Research Guidelines (Social Sciences)

Guidelines for Researching and Writing on Bisexuality

Meg Barker, Jen Yockney, Christina Richards, Rebecca Jones, Helen Bowes-Catton and Tracey Plowman (of BiUK and Bi Community News)

1. Separate bisexuals from the other groups: If you are researching or writing about a wider group that includes bisexuals, do not subsume bisexuals under another category (e.g. including them with ‘gay’ or ‘heterosexual’ people), and do not assume that issues for LGB (or LGBT) people will be identical across all those groups.

2. Avoid bisexual erasure: Don’t engage in bisexual erasure or reinforce bisexual invisibility by conducting research or writing with the implicit or explicit goal of questioning the existence of bisexuality, or forms of bisexuality.

3. Be cautious of explanations: Don’t assume that questions of the causation or explanation of bisexuality are any more pertinent, interesting or useful than questions of the causation or explanation of heterosexuality, lesbian and gay sexuality, or any other form of sexuality.

4. Avoid ‘othering': Avoid the common representation of bisexuals as an interesting and/or exotic ‘other’, outside the norm, to be fascinated with. Remember that everybody has a sexuality, that there is great diversity in sexuality, and that bisexual lives are experienced as just as normal and everyday as anybody else’s. Don’t write as if your entire audience is not bisexual – many of them will be.

5. Avoid unfair criticism: Avoid the common claim that bisexuals are a group who imagine that they are doing something radical, but actually are not. Not all bisexual people aim to be radical or queer, and there are many different understandings of what bisexuality means. For example, some speak of being attracted to ‘both’ men and women, some speak of being attracted to people ‘regardless of gender’, and some deliberately challenge the idea that the people they are attracted to are either men or women.

6. Assume multiplicity: Be mindful of the multiplicity of experience amongst bisexuals and bisexual communities. Do not assume that what is true for one individual, group or community will be true for all. Do not write about bisexuality or ‘the bisexual’ as if there was only one way of being bisexual or one bisexual experience. Particularly be aware of intersections of gender, race, culture, religion, class, age, generation, ability, geographic location, body form, and other socio-cultural and historical aspects that will impact the ways in which attraction to more than one gender is experienced and understood. If you are not bisexual yourself, avoid the trap of assuming that all bisexuals will be like those you have spoken with. If you are bisexual yourself, avoid the trap of assuming that all other bisexuals will be like you – or using their experiences to bolster your own.

7. Familiarise yourself: Make sure that you familiarise yourself with bisexual communities and conversations before embarking on writing and research. If you are not part of these communities and conversations yourself, strongly consider involving co-researchers and/or steering group members of people who are, and spend significant time becoming familiar before starting your work. There are a number of print and online spaces where you can advertise for participants, and a number of groups and events that you can attend to talk to people. Use these spaces appropriately and with respect. Remember that you are working with people, not with exhibits or reference books. State who you are, provide a procedure for people to contact your institution, and be clear what the research is for. If people are not comfortable with you being in a bisexual space as a researcher, respect the fact that they may need to be in that space more than you do.

8. Be accountable: Make sure that your work is of some use to those it is representing, ask them what questions are important to them before embarking on your work, and do not simply reproduce work which has been done before. It is good practice to give participants the chance to comment on research and to give feedback to the people and communities that you are representing. Invite bisexual people and bisexual communities themselves to engage with your work, and welcome their input and the time and energy that it involves.

9. Be open: Approach your work humbly and with an openness to learning. You are not the expert on the experiences of the people you are researching or writing about: they are. Try to avoid beginning with assumptions about what you will find, and be self-aware about the assumptions that you do – inevitably – have. Likewise, be open to having these assumptions challenged.

10. Reflect on power imbalances: Reflect on your own position in relation to those you are researching or writing about. What kinds of power do you have as the one framing the questions, being seen as the ‘expert researcher’, perhaps paying participants or having the support of an institution, and forming your interpretations and conclusions and deciding what information to include in your publications? Think about why you are interested in this area and what your stake in it is. How might this influence how you ask questions, approach people, conduct research, write and publish? What is the impact of this on the people you are representing? Consider alternatives, and ensure that you are open about these matters with the communities themselves, and in your writing.

11. Be aware of context: The context in which people speak has a marked effect on what is said and how it is said. For example, people may speak differently about bisexuality at a community event, with a partner, with a researcher whom they know from their own community, or with a non-bisexual researcher whom they have never met before. Do not take statements out of context or assume that they reflect everything that a person understands or says about bisexuality.

12. Don’t assume membership of other groups: Not all bisexual people also belong to other categories. Common misconceptions are that bisexuals are all: polyamorous or non-monogamous, white, academic or comfortable and familiar with academic terms, out as bisexual, comfortable with the bisexual label, in the LGBT scene, subscribers to the same politics, attending bi community spaces, or willing to be questioned by you.

13. Respect language use: Use the labels that the people you are writing about or researching use themselves. Make sure that you do not misrepresent their language, for example by hyphenating bi-sexual or bi-sexuality (the ‘b’ words have been around long enough not to count as neologisms, so there is no need for a hyphen to impart meaning), or adding ‘sexual’ when somebody just uses the word ‘bi’. Recognise that people who attracted to more than one gender may use no label at all, or may use other labels (e.g. pansexual, omnisexual, queer, gay), and that they may use this in addition to bisexual or rather than bisexual (just as some lesbians would also refer to themselves as gay and others wouldn’t).

14. Put yourself in their shoes: Consider how you would feel if you, or your own group/community, was being studied or written about in the ways in which you are planning to study or write about this particular group of bisexuals.

15. Don’t make assumptions about researchers: Don’t assume that others engaged in bisexuality research either are, or are not, bisexual themselves. Don’t assume that bisexuals will not, themselves, have academic credentials and/or be engaged with writing/research. Don’t assume that researchers who are bisexual themselves are either less valid, or more valid (and therefore beyond criticism), than anybody else.

With gratitude to Jacob Hale for the suggested rules for writing about trans from which some of these points were adapted.

Copyright (cc) 2011 BiUK (Meg Barker, Jen Yockney, Christina Richards, Rebecca Jones, Helen Bowes-Catton and Tracey Plowman). Some rights reserved. This work is copyright, but is available under a Creative Commons BY 3.0 licence: you are free to copy, distribute, transmit and adapt the work, including commercially, provided that you attribute the work to the authors as listed here, but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0.

The guidelines are available, translated into Spanish, here: Directrices para investigar y escribir sobre bisexualidad

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