The flag symbolizing bisexuality, which has a wide fuschia band, a narrow purple band, and a wide blue bandBisexuality is a term used to describe a sexual orientation in which people are emotionally and sexually attracted to individuals of more than one gender. The “bi” (meaning both) in bisexual does not describe attraction to only two genders (male and female), as some may believe, but describes a state of attraction to both those of one’s own gender and those of another or multiple gender(s).

Attraction toward individuals of any gender may sometimes be referred to as pansexuality, but whether an individual chooses to identify as bisexual or pansexual is generally a matter of personal preference.

Understanding Bisexuality

Sexual orientation can be described as the pattern of one’s romantic or sexual attraction to others—of the same gender, more than one gender, or none at all. Some people who identify as bisexual may be attracted to those who are male or female, while others may be attracted to any person, no matter that person’s gender.

The term pansexual is often used as by those who wish to describe their sexual orientation as being unhampered by limitations of gender. A person who identifies as bisexual may still experience attraction that is similarly unlimited, but some may experience limits to their attraction. In either case, a person may choose to identify as bisexual as a matter of preference, and some may use the terms bisexual and pansexual interchangeably. A person who is attracted to individuals of more than one gender or who engages in sexual behavior that may appear to indicate bisexuality will not necessarily identify as bisexual or pansexual and may instead prefer some other identifier or none at all.

Individuals who identify as bisexual are not necessarily attracted to men and women equally and will generally experience sexual attraction in a wide variety of ways. A woman who is bisexual, for example, may be predominantly attracted to women and pursue women as romantic partners but still experience attraction and sexual desire for men. A man who identifies as bisexual may experience attraction for individuals of all genders but choose to marry a woman and remain in that monogamous relationship throughout his life.

Some people who identify as bisexual may wish to pursue non-monogamous relationships with a variety of individuals, but simply identifying as bisexual does not indicate that a person is non-monogamous.  The complexities of romantic, sexual, and emotional attraction are difficult to define and no one example can sum up what it means to be bisexual.

The above examples are only a few hypothetical descriptions of some possible experiences, and they are not meant to simplify bisexuality. The complexities of romantic, sexual, and emotional attraction are difficult to define, and no one example can sum up what it means to be bisexual. In general, the main distinction between bisexuality and other sexual orientations is that bisexual individuals have the potential for sexual attraction toward more than one gender, and though individuals who are bisexual may be attracted to all genders, some may experience limits to their attraction.

How Common Is Bisexuality?

According to a study conducted by The Williams Institute in 2011, approximately 3.5% of the population of the United States identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. When those who engage in homosexual sexual behavior but do not identify as LGB are included in this number, the percentage increases to 8.2% of the population. Just over half of the study’s LGBT population (3.5%) described themselves as bisexual (1.8%), and women made up the majority of those who identified as bisexual.

A Historical Look at Bisexuality

The existence of bisexuality has been documented since ancient times. Bisexuality is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, and historic records show that it was common for young men to have sexual relationships with older men. These relationships were believed to both prepare men for marriage and lead to improved performance in battle; thus, these relationships were often encouraged.

In ancient Rome, sexuality was not necessarily divided into heterosexuality and homosexuality. It was common for men to have sexual relationships with both men and women, but sex was often used to communicate power and status, rather than love.

Although it is evident that bisexuality is a natural aspect of human sexuality, much of history has seemingly whitewashed its existence, it was not until modern times that the term was defined and discussed. In 1892, neurologist Charles Gilbert Chaddock coined the term bisexual in his translation of Psychopathia Sexualis. For nearly a century afterward, however, bisexuality was still seen as a mental health issue, and many laws prohibited bisexual relations. It was 1973 before bisexuality was declassified as a disorder in the mental health field. Prior to that, people identifying as bisexual were often “treated” with things like electroshock therapy, medication, and even castration, in an attempt to convert them to heterosexuality.

The shift truly began in 1948 when behavioral scientist Alfred Kinsey presented his research along with the Kinsey Scale. Kinsey proposed that sexuality and sexual attraction were not housed neatly in two polarized, binary boxes. Instead, he found that sexual orientation fell along a spectrum or continuum, with 0 denoting complete heterosexuality and 6 indicating homosexuality. In his study, most people fell somewhere in the middle of the continuum.

This discovery, which served to give those identifying as bisexual a new voice, was met with scandal, outrage, and fear. Over the next few decades, a growing community of LGBTQIA activists began to work to achieve recognition, fair treatment, and equal rights. Today, federal legislation exists to protect the rights of these often-marginalized groups, and in general, the United States has come a long way from the early days of intolerance, maltreatment, and persecution of the LGBTQIA population. However, discrimination and prejudice is still experienced by many who belong to this community, sometimes from within the community itself.

Discrimination and Prejudice Against Bisexuality

Individuals identifying as bisexual have historically experienced a great deal of prejudice and discrimination. Although many issues affecting the bisexual community have seen some level of improvement, a good deal of discrimination still occurs today. Sexual behavior that aligns with bisexuality is fairly common, yet many individuals who are attracted to more than one gender do not describe their identity as bisexual, for a variety of reasons.

There are several reasons why people may not come out as bisexual. One reason is likely stigma: Those who identify as bisexual may be stigmatized by mainstream society, but they may also experience discrimination from within the community they identify with or belong to.

Some prejudicial misconceptions about bisexuality:

  • Bisexuality equals infidelity.
  • People who are bisexual will have sex with anyone.
  • A bisexual person is really just gay but afraid to admit it.
  • Bisexual people cannot make up their minds.

Some examples of discrimination against people who are bisexual:

  • Biphobia, or fear or hatred toward a person as a result of that person’s sexual orientation.
  • Bi erasure/bi invisibility, or the assumption that a person’s current partner defines that person’s sexual orientation (Telling a man with a boyfriend that he is gay, not bisexual, or that his orientation does not matter, is an example of bi erasure).
  • Internalized biphobia, which can be described as the denial or rejection of one’s own bisexuality that may often lead one to experience self-doubt or self-hatred.

Discrimination can have a significant impact on the bisexual community:

  • The rates of depression and anxiety among those who identify as bisexual is higher than it is among those who identify as either homosexual or heterosexual.
  • The reported rate of tobacco use is higher among those who are bisexual than it is in those who are heterosexual or homosexual.
  • Women who identify as bisexual have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder than do women who identify as straight or lesbian.
  • Men who are bisexual are five times more likely to use methamphetamine than the general population.
  • Bisexual teens are more prone to suicidal thoughts than any other self-identified group.
  • Women who are bisexual are nearly three times more likely to be raped or assaulted (46% chance) than women who are straight (17%) or homosexual (13%). They also experience intimate partner abuse and stalking at higher rates, and when they disclose sexual assualt or abuse, social support is demonstratively lower than that offered to either straight or lesbian women.
  • Those who identify as bisexual also experience significant disparities in health care. They are less likely to seek cancer screening, experience a higher rate of STI diagnosis, have greater risk factors for cancer, and are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other concerns related to mood.

Discrimination, barriers to treatment, and other concerns may often contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Fear of these or of other negative experiences may also cause individuals to feel unsafe and refrain from coming out to friends, family, and society in general. (A person may not wish to come out, or disclose sexual orientation, publicly, but when a person does wish to do so and cannot due to fear of discrimination, this situation may have a negative impact on well-being.)

Well-trained mental health professionals can offer support in order to address any psychological struggle related to sexual orientation and identity that may arise. Therapists who have been trained in understanding the complexities of sexual orientation and gender identity will often be most effective at compassionately supporting individuals who are addressing and coping with unresolved feelings related to identity or orientation confusion, relationship issues, or discrimination based on sexual orientation.


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Last Updated: 03-24-2016

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