Bisexuality Workshop for Counsellors
Feel free to use and edit the following handout.
Bisexualities for Counsellors
‘Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere…Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone’ (Gayle Rubin, 1984, p.283).
Many sexuality-related organisations sometimes add ‘bisexuality’ on the end of ‘lesbian and gay’… and sometimes do not. It is one of those slippages that feels very obvious to those who define as bisexual but often isn’t noticed by others who feel they are being inclusive. Probably it also sends a message to those who are considering whether to define as bisexual or as straight/gay that the latter is preferable.
What is bisexuality
Being ‘Sexually attracted to both men and women’ (Oxford English Dictionary)
‘The capacity…to love and sexually desire both same- and other-gendered individuals’ (Firestein, Bisexuality)
‘A changeable sexual and emotional attraction to people of any sex, where gender may not be a defining factor’.
‘Gender is not that relevant. It’s like eye colour: I notice it sometimes, and sometimes it can be a bit of a feature but that’s all’ (BiCon attendee)
What is the extent of bisexuality?
This is an extremely difficult question to answer because it depends very much on how we define ‘bisexuality’. For example, we might see it as people who identify themselves as bisexual (in which case the estimate might be rather small), or we might define it as all people who have ever had an aesthetic, romantic or sexual attraction to more than one gender (in which case the estimate might be rather large). In terms of the proportion of people who are actively involved in UK bisexual communities, over two hundred people participate in the national annual BiCon event and that is just a small proportion of the bisexual-identified people who are involved in local and on-line communities. Fears of biphobia may prevent some people from being ‘out’ about their bisexuality.
Stereotypes of bisexuality
How is bisexuality generally seen in our society? What are the stereotypes of bisexual people? How does the media depict bisexuality? How is someone who comes out as bisexual likely to be treated?
Reasons for these and responses to them.
Biphobia – Double discrimination
Bisexuals often suffer homophobia from straight communities and biphobia from gay/lesbian communities, to the extent of being banned from some gay clubs and not accepted on pride marches (we’re here, we’re queer, we’re marching at the rear!) According to Robin Ochs, they are frequently viewed by gay men and lesbians as possessing a degree of privilege not available to them and are viewed by many as amoral, hedonistic spreaders of disease and disrupters of families.
Western society today views sexuality in an either/or way according to two dichotomies:
People are seen as being of one sex and being attracted to one sex.
This has only been the case for just over a century and is rooted in the sexology of the 19th century and the theories of Sigmund Freud who defined heterosexuality as the norm involving genital sex between two people of the ‘opposite’ sex, and homosexuality as the abnormal alternative. Although, of course, people were born ‘polymorphously perverse’ and shaped this way, and Freud himself called the notion that ‘everyone is born with his sexual instinct attached to a particular sexual object’ ‘crude’, said that there are ‘insoluble difficulties as soon as we try to draw a sharp line to distinguish mere variations…from pathological symptoms’ (1905, p.161).
These dichotomies leaves no room for intersex people (up to 5% of people who are born ambiguously sexed) or trans people (who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth) or people who are not entirely a masculine male or a feminine female (for example androgynous people, butch identified lesbians, camp men, tomboys, etc.) It also leaves no room for anyone who is not completely straight or completely gay (i.e. bisexuals).
This is why bisexuality is generally seen as ‘a phase’, and people who change from having opposite-sex to same-sex relationships (or vice versa) are seen as having become gay (or straight) rather than as being bisexual. Acceptance of bisexuality would be good, however, even the word ‘bisexual’ can be seen as problematic since it still implies a ‘two gender’ way of seeing the world. Some bisexuals would rather the whole notion of gender became less important and people were able to love/be sexual with people regardless of gender.
Some bi people find it useful to draw on models that scientists have come up with when thinking and talking about their sexuality. Back in the 1940s, Alfred Kinsey put forward his famous scale of sexual orientation, finding that many people did not fall simply at either end of the spectrum. This scale explains why you might hear bi people calling themselves a ‘Kinsey 2.6 and counting…’
0 exclusively heterosexual
1 predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
2 predominantly heterosexual but more than incidentally homosexual
3 equally heterosexual and homosexual
4 predominantly homosexual but more than incidentally heterosexual
5 predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
6 exclusively homosexual
Fritz Klein’s later model incorporated the idea that people could move up and down this scale rather than being stuck in one place on it forever. However, other people don’t like the idea of a scale at all because it still defines people by which gender they’re attracted to (the same or the opposite) and implies that the more you are attracted to one gender the less you are attracted to the other. Some make an analogy with chocolate: just because you like milk chocolate a lot doesn’t mean you don’t like dark chocolate as much.
Why the focus on gender? What other aspects might we define sexuality in relation to? For example, think about:
- What kinds of people are you attracted to in terms of physical appearance, age, gender, personality, clothing, etc.?
- What kinds of situations, images, roles, activities or fantasies, if any, excite you physically and/or mentally?
- Does any of this vary over time? Do you always see yourself as having this identity?
Nature or nurture?
Some see bisexuality as something they were born as and/or something based in their biological make-up. Some see it as something they learnt to be as they grew up. Some feel that it would be impossible for them not to be bisexual even if they didn’t want to be. Others see it as a deliberate choice they have made: a label they have adopted or a political decision to be sexual with both men and women or to not choose partners on the basis of their gender.
Behaviour and identity
Finally, some people see being bisexual as something they are whereas others regard it as something they do. A person can have sex with men and women, or be attracted to both, and still prefer not to call themselves bisexual, perhaps because of biphobia or because they are more comfortable with another word (gay, straight, queer, dyke…) For some people being bisexual is the most important aspect of their identity, for others it isn’t as important as other things about them or their sexual preferences. Many people are attracted to men and women without feeling the need to join a bi community. On the other hand, many people feel part of a bi community without defining as bi. 15% of people who came to BiCon 2004 weren’t bi themselves.
Bisexuals are no more likely to be promiscuous or non-monogamous than anybody else. They may have monogamous relationships, non-monogamous relationships, or no relationships. They may have sex within relationships, outside relationships or be celibate.
Case Studies – Bisexualities
For each of the case studies below, ask yourself:
- Have you had a case like this? How did you deal with it?
- What is your formulation or understanding of the key issues/dynamics and the root of the problem?
- What themes can you imagine emerging in therapy?
- What assumptions might you bring to this? How might the case impact on your understandings of relationships/sexualities?
- How would you proceed therapeutically?
1. Susie is a forty year old self-identified ‘lesbian’ who self refers because she is wondering about her sexuality. She has met a man at work who she has fallen in love with. They have begun to have a relationship and Susie feels this is just right for her. Nearly all her friends are lesbians, however, and she is worried about telling them about her new partner. As a result the strain of keeping the relationship a secret is putting a strain on both of them and she ‘just wants to run away and start all over again somewhere where nobody knows me’.
2. Matthew is eighteen and has been referred to you by his school nurse. He confided in her that he was ‘worried he might be gay’. He has a girl friend who he loves very much but has recently found himself looking at other boys at school. He has been out on the scene a few times, ‘been picked up’ and enjoyed having sex with a couple of men. He then feels really guilty, however, and doesn’t know what to do.
3. Janet is referred by her GP as she is ‘depressed’. She has not previously suffered from depression and does not want to take anti-depressants. She is keen to work through issues relating to her failing career and some ‘other personal issues’. During the course of your work you naturally begin to explore her relationships. Her relationship with her parents is not good and Janet feels ‘this is a major reason for my depression’. It also emerges that she is in a triadic relationship, with a man and a woman. Janet was reluctant to mention this as she was ‘worried what you might think’. There have been some rough times but she now feels it is all working out okay.
Anderlini-D’Onofrio S. (Ed.) (2004). Plural Loves: Designs for Bi and Poly Living. NY: Harrington.
Barker, M. (2007). Heteronormativity and the exclusion of bisexuality in psychology. In V. Clarke & E. Peel (Eds.), Out in Psychology: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer Perspectives. pp.86-118. Chichester, UK: Wiley.
Barker, M., Bowes-Catton, H., Iantaffi, A., Cassidy, A. & Brewer, L. (2008). British bisexuality. Journal of Bisexuality, 8, 141-162.
Davies, D. & Neal, C. (1996). Pink therapy. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Fassinger, R.E. (2000), Applying counseling theories to lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients: Pitfalls and possibilities. In: Handbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients, eds. R.M. Perez, K.A. DeBord & K.J. Bieschke. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp. 107-131.
Fox, R. (Ed.) (2006). Affirmative Psychotherapy with Bisexual Women and Bisexual Men.Binghampton, NY: Routledge.
Langdridge, D. (2007). Gay affirmative therapy: A theoretical framework and defense. In E. Peel, V. Clarke and J. Drescher (Eds), British lesbian, gay and bisexual psychologies: Theory, research and practice (pp. 27–44) Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.
Ochs, R. (Ed.) (2007). Getting bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World. NY: Bisexual Resource Centre.