Preventing Bisexual Erasure in LGBT Psychology

Preventing Bisexual Erasure in LGBT Psychology

Not just bi the bi: The relationship between essentialist beliefs and attitudes about bisexuality.

Katherine Hubbard, MSc & Richard de Visser, PhD[1]

Corresponding Author:

Katherine Hubbard, MSc

University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, UK

PhD candidate under the supervision of Peter Hegarty at the University of Surrey.

Research interests include: the history of psychology, particularly projective testing and the Rorschach, LGBT Psychology, intersectional feminism and queer approaches to history and psychology.

Richard de Visser PhD

School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Falmer BN1 9QH, UK 01273 876585

Senior Lecturer in School of Psychology and Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

Research interests include: gender and health-related behaviour; young people's health-related behaviour; sexual behaviour and health; linking quantitative and qualitative methods.

Word Count: 6256

Key words: essentialism, bisexuality, stability, discreteness, attitude, immutability.

Acknowledgments: The first author would like tothank Prof. Peter Hegarty for his support and comments on various drafts of this paper and those in the PhD lab group at the University of Surrey: Natasha Bharj, Tove Lundberg, Orla Paslow and Sebastian Bartos. We also would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.


In the literature about bisexuality few studies consider bisexual people’sbeliefs about bisexuality and none examineessentialist beliefs about bisexuality. In the present study244 participants (bisexual n = 58, lesbian/gay n = 54 and heterosexual n =132) from the UK were asked via online questionnaire about their attitudes towards bisexuality, homosexuality and heterosexuality, and how stable they perceived bisexuality, homosexuality and heterosexuality to be. They were also asked about their essentialist beliefs towards bisexuality.Bisexual respondents viewed bisexualityas significantly more stablethanlesbian, gay and heterosexual respondents. Analysis also showed that less belief in the discreetness of bisexuality predicted more positiveattitudes towards bisexuality, as did positive beliefs towards homosexuality and heterosexuality.Belief in the immutability of bisexuality did not, however, predict attitudes towards bisexuality. Therefore, discretenessappears to bean especially problematic essentialist belief aboutall sexual minorities, as it is consistently associated with negative attitudes. However,beliefs about the immutabilityof sexuality are not consistently associated with negative attitudes for all sexual minorities.

Negative attitudes towards bisexuality, sometimes called ‘biphobia’, areprevalent (Barker, Richards, Jones, Bowes-Catton & Plowman, 2011; Eliason, 1997; 2000; Herek, 2002; Morrison, Harrington & McDermott, 2010; Mulick & Wright, 2002; 2011; Petford, 2003; Spalding & Peplau, 1997; Weiss, 2003; 2011).It is possible that by investigating essentialist beliefs about bisexuality, as has been done with homosexuality (Haslam & Levy, 2006) and heterosexuality (Hubbard & Hegarty, 2014), we may enhance our understanding of such attitudes. The present paper describes a study conductedto investigate essentialist beliefs about bisexuality in bisexual, lesbian, gay and heterosexual people. The following introductionfirst outlines negative attitudes towards bisexuality and their effects. Second, we outlinethe conceptual difficulty in fitting bisexuality into popular binaried and monosexist ideas of sexuality and how this may lead to heterosexism. Finally, we discuss the importance of including bisexual participants in research that is about bisexuality.

Getting bi: Negative attitudes and their effects

Negative attitudes about bisexuality can take several different forms including denial of bisexuality, exclusion/marginalisation of bisexual people, and negative stereotypes (Barker et al., 2011). Stereotypes about bisexual peopleinclude those which suggest thatbisexual people are less monogamous and are more likely to transfer sexually transmissible infections than are lesbians, gay men and heterosexuals (De Bruin & Arndt, 2010; Eliason, 1997; Hayfield, Clarke & Halliwell, 2014; Morrison et al., 2010; Spalding & Peplau, 1997). Positive stereotypes about bisexual people - that they have active sex lives and are more open-minded - are somewhat thwarted by negative stereotypes of bisexual people as promiscuous, fickle and untrustworthy (Hayfield et al., 2014; Spalding & Peplau, 1997; Wilkinson, 1996). Recent studies have shown thatsuch negative attitudes arestillcommon (Barker, et al, 2011; Eliason, 1997; 2000; Mulick & Wright, 2011), and aremore prevalent towards bisexuality than towards homosexuality (Eliason, 1997; Herek, 2002; Mulick & Wright, 2011)and are particularly negative in regard to bisexual men (Eliason, 2000).

The particular idea that bisexual peopleare promiscuous is common (De Bruin & Arndt, 2010; Eliason, 1997; Klesse, 2011). De Bruin and Arndt (2010) argue that bisexual peopleare portrayed in popular culture as unfaithful and unable to commit to (presumably monogamous) relationships. Althoughsome studies suggestlesbians, gay men and bisexual men and women do have more liberal attitudes toward sexuality than heterosexual people (de Visser et al. in press; Smith, Rissel, Richters, Grulich de Visser, 2003),this liberal attitude can become equated with promiscuity. Thus stereotypes remain connecting non-monogamy,erotophiliaand bisexuality in particular.Therefore, while non-monogamous behaviours certainly do occur in many sexual identity groups (Richters et al., in press), bisexual people are more quicklystereotyped as unfaithful, fickle and untrustworthy (Barker et al. 2011; Klesse, 2005; 2011). Indeed, bisexuality and non-monogamy (Schmookler & Bursik, 2007) are often taken to define ‘erotophilia’ - i.e., the propensity to think more frequently and more positively about sex. Erotophilia is considered by some psychologists as a personality dimension opposing erotophobia. It is measured by asking a person to what extent they agree to the suggested sexual cues. For example, Fisher,White, Byrne and Kelley’s(1988) measure includes an item which specifically references a lack of concern of monogamy as an indicator of erotophilia.

Such stereotypes can have large-scale negative consequences for bisexual individuals. Bisexual people often experience a ‘double discrimination’as they can experience negativity from both heterosexual and lesbian and gay people(Barker et al., 2011; Hayfield et al., 2014; Mulick & Wright, 2011; Petford, 2003;Welzer-Lang, 2008). Although discrimination from heterosexualsresembles that experienced bylesbians and gay men, bisexual peoplemaynot have easy accessto support from gay and lesbian communities (Hayfield et al., 2014; Petford, 2003; Weiss, 2003). Furthermore, Welzer-Lang (2008) arguesthat bisexual ostracism is clearly evident in lesbian and gay communities. This idea of ‘double discrimination’ also has empirical support in the findings of biphobia scales (Mulick & Wright, 2002; 2011) and from interviews with bisexual individuals (Hayfield et al., 2014). Indeed, being bisexual may demand a dual “coming-out” process to both the straight and gay communities (Barker et al., 2011).

Bisexual people suffer more psychological distress than both heterosexuals (King et al., 2008)and lesbians and gay men (Bostwick, 2012; Jorm, Korten, Rodgers, Jacomb & Christensen, 2002; King & McKeown, 2003; Richters et al., in press; Smith et al., 2003). Bisexual people often experience less positive support from family and more negative support from friends than members of other sexual minority groups (Jorm et al., 2002; Meyer, 2003). Such a lack of general social support has been found to be predictive of depression, and internalised binegativity, which is defined as the internalisation of negative societal beliefs about bisexuality in bisexual individuals(Sheets & Mohr, 2009). This lack of social support extends to health professionals who may not understand bisexual-specific needs (Ebin, 2012).Such negative attitudes towards bisexuality often have additional intersections with other factors such as gender, race and age (Meyer, 2010; Kertzner, Meyer, Frost & Stirratt, 2009; Moradi et al., 2010), resulting in further negative wellbeing outcomes for these individuals. Negative attitudes towards bisexual people are therefore a central concern due to the profound impact they have on bisexual individuals.

Heterosexism and its consequences

Marginalisation of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people via heterosexism within society is evident in scientific research (Herek, Kimmel, Amaro & Melton 1991; Weiss, 2003; 2011). Herek et al. (1991, p.957) defined heterosexism as conceptualising human experience ‘in strictly heterosexual terms and consequently ignoring, invalidating, or derogating homosexual behaviours, sexual orientation and lesbian, gay male and bisexual relationships and lifestyles’. They argued that to reduce heterosexism, researchers must consider if their studies deny anything but heterosexuality. Although it is important to include LGB groups in research, it is also important to avoid the implicit belief that heterosexual is “normal” such that LGB people become “the effect to be explained” (Hegarty & Pratto, 2001; 2004). Unfortunately, research often appears to be heterosexist or heteronormative (Hegarty, Pratto & Lemieux, 2004; Warner, 1993) and therefore reinforces bisexual marginalisation.

Such heterosexism appears to be especially problematic for bisexuality. Biases and consequent emphasis of homosexuality and heterosexuality are evident in wider society (Barker & Langdridge, 2008) and within scientific research (Barker, 2004; 2007; Herek, Kimmel, Amaro & Melton 1991; Lee & Crawford, 2007). Barker’s (2007) analysis of psychology textbooks revealed that two-thirds did not mention bisexuality at all and that many used dichotomous ideas of sexuality, presenting people as either lesbian or gay, or heterosexual. Many researchers do not include bisexuality as a distinct category in their analyses: instead bisexual participants are “lumped in” with gay or lesbian participants for analysis (Warner et al., 2004). Although “non-heterosexual” may be a convenient term employed for statistical reasons, the rationale for using this term is seldom made explicit: it could therefore be read as heterosexist (Herek et al. 1991). Bisexual people are often not visible as a distinct social category even in scientific research on sexuality.

However, such bisexual exclusion appears to be slowly changing, as evidenced by thedevelopment of the Journal of Bisexuality in 2000. In fact, Bostwick (2012) argued that as increasing numbers ofstudies have separated out bisexual samples, differences between bisexual people, lesbians, gay and heterosexuals have become apparent. It is therefore possible that,althoughmore research into bisexuality is being conducted, there is still an overarching problem of heterosexism within research.

Essentialist beliefs about sexual minorities

This idea that sexuality is fixed is a component of broader essentialist beliefs about sexuality (Haslam & Levy, 2006). Essentialist beliefs have a broad history within psychology (see Hubbard & Hegarty, 2014, for an overview). Suchbeliefsoften reflect notions of “naturalness” - the extent to which a group is considered natural - and “entititivity” - the extent to which a group is considered to be a discrete entity (Haslam & Levy, 2006). The relationship between essentialism and prejudice appears to be dependent on the component of essentialism in question. Haslam and Levy (2006) operationalized essentialist beliefs about homosexuality as consisting of three components.Discretenessis the belief that sexualities have clear and sharp boundaries. Immutabilityis the belief that sexuality is fixed. Universalityis the belief that different sexualities exist in all times and cultures. Essentialist beliefs are associated with sexual prejudice, butthe relationship between the two is complex (Haslam & Levy, 2006; Hegarty, 2002; 2010; Hubbard & Hegarty, 2014; Kahn & Fingerhut, 2011). Discreteness has been found to be related to higher rates of prejudice, whereas immutability and universality are associated with low prejudice (Haslam & Levy, 2006; Hubbard & Hegarty, 2014). Essentialist narratives have been found to be important in studies of gender (Morton, Postmes, Haslam Hornsey, 2009) and sexual identity (Haslam & Levy, 2006; Hegarty, 2002; 2010; Hubbard & Hegarty, 2014) including BDSM(bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism)identities (Yost & Hunter, 2012).

However, the reason for this relationship between essentialism and prejudice is debatable (Haslam, Rothschild & Ernst, 2002). Biological explanations of sexuality are often postulated as reducing sexual prejudicetowardslesbians and gay men directly. However, Hegarty (2010) found that despite not teaching biological explanations of sexuality in an LGBT module, by the end of the course students had lower beliefs in the discreteness of homosexuality, but their beliefs in the immutability of homosexuality were the same. Moreover, many students emphasized the value of learning about sexuality as continuous and fluid.Such a finding suggeststhat it is discreteness, not immutability, which is most linked to negative attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. Kahn and Fingerhut (2011) differentiated between categorical and trait level beliefs. They found that essentialist beliefs were associated with lower prejudice when participants were asked about gay men on a categorical level (i.e., to what extent is sexual orientation caused by biology?); but associated with higher prejudice when participants were asked about gay men on a stereotypical traits level (i.e., to what extent does biology cause gay men’s high promiscuity?). Similarly, in relation to gender, Morton et al. (2009) argued that although essentialism is linked to prejudice, it is not an ‘essential’ relationship. Rather, essentialist arguments may be used as a strategy to protect higher status when under threat.

It has also been found that people have differing essentialist beliefs depending on the sexual orientation in question. To date, much of the essentialism research has concentrated on gay men and lesbians. Hubbard and Hegarty (2014) found that homosexuality and heterosexuality were perceived to be similarly discrete and immutable, but that heterosexuality was perceived as more universal than homosexuality. The literature on essentialist beliefs has not examined beliefs about bisexuality directly. However, Fox (1996) argued that bisexuality is invisible in academic literature because of the common essentialist belief in the immutability of sexuality: i.e., heterosexuals are believed to only ever be attracted to people of the other sex, and lesbians and gay men are believed to only ever be attracted to people of the same sex. Bisexuality does not neatly fit into such classically essentialist, binaried and dichotomous conceptions of sex, gender and sexuality (see Angelides, 2001; Fox, 1996; Fausto-Sterling, 2012), and several researchers have suggested this is why bisexuality is often ignored and marginalised (Barker Langdridge,2008; Garber, 1995; Israel & Mohr, 2004; Obradors-Campos, 2011; Ochs & Deihl, 1992; Rust, 2000).In other words, bisexuality does not conform with ‘monosexism’ - the belief that individuals are only attracted to one sex (Hutchins & Kaahumanu, 1983). This view is often echoed in biphobic ideas that bisexuality is a phase between a lesbian/gay or heterosexual identity (Barker et al. 2011; Diamond, 2003; 2008).Due to societal understandings of binary monosexual sexuality, it is possible that people with favourableattitudes towards bisexuality do not consider bisexuality immutable in the same way that people with favourable attitudes towards lesbian and gay people tend to consider homosexuality to be immutable. To date no research has investigated whether a distinctly different pattern of essentialist beliefs relating to prejudice exists in regard to bisexuality.

Attitude scales for Bisexuality

Only a few researchers have developed scales to measure attitudes towards bisexual people. Mohrand Rochlen’s (1999) Attitudes Regarding Bisexuality Scale (ARBS)assesses belief in the stability of bisexuality and tolerance toward bisexuals. They found that heterosexual and lesbian/gay respondents who believed in the stability of bisexuality – a belief similar to belief in immutability –were more tolerant ofbisexual people. They also found that positive attitudes towards homosexuality were indicative of positive attitudes towards bisexuality. Mohr and Rochlen (1999) did not include bisexual people in their study, butDe Bruin and Arndt (2010) used the same scale and found that heterosexual, asexual and lesbian/gay students in South Africa expressed more negative beliefs about bisexual women and men than did bisexual students. Similar findings have also been found in Ireland (Morrison et al., 2010). Other researchers have used the ARBS to specifically explore attitudes towards bisexuality among heterosexual people (Esterline & Galupo, 2013; Morales Knight & Hope, 2012) and professional counselors (Mohr, Israel & Sedlacek, 2001). These recent studies using the ARBS indicate the continued prevalence of negative attitudes towards bisexuality.

Those studies which have included bisexual samples suggest that bisexual individuals do think differently about bisexuality than other sexual majority and minority people(Bostwick, 2012; MacDonald, 1983).This has also been found in relation to dress, appearance and visual representation (Clarke, Hayfield & Huxley, 2012; Hayfield, Clarke, Halliwell & Malson; 2013).Several researchers argue that bisexual people’s responses should be analysed separately from lesbian/gay responses because of bisexual individuals’ distinct beliefs in both qualitative and quantitative research (Aspinall, 2009; Barker, 2007; Barker & Langdridge, 2008; Bostwick, 2012; Hayfield et al., 2013; MacDonald, 1983; Mulick & Wright, 2011; Weiss, 2011). However, as previously discussed, this is often not the case and bisexual respondents are ‘lumped in’ with lesbian and gay respondents leading to heterosexist research (Herek et al. 1991; Warner et al., 2004). This in turn invalidates and ignores bisexual experience. It is therefore important to include bisexual participants in research about bisexuality[2], and to analyse their data separately.

The present study

The present study was the first to examine essentialist beliefs about bisexuality and to include bisexual-identified participants. It was hypothesised that bisexual participantswould have different essentialist beliefs about bisexuality than those of lesbian, gay and heterosexual participants (hypothesis 1). It was expected that the findings would replicate past findings that bisexual people would perceive bisexuality as more stable, and have more positive beliefs about bisexuality than lesbian, gay and heterosexual participates (De Bruin & Arndt, 2010). In addition, we seek to explore two opposing hypotheses about the relationships between essentialist beliefs and attitudes toward bisexuality. One possibility is that this relationship is similar to the relationship between essentialist beliefs and attitudes towards homosexuality observed by Haslam and Levy (2006). In other words, that those who perceive low discreteness, high immutability and high universality have more positive attitudes towards bisexuality (hypothesis 2). The alternate hypothesis is that the relationship between essentialistbeliefs and attitudes about bisexuality are distinct as indicated by Fox (1996), and so the relationship between essentialist beliefs and attitudes will differ from those about homosexuality (hypothesis 3).



In total 357 UK residents responded to the survey. Ineligible respondents were excluded from analysis(8 respondents who did not identify as male or female[3]and 37 who reported a sexual identity other than bisexual, lesbian, gay or heterosexual).An additional 68 incomplete responses were excluded from analysis. The sample for the analyses reported here consisted of 244 people aged 19-68 (M = 26.8, SD = 8.4). Of these respondents, 58 were bisexual(42 women and 16 men), 54 were lesbian or gay (34 women and 20 men)and 132 were heterosexual(84 women and 48 men). Most participants were British (89%), a further 4 participants were from the United States, 4 were German, 2 were Italian and 2 were Dutch, the remainder of participants consisted of just one person in each nationality from a range of countries. The majority (49%) were working, 38% were engaged in education or training, 7% were both working and studying, and 7% were not in employment, education, or training. The majority of participants stated they had no religion (73%), 8% were Church of England/Anglican, 6% were Catholic, 6% described their religious belief as ‘Other’, 3% were Other Christian, 2% were Buddhist and 2% were Other Protestant. There was also one Muslim participant, one Hindu participant and one Jewish participant.