How many men are bisexual?
There might be more than you think
Written by Abigail Swoap
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my roommates to continue our nightly binge-watch of Schitt’s Creek. It was the episode where David (the family’s flamboyant son) describes his sexuality in an extended metaphor about wine.
David: I do drink red wine, but I also drink white wine. And I’ve been known to sample the occasional rosé. And a couple of summers back I tried a Merlot that used to be Chardonnay. Which got a bit complicated.
Stevie: So really you’re just open to all wines.
David: I like the wine and not the label. Does that make sense?
It was one of those television moments that will stay with me for a long time. Not just because it’s a hilarious way to define pansexuality, but also because while we were watching it, I realized it was one of the only representations of a man with a bi+ identity I’d ever seen in mainstream media.
TV shows and movies have a history of bisexual erasure,1
which GLAAD defines as “a pervasive problem in which the existence or legitimacy of bisexuality (either in general or in regards to an individual) is questioned or denied outright.” The same problem applies to all bi+ sexual orientations, including pansexuality.
It’s important to note that the word “bisexual” implies there are two sexes (rendering intermediate sexes and gender identities invisible), and was coined in the mid-19th century when social science did not acknowledge the existence of intersex individuals and gender identities outside the male-female binary.2
However, sociological researcher Kenji Yoshino explains that contemporary bisexuality “erodes the salience of the sex binary.”3
Essentially, identifying as bisexual does not limits someone’s attraction to exclusively men and women.
I personally know a lot more bisexual womxn than men, and on the whole, more bisexual womxn than men are portrayed in the media. This higher visibility of sexually fluid femme-identifying people might be a result of our long history of hyper-sexualizing same-sex relations between women. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t as many bisexual men out there. In fact, research on sexual fluidity conducted by Dr. Lisa Diamond confirmed that sexual fluidity in men is just as common as it is in women. So if bisexual men are common, why are they so much less visible? I talked to five bisexual and male-identifying Coralers to find out.
No one believes them
For three men, the seeds of invisibility were planted early on in their education when an unwelcome attitude towards men who didn’t conform to traditional masculinity (read: presenting in a masculine way and pursuing women sexually) taught them to stay quiet.
Going to an all-boys school taught Aaron that being gay wasn’t an option.* “I often talk to gay people who are like, ‘Oh, you went to an all-boys school, that must have been so fun for you.’ And no, it was not. Because it wasn't the kind of thing where everyone was sneaking around and secretly gay. You would never even think to explore that option at all.” Christian had a similar experience growing up in Peru. “Growing up, I was just trying things in secret because Peru is very conservative. I still haven’t shaken the effects of growing up in a very machista space.”
In high school, Leo was coming to terms with the fact that he was interested in people of all genders, not just women. But he was deep in a popular group of guys who didn’t create an environment conducive to coming out. “The word ‘faggot’ was tossed around all the time,” said Leo, “and that gay-bashing was just a typical thing. So I totally never would have been in those groups saying like, ‘Oh, you guys see Magic Mike?’”
But even after coming out, many men encounter “individual erasure,” which happens when bisexuality is seen as a transitional phase from which an individual will ultimately emerge as purely homosexual.4
For Christian, the internalized idea that bisexuality is “just a phase” on the way to homosexuality continues to cause self-doubt. “No one believes me. Or even if they say they do, there's that assumption that you’re just waiting it out until you're fully gay or something. I've doubted myself a lot about it too. I mean, even while doing this interview, I'm doubting myself.”
Erasure can also happen on the individual level when people recognize that bisexuals exist as a class but doubt that a particular individual is bisexual.5
For Nick, constantly being coded as gay instead of bisexual created some complicated interpersonal situations in college. When he started dating a female friend, some of their close mutual friends told her she should stop seeing him because he was gay. After that, he just started saying he was gay instead because it became much easier than trying to explain or rationalize that he was bi. “If I do end up with a woman,” said Nick, “I'm sure there would be countless friends (who I love dearly) who would still be like, ‘He's living a lie. He’s gay.’”
When asked why he thinks his friends don’t truly believe that he’s bisexual, Nick brought up the rigidity of the construct of masculinity as a potential contributing factor. “When a man is with another man, it seems like part of his masculinity kind of takes a nosedive in other people’s eyes. It just seems like, with men, sexuality isn’t allowed to be as fluid… That’s kind of the attitude. It’s like they’re thinking, ‘We’ll humor him saying he’s bi, but he likes to suck dick. There’s no way he’s going to end up with a woman.’”
Aaron’s theory about why his peers frequently code him as gay is similar. “People that I talk to about my relationships with men know that I am a bottom and more submissive. And so it's very difficult for them to see me as a potential option for women. I guess I just don’t fit their narrative.”
They are invisible to their community
This “othering” of men who do not fit society’s mold of what it means to be a man is part of what led to the formation of such a strong queer subculture. For people who are more visibly queer, the LGBTQ+ community serves as a safe haven where they know they won’t be judged. But for bisexuals who can “pass” as straight, it’s difficult to be open about your sexuality without feeling like you’re trying to occupy a space that doesn’t belong to you.
Another part of the reason bisexual men are less visible is that they don’t know whether or not they should try to be part of queer spaces. Leo describes feeling unsure of how he should interact with the queer community given his lifelong ability to “pass” as straight. “I do feel a bit of a fraud complex sometimes when talking about the LGBTQ community, just because for 22 years of my life I have been funneled down the ‘he’s-a-straight-cis-man’ tube.”
Leo’s comments open an interesting dialogue about the intersection of sexual orientation and community. The whole idea that the community to which you belong should be related to your sexual orientation is a result of our history of sex-based discrimination. Yoshino explains that because homosexuals were “othered” for so long, homosexuality began to be viewed by gay people as “a way to engage in complete separatism” in which single-sex communities could bond together sexually, socially and politically.6
He theorized that heterosexuals and homosexuals have a shared interest in bisexual erasure because the existence of bisexuality “posits a world in which [a person’s] sex should not matter as much as monosexuals want it to.”
Out of the five bisexual interviewees, Jeffrey was the only one who hasn’t been coded as either gay or straight. But he has noticed the “shared interest” in erasure to which Yoshino refers. “I’ve been coded as ‘the gay one’ in the straight friend group. But I think I’ve also just been lumped in as ‘the straight one’ in the queer friend group.”
The rigidity of masculinity prevents bisexual men from being able to explore their identity in heavily heterosexual spaces. But the concept of masculinity isn’t unique to the heterosexual world. Bisexual men who present as more traditionally masculine find it tough to feel seen in the queer community, and those who are not as traditionally masculine tend to be coded as gay. There are most likely more bisexual men out there than you think because it’s uniquely tough for them to get anyone to see them in the middle of the sexuality spectrum.
*All interviewee names have been changed to maintain anonymity
- Hannah J Johnson. Bisexuality, Mental Health, and Media Representation (2016). Journal of Bisexuality/Routledge.
- Lachlan MacDowall. Historicizing Contemporary Bisexuality (2009). Journal of Bisexuality/Routledge.
- Kenji Yoshino. The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure (2000). Stanford Law Review/Stanford University School of Law.