto provides a great starting point for a conversation surrounding bisexuality:
“Bisexuality is a whole, fluid identity. Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature: that we have “two” sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders. Do not mistake our fluidity for confusion, irresponsibility, or an inability to commit. Do not equate promiscuity, infidelity, or unsafe sexual behavior with bisexuality. Those are human traits that cross all sexual orientations. Nothing should be assumed about anyone’s sexuality, including your own.”
Bisexuality is a community identity label, and many bisexuals might use a different personal identity label such as fluid, multisexual, pansexual, polysexual, or omnisexual. While many individuals within the LGBTQIA+ community have different personal identity labels, as educators and healthcare providers we cannot let the conversation about labels be used as a reasoning for not serving the bisexual community as a whole.
Myths and Stigma
Unfortunately bisexual folks often face stigma from monosexuals in the gay community, as well as the heterosexual community. There is a pervasive myth that bisexuals need to pick one side or the other. Bisexuals frequently face discrimination, known as biphobia and bi-erasure. Bisexuality is regularly seen as experimenting or “just a phase” until that person comes out as gay or lesbian. Sometimes individuals do identify as bisexual during a transitional phase of their lives, but that does not negate other bisexuals’ experiences. This explicit denial that bisexuality exists contributes to the cultural bisexuality invisibility within society.
Another myth that hinders the bisexual community is that they are promiscuous and cannot be in a monogamous relationship. Bisexual folks are just as likely as monosexuals to be in committed partnerships. Also, just because a bi person is in a relationship with a person of one gender doesn’t change their sexual orientation. When working with young people, it’s especially important to be a bisexual ally and educate against these harmful myths towards the bi community.
When Myth Turns to Harm
Beyond the stereotypes and myths that bisexual folks have to constantly overcome, there are several disparities facing the community. 25% of bisexual men and 30% of bisexual women live in poverty, in comparison to 15% of heterosexual men and 21% of heterosexual women. They experience higher rates of discrimination in the workplace and are more likely to experience sexual and intimate partner violence than their monosexual counterparts. Students who identify as bisexual are also 14.3% more likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy in comparison to their heterosexual peers, and have higher rates of physical and mental health disparities.
Despite these staggering disparities, clinics and schools are doing very little to address them. LGBTIA+ training is still not incorporated into over 50% of physician education programs, and only 16% of physician education focus on LGBTQIA+ health in a comprehensive manner. Bisexual individuals indicated that there are three aspects of healthcare experiences in particular that affected their health in a negative manner: 1) negative reactions from healthcare providers surrounding same-sex attraction and youth sexual behavior in general, 2) assumptions that youth are heterosexual, and 3) missed opportunities for sexual health services, such as STI screenings, based off of perceived sexual orientation.
Outside the clinic, many young people also do not feel they are receiving adequate health information from the sexuality education they’re receiving in the classroom. This comes as no surprise since less than half the states require public schools to even teach sexuality education, and only 20 states (Colorado is one of them) require for that information to medically accurate. However, even medically accurate curricula often don't do enough to be inclusive of LGBTQIA+ students. Only stressing heteronormativity and monosexuality within the classroom puts young people at greater risk, as it fails to address how sexual orientation varies across individuals and across the life course.
So where do we go from here?
We cannot continue to discount bisexual lives and experiences. As educators and healthcare providers, it’s imperative to be more inclusive of all sexual orientations and identities. Allowing young people to identify their sexual orientation is one key component of inclusivity; not assuming someone’s sexual orientation based off of their current partner is another. While some may experience their sexual orientation as something they were born as, others experience sexuality as fluid throughout the life course. Expand upon this concept with the teens you work with and emphasize there is a diversity of sexual experience within your clinic, classroom, and the world.
Most importantly, as adults in this field, we need to be open and nonjudgmental with the young people we work with. Even language such as ‘gay marriage’ can exclude bisexuals from the conversation, so using phrases such as same-sex relationships is more inclusive. Integrate questions about bisexuality into routine clinic visits and include scenarios of bisexual youth in your classroom lessons. Discuss protective factors and risk reduction techniques for heterosexual and LGBTQIA+ youth and recognize that you have students who identify as bisexual, as well as monosexual.
Bisexual folks are facing an uphill battle against stigma and invalidation of their identities. By bringing this knowledge into your interactions with youth, you can help be a force for change.