As a proud (and loud about it) bisexual woman, I often find young queer (or questioning) women in my online inboxes — mostly asking if bisexual is the right label for them to use and describe their experiences of attraction.
Most commonly, I’m asked if bisexual identity is valid under certain conditions:
- What if I’ve only ever dated cis men?
- What if I’ve only ever been attracted to one nonbinary person?
- What if I fantasize about having sex with women, but might not want to do it IRL?
Yes. Your bisexual identity is valid “even if.” I’ve written about this at length here. And I encourage anyone questioning if they’re allowed to identify as bisexual to read that piece.
Here, I want to deep dive into why we struggle with bisexual identity — what ideas about sexuality we may have internalized that lead us to believe that we couldn’t possibly really be bisexual.
Of course, you don’t have to identify as bisexual if that doesn’t feel good for you, even if the description fits — but it’s worth exploring why.
The definition of bisexuality (as well as other bisexual umbrella identities, like pansexuality and omnisexuality) is as varied as bisexual experience itself. But bisexual activist Robyn Ochs’ definition is a great start: “the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
It’s important to point out here that gender isn’t binary and that bisexuality can include attraction to any (and all) genders, including those that are nonbinary. It’s not a trait you’re “born with”, and you don’t have to be attracted to all genders to be bisexual (although if your “I’m not attracted to all genders” sounds more like “I’m not attracted to trans or nonbinary people,” you need to interrogate that).
Bisexuality, in short, is the attraction to multiple genders. The ways that those attractions show up can look different — but those differences don’t negate bisexuality.
The Orientation, Behavior, and Identity Model is a useful tool for sussing out how those three aspects of our sexuality can be mixed and matched in a thousand different ways.
Here’s the basic idea:
|orientation||describes which gender(s) you’re attracted to||Who gives you heart-eye emoji feelings?|
|behavior||describes which gender(s) we have sexual or romantic relationships with (including in our fantasies)||Who do we tend to engage with?|
|identity||describes how we define our internal sense of sexual self||What labels do we apply to ourselves?|
And while it’s super easy to understand that a woman who is only attracted to men (orientation) and has only ever dated men (behavior) may call herself straight (identity), we also need to understand that these aspects of our sexuality don’t have to “match” in order to be valid.
One woman can experience attraction to multiple genders (orientation); have historically only dated men, but fantasizes about having sex with women (behavior); and call herself straight (identity). Another woman can have the same orientation and behavior, but call herself bisexual. Hell, another woman can have the same orientation and behavior, but call herself a lesbian.
But even the orientation part of this can be complex: You can experience mostly attraction to x gender; deep, but not broad attraction to y gender; and next-to-no attraction to z gender and still identify as bisexual.
The idea is: These three things, while related, aren’t clear-cut. Our identity isn’t as simple as who we like, what we do with them, and what the numerical breakdown of our experiences with each gender look like.
There is a bisexual-specific myth out there that you can only really be bisexual if you have experienced sex with every gender you’re attracted to.
A teenager who hasn’t had sex yet, but who identifies as straight, isn’t questioned on their identity. An adult man who has recently come out as gay, despite many years being married to a woman, isn’t questioned on his identity. At least not at all as frequently as bisexual people are asked for receipts to prove our attractions.
You don’t have to have had sex with anyone to know who you’d like to have sex with.
And while sexual fantasy is not inherently indicative of our behavioral desires, it certainly can be. In sexology, we talk about the difference between masturbatory fantasy and partner fantasy. The former is stuff you like to think about to get yourself off, but isn’t something you need or want to experience in actuality. The latter is stuff you want to try for real!
You can masturbate to the idea of having sex with multiple genders, or you can watch pornography that features multiple genders, and not necessarily want to engage in sex with them. That’s totally valid. But you also can.
One of my favorite ways to shut down the “But have you ever?” line of questioning is to remind people that masturbation is sexual behavior, too. So if you’ve masturbated to the idea of x gender, even if you’ve yet to experience partnered sex with x gender, you’ve still technically engaged in sexual behavior with x gender.
While many people who experience bisexuality (sexual attraction to multiple genders) simultaneously experience biromanticism (romantic attraction to multiple genders), some bisexual people do not.
The split attraction model explains how, for some people, sexual and romantic attraction differs: the genders they’re sexually attracted to aren’t necessarily the genders they’re romantically attracted to.
For example, you can be bisexual and homo- (or queer-) romantic: You’re open to multiple genders sexually, but you only want to form romantic relationships with people of your same gender (or queer genders). You can be bisexual and aromantic: You’re open to multiple genders sexually, but you feel no (or little) desire for romantic relationships at all.
Of course, this can also work the other way around: You can experience romantic attraction to multiple genders, but sexual attraction to limited, one, or no gender(s).
The most common way that I see the split attraction model pop up in conversations about bisexuality is bisexual folks who name that they’re only romantically attracted to one gender — most often, the gender that they’re most culturally sanctioned to have relationships with, like bisexual women who only date (especially cis) men.
This is a completely valid experience.
You do not have to be biromantic to identify as bisexual.
And when we find that our attractions are in line with social expectations (e.g., “I’m a bisexual woman who only dates men, but who is open to experimenting with women”), we should ask ourselves how our socialization plays a role — and whether that is truly our natural inclination or if its acceptability is comfortable.
People of all genders can receive (and believe) damaging messaging about sexuality that confuses their ability to connect with their authentic selves. And one message that women often receive is that all women are at least kind of attracted to women — so that doesn’t necessarily make us queer.
The underlying notion of this myth seems to be that as women, our attraction to other women is frivolous or trivial — or even so expected to pop up now and then that we can brush it off as NBD.
Take the phrase “girl crush,” for example. While this tends to explain a particular phenomenon, where you idolize or otherwise appreciate another woman to the point that you want to be like her or be friends with her, it also undermines the possibility that maybe it’s just a crush-crush — and that’s okay! (Florence Given has a great t-shirt that says, “Maybe it’s a ‘girl crush.’ Maybe you’re queer.”)
Yes, there is a long history in sex research that claims that attraction strictly only to one gender is next to impossible. And when we consider that we don’t know a person’s gender just by looking at them, yes, the concept of monosexuality falls apart. But the idea that “everyone is a little bisexual” undermines the experience of folks who actively experience attraction to multiple genders and are considering bisexuality as an identity.
If you’re questioning whether or not you’re bisexual, based on how you experience attraction, you may very well be bisexual — not just experiencing some common, flippant phenomenon of attraction-that-doesn’t-count-for-some-reason.
Because bisexuality is so often left out of conversations about sexual experience (yes! even in queer circles!), it’s much harder to find models of what bisexuality looks like in practice. And that can leave us thinking that we must not really be bisexual if our experience doesn’t look like _____.
But really, bisexuality can look a lot of different ways. It’s a complex identity that isn’t always as straightforward (no pun intended) as monosexual identities. And if you’ve ever worried about the four quandaries above, rest assured that that is just biphobic nonsense — and you can identify as bisexual if you want to.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.